Thursday, July 19, 2012

Keith Lowe's "Savage Continent"

Keith Lowe was born in 1970 and studied English at Manchester University. After twelve years as a history publisher, he embarked on a full-time career as a writer and historian, and is now recognised on both sides of the Atlantic as an authority on the Second World War and its aftermath.

He is the author of the critically acclaimed Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943 and the Sunday Times top ten bestseller Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War Two, which is currently being translated into eight languages. He has also written two novels, the first of which (Tunnel Vision) was short-listed for the Author’s Club First Novel Prize.

Lowe applied the “Page 99 Test” to Savage Continent and reported the following:
Page 99 of Savage Continent provides a perfect example of what the book is all about. Most of the page describes a single anecdote – quite a famous one – about life in Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

It quotes the story of a British war reporter, who was being shown round the city of Hanover by the military governor in May 1945. On their tour through the streets they came across a riotous mob looting a warehouse – not of food or clothing, it turned out, but of door knobs. ‘What these people could want with such objects, in a city where half the doors no longer existed, is beyond me,’ the reporter wrote. He watched helplessly as the mob began to fight over these worthless things. One man knocked down a girl who appeared to have more door knobs than him and kicked her repeatedly in the face and body, before running off with her loot. Half way down the street he seemed to come to his senses: ‘he looked down at the objects he was carrying, and then with a visible gesture of distaste he flung them all away.’

Savage Continent is a book about a forgotten part of Europe’s history: the period of violence and chaos that continued long after WWII was supposed to be over. In some instances this violence was a matter of cold revenge: German prisoners were abused, collaborators summarily executed, and women who had slept with the enemy had their heads shaved. Sometimes civil conflicts broke out that were a continuation of the war itself, as Communists, nationalists or racists sought to finish off what WWII had started. And sometimes, as on this page, it was simply violence for its own sake.

Many parts of Europe were so brutalised by the war that such behaviour had become a normal way of life. All of the traditional institutions – the governments, police forces and so on – had been swept away, so for a brief period there was nothing to keep the chaos in check. This page shows, as do the examples and statistics throughout my book, that WWII did not end quite as neatly as we think it did. The military governor’s words here might serve as a motto for the book as a whole: ‘This is the sort of thing that goes on all day. Looting, fighting, rape, murder – what a town!’
Learn more about the book and author at Keith Lowe's website.

--Marshal Zeringue