Keith Lowe on Savage Continent

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What was your inspiration for Savage Continent, your book about Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War? Did it grow out of your work on the devastating bombing of Hamburg?

That was the seed out of which it grew. Having seen how devastated Hamburg was after the war I originally wanted to write a book about Germany as a whole. But the more I looked at other parts of postwar Europe the more I realized that the same destruction – not only physical destruction but also human and moral destruction – existed pretty much everywhere.

What strikes you most about the conditions in Europe at the end of the war?

Europe was in chaos after the war. I really cannot emphasize that enough. There were all sorts of grand schemes for rebuilding and so on, but actually the biggest problem was simply to restore law and order. After all the violence, the continent was filled with people who regarded violence as a normal way of life. When you add to that the fact that all the normal structures of society had broken down – well, it’s a miracle that the chaos was brought under control as quickly as it was. But it took months, and in some places years.

It may surprise many readers that hostilities didn’t cease with the surrender of Germany in May 1945, but the slaughter continued in wars and campaigns of ethnic cleansing throughout Europe. How did the conflicts in Western Europe differ from those Central and Eastern Europe?

In western Europe it was really just a case of restoring law and order. There were a lot of people who wanted revenge and retribution for what they had been through; a lot of others who used the chaos as a cover for criminal activities; and some large Communist movements whose members were agitating for revolution, often against the wishes of their leaders.

But in eastern Europe things were much more serious. Here there were all the same problems as in the west, but with more besides. The war had been much more brutal in the east than it had been in the west, so the desire for revenge was much more visceral. There were also all kinds of ethnic rivalries in the east that had been rumbling since the time of the great European empires, and which the Second World War had brought to a head. Just because the war with Germany was over, this didn’t mean that people in eastern Europe felt they had to stop killing each other. Then, on top of that, you had the arrival of the Communists…

So no matter how bad things were in western Europe, they were far worse, and infinitely more complicated, in the east.

You vividly describe post-war anarchy and chaos, a hellscape ruled by the law of the jungle: survival of the fittest.  What happened in terms of law enforcement and government after the war—and how was order restored?

The law had to be enforced quite ruthlessly, just to re-establish control. Ironically this involved removing the very liberties that the Allies had been fighting for. So, for example, curfews were put in place, and anyone caught out of doors after dark was liable to be shot. There were lots of instances where the Allies liberated slave labor camps only to find that the inmates went out and got so drunk, and caused so much havoc, that they had to be locked back in their camps again for the good of everyone. The repatriation of these slave laborers certainly helped to bring crime levels down. But there was still the black market, which encouraged all kinds of gangsters not only amongst the civilian population but also amongst Allied troops. In the end order was only restored by putting a huge number of military policemen on the streets, creating new and effective civil institutions, and bringing the economic chaos under control. It took years.

Can you describe your research process and some of the recently released material you uncovered in writing your book?

Writing this book involved research in eight different languages, which as you can imagine posed all kinds of challenges. I can get by on a rudimentary level in three or four of these languages, but for the others I had to rely on help from bilingual researchers and translators. None of my researchers knew precisely what it was I was looking for, so I had to spend long hours going through large amounts of material with them, picking out the themes and stories that interested me. Every language also has its seminal texts, which need to be digested in full. This presented me with a huge translation bill, although I am extremely fortunate to have a polyglot family who helped me a great deal in this respect. I cannot claim to have been the first to discover much material, but there is a huge amount of material in the book that has only ever existed in foreign languages before. That said, I did dig out some heartbreaking personal stories from the ‘Eastern Archive’ in Warsaw which have never been published before.

How did you begin writing history?  What advice do you have for younger people who want to study and write about history?

I actually started writing about history almost as an accident. I worked for years as a history publisher, and became intimately acquainted not only with the academic issues surrounding the Second World War but also with the commercial issues about writing history for a popular audience. I wrote my first history book largely as an act of protest. I was annoyed with the way the world continues to regard the bombing of Dresden as the most devastating bombing of the European war, when the bombing of Hamburg was probably twice as bad. I knew there was a great story to be told, and wanted to commission a book on the subject – but when my colleagues at the publishing company refused to go for the idea I thought, “What the hell, I’ll do it myself.”

For anyone wanting to study and write history, I would say this: find yourself a subject that has not been covered endlessly by other people. You are much more likely to find new and interesting material if you are not picking over ground that has already been examined exhaustively. Do not be afraid to look in difficult places. Nine times out of ten that trip to an obscure archive, or that text in Medieval Latin will end up being a waste of time – but every once in a while you’ll turn up gold. And if you want people to read your work, or even buy it, make damn sure you know how to write a good story.