Tony Judt’s magisterial work, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 wasn’t his last before his sadly premature death, but it was the last of such sweep and scholarship. He notes in the preface that his guiding lights were Eric Hobsbawm, George Lichtheim and A.J.P Taylor, giants in the telling of European history. We don’t know yet how Judt’s work will measure up against these others, who in any event wrote about earlier times than post-war Europe. For those of us who have lived in the world created by “the thirty year war that began in 1914” and would wish to think one of the by products can be wisdom, Postwar is a fine place to start.
I’ve only just begun and what struck me forcibly, and I’d like to share with you, was the utter devastation wreaked on Europe, East and West, which was in no way shared by the Americans. Here are a few sections that will trigger in those with a modest imagination, a picture of the hell that remained.
The overall death toll is staggering (the figures given here do not include Japanese, US or other non-European dead.) It dwarfs the mortality figures for the Great War of 1914-18, obscene as those were. No other conflict in recorded history killed so many people in so short a time. But what is most striking of all is the number of non-combatant civilians among the dead; at least 19 million, or more than half. The number of civilian dead exceeded military losses in the USSR, Hungary, Poland, Yogosalavia, Greece, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway. Only in the UK and Germany did military losses significantly outnumber civilian ones.
Estimates of civilian losses on the territory of the Soviet Union vary greatly, though the likeliest figure is in excess of 16 million people (roughly double the number of Soviet military losses, of whom 78,000 fell in the Battle for Berlin alone.) Civilian deaths on the territory of pre-war Poland approached 5 million; in Yugoslavia 1.4 million; in Greece 430,000; in France 350,000; in Hungary 270,000; in the Netherlands 204,000; in Romania 200,000. Among these, and especially prominent in the Polish, Dutch and Hungarian figures, were some 5.7 million Jews, to whom should be added 221,000 gypsies (Roma.)
… Surviving the war was one thing, surviving the peace was another… For much of 1945 the population of Vienna subsisted on a ration of 800 calories a day; in Budapest in December of 1945 the officially provided ration was just 556 calories per day (children in nurseries received 800.) During the Dutch ‘hunger winter’ of 1944-45 (when parts of the country had already been liberated) the weekly calorie ration in some regions fell below the daily allocation recommended by the Allied Expeditionary Force for it soldiers; 16,000 Dutch citizens died, mostly old people and children.
In Germany, where the average adult intake had been 2,445 calories per day in 1940-41 and was 2,078 calories per day in 1943, it had fallen to 1,412 calories for the year 1945-46. But this was just the average. In June 1945, in the American Zone of occupation, the official daily ration for ‘normal’ German consumers (excluding the favored category of worker) stood at just 86o calories.
… The problem of feeding, housing, clothing and caring for Europe’s battered civilians (and the millions of imprisoned soldiers of the former Axis powers) was complicated and magnified by the unique scale of the refugee crisis…
Stalin had continued his pre-war practice of transferring whole peoples across the Soviet Empire. Well over a million people were deported east from Soviet occupied Poland and the western Ukraine and Baltic lands betwen 1939-41. In the same years the Nazis too expelled 750,000 Polish peasants eastwards from western Poland, offering the vacated land to Volksdeutsche, ethnic Germans from occupied Eastern Europe who were invited to come ‘home’ to the newly-expanded Reich. This offer attrracted some 120,000 Baltic Germans, a further 136,000 from Soviet occupied Poland, 200,000 from Romania and others besides — all of whom would in their turn be expelled a few years later.
Between them Stalin and Hitler uprooted, transplanted, expelled, deported and dispersed some 30 million people in the years 1939-43. With the retreat of the Axis armies, the process was reversed. Newly resettled Germans joined millions of established German communities throughout eastern Europe in headlong flight from the Red Army..
From the east came Balts, Poles, Ukrainians, Cossacks, Hungarians, Romanians and others… From the Balkans came not just ethnic Germans but more than 100,000 Croats from the fallen wartime fascist regime of Ante Pavelick, fleeing the wrath of the Tito partisans In Germany and Austria, in addition to the millions of Wehrmacht soldiers held by the Allies and newly released Allied soldiers from German POW camps, there were many non-Germans who had fought against the Allies alongside the Germans or under German command: the Russian, Ukranian and other soldiers of General Andrei Vlasov’s anti-Soviet army, volunteers for the Waffen SS from Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and France; and auxiliary German fighters, concentration camp staff and others liberally recruited in Latvia, Ukraine, Croatia and elsewhere. All had good reason to seek refuge from Soviet retribution.
Then there were the newly released men and women who had been recruited by the Nazis to work in Germany. Brought into German farms and factories from all across the continent, they numbered in the many millions, spread across Germany proper and its annexed territories, constituting the largest single group of Nazi-displaced persons in 1945.
Another group of displaced persons, [were] the survivors of the concentration camps… Their ‘crimes’ had been various — political or religious opposition to Nazism or Fascism, armed resistance, collective punishment for attacks on Wehrmacht soldiers or installations, minor transgressions of Occupation regulations, real or invented criminal activities, falling foul of Nazi racial laws. They survived camps which by the end were piled high with dead bodies and where diseases of very kind were endemic: dysentery, TB, diptheria, typhoid, typhus, bronco-pneumonia, gastro-enteritis, gangrene and much else. But even these survivors were much better off than the Jews, since they had been systematically and collectively scheduled for extermination.
Few Jews remained. Of those who were liberated 4 out of 10 died within a few weeks of the arrival of the Allied armies–their condition beyond the experience of Western medicine. But the surviving Jews, like most of Europe’s other homeless millions, found their way to Germany. Germany was where the Allied agencies and camps were to be situated–and anyway, eastern Europe was still not safe for Jews.
…Bulagaria transferred 160,000 Turks to Turkey; Czechoslovakia, under a February 1946 agreement with Hungary, exchanged 120,000 Slovaks living in Hungary for an equivalent number of Hungarians from communities north of the Danube, in Slovakia. Other transfers of this kind took place between Poland and Lithuania and between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union; 400,000 people from southern Yugoslavia were moved to land in the north to take the place of 600,000 departed Germans and Italians, Here as elsewhere, the populations concerned were not consulted. But the largest affected group was the Germans.
The Germans of eastern Europe would probably have fled west in any case: by 1945 they were not wanted in the countries where their families had been settled for many hundreds of years. Between a genuine desired to punish local Germans for the ravages of war and occupation, and the exploitation of this mood by post-war governments, the German-speaking communities of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia Poland, the Baltic region and the western Soviet Union were doomed and they knew it.
In the event, they were given no choice. As early as 1942 the British had privately acceded to Czech requests for a removal of the Sudeten German population, and the Russians and Americans fell in line the following yera. On May 19th, 1945, President Edouard Benes of Czechoslovakia decreed that ‘we have decided to eliminate the German problem in our republic once and for all.’ German (as well as Hungarians and other ‘traitors’) were to have their property placed under state control. In June 1945 their land was expropriated and on August 2nd of that year they lost their Czechoslovak citizenship. Nearly three million Germans, most of them from the Czech Sudetenland, were expelled into Germany in the course of the following 18 months. Approximately 267,000 died in the course of the expulsions. Whereas Germans had comprised 29 percent of the population of Bohemia and Moravia in 1930, by the census of 1950 they were just 1.8 percent.
From Hungary a further 623,000 Germans were expelled, from Romania 786,000, from Yugoslavia about half a million and from Poland 1.3 million. But by far the greatest number of German refugees came from the former eastern lands of Germany itself: Silesia, East Prussia, eastern Pomerania and eastern Brandenburg [as borders were re-drawn.] …Some seven million Germans would now find themselves in Poland, and the Polish authorities (and the occupying Soviet forces) wanted them removed — in part so that Poles and others who lost land in the eastern regions now absorbed into the USSR could in their turn be resettled in the new lands to the west.
This just begins to describe the unbelievable upheaval, one which we can scarcely wrap our minds around. One would wish that all those who wish for war, who pray for war, who condemn those who speak of peace, would have family and friends caught in the upheaval of which they so blindly dream