"# 6. Hope
In Norway, for example, the purge of collaborators from society was accompanied – and eventually overshadowed – by the very public celebration of the nation’s war heroes. Dozens of public speeches were made praising the bravery of the Resistance, and medal ceremonies were held to reward those whose stories were most inspiring. In the mid-to-late forties a series of war memoirs were published, detailing the exploits of Norwegian soldiers, agents and saboteurs. Jens Müller’s Tre kom tilbake told the story of the ‘Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III prisoner-of-war camp: Müller was one of only three who made it all the way home. Oluf Olsen’s memoirs told the story of how he blew up the Lysaker Bridge after the Nazi invasion, escaped to Britain, and then parachuted back into Norway in 1943 as an agent for the British Special Operations Executive. Knut Haukelid told how he and his fellow agents destroyed the Nazis’ heavy water plant in Rjukan – an act that would be immortalized in the British film The Heroes of Telemark. Max Manus’s extraordinary career involved a series of breathtaking escapes, intrigues and acts of sabotage. His memoirs were published in Norway in 1946, but the story was made into a feature film as late as 2008. At the time of writing this is the biggest-budget movie in Norway’s history. It is a testament to the enduring appeal of the country’s war heroes.3
The biggest winners in this postwar free-for-all were undoubtedly the various Communist parties of Europe, whose membership across the continent increased exponentially. For this reason, many on the left learned to think of the war as a blessing, despite all the destruction it wrought. ‘Even for the postwar generation in Yugoslavia,’ writes Slavenka Drakuli, a journalist from Zagreb, ‘the war was not a futile and senseless blood-letting, but on the contrary, a heroic and meaningful experience that was worth more than its one million victims.’11
The revolutionary consequences of the war were felt not only in those countries that would end up under Communist rule, but also in the west. One of the first countries to experience a taste of the changes to come was Britain, during the very earliest stages of the war. The rationing system that was set up in Britain at the outbreak of hostilities was as revolutionary as anything the Communists could have dreamed up. Almost every basic item of food was rationed, as were other essentials such as clothing and household goods. Nobody was entitled to more food if they were richer, or of a higher social standing than their neighbours – the only people entitled to better rations were those in the armed forces, or those in occupations that required heavy physical labour. In other words, food was allocated on the basis of need rather than social or economic privilege. As a consequence the general health of the population actually improved during the war: by the late 1940s, infant mortality rates in Britain were in steady decline, and deaths from a variety of diseases had also dropped substantially since the prewar years. From the standpoint of public health, the war had made Britain a much fairer society.12
On the continent similar changes occurred during the war, but in a rather different way. Here, because of both greater shortages and the more exploitative way that the Nazis and their allies ruled Europe, the rationing system did not work. Instead the people relied much more heavily on the black market – which meant city dwellers made regular trips to the countryside to barter their belongings for food. The war years saw a vast redistribution of wealth away from urban areas and into the countryside, thus reversing the trend of centuries. In Italy, for example, middle-class city dwellers were abandoned by their servants who preferred to return to their home villages where food was more plentiful. Peasants and shopkeepers, as one signora in northern Italy complained, were ‘today’s rich people’.15 In Czechoslovakia, the changes to some rural communities were dramatic. ‘The farmhouse would be twice its prewar size,’ wrote Heda Kovaly, a political prisoner who returned to Czechoslovakia after the war. ‘A refrigerator would be standing in the kitchen, a washing machine in the hall. There would be Oriental carpets on the floor and original paintings on the walls.’ Even the Czech farmers themselves were happy to acknowledge these changes: ‘No sense denying it – we did very well during the war.’16
...In eastern Europe especially, the old prewar elites had been swept away as first the Nazis and later the Soviets deliberately decapitated the societies they overran. The removal of the Jews also paved the way for other groups to rise and take their place, both socially and economically. In Hungary many peasants came into possession of decent clothes and footwear for the first time when the property of expelled Jews was shared out in 1944.18 In Poland, where the Jews had made up a substantial portion of the middle class, a new, Polish middle class rose to take their place.19
# 7. Landscape of Chaos
In recent years there has been a tendency by some Western historians and politicians to look back at the aftermath of the Second World War through rose-tinted spectacles. Frustrated with the progress of rebuilding and reconciliation in the wake of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at the beginning of the twenty-first century, they pointed to the success of similar projects in Europe in the 1940s. The Marshall Plan in particular was singled out as the template for postwar economic reconstruction.
Such politicians would have done well to remember that the process of rebuilding did not begin straight away in Europe – the Marshall Plan was not even thought of until 1947 – and the entire continent remained economically, politically and morally unstable far beyond the end of the decade.
Other national hatreds had been ignited too, or in some cases merely revived, by the events of the previous six years: Greeks against Bulgarians, Serbs against Croats, Romanians against Magyars, Poles against Ukrainians. Fratricidal conflicts were also beginning to flare up within nations, based on differing social and political conceptions of how a new society in the wake of the war should look. This merely added to friction that already existed between neighbours who had kept a close eye on one another’s behaviour during the war. Throughout Europe collaborators and resisters still lived side by side in local communities. Perpetrators of atrocities melted into the population even as Hitler’s victims were returning from captivity. Communists and fascists were inextricably mixed in amongst populations with more moderate political views, as well as those who had lost all faith in politics altogether. There were countless towns and villages where perpetrators lived alongside those they had directly harmed.
The Allied presence in the midst of all this was often resented by locals, many of whom had different priorities from those of their military occupiers. In the aftermath of the fighting it seems gradually to have dawned on the Allies that they were sitting on a time-bomb. The one phrase that repeats itself in the reports and memos of the Allies in 1945 is that while the war might have been won, the peace could still be lost.
In December 1944, while on a visit to Greece, the US Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote a brief memorandum to Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s special assistant, warning of the potential bloodbath that awaited Europe if it were not rehabilitated quickly. Liberated peoples, he wrote, ‘are the most combustible material in the world. They are fighting people. They are violent and restless. They have suffered unbearably.’ If the Allies did not strive to feed them, rehabilitate them and actively help to restore the social and moral structures of their countries, then all that would follow would be ‘frustration’, ‘agitation and unrest’ and, eventually, ‘the overthrow of governments’. This scenario was already unfolding in Yugoslavia and Greece. Acheson’s fear was that such scenes would multiply across the continent, bringing about Europe-wide civil war. 1
displaced persons, particularly the ‘stateless’ Jews and Poles, would languish in camps of Nissen huts well into the 1950s.
# 8. The Thirst for Blood
In a frenzy of violence, Red Army soldiers are reputed to have murdered everyone they found here – men, women and children alike – before proceeding to mutilate their bodies. One correspondent for the Swiss newspaper Le Courrier, who claimed he came to the village after the Soviets had temporarily been beaten back, was so disgusted by what he saw that he felt unable to relate it. ‘I will spare you the description of the mutilations and the ghastly condition of the corpses on the field,’ he wrote. ‘These are impressions that go beyond even the wildest imagination.’1
As the Soviets advanced, such scenes repeated themselves across all the eastern provinces of Germany. At Powayen near Konigsberg, for example, the bodies of dead women were strewn everywhere: they had been raped and then brutally killed with bayonets or rifle butt blows to the head. Four women here had been stripped naked, tied to the back of a Soviet tank and dragged to their deaths. In Gross Heydekrug a woman was crucified on the altar cross of the local church, with two German soldiers similarly strung up on either side.2 More crucifixions occurred in other villages, where women were raped and then nailed to barn doors.3 At Metgethen it was not only women but children who were killed and mutilated: according to the German captain who examined their corpses, ‘Most of the children had been killed by a blow to the head with a blunt instrument,’ but ‘some had numerous bayonet wounds in their tiny bodies.’4
The massacre of women and children had no military purpose – indeed it was a propaganda disaster for the Red Army, and only served to stiffen German resistance. The wanton destruction of German towns and villages was also counter-productive. As Lev Kopelev, a Soviet soldier who witnessed the burning of German villages, pointed out, it was all very well to seek revenge, ‘But where do we spend the night afterward? Where do we put the wounded?’5 But to look at such events in purely practical terms is surely missing the point. The desire for vengeance was perhaps the inevitable response to some of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated by man. The soldiers who carried out these atrocities were motivated by a deep and often personal bitterness. ‘I have taken revenge and will take revenge,’ claimed a Red Army soldier named Gofman in 1944, whose wife and two children had been murdered by the Nazis in the Belorussian town of Krasnopol‘ye (Polish Krasnopol). ‘I have seen fields sown with German bodies, but that is not enough. How many of them should die for every murdered child! Whether I am in the forest or in a bunker, the Krasnopolye tragedy is before my eyes … And I swear that I will take revenge as long as my hand can hold a weapon.’6
Other soldiers had similar stories, and a similar thirst for blood. ‘My life is twisted,’ wrote Salman Kiselev after the death of his wife and six children.7 ‘They killed my little Niusenka,’ claimed Second Lieutenant Kratsov, a Hero of the Soviet Union who had lost his wife and daughter to the Einsatzgruppen in Ukraine. ‘There is only one thing left for me: vengeance.’8"