I’ve been reading a couple of books about the final months of WW II and the immediate aftermath (Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45, by Max Hastings; and After The Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, by Giles MacDonogh). I love reading about European history, especially now that I live in the middle of the continent. It makes it much more exciting and interesting when traveling about, even if it’s just a simply trip in the immediate area. For example, this summer I biked from our house to the town (Dongo) where Mussolini was captured near the end of WW II, and one of my son’s soccer matches was near the village where Mussolini was executed shortly after his capture. This historical awareness adds, I think, depth to daily life.
However these books are a very tough read — the devastation Europe inflicted on itself just a short time ago is gut wrenching. I’ve read a fair amount about the war itself and the atrocities therein, but I was pretty ignorant of life at the very end of the war for the continent as a whole. It was beyond Hobbesian.
As the war was ending, and shortly afterward, there were literally millions of rapes and murders. Millions were refugees looking for, or forced to look for, a new home. Across the continent, millions were starving trying to survive in a place that had undergone the most “scorched earth” war the world had ever seen. Living in Europe today, it’s impossible to imagine what it looked like after the war. After all, Europe saw the complete destruction of thousands upon thousands of towns and cities from London to Stalingrad (almost the same distance as from LA to NYC) and much of the countryside.
There are many ugly problems facing Europe today — for starters, the economic and currency crises have not come close to being resolved. However, the fact that Europe has, for the most part, become a very peaceful and tranquil place after such a history is cause for recognition. The amount this continent has changed in my father’s lifetime is simply jaw-dropping.