Horrible decade 1938-1947: Europe during and directly after WW2

UA HES Special Event: Contested Ground
The Legacy of the Second World War in Eastern Europe

Horrible decade 1938-1947: Europe during and directly after WW2
Some selected problems.

Jan Piskorski

Comprehensive summary of topics by University of Szczecin Proffessor Jan M. Piskorski delivered during UA HES Special Event: Contested Ground, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton AB, October 23-24, 2015.

1. Broken china

Let us break the delicate china; after all, we can drink and eat from clay ware – advocated Martin Heidegger at the University Heidelberg in 1933. Like so many others, he used to think that one had first to destroy the past to build a better future. The German philosopher clearly forgot that civilization is an elaborate and fine structure built upon the primal urges of the human soul, including the drive towards violence and robbery. Once unleashed, especially when freed by the state, they tend to be very difficult to tame again. The best known examples are Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

2. Europe’s nations schooled by Hitler and Stalin

WWII, one of the most brutal wars in the history of mankind, like the Stalinist executions and deportations in Soviet Union before, during and after the war, left deep impressions on the psyche and behaviours of the people who went through it. In particular, the annihilation of millions of Jews must have affected people. It did demoralize Europe, particularly the Poles, Ukrainians and other nations of East Central Europe who witnessed the murders of Jews.

Hitler will go away […], the world will stop being a slaughterhouse […]. But many years later a child will ask whether it was a man killed or a Jew, mommy? – predicted Maria Kann, Polish teacher who watched the end of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. She added that in spite of our outrage, we somehow accustom ourselves to the notion that people can murder and build crematoria for living human beings. In children’s minds, there slowly germinate the notions that there are different kinds of nations: “the masters,” “the servants” and finally “the dogs” who may be killed with impunity. And that is the most horrific seed of the bloody “fuehrer,” and his greatest victory.

3. Retaliation by the victims or spreading infection?

Walter Dirks and Eugen Kogon, two German Christians and victims of Hitler, stressed short after the war that the description of the anti-German events in Europe in the end of the war and the beginning of freedom 1944-1946 as retaliation of the victims is a great simplification of the issue. It was more like an infection, as it was not necessarily the persecuted ones who exacted revenge. In addition, the post-war European settlements were not only directed against Germans. Nations and neighbours were at odds. Paradoxically, the second biggest victim of score-settling in the final months of the war and the early months of peace were Jews, the greatest victim of the war conducted by Germany. After the war, anti-Semitism grew not only in poor and devastated Eastern and South-Eastern Europe but even in the affluent Netherlands and other Western European countries, stemming from the Nazi ‘infection’ and anxiety concerning the return of property which was robbed from the Jews.

4. Volhynia and the Polish-Ukrainian War

“When ethnic groups mobilize for war, it does not stop as long as the belligerents are not separated from each other into the most easily defensible and most homogeneous areas” says a contemporary British expert on the issues, Chaim Kaufmann. This applies in particular to civil or quasi-civil wars, which include the Second World War in Europe. It consisted of the major war and many minor wars. The major war was a conflict between three completely different world views: National Socialism, communism and liberal democracy. There were many minor wars, frequently of a local nature, such as the Polish-Ukrainian or Croatian-Serbian wars. They were just as cruel and linked with ethnic cleansing, sometimes with mass murders.

The local European wars during the Second World War generally had deep roots. The form which they took during WWII, however, would have been unimaginable without the context of the major war and war infection. This is the responsibility of those who break the china of pledges, without thinking what will happen later.

Antagonism on the ethnically and religiously mixed Polish-Ukrainian borderland extended back to the mid-17th century, but only during the German occupation and with German acquiescence did it ignite into a frenzy. Systematic attacks on Polish villages began in the spring of 1943 in Volhynia, where the Poles were relatively weak. [….] The leadership of the UPA was probably seeking to force the Poles to flee, in order to nationally “cleanse” the borderland. This turned out quite differently in practice, partly because the Bolsheviks and Germany expelled or murdered the local elite, both Polish and Ukrainian, and the nationalist right and various underworld characters whom no-one could stop emerged out of the shadows. In addition to defending themselves, the Poles were already collaborating with the German army, from which they took weapons and raided the Ukrainians, together with the Soviet guerrillas, which about five thousand of them had joined. Many Poles were also entering battalions of NKVD fighters, whose task was to combat the Ukrainian underground. This only confirmed the UPA in its theory of three enemies: the Bolsheviks, first and foremost, the Poles in second place, and finally the Germans, who had treated the Ukrainians merely as tools since the beginning of the war.

The results of the policy of “divide and rule”, as even a German official in the General Government wrote in the summer of 1944, were “disastrous. These methods led to the mutual destruction of the Poles and Ukrainians […]. Everywhere, however, it led to acrimony between the two groups [and as a result in their] turning against the Germans.

5. Living ruins: rebuilding Europe after the War

Wars devastate people! The longer they last, the deeper their effect. The more brutal they are, the greater their impact. War and long-lasting violence in general corrupts not only the perpetrators but also passive observers and even the victims themselves. The value of life dramatically decreases. People touched by the evil rarely accept it with humility. The sight of the beaten breeds the desire to beat and the sight of the expelled breeds the desire to expel.

Vladimir Gelfand, a young Soviet officer of Ukrainian-Jewish origin, who did not hide his shame at the behaviour of his troops in Poland when he crossed the border with Germany in 1945, could not muster any sympathy. “Germany is on fire, and one rejoices somehow, looking at this evil game. Death for death, blood for blood. I don’t entirely feel pity for these … animals”. The climate of those spring days is also well described in the diary entries of Adam Bromberg, then a tank soldier with the Polish Army and later a known Polish publisher. Observing the columns of German exiles, he stated without any pity: “they walk like us at the beginning of the war”.

Neither was the atmosphere right after the war normal. After every war, someone has to clean up, as Wisława Szymborska laconically states. Only after that one can patiently engage in gluing the broken china together, which rarely takes less than a generation.

In any case, the period immediately following the war cannot be simply compared to the time preceding the conflict. In one of the first Polish post-war newspapers, Father Kazimierz Żarnowiecki stated that the biggest problem of the time in Europe was not burnt-out houses but the moral catastrophe. “The war not only conflicted nations and men, but above all it conflicted the man with himself, with his own conscience”. The rebuilding of “living ruins” was proclaimed by him as the task of the age.

6. Potsdam, or how to handle hyper-nationalist Germans

To give another example: Today, the resolutions of the Potsdam Conference regarding the resettlement of Germans, like other resolutions and mass resettlements in Europe at the end of WWII and directly thereafter, are too often perceived outside of the reality of 1945. The truth is that the peoples of Europe often had no desire to live together any longer as before. Stalin simply strengthened and exploited this. The atrocities of war became a terrible memento. Neighbours often became the worst of enemies. Thus homogenization was generally treated as a remedy. We have the right to subject it to criticism today, but we must not forget this, if we want to be guardians of memory. The Ukrainian-Polish resettlement took place in a similar atmosphere.

Regardless of our evaluations of that resettlement, we must not forget that they created a new reality, the reversal of which would be extremely difficult. After the war the Germans had no desire to return to Communist Czechoslovakia or Poland, nor did the Poles wish to return to Soviet Ukraine.

The question posed by the Austrian historian Hans Haas, about how to handle resettlement which has already taken place or is in progress, remains current. Should they be reversed, or brought to an end, but by other methods, or finally stabilized by the international military? The examples of “stabilization missions” from recent years are not, however, encouraging.

7. A European memento

The number of casualties during WWII is estimated at fifty to sixty million, out of which only one third were soldiers. The Soviet Union suffered the greatest numerical losses. The nations between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, in particular Belarusians, but also the Ukrainians and Poles, were literally bathed in blood, losing from ten to twenty percent of their population. Nowhere else came even close to such proportions. In Belarus half of the population perished or was forcibly expelled during the German occupation and the Stalinist purges immediately preceding it in the East.

WWII was also distinguished from earlier wars by the scale of displacement, ten times that of the First World War. In the years 1939-1942 alone, the resettlement involved over thirty million people from the occupied territories. The second half of the war and the years immediately following it (1943-1947) is characterized by more or less the same number; this time, however, the German population dominated. At the same time, many people were also sent to lagers and forced labour in the Soviet Union: Germans, Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Poles, and finally even Soviet DPs liberated in Germany. The number of prisoners and deportees in the Soviet Union sky-rocketed in the first half of the 1950s.

8. Hitler and Stalin

The German Reich was supposed to last a thousand years, but survived for only twelve. It was extremely turbulent and overturned virtually all ethical norms and cultural achievements. As a result, especially in the east of the European continent, even all those who had initially hoped that Hitler would win the war with Stalin, had enough of the Third Reich in the end. Most Europeans were prepared to accept the Soviet version of liberation as the lesser of two evils, an essential category in politics conducted in the real world.

The “man-eater” from the East, in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, only “popped his clogs” in 1953 and was one of the victors in the Second World War. Stalin, however, was in fact the more devious of the two. Although he slaughtered at least as many people, first and foremost citizens of the Soviet Union, and even though millions of people killed in the Soviet Union during WWII as a result of his incompetence, he is still sometimes surrounded by an aura of admiration.

Mainly because he expelled the Germans from the Soviet Union – claim witnesses interviewed by Svetlana Alexievich. “After Stalin people breathed more freely, because the Germans had dissolved the collective farms, but then began to burn us,” says one of the women she interviewed. The historian Elena Zubkova confirms that in the year 1945 Stalin’s popularity was at its peak, as his name was associated with the victory. With their entry into the Reich, even the language of the letters of the Soviet soldiers to the families changed. Gratitude to Stalin, absent in the letters of earlier years, starts to appear, as noted by an excellent researcher on these issues, Elke Scherstjanoi.

9. Taking precautions

Conflict is always easier to start than to end, and in the case of wars of attrition and annihilation the matter is exceptionally difficult. That’s why the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi gave this advice 2,500 years ago: One must protect oneself from thieves who break up boxes, search pockets, tear open cupboards, smash tableware and heads “by wrapping ropes and cords around them.” He called it taking precautions. This prevails especially in situation in which a bad state – a “big thief” in Zhuangzi’s terminology – unleashes a beast. In other words, one should do everything possible to prevent the onset of an avalanche. Once started, it cannot be stopped – unless one could move mountains like the Titans. Caution, however, should not be confused with a lack of response. More than once it has proved to be worse than an excessive reaction.