After VE Day: The war without an end

On 8 May 1945, Allied nations celebrated VE Day with elation – but, as Keith Lowe reveals, in much of Europe conflict was far from over...

Expelled Germans leaving Poland's western territories

This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In the summer of 1945, a train carrying refugees pulled out of a station in what’s now Slovakia, heading for Germany. Its passengers were German speakers being expelled from the country – in the wake of the Second World War, Czechoslovakians no longer wanted such people living in their midst.

When the train passed through the town of Přerov in Moravia it was brought to a halt. The head of the local militia, a man named Karol Pazúr, forced everyone to disembark, claiming he wanted to carry out a search for former Nazis hiding among the passengers.

When they stepped down from the train, Pazúr and his men lined them up and shot them all. The dead included 71 men, 120 women and 74 children. The youngest victim was just eight months old.

The slaughter at Přerov was just one example of the many mass killings perpetrated all over Czechoslovakia in the wake of the war. According to Czech historians, during the summer of 1945 between 25,000 and 40,000 German speakers were killed in acts of revenge (though many German historians claim a considerably larger number).

Perhaps the most notable fact about the Přerov massacre is that its protagonist was one of the very few Czechs ever to be arrested for such crimes. At his trial, Pazúr was asked how he could possibly justify the killing of the children. He is reported to have answered: “Well, what was I supposed to do with them after we’d killed their parents?” Nevertheless, after a brief spell in prison, Pazúr was pardoned. He promptly began a new career as a member of the communist secret police.

When we now look back to the end of the Second World War, we seldom give much thought to what happened next. In our collective memory, VE Day was a moment of pure celebration, when crowds across the world gathered to rejoice the end of violence. But for many in Europe, VE Day did not bring peace. For German communities all over the continent it merely marked the beginning of a new nightmare in which vengeful populations sought personal retribution for the wrongs that had been inflicted on them by the Nazis.

Hundreds of thousands of German-speaking civilians were snatched from their families and made to work as slave labourers in eastern European farms and factories. Some were even put to work clearing minefields until strong complaints from the Red Cross put an end to the practice.

Hundreds of thousands more were interned in prison camps – in some cases the same camps from which Jews and political prisoners had only recently been liberated – before being expelled from their countries of residence forever. Between them, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia expelled some 12 million German speakers in the three years following the war. It was probably the greatest forced migration in history. At least 500,000 of these migrants are now believed to have died during their long and arduous journey.

Germans were not the only people who were subject to such revenge. Anyone who had fought for the ‘wrong’ side, or who was thought to have been a little too friendly with the enemy during the war, was also targeted. In northern Italy, some 20,000 people were summarily executed by their own countrymen because of their support for the Fascist regime.

In Holland and Denmark, women accused of sleeping with German soldiers were stripped, shaved and paraded naked through their towns. In clandestine prisons set up in France by former members of the Resistance, suspected collaborators were subjected to various forms of sadism, including mutilation, rape, enforced prostitution and every kind of torture imaginable.

French doctors at Drancy detention camp, for example, complained that former collaborators were being subjected to beatings, burns to the soles of the feet and prolonged electric shocks to their genitals. One French newspaper lamented the fact that members of the Resistance were repeating some of the most heinous crimes of the Gestapo. “What was the point in triumphing over the Barbarians,” it asked, “if only to imitate them and become like them?”

Ethnic violence

Some of the worst violence that flared in the aftermath of the war occurred in those areas of Europe where the Nazis had deliberately pitted one ethnic group against another. In Yugoslavia, for example, the Nazis and the Italian Fascists had installed a puppet government run by Croatian ultra-nationalists. This government, the Ustasha regime, spent much of the war persecuting and murdering ethnic Serbs. Naturally, the Serb resistance repaid them in kind; once the war was over, Croatian soldiers and officials were mercilessly hunted down.

In the town of Maribor, in Slovenia, tens of thousands of Ustashas were captured while attempting to flee into neighbouring Austria. They were slaughtered on an industrial scale and piled into anti-tank ditches, or thrown into deep ravines and left to rot. Even the most conservative estimates claim that 50,000 to 60,000 Croatian nationalists were killed in this locality alone, and tens of thousands more were killed in other massacres all over Slovenia and northern Croatia.

The Second World War opened up a Pandora’s box of ethnic conflict in Yugoslavia that was impossible to close once the war was over. According to Yugoslav intelligence reports in July 1945, “chauvinistic hatred” between different ethnic groups was universal. Serbs who returned to one village after the war are reported to have asked their fellow villagers: “Why don’t you kill all Croats? What are you waiting for?” Similar sentiments were expressed by Slovenes and Bosnian Muslims. Tragically, these hatreds would be revived almost 50 years later when the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s sparked similar attempts at genocide.

Another ethnic conflict opened up along the borderlands of Poland and Ukraine at around the same time. When the Nazis arrived here in 1941 they enlisted Ukrainian ultra-nationalists to help them carry out the Holocaust. Having eradicated the nation’s Jews, however, these ultra-nationalists then took it upon themselves to start eradicating the nation’s Poles. Using methods they had learned from the Nazis, they torched villages and rounded up whole populations before shooting them. Once again, Poles reacted in kind, and a war raged between these two ethnic populations until the end of 1947.

“While I never saw one of our men pick up a baby or a small child with the point of a bayonet and toss it onto a fire,” remembered one Polish partisan, “I saw the charred corpses of Polish babies who had died that way. If none of our number did that, then it was the only atrocity that we did not commit.”

To their credit, today’s Polish administration has had the courage to face up to what happened 70 years ago. In 2002 Aleksander Kwasniewski, the Polish president at that time, publicly apologised for some of the worst excesses that were carried out on the Polish side. However, tensions between the two communities linger to this day.

Civil war

It was not only ethnic differences that pitted people against each other in 1945. Political differences could be just as deadly. Poles not only killed Germans and Ukrainians during and after the war, they also killed fellow Poles whose political beliefs differed from their own. In the same way, Greeks killed Greeks, Danes killed Danes, and Italians killed Italians.

Our popular image of the French Resistance battling valiantly against the Nazi occupier ignores the uncomfortable fact that the vast majority of Resistance activity during the war was not directed at Germans at all but at fellow French people. This political unrest continued long after the liberation: as late as 1948, French communists were still blowing up trains – not in the pursuit of liberation, but in the name of revolution.

At the heart of such violence was a battle for the political soul of Europe. The defeat of the Nazis had left a political vacuum in many countries, which extremists of all kinds rushed forward to fill. So vicious were their skirmishes that the American officials who came to Europe at the end of the Second World War worried openly that the entire continent was about to descend into a new Europe-wide civil war.

Liberated peoples, wrote the US assistant secretary of state Dean Acheson towards the end of the war, “are the most combustible material in the world”. If political stability were not restored throughout Europe as soon as the war was over, all that would follow would be “frustration”, “agitation and unrest”, and eventually “the overthrow of governments”.

One of the most tragic episodes of postwar politics in Europe was beginning to unfold as Acheson wrote. In Athens, which owed its liberation as much to communist partisans as to British troops, a quarrel had broken out over who was going to govern Greece after the war.

The British appeared to want to reinstall the king, and dragged their heels over punishing even the most openly fascist collaborators. The communists, meanwhile, refused to lay down their weapons until they saw concrete evidence of a comprehensive purge. The stand-off came to a head during a demonstration in Athens at the very end of 1944. As a crowd gathered in Syntagma Square, shots were fired – it has never become clear by whom – and around a dozen demonstrators were killed. In indignation, the communists once again took up their arms and the whole country quickly descended into chaos.

So began a civil war that would last, on and off, for another five years. When the violence was finally brought to an end in 1949, more than a million people had been displaced, and perhaps 150,000 killed. The political polarisation fomented during this time would last for decades, and is still evident in Greece today.

The war without end

Some of these events are better known than others, but what is very rarely appreciated is how widespread the continuing violence was after 1945. Almost every country in Europe suffered some kind of bloodshed, and in some places the fighting was worse than it had been during the Second World War itself.

Our ignorance of this violent and chaotic time stems partly from our desire to believe in the myth of VE Day. It is much more comfortable to imagine that the war came to a neat conclusion than it is to acknowledge the messy and morally ambiguous events that followed. The Cold War also has a role to play: after all, for almost 50 years western Europe was cut off from most of the regions in which these events took place. Hence, stories that Poles and Czechs still remember as if they were yesterday do not always spring readily to western minds.

But the problem runs much deeper. Over the decades we have adopted a fairly unsophisticated view of the Second World War – one that does not always have room for the many local complexities that characterised it. We tend to regard the war simply as a clash between the Allies and the Axis, without giving a thought to the many other conflicts that were raging at the same time. Because British and American troops stopped fighting on 8 May 1945, we imagine that everyone else did likewise.

Europe in 1945 was a much more complicated place than that. The New York Times journalist Cyrus Sulzberger summed up the situation in an article written at the end of the war. “Europe,” he explained, “is in a condition which no American can hope to comprehend. Virtually every ancient hatred has been revived with new intensity. Frenchman, Italian, Russian, Pole, Czech, Serb, Greek, Belgian, Netherlander, Rumanian – each in his own way hates the German with a personal frenzy.

“But worse, and not to be ignored, is that hatred, renewed by the present war, of Greek for Bulgar, Serb for Croat, Rumanian for Hungarian, Frenchman for Italian, Pole for Russian, which has developed among many population groups basically and broadly united in the final effort to crush their common German enemy. And worst of all is that fratricidal hatred of Greek for Greek, Frenchman for Frenchman, Serb for Serb and Pole for Pole, based on differing social and political conceptions fostered and encouraged by chaos and unleashed by the war.”

These people killed one another irrespective of what was going on between the Allies and Nazi Germany. And when the Germans surrendered in May 1945 they saw no reason to stop.

Many of the tensions that exist around Europe today owe as much to this postwar period as they do to the war itself. When Serbs and Croatians clash at football matches, their fans call one another ‘Chetniks’ or ‘Ustashas’ – the names of the opposing political groups that massacred one another in 1945. When the Czech government refused to sign the EU’s Lisbon Treaty in 2009, it was for fear that German expellees might mount legal claims for wrongs done to them in the aftermath of the war. And in the 2015 Greek elections, communists and ultra-nationalists were once again painted as bogeymen, even while anti-debt demonstrators were burning effigies of Swastikas.

The Second World War certainly did not come to an end in May 1945. It took many more years for the remnants of violence to fizzle out. But its memory – and the effects of the events that followed it – still haunts us today.


Postwar savagery

The political and ethnic tensions and urge for revenge that smouldered during the Second World War erupted after German surrender

Germany: fatal revenge

At the end of the war, 6–8 million foreign forced labourers were set free within Germany. Over the following months they ran amok, looting shops and taking revenge on civilians, causing a crisis of law and order across the country. Meanwhile, some 12 million ethnic Germans were expelled from other parts of Europe and forced to travel to Germany. The cruelty and hardship they suffered during their odyssey claimed half a million lives.

France and Italy: Resistance is volatile

After the liberation of both countries, 10,000 collaborators in France and 20,000 Fascists in Italy were summarily executed. Resistance movements refused to give up their weapons, and in 1948 continuing violence by communists led to a state of emergency being declared in both countries. Law and order was restored only by employing draconian measures such as mass arrests.

The Baltic states: The price of liberation

By the end of the war the Red Army ‘liberated’ Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and subsumed those countries into the Soviet Union. The populations regarded this action as a new occupation, and hundreds of thousands took to the forests from where they waged a guerrilla campaign against Soviet troops that lasted until the mid-1950s, claiming tens of thousands of lives.

They were finally defeated by a counter-insurgency campaign that saw the guerrilla army infiltrated and entire communities deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan.

Ukraine and Poland: Brutality at the border

Between 1944 and 1947 Poles and Ukrainians waged a savage war across their borderlands in which more than 100,000 civilians were slaughtered. A series of population exchanges in 1946, during which more than 2 million people were forced from their homes, failed to bring the violence to an end. Eventually the Polish government resorted to the mass deportation of all Ukrainian speakers from their south-eastern borderlands and their dispersal throughout other parts of the country. Though brutal, ‘Operation Vistula’ was a success, and by 1948 the conflict was over.

Yugoslavia: Mass executions

For over a week after the official ceasefire was signed in May 1945, soldiers of the German army continued fighting in Yugoslavia. They were captured in mid-May and slaughtered en masse by Yugoslav Partisans over the following weeks. Croatian and Slovenian troops were also captured, with around 100,000 killed in a series of mass executions. Political and ethnic violence continued in many parts of the country until the communists established total control in 1946.

Greece: Descent into civil war

Through 1944 into 1945 a breakdown in relations between the British Army and communist partisans resulted in several months of violence. A ceasefire was called in February 1945, and the communists agreed to lay down their arms in return for a comprehensive purge of collaborators from the Greek security forces. However, rightwing militias refused to disband, instead continuing to hunt down communists all over the country. By 1946 Greece had descended into civil war. It has been estimated that over the next three years around 700,000 people were displaced and up to 150,000 killed.

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Keith Lowe is the author of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (Viking, 2012).