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N. 46 - Ottobre 2011 (LXXVII)

Europeans and the Second World War
A long shadow

by Marco Siddi


The years 1939-1945 were a period of unprecedented destruction and human losses in Europe. Not only the armies of belligerent countries, but also their civilian populations had to bear the brunt of total, modern warfare. Millions of soldiers and civilians died, especially on the eastern front, where the Nazis fought a war of racial annihilation - the Soviet Union alone suffered approximately 26 million casualties. The Third Reich pursued the systematic elimination of Europe’s Jewish population, which resulted in the death of six million people. Moreover, the Nazis deported millions of forced labourers to the Reich and exploited them in German factories to boost the war effort.

During the conflict, houses, railways, bridges, factories and entire cities were flattened by bombings and fighting. In 1945 the European economy lay in ruins. Furthermore, millions of refugees flooded reception camps in Germany. Some twelve million ethnic Germans living in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe migrated westwards in the winter 1944-1945, before the advancing Red Army. A few months later, seven million Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and Czechoslovaks were resettled within the new boundaries of Central-Eastern European states.

The conflict’s atrocities and the upheavals of the first post-war years left a deep scar in the minds of many Europeans. The trauma was much stronger in countries where the fighting and foreign occupation had been harsher – wartime experiences in the occupied Soviet Union were generally much more atrocious than in areas that saw limited fighting and bombing, such as Denmark or Bohemia. Bearing in mind these considerable differences, it can be argued that Nazi policies of racial extermination, the suffering endured by civilians during aerial bombing and wartime poverty left an open wound in most European countries, the effects of which were felt well after the war ended.

The Second World War had a profound impact on Europeans’ lives because it was a “total war”, namely a conflict in which the belligerents poured every human and material resource at their disposal. This meant that large sections of the male population were drafted into the armies or employed in the war industry. Due to conscription and the subsequent lack of manpower, women were employed for hitherto unconventional jobs, including heavy physical work. Women also played an important role close to the frontline, where they performed auxiliary activities, such as nursing, and occasionally participated in the fighting – for instance, as conscripts in the Soviet army and in the context of partisan warfare.

On the home front, factories were converted to war production and consumer goods were rationed. The nature of modern warfare implied that death and destruction were endured not only at the front, but also in numerous cities and towns that were subject to aerial bombardment. This was especially the case of German cities when the Allies launched the bombing campaign against the Third Reich. After the end of the hostilities, several years were necessary to reconstruct the vast areas of the continent ravaged by the war.

While material recovery was difficult but possible, mental and emotional recovery from the brutality of the war appeared as a more complicated issue and a longer, in some cases interminable process. “Getting over the war” meant getting used to peacetime life, while simultaneously overcoming the mental and material trauma of the war. This process of mental recovery from the war was particularly difficult for the millions of Europeans whose pre-war social and professional lives had been shattered by the conflict. Among them, Holocaust survivors, long-term prisoners of war and civilians who had experienced rape, pillaging and the loss of their homelands were probably those who experienced the greatest difficulties in returning to a normal life.

Holocaust survivors arguably constituted the social group that had endured the worst deprivations and suffering during the war. Some of them described their experiences in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps in the months immediately following the end of the conflict. Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, published his autobiographical novel If this is a man in 1947. In his work, Levi warned future generations not to forget the annihilation of European Jews. However, despite his call, the memory of the Holocaust was not a priority for most Europeans in the first post-war decade. Thus, the few survivors who found the words to describe the atrocities they had experienced were mostly confronted with an unreceptive audience.

As a result, in the post-war years survivors found no other option than repressing their memories or sharing them with a restricted audience. Nevertheless, for many of them the urge to tell their suffering did not subside with time. Some decided to write their stories at the end of their life, as a way of “liberating” themselves from memories that had haunted them throughout their lives. Writing in the late 1990s, Paul Steinberg explained that he wanted

to navigate among the little islands of memory that still remain. Perhaps this risky expedition will allow me to give an account – unsettling, no doubt – of the world from which perhaps I have not escaped even after half a century.

As emerges from their writings, Steinberg and Levi never got over their experiences in Nazi concentration camps. The greater openness of many Europeans to discuss the Holocaust from the 1960s onwards could help survivors to confront the trauma, but not to fully overcome its psychological impact.

The Holocaust was not the only experience which Europeans found hard or impossible to get over. Recovering from long and extenuating periods of captivity proved extremely difficult for thousands of prisoners of war. The Soviet prisoners of war who survived in German captivity – less than half of the total number of captured Soviet soldiers – often found an unsympathetic or overtly hostile environment upon their return to the motherland. A considerable number of them also had to face accusations of treason and desertion.

Return to a normal life was no less difficult for German soldiers who, after taking part in Hitler’s genocidal war in the East, were captured by the Red Army and sent to Stalinist prison camps. For many of them, returning home was possible only after many years. In 1955, when the last German prisoners of war were released, many of them could no longer understand or find their place in a world that had changed radically since they had left for the front.

Frank Biess has shown that returning German soldiers had to cope with a period of ‘liminality’, namely a transitional period between two stages of life that was characterized by the enduring effects of war and imprisonment on the returnee’s body, psyche and consciousness. The trauma experienced in Soviet captivity resulted in poor physical and mental conditions, mainly due to malnutrition. Apathy, depression, underachievement and deficient masculinity were typical symptoms. ‘Desexualization’, as Biess calls it, was caused by the fact that prisoners had concentrated all their energy on basic needs such as eating, and had not had a sexual life for many years. On the other hand, life in the army had resulted in a considerable increase in the cases of homosexuality, which, according to Biess, might have involved up to 15 per cent of all men fighting on the Eastern front.

While Holocaust survivors and former prisoners of war constituted only a small part of Europe’s post-war population, the number of civilians who had been deeply affected by situations of extreme psychic and moral distress during the war was much higher. Nazi rule in Eastern Europe uprooted and destroyed entire communities, causing millions of civilian casualties and refugees. More than four million Soviet, Polish, Yugoslav and Czechoslovak citizens were deported for forced labour in the Reich; another two million workers were taken to Germany from the occupied countries in Western Europe.

Furthermore, the days following the liberation from Nazi rule and occupation were not always painless for civilians. Women in eastern Germany, Austria, Hungary and southern Italy in particular paid a very high price for their liberation, as the advance of the Red Army and the Allies was accompanied by numerous cases of rape. Moreover, the expulsion of German occupation troops at the end of the war paved the way for retribution against those accused of collaboration with the Nazis.


Biess, Frank, ‘Men of Reconstruction, the Reconstruction of Men. Returning POWs in East and West Germany’, in Hagemann, Karen and Schüler-Springorum, Stefanie, Home/Front. The military, war and gender in twentieth-century Germany (Oxford, 2002)
Deak, Istvan, Gross, Jan and Judt, Tony (eds), The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and its Aftermath (Princeton, 2000)
Egan, Susanna, ‘The drowned and the saved: Primo Levi and Paul Steinberg in dialogue’, in History and Memory, Issue 13, No. 2 (Fall 2001)
Geyer, Michael and Jarausch, Konrad, Shattered Past (Princeton, 2003)
Herbert, Ulrich, Hitler's Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich (Bonn, 1997)
Koeppen, Wolfgang, Der Tod in Rom (Frankfurt am Main, 1972)
Mark, James, ‘Remembering Rape: Divided Social Memory and the Red Army in Hungary 1944–1945’, Past and Present, No. 188 (August 2005)
Moeller, Robert, War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany (Los Angeles, 2001)
Polcz, Alaine, One woman in the war (Budapest, 2002)
Steinberg, Paul, Speak you also, (London, 2000)
Willson, Perry, ‘Saints and Heroines. Rewriting the History of Italian Women in the Resistance’, in Kirk, Tom and McElligott, Anthony (eds.), Opposing Fascism: Community, Authority and Resistance in Europe (Cambridge, 1999)
Winter, Jay and Sivan, Emmanuel, War and remembrance in the twentieth century (Cambridge, 1999)
Wolf, Joan, Harnessing the Holocaust. Politics of memory in France (Stanford, 2004)




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