In the introduction to his book, Savage Continent, Keith Lowe writes:
Imagine a world without institutions. No governments. No school or universities. No access to any information. No banks. Money no longer has any worth. There are no shops, because no one has anything to sell. Law and order are virtually non-existent because there is no police force and no judiciary. Men with weapons roam the streets taking what they want. Women of all classes and ages prostitute themselves for food and protection.
This is not the beginning to a futuristic thriller, but a history of Europe in the years directly following World War II, when many European cities were in ruins, millions of people were displaced, and vengeance killings were common, as was rape.
The book has just won the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History from the English branch of PEN, and its narrative flies in the face of what we are used to hearing about that period. This is precisely what interested Lowe.
"I was used to seeing these wonderful, cozy myths about the way the war ended, " he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "and everybody celebrating and sailors grabbing hold of nurses in New York's Times Square and kissing them and all of these sort of things. And I was aware that it hadn't quite ended like that."
Europe, he says, was so devastated that "it's difficult for us to quite realize how bad the destruction was."
When officials went across Europe from London, they expected to find cities in states similar to that of London and Manchester, which had been bombed during the German Blitz.
Keith Lowe, an expert on World War II, wrote about the 1943 bombing of Hamburg in his last book, Inferno. Liza Messing/Picador hide captiontoggle caption Liza Messing/Picador
Keith Lowe, an expert on World War II, wrote about the 1943 bombing of Hamburg in his last book, Inferno.Liza Messing/Picador
"Of course, when they arrived in places like Germany or Poland they saw that the damage was exponentially worse, " says Lowe. "So Warsaw, for example, was 90 percent destroyed, and this was just one city out of hundreds, all across Europe which had been almost ... wiped off the face of the map, " he says.
Lowe is also the author of the book Inferno, about the devastation of Hamburg during World War II.
On the famine in Europe due to war
"In Germany ... there was plenty of food to go around, but the only way that this was maintained was by taking this food and these resources from all across the rest of Europe. So, for example, in Holland, in the Netherlands, just toward the end of the war, in the beginning of 1945 there was a terrible famine. People starving, they had rations of a certain amount of food per day, but it was pointless to even think about this because there wasn't any food in the shops.