By Paul Betts
Formats and Prices
- Hardcover $35.00 $44.00 CAD
- ebook $18.99 $24.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around November 17, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Winner of the American Philosophical Society’s 2021 Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History
From an award-winning historian, a panoramic account of Europe after the depravity of World War II.
In 1945, Europe lay in ruins. Some fifty million people were dead, and millions more languished in physical and moral disarray. The devastation of World War II was unprecedented in character as well as in scale. Unlike the First World War, the second blurred the line between soldier and civilian, inflicting untold horrors on people from all walks of life. A continent that had previously considered itself the very measure of civilization for the world had turned into its barbaric opposite.
Reconstruction, then, was a matter of turning Europe's "civilizing mission" inward. In this magisterial work, Oxford historian Paul Betts describes how this effort found expression in humanitarian relief work, the prosecution of war crimes against humanity, a resurgent Catholic Church, peace campaigns, expanded welfare policies, renewed global engagement and numerous efforts to salvage damaged cultural traditions. Authoritative and sweeping, Ruin and Renewal is essential reading for anyone hoping to understand how Europe was transformed after the destruction of World War II.
CALL TO ALMS
IN JULY 1945 ENGLISH POET STEPHEN SPENDER JOURNEYED from France to Germany on special assignment. He had lived in Hamburg and Berlin during the dying years of the Weimar Republic, and hadn’t been back since. This time, Spender arrived in Germany as an officer for the Allied Control Commission in the British Zone of Occupation with an unusual six-month task, namely “to inquire into the lives and ideas of German intellectuals, with a particular view to discovering any surviving talent in German literature” and “of inquiring into the condition of libraries.” He kept a diary of his mission, which was quickly brought out in 1946 as European Witness, one of the earliest firsthand reflections on decimated Europe. A few years earlier, in 1942, Spender had published a cycle of poems called Ruins and Visions that combined private experiences with the themes of air raids, the Nazi takeover of France, and death itself, yet nothing prepared him for the shock and scale of the ruins and visions that awaited him in Germany. The Cologne cityscape—or what was left of it—overwhelmed him: “My first impression on passing through was of there being not a single house left”; the charred, broken walls “served as a thin mask in front of the damp, hollow, stinking emptiness of gutted interiors.” No less unsettling was that the ruins equally characterized the survivors: “The ruin of the city is reflected in the internal ruin of its inhabitants” who “resemble rather a tribe of wanderers who have discovered a ruined city in a desert and who are camping there, living in the cellars and hunting amongst the ruins for the booty, relics of a dead civilization.”1
For Spender, the smoking remains of the bomb-blasted cities signified much more than the immolation of Hitler’s Third Reich. These “corpse-towns” had become “an achievement of our civilization” whose ruins were “the shape created by our century as the Gothic cathedral is the shape created by the Middle Ages.” Spender’s admitted depression about the obscene “shape created by our century” was inseparable from his more nagging concern about “the potentiality of the ruin of Germany to become the ruins of the whole of Europe.” Just as disturbing to him was the growing “sense as I walked along the streets of Bonn with a wind blowing putrescent dust of ruins as stinging as pepper into my nostrils” that “the whole of our civilization was protected by such eggshell walls which could be blown down in a day.”2
Spender was hardly alone in his descriptions of the collapse of civilization in Zero Hour Europe. For him and others, the invocation of civilization was far removed from Romantic-era meditations on crumbling cultural inheritance from the early nineteenth century. As we shall see, these were narratives of overwhelming shock and rupture, ones that spelled the dramatic collapse of European power and cultural might. The magnitude of destruction was also a call to action. This chapter will look at how foreign observers, charity workers, and international relief agents from the newly created United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) bore witness to a Europe in ruins, and were at the front line of material and moral rehabilitation in the immediate aftermath of war. This was no small historical development, to the extent that it marked the full reversal of Europe’s nineteenth-century civilizing mission. Europe, long the energetic missionary power in all parts of the globe, had now become a site of busy missionary activity and outside influence. Foreign relief agencies—both religious and secular—dispensed aid to those who had suffered under Axis occupation; UNRRA established missions in sixteen countries across Europe and cared for displaced persons (DPs) in Germany, Austria, and Italy. These massive and internationally coordinated missions were bold experiments in internationalism in the wake of the war, and became a source of conflict and controversy. The Cold War—whose beginning is usually attributed to the 1947 Truman Doctrine or the Berlin Airlift of 1948–1949—was already assuming form in the DP camps. Attention will be paid to the diaries and photographs of these international aid workers confronted by ruins, refugees, and what was commonly called the crisis of civilization. Foreign volunteers who staffed the religious charities and intergovernment agencies were among the first narrators and builders of postwar Europe, whose work was central to the moral and material reconstruction of the continent.
THE YEAR 1945 WAS A CALAMITOUS ONE OF RECKONING, EVIDENCED by the mountains of rubble, ash, and dead bodies disfiguring the continent. Whole cities had been wiped out, and flattened Guernica, Rotterdam, Caen, Dresden, and Warsaw became the architectural signatures of the age of total war. Over 90 percent of Warsaw’s dwellings were damaged beyond repair, and Minsk, Budapest, Kiev, and Kharkov suffered a similar fate, as did many German cities by the end of the war. Even so, Berlin occupied a special place in the geography of destruction. American war correspondent William Shirer described Berlin as “a great wilderness of debris, dotted with roofless, burnt-out buildings that look like mousetraps with the low sun shining through the spaces where windows had been.” Death, eerie silence, and a sense of finality dominated contemporary accounts of defeated Germany. One British soldier in Berlin was struck by the “silence over everything,” in which people “talk in low voices as if they are afraid to wake the dead below the debris.” Soviet war correspondents noted, often with satisfaction, that Berlin was “a chaos of huge craters and smoke-blackened stone, shattered concrete, twisted girders and broken glass.”3
Observers experienced the sheer incomprehensibility of destruction, not least in terms of the radically changed fortunes of Germany and Germans. Shirer recorded in his Berlin diary on November 3, 1945—almost six months after the cease-fire—about the impossibility of finding “words to convey truthfully and accurately the picture of a great capital destroyed almost beyond recognition,” of the total defeat of the once-brazen “master race” now “poking about in the ruins, broken, dazed, shivering, hungry human beings without will or purpose or direction, reduced like animals to foraging for food and seeking shelter in order to cling to life for another day.” New Yorker journalist Janet Flanner underlined how the Second World War differed from its predecessor—defeat “in the last war did not cost Germany a stone. This time the destroyer of others is herself destroyed.” Cornelia Stabler Gillam, a young Quaker from Philadelphia who came over to Europe to play piano concerts in US Army canteens, described the destruction of the cathedral city of Aachen in a June 1945 letter to her parents: “People crawling likes rats out of the ruined buildings where they live,” and “I was afraid several times that I would cry, and I knew that it would be misunderstood. I would not be weeping for the Germans but for all the world.”4
German writers registered shock and bewilderment too, especially those returning from exile. Klaus Mann recorded his confusion and despair as he revisited his beloved Munich, on this occasion as a reporter for the American military newspaper Stars and Stripes: “What used to be the fairest town in Germany” had been “transformed into a vast cemetery,” and “I could hardly find my way through the once familiar streets.” Theodor Plievier, who journeyed from Moscow to Germany in the spring of 1945, recounted the “strangely ghostlike” atmosphere of Dresden, with “wave after wave of rubble and masonry frozen into immobility.” In his essay “A Journey through the City of Ruins,” Arnold Zweig interpreted the ruins of Berlin as the “backkick of total war,” a gruesome quid pro quo: “it was here that it was unleashed: a hundred thousand throats yelled their assent in the Sport Palace—and so a hundred thousand houses here are reduced to rubble, including that very Sport Palace,” as “Berlin paid dearly for Hitler and Goebbels’ rhetorical sport.” For Zweig and others, the destruction of Berlin was fitting payback for the violence unleashed by the Third Reich’s war machine that rebounded onto Germany in the last two years of the war.5
Berlin inspired historical reflections on the fate of Europe in total disarray, drawing links to classical history to make sense of the destruction. Spender approached the ruins of the Reichstag and Chancellery “with the same sense of wonder, the same straining of the imagination, as one goes to the Colosseum at Rome.” Peering through his airplane window over Berlin in 1945, Harry Hopkins, longtime advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, likened Berlin to a “second Carthage.” The Polish émigré historian living in England Isaac Deutscher compared the bombed-out former capital of the Third Reich to the ruins of antiquity, writing in The Observer in 1946 that “Berlin evokes the impression of a miraculously preserved ruin of classical antiquity—like Pompeii or Ostia—on a gigantic scale.” This romance with ruins is something that had been envisioned during the Third Reich itself, as Albert Speer wistfully anticipated the noble beauty of his Berlin monumental architecture shimmering in a state of natural decay centuries later. By 1945 Speer’s infamous ruin theory of value had been fulfilled with savage realization, as the remnants of the Thousand-Year Reich had become the mute rubble of total defeat.6
Foreigners noted how German survivors responded to this destruction. One Quaker relief worker recorded that “I have seen a sort of numbed despair, that so many beautiful cities, that one has known once, are now no more—one can hardly yet realise the extent of irreparable loss.” This sense of despair did not go away quickly. Another English Quaker, describing an art exhibition in Berlin in May 1946, found a “staggering revelation of the state of chaos and depression of the German mind at present,” which “all added up to a tale of horror and downfall and nothingness.” While Londoners celebrated Germany’s unconditional surrender with “wild excitement in Trafalgar Square, half London seemed to be floodlit,” as one diarist put it, Germany was plunged in darkness and silence. German diarists used the terms “point zero” or “zero hour” (Stunde Null) to convey the utter collapse of their world. An entry from a Königsberger on V-E Day tallied up the effects of the war by saying that the “upshot of the dream of a world-dominating Greater Germany was Europe in ruins with a vastly enlarged sphere of influence for the Soviet Union.” The scale of ruination was perhaps best captured by one fourteen-year-old boy from Berlin who in May 1945 observed corpses “lying around in parks, at the roadside, often looted to such an extent that it was impossible to tell whether a body belonged to a shot soldier or a murdered civilian.” “Raped women,” he continued, “with their mouths wide open, their gold teeth torn out by robbers. Some half charred in the ruins of burnt-down houses. It wasn’t lilac, it wasn’t hyacinths that gave this spring its sweet scent.”7
Nowhere was this sense of physical and moral ruination more evident than in the accounts of the liberation of the concentration camps. In his 1948 memoir Crusade in Europe, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe Dwight D. Eisenhower recalled how the liberation of Ohrdruf, a subsidiary camp near Buchenwald, brought him “face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency,” adding that “I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.” So affected was Eisenhower that he dispatched an immediate communiqué to both Washington and London about his impressions, urging them to send “a random group of newspaper editors” and elected representatives from both countries to Germany to “leave no room for cynical doubt.” Twelve American congressmen and eighteen newspaper editors—along with eight members of the House of Commons—toured Buchenwald in April 1945 to see for themselves what one of the accompanying American reporters called an “organized crime against civilization.” One British Labour MP, Mavis Tate, elaborated on the point in a Spectator article: “I have returned from Germany” and witnessed “the deep streak of evil and sadism in the German race, such as one ought not to expect to find in a people who for generations have paid lip-service to Western culture and civilization.”8
British witnesses recounted the discovery of the Belsen “horror camp” as the grimmest expression of Nazi cruelty and suffering humanity. BBC war correspondent Richard Dimbleby reported that “I passed through the barrier and found myself in a nightmare. Dead bodies, some of them in decay, lay strewn about the road and along the rutted tracks.” On April 24, 1945, the German mayor of Celle and other mayors from the area were summoned as representatives of the German people to view the atrocities of Belsen, with a message in German read over the loudspeaker: “What you see here is such a disgrace to the German people that their name must be erased from the list of civilized nations.” One mayor covered his eyes and wept, while another became sick. Jewish rabbi Leslie Hardman of the British VIII Corps simply asked that British officers treat liberated inmates with patience, for they had been subjected “not only to a deliberate extermination of themselves as a people, but to a disintegration of their souls.”9
Belsen survivors recounted how “eerie silence marked the moment of our liberation. We were too weak, and had experienced too much, to feel joy.” One British soldier recorded that liberated prisoners “seemed beyond articulate speech, even supposing we had found a common language.” The way in which Belsen marked both an end and turning point of civilization itself was acidly conveyed by the opening sentence of Sergeant W. J. Barclay’s Belsen report: “Belsen. It is the 21st of April in the year of civilization 1945.” An accusatory sign at the entrance of the Bergen camp before it was burned down on May 21, 1945, was posted by the British authorities, ending with: “10,000 unburied dead were found here, another 13,000 have since died, all of them victims of the German New Order in Europe and an Example of Nazi Kultur.”10
The language of the end of days was commonplace, as were apocalyptic descriptions of Germany in total defeat and destruction. At the Yalta and Potsdam conferences a vanquished Germany—and its former capital—was quartered into zones and occupied. Germans had no rights or authority of their own, and were at the mercy of the Allies. While some observers then—and many historians since—have disputed this tabula rasa sentiment for obscuring many continuities with the past, Zero Hour parlance revealed a great deal about the perceived historical moment, one in which past and future seemed to dissolve into a permanent present. Other major historical upheavals from the past—like the French and Russian Revolutions—proudly proclaimed the messianic significance of their national political revolution as a major global rupture, literally rewriting the calendar of history in such a way that modern political time began in 1789 or 1917. While the Nazi Revolution of 1933 did not bring with it the same millennial sense of calendrical caesura, the self-description of a “thousand-year” Third Reich was widely circulated. Goebbels and other Nazi ideologues never tired of boasting that Hitler’s unpredicted assumption of power in 1933 served as the twentieth century’s French Revolution both in power and scope, more far-reaching than its hated Soviet forerunner.11
The term “zero hour” signified utter disaster and destruction, the obverse of the hopeful revolutionary proclamations of the past. It was a description of negation, the emptying out of historical time. The experience of living through dark times was nothing new to Central Europe—similar apocalyptic sentiments were recorded during the Black Death and the Thirty Years War, as well as at the beginning and end of the Great War. The harrowing Great Inflation of the early Weimar Republic was often characterized by the explosion of zeroes in everyday life, most dramatically with its ever-diminishing currency—at one point in 1924, 1 trillion Reichsmarks were equivalent to a single American dollar. The carnivalesque stories of the inflation years when people hurriedly trundled wheelbarrows of paper notes to the bank for deposit before they depreciated even further encapsulated the topsy-turvy quality of economic life in the early Weimar Republic. German Bulgarian Nobel laureate writer Elias Canetti chronicled how a whole world based on thrift, rational exchange, and above all psychological predictability—to say nothing of the sturdy presence of the past and optimism toward the future—had suddenly vanished for individual and nation alike “under the sign of Zero.” In 1945 the meaning of zero was radically different, as total defeat led to a shortage of food, shelter, political stability, and moral order not seen since the Thirty Years War. Unlike during the Weimar Republic, 1945 was not the mass production of zeroes and ever-diminishing material worth; rather, it signaled the fall of value and civilization itself, a kind of Ground Zero of European culture. Ruins and DPs now characterized the continent, as cigarettes, misery, and blaming others became the common currency of exchange in Central Europe.12
FOR ALL THE MEMORABLE ACCOUNTS OF DEVASTATED CENTRAL Europe by writers and other observers, a great deal needed to be done on the ground. Civilization was more than simply reference to a shaken set of values, it was a matter of urgent practical organization. Under these circumstances, civilization shifted from its traditional status as a lexicon of elites to a call to alms for the victims of war. Much of the daily administration of the displaced persons camps was carried out by foreign relief workers from abroad, mostly from Britain, France, Canada, and the United States. Millions of DPs, expellees, and POWs peopled the continent, huddled in makeshift relief camps dotted around the former war zones of Central and Southern Europe. Swedish novelist Stig Dagerman, in his 1946 German Autumn, portrayed refugees as both witnesses and emblems of the times: “Ragged, staring and unwelcome, they crowded in the dark, stinking station-bunkers or in the giant windowless bunkers that look like rectangular gasometers, looming like huge monuments to defeat in Germany.”13
By the end of the war, there were over 40 million displaced persons in Europe. In Germany alone, there were 8 million civilians who qualified as DPs in 1945, 10 percent of them Jewish. While wartime planners had done their best to anticipate the crisis, the scale of dislocation and population transfers was overwhelming. Already in 1944 Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson remarked before the US House of Representatives that “I believe that not since the Middle Ages has there been any such movement of population as this war has brought about.” Everywhere the breakdown of stable society, moral authority, and basic infrastructure was visible. The scope of emergency went beyond the pressing problems of repairing bombed-out buildings and roads, usable water supplies, sanitation systems, hospitals, and schools. Malaria and tuberculosis stalked the continent, and famine was rife, especially in Vienna and Budapest. No less challenging were the often violent and unbalanced survivors themselves. Their behavior was attributed to psychological trauma associated with wartime violence, the disintegration of family life, and the collapse of moral order. Postwar Europe was often described as a continent of women, but it was also a continent of children orphaned or separated from their families. In 1946 there were some 180,000 vagrant children living in Rome, Naples, and Milan. In the DP camps there was wide discussion of the troubling presence of so-called wolf children, who, in the words of British American writer Alice Bailey, “lack all moral sense and have no civilized values.”14
Humanitarianism was coordinated in new ways to aid the tens of millions of DPs. Many of the organizations were private and religious charities founded during the Second World War to carry out relief work in Europe and Asia. The Unitarian Service Committee was established in 1940, Catholic Relief Services in 1943, the Lutheran World Relief in 1945, and perhaps most famously, the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, or CARE, in 1945. The presence of foreign relief workers in Europe was hardly novel. The Red Cross was founded in 1864, after which national branches were set up in many countries to aid victims of natural and man-made disasters. They were joined by other services, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (est. 1914) and the American Friends Service Committee (est. 1917). After the Great War, the social reformer Eglantyne Jebb founded the British Save the Children Fund, and a number of other private agencies were created during the Second World War to help civilians under siege. The Jewish Relief and Rescue Committee was active in Budapest in 1944–1945, and a 1942 report by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee on “Aiding Jews Overseas” chronicled some of its relief efforts amid harrowing conditions. While the report grimly stated that even if “all in all, the record is one of destruction, of death, of despair,” the JDC managed to “bring help and hope to hundreds of thousands,” and was the single largest provider of aid in the American occupation zone in Germany.15
Relief workers bore witness to a destitute Europe. The growth of privately organized humanitarian outreach after 1945 was often interpreted—especially in relation to Christian groups—as part of a new mission to “re-Christianize” postwar Europe in the wake of war and political violence. Certainly, this was a key issue for some church authorities, as we will see in Chapter 3. But for most relief workers, the main task at hand was simply to assist those in need. Missionary Europe became the target of foreign care and consolation.
Catholic relief workers arrived in force in 1945. Vatican relief missions sent Catholic aid workers to all three western zones of Germany after the war in order to give spiritual and medical relief to the displaced. Catholic Relief Services was among the first to arrive in Italy after the war, after which they established relief operations in Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. While Catholic relief groups had tended to focus on helping Polish Catholics in the last two years of the war, and then German Catholics after the war, they soon expanded their charity to all those at risk. As the head of the Vatican Mission in Belsen, Abbé Regnault, made clear, Catholics would administer aid to all, with “no distinction between race or religion,” since we “are at the service of mankind.” Such Catholic outreach was in part to make good on international criticism that the Church had done little to help Jews in their time of need, and to signal that Rome would play a more active role in postwar European affairs.16
Protestant humanitarians were equally present. Among Lutherans there was deep concern that more than a fifth of all Lutherans worldwide were refugees after the Second World War, especially in Germany, and were in desperate need of material assistance. Scandinavians and Swiss brethren lent their support, and a Canadian Lutheran World Relief was formed in 1946. In the first three months of 1946 alone, Lutheran World Relief sent over 2,260 bales of clothes and bedding, plus 245 crates of shoes, to Germany, Finland, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, and Yugoslavia. Quakers were particularly active on the ground in 1945, building on their tradition of dispensing relief in war zones. They were not the biggest relief outfit—numbering around 1,200 volunteers in 1945—but they were highly experienced and efficient. The Society of Friends had been aiding victims of war since the Crimean War, and in the Second World War the Quakers’ Friends Ambulance Unit had engaged in Egypt, Greece, El Alamein, France, China, Burma, Syria, Ethiopia, and India. After 1945 their European presence was felt from Sicily and Greece to Yugoslavia and Austria, and of course in Germany. What distinguished the Quakers was their policy of providing aid to all those in need, including former enemies, which did not always endear them to the military authorities or their national publics back home.17
Foreign aid workers were some of the first narrators of Europe after the war. In notebooks and memoirs they gave voice to the plight of Europe in the aftermath of World War II, and their accounts of the brutality, unfamiliarity, and lack of moral direction of Europe are revealing sources of everyday life just after the capitulation. Many of them were seasoned relief workers, having cut their teeth during the First World War and later the Spanish Civil War. But even they were overwhelmed by Europe’s new circumstances. That their diaries carried titles like The Wild Place, By the Rivers of Babylon, and Europe Without Baedeker reflected a sense of bewilderment about how Europe now appeared alien and unfamiliar. Many felt the strain from the heavy demands of ministering assistance, and some admitted to not being kindly disposed toward the Germans. Red Cross worker Robert Collis could not help seeing the devastation of Osnabrück as just deserts for the German attack on Rotterdam in 1940, since “they started it.” A French relief worker, mourning the death of her brother in the war, recorded her rage toward Germans by saying, “I hate them ferociously!” and “No civilized people would ever have accepted the effects of such a dreadful dictatorship.” One English relief worker assigned to the German Wildflecken DP camp laconically admitted: “Since I’ve seen a poor creature’s number tattooed on his body I don’t feel so friendly.”18
This humanitarian sensibility suffused the photographs taken by Quaker and Catholic relief workers. They usually captured informal scenes of philanthropic service, camaraderie, and even friendship. The accent fell on moments of communion between donor and receiver, often invoking the traditional iconography of Christian charity. This can be seen in Figure 1, in which Monsignor Alfred Schneider, the Catholic Relief Services director for Germany, is pictured giving food to a homeless child in a German DP camp, or in Figure 2, depicting a nun embracing an elderly refugee in an unnamed camp. Here and elsewhere Catholics are portrayed as offering alms to the poor and downtrodden in classic missionary style. Quaker images are slightly different, in that they tended to be less-staged celebrations of comradeship with DPs, taken during meals, at play, and even at weddings. In part this had to do with the media and audience of communication. Catholic images of almsgiving were sometimes reproduced in church publicity outlets, whereas Quakers rarely intended to publish their photographs, and those that did appear were reprinted in published diaries only decades later.19
- "Rich and engaging."—New Yorker
- "Mohandas Gandhi quipped that 'Western civilization' sounded like something worth trying. Europeans daringly attempted to do that very thing after World War II, Paul Betts shows in his provocative new book. While reactionary zealots rally around civilization today, others wagered after war and decolonization not on abandoning a tarnished ideal, but instead on giving it new meaning. We still have to decide whether to be their heirs."—Samuel Moyn, Yale University
- "Ruin and Renewal is an erudite, rigorously researched, and elegantly written account of the post-war remaking of Europe. Paul Betts provides his reader with a breathtaking panorama of the world of the men and women who, pursuing varied visions for the creation of a new 'civilization,' embarked on bold reforms to rebuild the continent on the ruins of the Second World War. His book will fundamentally reshape our understanding of modern Europe—a masterpiece."—David Motadel, London School of Economics
- "Paul Betts uses the concept of 'civilisation' like a radiographer's dye to reveal some deeply unsettling pathologies beneath the skin of post-war Europe. Ruin and Renewal is an impressively wide-ranging, original synthesis of cultural and political history."—Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European studies, University of Oxford
- "Ruin and Renewal is a marvelously subtle and wide-ranging exploration of the ways in which Europe rebuilt itself materially and morally after the Second World War. Paul Betts boldly uses the much debated and controversial concept of civilization to show how Europeans, on both sides of the Cold War, redefined themselves and others. Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the world of today."—Margaret MacMillan, University of Oxford
- On Sale
- Nov 17, 2020
- Page Count
- 544 pages
- Basic Books