The starving, shattered Europe that Hitler left behind is a topic so vast, so terrible and so chaotic that it is hard to see how it could be confined to a single volume. The British historian Keith Lowe has not attempted to do so. In Savage Continent he uses just some of the fragments of history to assemble a vivid, if occasionally unevenly written, portrait of a broken, vagrant place oscillating between ancient barbarism and a post-apocalyptic future. With the Marshall Plan as yet undreamed, and Marshal Stalin on the prowl, no safe haven lay in sight.

Such a vision goes too far. More of old Europe endured than this volume—and its title—let on, but to worry about that, or the fact that Lowe has little to say about economics, the arts, or the broader culture of the time is to miss the point of what he is trying to do. This is primarily a book about the horrors of the first years of a questionable peace. That’s a...


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