sat 18/05/2024

1945: The Savage Peace, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

1945: The Savage Peace, BBC Two

1945: The Savage Peace, BBC Two

The story of the cruel aftermath of war told in bruising documentary

The barbed wire in Europe remained long after May 1945

“Enjoy the war, for the peace will be savage,” was apparently a macabre joke circulating in the German military towards the end of World War Two. Peter Molloy’s searing documentary, 1945: The Savage Peace, showed us just how prescient it would prove, charting the cruelties that would follow the end of conflict. Man’s inhumanity to man would continue long after the war itself had formally ended.

It showed itself in many different forms of vengeance and reprisal. Soviet troops advancing on Berlin raped German women of all ages on an almost unimaginable scale, not something that’s mentioned in histories of the Red Army, nor a memory to be associated with the grandeur and pathos of Moscow’s Victory Day commemorations. “It was over quickly, thank God,” we heard Christa Ronke, a Berlin girl who kept a diary through 1945, remembering how she was raped. Except it wasn’t, of course: these were violations repeated almost ad infinitum, gang rapes carried on around the clock, with the full knowledge of the army commanders. In a ghastly overlapping of imagery, the troops who had defended their own occupied Motherland at such a heavy price wreaked their unsated lust for revenge on the female population of their erstwhile occupiers.

It can only be salutary to be reminded of that dark side of peace

Elsewhere the reprisals were of different sorts, often directed at people for no other reason than that they were German by nationality. Czechoslovakia was a case in point, and Savage Peace opened with scenes of execution in Prague, taken by a photographer, the father of one of Molloy’s interviewees, who had been specially brought along to record it: no compunction here about repeating the crimes of their previous oppressors, and no sense of restoring order – “just reprisal” was a concept allowed there until as late as the end of October 1945. The script described the process as anarchic, vengeful and bloody, and you suspect the element of anarchy was as strong as anything else: children as young as six were sent to tribunals, and hanged, even though they could barely reach the gallows.

The wider story was the expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from their homes, a process described by George Orwell as an “enormous crime”. The rhetoric of the Potsdam conference about post-war “orderly and humane population transfers” could hardly have been further from reality, with human hostility only part of a wider chaos compounded both by the breakdown of infrastructure and an almost total lack of medical care. “I had to end my childhood very early,” was the laconic verdict of one woman, a child refugee who ended up living wild in the forests of Lithuania. If anything, the remarkable thing seemed that any of those whose memories we heard here had managed to create anything like a normal life afterwards. The details were so telling, like how at gatherings of those who had been expelled from East Prussia, the memories of their homeland – of storks and elks – were so particular.

The ironies of history were as dark as they come. The same train cars that had brought the victims of Nazism to the concentration camps were used to move ethnic Germans back to what was left of their homeland, journeys lasting weeks that saw many dying along the way. Zgoda, previously a satellite camp of Auschwitz, saw a Jewish commander who'd fought with the partisans lording it over new inmates, forcing them to sing the anthems of the Third Reich.

As we mark the end of war in 1945, it can only be salutary to be reminded of that dark side of peace, of the fact that the moral compass of the victors so often proved skewed. Savage Peace was a film of bruising archive material, and the very painful memories of the dozen or so men and women – women, predominantly – whose testimonies we heard. Michael Pennington’s narration, lapidary, restrained, but speaking volumes, was exactly right for this story of the largest ethnic cleansing in history: "an atrocity hidden in plain sight".

The troops who had defended their own occupied Motherland wreaked their unsated lust for revenge on the female population of their erstwhile occupiers


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Many years ago, I sat watching an episode of the 'World at War' with my father (an RAF doctor during the war). I remarked that the rough handling of German POWs at the boot end of their allied captors seemed a bit underhand to my (12 year old) eyes. He turned to me and said something along the lines that 'Well, considering the horrors the Nazis meeted out to their captives, it's hardly surprising.' Good though the documentary was, it lacked context and while the atrocities it documented were truly awful both in substance and scale, Pennington's narrative completely skirted around the enormity of Nazi war crimes and the natural tendency of the traumatized to seek savage revenge in return. Jewish ex-resistance fighters would certainly not have been any less immune to such failings in the human condition yet the film almost seemed to imply that the (Jewish) commandant of that Polish camp should have known better. Maybe, but then he'd just survived the liquidation of most of Europe's Jewry.

Point taken but I don't think there was any need for context in this particular case given how well known are the horrors inflicted by the Nazis. Well done to the BBC and the filmmakers for shining a light on this very difficult subject.

".. the film almost seemed to imply that the (Jewish) commandant of that Polish camp should have known better.." Everyone _should_ "know better" than to torture young children. The horrors committed by the Nazis and their supporters are well known - the fact that similar horrors were committed indiscriminately against Germans in "revenge" is little-known. This film was overdue.

Mr David M I think u don't really know what u saying using the wards Polish camp!!! There was no any Polish camp at all. To use this is You're vulnerable species under law for 3 years in prison so please stop using Polish camp!!!

I watched this documentary out of an enduring interest in the reconstruction of modern Europe post 1945, and also because I have met women who suffered similar fates, and their descendants, living in the UK. Maybe they were watching, too. It is in their interests that I am posting now. I would want them (and anybody else who's interested) to know that this is now a hugely well researched, and growing, field, facilitated by the opening of many important historical archives in Russia and former Eastern bloc countries. My personal knowledge of the field is scant, but in half an hour of internet searches I managed to unearth information about these crimes - because that is what they were, however 'unsurprising' certain members of the British armed forces might have thought, that were completely overlooked by the documentary's makers. Apart from that, I found the film deeply upsetting, as I imagine anybody with a personal connection to the atrocities might have done. I think the footage and some of the photographic images should have been cut. Not normally given to strong reactions to such matters I have lodged a complaint to Ofcom about this. It is a good thing we are still allowed to do that in this country.

I agree with David M. Very few of us are saints and, human nature being what it is, it's not at all surprising that the peoples of eastern Europe, who had suffered such savagery at the hands of the Nazis, should have been in the mood for revenge. After all, the same ethnic Germans - oppressors now turned into victims - had been happy enough when the boot was on the other foot, the Reich was going to last a thousand years, and they thought they would never have to face the consequences of the Nazis' crimes. Agreed, all brutality is wrong, but let's not forget how it all began.

It is not disputed that the Nazis committed vile crimes during their period of rule, however that does not detract from the monstruosity of these acts of bloody revenge. What is particularly disturbing is that the Czechs, who had been relatively well treated by Nazi rule, were among the most brutal and vicious in their violence against ethnic Germans.

Ever heard of Lidice? Yes the czechs were treated slightly better than poles and russians but only because they were meant to be germanised, fact the czech nation was meant to be completly destroyed...

Molloy's documentary is seriously late into the station but no less welcome for it's appearance. It amply illustrates a pertinent marker for the human condition, that it is easier to accept the sanctioned lines of history than to deal with the mess and entrails, the moral contra-indicators of conflict and it's aftermath. I admit to having been as blind as the bunting which blew in the post war breeze as anyone else. The end of the war simply was VE day and not much else. Watching it late at night in bed on a laptop, consigned by my wife to the couch due to a period of restless recovery from an injury, the emotional disturbance became mine alone- a bright tableau of horror. What becomes clear is that the descent into hell is a progressive failure of conciousness, both individually and collectively. Moral vigilance requires that any barbarity we may endure must not be replicated against others. Grayson Perry and his teddy went to Germany to apologise more generally for the inhumanities Britain and Germany wrought on each other. His actions seemingly facile but all the more poignant for it- a true artist. At the end of this documentary I said a little prayer to my friend Stephie Aris, a Viennese octogenerian who I once worked for and now 15 years dead. She Married a British officer in the Coutts banking family and was roundly hated by all his relations for one thing- she had a German accent, despite the fact of her family having fled the German annexation of Austria. Molloy's documentary didn't just illuminate the shade under the great tree of history, it gave me some real 'domestic' context, a setting for the stories of my old friend, a very British story of intolerance.

Please can anyone tell me what the music was at 44:40?

Hello Alex, That music you heard at 44:40 is from Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring".

How about the music at 49:33?

Everything that could be said, already said better, by the poet:

"Those to whom evil is done/
Do evil in return"

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