Quotulatiousness

December 8, 2017

QotD: Why mid-20th century Americans ate what they did – 7

Filed under: Economics, Health, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Entertaining was mandatory [in the 1950s]. Because people didn’t go to restaurants so much, they spent time having people over, or eating at someone else’s house. If someone had you over, you had to have them over. This meant people had to have “company dinners” they could make, or at least a stock of canapés they could throw together for a cocktail party, even if they weren’t very good at it. Cue the weird focus on prettying everything up, more than occasionally to the detriment of the food itself: if you can’t make it good, you can at least make it pretty, to show people you made an effort.

Megan McArdle, “Friday Food Post: The Economics Behind Grandma’s Tuna Casseroles”, Bloomberg View, 2015-10-30.

December 7, 2017

QotD: Why mid-20th century Americans ate what they did – 6

Filed under: Economics, Health, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Look at the sources of our immigrants. Immigration is still the major way that countries get new foods (if you don’t believe me, go out for Mexican food in any European country and report back). With the notable exception of the Italians, in the 19th century, most immigrants were from places with short growing seasons and bland cuisines, heavy on the cream and carbohydrates. After we restricted immigration in the 1920s, that’s what we were left with until immigrants started coming again in the 1960s. Of course, Louisiana had good French food, California and Texas had a Mexican influence, but by and large what we ate in 1960 was about what you’d expect from a German/English/Irish/Eastern European culinary heritage, adapted for modern convenience foods. And people liked it for the same reason I like jello salad: It’s what they were used to.

Megan McArdle, “Friday Food Post: The Economics Behind Grandma’s Tuna Casseroles”, Bloomberg View, 2015-10-30.

December 6, 2017

QotD: Why mid-20th century Americans ate what they did – 5

Filed under: Economics, Health, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There were a lot of bad cooks around. These days, people who don’t like to cook, or aren’t good at it, mostly don’t. They can serve a rich variety of prepared foods, and enjoy takeout and restaurants. Why would you labor over something you hate, when someone else will sell you something better for only slightly more than it would cost you to make something bad?

In 1950, the answer was “because we’re not made of money.” A restaurant meal was a special treat, not a nightly event, and prepared foods were not so widely available, in part because women tended not to work, but also because food processing technology was so advanced. So women had to cook whether they liked it or not. Many of them didn’t like it, so they looked for ways to reduce the labor involved. And it’s far from obvious that what they did with those shortcuts was worse than what they would have done without them. Think of the kind of casserole a bad cook might have made without canned soup and frozen vegetables. She’d probably have boiled the vegetables, because that’s the easiest way to prepare them, and boiled them to death, because she wasn’t too fussy about timing. (Out of season, those vegetables would have been limited to a few hearty root vegetables.) If there was a sauce, it probably would have been horrible. Let’s not even start on what she might have done with the meat. Canned soup and frozen vegetables start sounding pretty good.

That was the baseline most people were working off. They were not comparing what they ate to what they might have gotten at a good restaurant; they were comparing it to what they would have gotten without the shortcuts, because, to reiterate, most of them rarely ate at a good restaurant.

Modern food writing has an enormous selection bias. The median cookbook reader is a much better cook, and much more interested in food, than the median audience of recipes from decades past. The bad cooks, the indifferent cooks, the folks with the cast iron palates and Teflon stomachs, are all off doing something else. And since good cooks tend to raise good cooks, the median food writer waxing lyrical about Grandma’s homemade beef stew doesn’t realize just how many bad cooks were around. Or that recipes needed to be written for them, because however limited their talents or interest, they still had to put a meal on the table every night. A lot of terribly mediocre recipes are floating around from the era, and that’s exactly what most of the terribly mediocre cooks were looking for.

Megan McArdle, “Friday Food Post: The Economics Behind Grandma’s Tuna Casseroles”, Bloomberg View, 2015-10-30.

December 5, 2017

QotD: Why mid-20th century Americans ate what they did – 4

Filed under: Economics, Health, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The foods of today’s lower middle class are the foods of yesterday’s tycoons. Before the 1890s, gelatin was a food that only rich people could regularly have. It had to be laboriously made from irish moss, or calf’s foot jelly (a disgusting process), or primitive gelatin products that were hard to use. The invention of modern powdered gelatin made these things not merely easy, but also cheap. Around 1900, people were suddenly given the tools to make luxury foods. As with modern Americans sticking a flat panel television in every room, they went a bit wild. As they did again when refrigerators made frozen delights possible. As they did with jarred mayonnaise, canned pineapple, and every other luxury item that moved down-market.

Of course, they still didn’t have a trained hired cook at home, so the versions that made their way into average homes were not as good as the versions that had been served at J.P. Morgan’s table in 1890. But it was still exciting to be able to have a tomato aspic for lunch, in the same way modern foodies would be excited if they found a way to pull together Nobu’s menu in a few minutes, for a few cents a serving.

Over time, the ubiquity of these foods made them déclassé. Just as rich people stopped installing wall-to-wall carpeting when it became a standard option in tract homes, they stopped eating so many jello molds and mayonnaise salads when they became the mainstay of every church potluck and school cafeteria. That’s why eating those items now has a strong class connotation.

Megan McArdle, “Friday Food Post: The Economics Behind Grandma’s Tuna Casseroles”, Bloomberg View, 2015-10-30.

December 4, 2017

QotD: Why mid-20th century Americans ate what they did – 3

Filed under: Economics, Health, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

People were poorer. Household incomes grew enormously, and as they did, food budgets shrank relative to the rest of our consumption. People in the 1960s also liked steak and chicken breasts better than frankfurters and canned meats. But most of them couldn’t afford to indulge their desires so often.

The same people who chuckle at the things done with cocktail franks and canned tuna will happily eat something like the tripe dishes common in many ethnic cuisines. Yet tripe has absolutely nothing to recommend it as a food product, except that it is practically free; almost anything you cooked with tripe would be just as good, if not better, without the tripe in it. If you understand why folks ate Trippa alla Romana, you should not be confused about the tuna casserole or the creamed chipped beef on toast.

Megan McArdle, “Friday Food Post: The Economics Behind Grandma’s Tuna Casseroles”, Bloomberg View, 2015-10-30.

December 3, 2017

QotD: Why mid-20th century Americans ate what they did – 2

Filed under: Economics, Health, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

A lot of the ingredients we take for granted were expensive and hard to get. Off-season, fresh produce was elusive: The much-maligned iceberg lettuce was easy to ship, and kept for a long time, making it one of the few things you could reliably get year round. Spices were more expensive, especially relative to household incomes. You have a refrigerator full of good-looking fresh ingredients, and a cabinet overflowing with spices, not because you’re a better person with a more refined palate; you have those things because you live in 2015, when they are cheaply and ubiquitously available. Your average housewife in 1950 did not have the food budget to have 40 spices in her cabinets, or fresh green beans in the crisper drawer all winter.

Megan McArdle, “Friday Food Post: The Economics Behind Grandma’s Tuna Casseroles”, Bloomberg View, 2015-10-30.

December 2, 2017

QotD: Why mid-20th century Americans ate what they did – 1

Filed under: Economics, Health, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Most people are not that adventurous; they like what’s familiar. American adults ate what they did in the 1950s because of what their parents had served them in the 1920s: bland, and heavy on preserved foods like canned pineapple and mayonnaise.

Megan McArdle, “Friday Food Post: The Economics Behind Grandma’s Tuna Casseroles”, Bloomberg View, 2015-10-30.

November 10, 2017

Model Railroad – 1950 Educational Documentary – WDTVLIVE42

Filed under: Railways — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

wdtvlive42 – Archive Footage
Published on 20 Oct 2017

An introduction to model railroads, featuring the O-Scale layout of the Westchester Model Railroad Club.

August 27, 2017

Why The Rich Like High Taxes

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 16 Aug 2017

When politicians raise taxes on the rich, what do the rich do to protect their $$$? This Prof. shows how high taxes actually made America less equal.

The Myth of Equality in the 1950s (video): Another myth of the 1950s is that there was economic equality. Prof. Brian Domitrovic explains why this is a myth. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLl9wOivHdc
How Cronyism is Hurting the Economy (video): Prof. Jason Brennan explains why cronyism, like the tax cuts for certain businesses in the 1950s, is bad for the economy and argues why limiting the government’s power would help solve the problem. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSgUENZ9O94
The Good Ol’ Days: When Tax Rates Were 90 Percent (article): Andrew Syrios compares the tax rates in the 1950s to those of the 1980s and today https://mises.org/library/good-ol-days-when-tax-rates-were-90-percent

TRANSCRIPT:
For a full transcript please visit: http://www.learnliberty.org/videos/why-the-rich-like-high-taxes/

July 3, 2017

Explaining the food of yesteryear

Filed under: History, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In a post from a few years back, Megan McArdle explained why the North American diet of the mid-20th century was so dreadful (at least to a modern-day foodie):

Here are my prime candidates for why I think they ate like that:

  1. Most people are not that adventurous; they like what’s familiar. American adults ate what they did in the 1950s because of what their parents had served them in the 1920s: bland, and heavy on preserved foods like canned pineapple and mayonnaise.
  2. A lot of the ingredients we take for granted were expensive and hard to get. Off-season, fresh produce was elusive: The much-maligned iceberg lettuce was easy to ship, and kept for a long time, making it one of the few things you could reliably get year round. Spices were more expensive, especially relative to household incomes. You have a refrigerator full of good-looking fresh ingredients, and a cabinet overflowing with spices, not because you’re a better person with a more refined palate; you have those things because you live in 2015, when they are cheaply and ubiquitously available. Your average housewife in 1950 did not have the food budget to have 40 spices in her cabinets, or fresh green beans in the crisper drawer all winter.
  3. People were poorer. Household incomes grew enormously, and as they did, food budgets shrank relative to the rest of our consumption. People in the 1960s also liked steak and chicken breasts better than frankfurters and canned meats. But most of them couldn’t afford to indulge their desires so often.
  4. The same people who chuckle at the things done with cocktail franks and canned tuna will happily eat something like the tripe dishes common in many ethnic cuisines. Yet tripe has absolutely nothing to recommend it as a food product, except that it is practically free; almost anything you cooked with tripe would be just as good, if not better, without the tripe in it. If you understand why folks ate Trippa alla Romana, you should not be confused about the tuna casserole or the creamed chipped beef on toast.

  5. The foods of today’s lower middle class are the foods of yesterday’s tycoons. Before the 1890s, gelatin was a food that only rich people could regularly have. It had to be laboriously made from irish moss, or calf’s foot jelly (a disgusting process), or primitive gelatin products that were hard to use. The invention of modern powdered gelatin made these things not merely easy, but also cheap. Around 1900, people were suddenly given the tools to make luxury foods. As with modern Americans sticking a flat panel television in every room, they went a bit wild. As they did again when refrigerators made frozen delights possible. As they did with jarred mayonnaise, canned pineapple, and every other luxury item that moved down-market. Of course, they still didn’t have a trained hired cook at home, so the versions that made their way into average homes were not as good as the versions that had been served at J. P. Morgan’s table in 1890. But it was still exciting to be able to have a tomato aspic for lunch, in the same way modern foodies would be excited if they found a way to pull together Nobu’s menu in a few minutes, for a few cents a serving.
  6. Over time, the ubiquity of these foods made them déclassé. Just as rich people stopped installing wall-to-wall carpeting when it became a standard option in tract homes, they stopped eating so many jello molds and mayonnaise salads when they became the mainstay of every church potluck and school cafeteria. That’s why eating those items now has a strong class connotation.

  7. There were a lot of bad cooks around. These days, people who don’t like to cook, or aren’t good at it, mostly don’t. They can serve a rich variety of prepared foods, and enjoy takeout and restaurants. Why would you labor over something you hate, when someone else will sell you something better for only slightly more than it would cost you to make something bad? […]
  8. Look at the sources of our immigrants. Immigration is still the major way that countries get new foods (if you don’t believe me, go out for Mexican food in any European country and report back). With the notable exception of the Italians, in the 19th century, most immigrants were from places with short growing seasons and bland cuisines, heavy on the cream and carbohydrates. After we restricted immigration in the 1920s, that’s what we were left with until immigrants started coming again in the 1960s. Of course, Louisiana had good French food, California and Texas had a Mexican influence, but by and large what we ate in 1960 was about what you’d expect from a German/English/Irish/Eastern European culinary heritage, adapted for modern convenience foods. And people liked it for the same reason I like jello salad: It’s what they were used to.
  9. Entertaining was mandatory. Because people didn’t go to restaurants so much, they spent time having people over, or eating at someone else’s house. If someone had you over, you had to have them over. This meant people had to have “company dinners” they could make, or at least a stock of canapés they could throw together for a cocktail party, even if they weren’t very good at it. Cue the weird focus on prettying everything up, more than occasionally to the detriment of the food itself: if you can’t make it good, you can at least make it pretty, to show people you made an effort.

May 16, 2017

Terry Teachout remembers Dragnet

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

I vaguely remember watching Dragnet on TV, but the version I watched is apparently just a pale imitation of the original series:

If you’re fifty or older, you won’t need to be told the source of these half-recalled phrases: “The story you are about to see is true.” “This is the city.” “I carry a badge.” “My name’s Friday.” If you’re much younger than that, though, I doubt that you’ll remember Dragnet with any clarity. In the early days of network television, Dragnet was the most successful of all cops-and-robbers TV shows, as well as the most influential. It’s still influential — every episode of Law and Order bears its indelible stamp — but TV has since moved in flashier directions, and I doubt that the narrative conventions brought into being by Jack Webb, the director, producer, and star of Dragnet, will remain conventional for much longer.

For baby-boom TV viewers, Dragnet is both iconic and ironic. The version of the show that ran on NBC from 1967 to 1970, in which Webb was partnered by Harry Morgan, was an exercise in unintended self-parody, full of hippy-dippy druggies and the earnest cops who locked them up and threw away the key. A few of the episodes remain effective in their quaint way, but most are embarrassingly stiff. Part of the problem was that Sergeant Joe Friday, Webb’s character, was the squarest of squares, and it was already chic to smirk at such straight-arrow types by the time I reached adolescence. My father watched Dragnet religiously, though, so I did, too, little knowing that what I was seeing each week was a recycled, watered-down simulacrum of the real thing.

The real Dragnet was the black-and-white version that aired from 1951 to 1959. That series, in which Webb was partnered by Ben Alexander, was pulled out of syndication long ago and has never been legitimately reissued on DVD, nor is any “official” version, so far as I know, currently in the works. Fortunately, a few dozen episodes were inadvertently allowed to go out of copyright, and it’s easy to track down copies of them. […]

Like the later color version, the Dragnet of the Fifties was a no-nonsense half-hour police-procedural drama that sought to show how ordinary cops catch ordinary crooks. The scripts, most of which were written by James E. Moser, combined straightforwardly linear plotting (“It was Wednesday, October 6. It was sultry in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of homicide”) with clipped dialogue spoken in a near-monotone, all accompanied by the taut, dissonant music of Walter Schumann. Then and later, most of the shots were screen-filling talking-head closeups, a plain-Jane style of cinematography that to this day is identified with Jack Webb.

The difference was that in the Fifties, Joe Friday and Frank Smith, his chubby, mildly eccentric partner, stalked their prey in a monochromatically drab Los Angeles that seemed to consist only of shabby storefronts and bleak-looking rooms in dollar-a-night hotels. Nobody was pretty in Dragnet, and almost nobody was happy. The atmosphere was that of film noir minus the kinks — the same stark visual grammar, only cleansed of the sour tang of corruption in high places. But even without the Chandleresque pessimism that gave film noir its seedy savor, Dragnet was still rough stuff, more uncompromising than anything that had hitherto been seen on TV. In 1954 Time called the series “a sort of peephole into a grim new world. The bums, priests, con men, whining housewives, burglars, waitresses, children and bewildered ordinary citizens who people Dragnet seem as sorrowfully genuine as old pistols in a hockshop window.”

October 28, 2016

Farewell to adolescence … we probably won’t miss it

Filed under: History, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Aeon, Paula Fass discusses an odd social invention of the 20th century that appears to have gone well past its best before date:

Adolescence as an idea and as an experience grew out of the more general elevation of childhood as an ideal throughout the Western world. By the closing decades of the 19th century, nations defined the quality of their cultures by the treatment of their children. As Julia Lathrop, the first director of the United States Children’s Bureau, the first and only agency exclusively devoted to the wellbeing of children, observed in its second annual report, children’s welfare ‘tests the public spirit and democracy of a community’.

Progressive societies cared for their children by emphasising play and schooling; parents were expected to shelter and protect their children’s innocence by keeping them from paid work and the wrong kinds of knowledge; while health, protection and education became the governing principles of child life. These institutional developments were accompanied by a new children’s literature that elevated children’s fantasy and dwelled on its special qualities. The stories of Beatrix Potter, L Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll celebrated the wonderland of childhood through pastoral imagining and lands of oz.

The United States went further. In addition to the conventional scope of childhood from birth through to age 12 – a period when children’s dependency was widely taken for granted – Americans moved the goalposts of childhood as a democratic ideal by extending protections to cover the teen years. The reasons for this embrace of ‘adolescence’ are numerous. As the US economy grew, it relied on a complex immigrant population whose young people were potentially problematic as workers and citizens. To protect them from degrading work, and society from the problems that they could create by idling on the streets, the sheltering umbrella of adolescence became a means to extend their socialisation as children into later years. The concept of adolescence also stimulated Americans to create institutions that could guide adolescents during this later period of childhood; and, as they did so, adolescence became a potent category.

With the concept of adolescence, American parents, especially those in the middle class, could predict the staging of their children’s maturation. But adolescence soon became a vision of normal development that was applicable to all youth – its bridging character (connecting childhood and adulthood) giving young Americans a structured way to prepare for mating and work. In the 21st century, the bridge is sagging at both ends as the innocence of childhood has become more difficult to protect, and adulthood is long delayed. While adolescence once helped frame many matters regarding the teen years, it is no longer an adequate way to understand what is happening to the youth population. And it no longer offers a roadmap for how they can be expected to mature.

August 29, 2016

Debunking “the 1950s as some sort of golden age of progressivism”

Filed under: History, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

James O’Brien selects a few imaginative historical myths for debunking:

Here are a few facts about U.S. life 60 years ago, in 1956:

  • The top tax rate was largely irrelevant. The average household income in 1956 was about $4,800. Only 8 percent of families earned more than $10,000 per year. The 91 percent top tax rate (and that really was the top tax rate – a holdover from World War II) kicked in at $400,000 for married couples, or the equivalent of about $3.2 million today). While few individuals made that much money in 1956, people who did earn large sums of money could deduct everything from interest on auto loans to sales taxes, and could – and did – structure things so that their income was funneled through tax shelters at much lower rates.
  • There was a lot less money overall. Adjusted for inflation, that $4,800 average household income would be about $42,000 today. That is roughly 20 percent less than current average household income of about $53,000. Even in 1956, when a Harvard education cost $1000 per year, $400 per month hardly afforded a riotous existence for a family of four. One of the most striking things about 1956 was how little people at the top of their professions earned. Yogi Berra – the highest paid player in Major League Baseball that year – received $58,000. That would be a little over $500,000 today, essentially minimum wage by MLB standards.
  • Tax revenues as a percentage of GDP were about the same as they are today. Since 1945, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP have fluctuated within a fairly narrow range of 15 to 20 percent. The state of the economy, not tax rates, has determined how much the government takes in. Despite the high marginal rates of the 1950s, the tax intake as a percentage of GDP was just 16.5 percent in 1956. It was 18 percent in 2015, so we are actually taking in more, rather than less money, although we are spending it in many new and different areas.
  • Government spent less on everything but defense. The U.S. Federal budget for 1956 might best be described as “Spartan”, not in the sense of being frugal (although it was that) but in the sense of being primarily devoted to preparations for war. In the Cold War climate, defense spending soaked up 60 percent ($47 billion) of the total $76 billion Federal budget – about three times the current percentage — and spending on “social programs” was essentially nonexistent. There was no Department of Education, and total Federal spending on education was just $1.5 billion. Healthcare expenditures were just $1.0 billion; there was no Medicare, (which now represents 15 percent of the total Federal budget), no Medicaid, and certainly no Obamacare. The Interstate Highway Program – so beloved by liberals – was conceived as a defense spending measure and was designed to be self-funding through diesel and gasoline taxes.
  • Opportunities were anything but equal. Racial discrimination was rampant and gender bias was everywhere. Many fields were essentially closed to women and to people of color, while quota systems deterred talented Jewish students from pursuing careers in fields such as engineering and law. We can argue all we want about white privilege in 2016 but in 1956 it was endemic, and bred not just economic but social and cultural inequality.

When we look at the United States in 1956 we see a country with high (but largely irrelevant) marginal tax rates, no social programs to speak of, and a massive defense budget. With Europe still recovering from World War II, the economy is strong, and companies are willing to spend and hire. The country’s focus, however, is not on the welfare of its people, but on its survival in a grim ideological and geopolitical struggle with a ruthless and determined opponent. Those who portray the 1950s as some sort of golden age of progressivism are writing historical fiction, not history.

The 1950s for the United States (and for Canada) were, to borrow a notion from John Scalzi, run in “easy mode” — in game terms, the lowest difficulty setting. There was no peer-level competition in manufacturing or even in services and this provided profit levels that allowed both corporations and workers to enjoy unrealistic long-term conditions that finally came to an end in the gas shocks of the 1970s, after the devastated economies of the defeated Axis powers finally were able to compete again. Twenty-five years of minimal competition left the major corporations totally unable to cope with even minimal competitive pressures from overseas … but willing to use whatever political levers were available to try to quash those foreign upstarts.

But as the courtiers of King Canute were finally obliged to accept, even the King can’t order the tide to recede when it’s convenient.

May 23, 2016

“Kiww the Wabbit” smuggled opera into middle American childhood

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Some actual opera stars admit that their very first exposure to opera music was through Elmer Fudd’s pursuit of Bugs Bunny in “What’s Opera, Doc?”:

Like many other singers and crew staging the 17-hour, four-opera Wagner extravaganza at the Kennedy Center, Ms. Bishop got her first taste of opera from a cartoon rabbit and his speech-impaired nemesis.

“I could sing you the entire cartoon before I knew what opera really was,” says Ms. Bishop, who performs the part of Fricka, wife of Wotan, king of the gods.

The rabbit in question is Bugs Bunny, who, in the 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” finds himself hunted by Elmer Fudd, in the part of the hero, Siegfried.

“Kiww the wabbit! Kiww the wabbit!” Elmer, in an ill-fitting magic helmet, sings to the urgent strains of Ride of the Valkyries as he jabs his spear into a rabbit hole.

Bugs flees, dons a breast plate and blond braids, climbs atop an obese white horse, and for two minutes and a ballet interlude, fools the smitten Elmer into thinking he is Brünnhilde.

“Oh, Bwünnhilde, you’re so wovewy,” Elmer croons.

“Yes, I know it,” Bugs answers coquettishly. “I can’t help it.”

“Those of us who didn’t freak at the sight of a rabbit in a winged helmet sliding off of the back of a fat horse — we went into opera,” says Ms. Bishop, 49, who grew up in Greenville, S.C.

It’s just one of those cases of art imitating art imitating art. Generations of people in the opera world grew up spending Saturday mornings eating breakfast cereal and watching Bugs Bunny on TV sets tuned with rabbit ears. For many, “What’s Opera, Doc?” was their first glimpse of opera and Wagner. Even if it didn’t exactly inspire their careers, it planted an ear worm that made the music recognizable once they heard the real thing.

May 23, 2012

Review of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

Filed under: Europe, Germany, History, Military, Russia, WW2 — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:41

Roger Moorhouse reviews the new book by Keith Lowe for History Today:

It examines Europe in the years immediately after the end of the Second World War, when the guns stopped firing. Yet, as Lowe clearly demonstrates, the absence of war is not the same as an outbreak of peace.

Savage Continent is a grim catalogue of humanity at its lowest ebb. Necessarily pointillist, given its broad scope, it ranges across much of the European continent, portraying a world where civil society and the rule of law were yet to be re-established and where revenge, antisemitism, ethnic cleansing and heightened political sensibilities gave rise to a renewed wave of inter-communal and political violence.

According to Lowe’s account, those immediate postwar years had a thoroughly unedifying air. From the Yugoslav partisans cutting off the noses of their erstwhile opponents, to antisemitic pogroms in Poland, to the massacres of Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia, he shows a dystopian continent in which the all-pervasive dehumanisation of the war proved difficult to reverse, provoking a hangover of violence that would last, in some places, into the 1950s.

Alongside the now rather well-documented episodes of brutality from the period, such as the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe, or the expulsion of the German populations from the same region, Lowe does well to uncover some lesser-known examples of man’s postwar inhumanity to his fellow man. The story of the Lithuanian ‘Forest Brothers’, for instance, and their brave, futile resistance to the imposition of Soviet rule, is one that deserves to be much wider known and is outlined well. Similarly the ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians in postwar Poland is rightly placed alongside better-known events, such as the Kielce pogrom and the Vertreibung (expulsion) of the Germans.

I just started reading Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt, and he covers much of the same period of history as Lowe in the first part of his book. I’m moderately well-read on World War II, but the amount of violence and human misery in Europe for more than a decade after the war was “over” is indeed an under-covered and misunderstood aspect of that turbulent period.

Western European countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, and even western Germany) recovered faster in all senses because the Nazi occupiers did much less damage to the social structures in those countries. It’s rather eye-opening to find how few Nazi officials were needed to oversee the local governments in those countries: 800 in Norway, and only 1,500 in France (plus 6,000 military and civil police auxiliaries). Local governments continued to operate pretty much as they had before the war, under the control of a tiny group of German overseers. Economic demands meant the local industries were harnessed to the Nazi war effort (but largely kept under the control of their original owners).

Central and eastern European countries suffered far more disruption as the Nazi racial “logic” did not allow local governments the same relative lack of interference the western local governments got. Local industry was more frequently nationalized and run by German managers directly, not working through the original owners, and local labour was more readily drafted to work in Germany. And unlike in the west, the experiences of newly “liberated” countries in the east often started with a fresh purge of local governments, business owners, and middle class professionals.

What we’d now call “ethnic cleansing” was a frequent second act after the Soviet armies moved in: ethnic Germans were expelled, ethnic Slavs were moved into the cleared areas. Jews, Gypsies, and other groups that suffered terribly under the Nazis did not necessarily see much improvement under the Soviets. Former resistance fighters were hunted down and eliminated (except for those belonging to identified Communist movements … and not even that was guaranteed protection).

Under the circumstances, it may well be nothing short of a secular miracle that Europe recovered economically and socially so soon after the war and the post-war convulsions.

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