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The Destruction of Germany

Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940–1945(The Fire: Germany in the Bombing War, 1940–1945)

by Jörg Friedrich
Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 592 pp., $25.00

Brandstätten: Der Anblick des Bombenkriegs(Scenes of Fire: A View of the Bombing War)

by Jörg Friedrich
Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 240 pp., $25.00

1.

From the cockpit of an RAF Lancaster bomber, the approach to a major German city at night in 1943 must have been a bit like entering a brightly lit room stark naked—a moment of total vulnerability. Trapped in the blinding web of searchlights, tossed about by flak explosions, terrified of fighter planes attacking from above, freezing in temperatures well below zero, exhausted through lack of sleep and constant tension, limbs aching from having to sit in the same cramped position for many hours, ears tormented by the screaming engines of a plane fighting for its life, the pilot knew he might be blown to bits at any time. And that is indeed what happened to the more than 55,000 airmen in Bomber Command who lost their lives somewhere over Germany.

If they were lucky enough to make it through the flak, however, the bomber crew would have seen something of the inferno they helped to set off. Billows of smoke and flame would reach heights of six thousand meters. Essen, an industrial city in the Ruhr, was described by one bomber pilot as a huge cooking pot on the boil, glowing, even at a distance of more than two hundred kilometers, like a red sunset. Another pilot recalls: “This is what Hell must be like as we Christians imagine it. In that night I became a pacifist.”1

Now imagine what it must have been like to be stuck in a dark cellar in Hamburg or Bremen, gasping on carbon monoxide and other gases. Gradually the fires outside turn the cellar into an oven, so those who have not already been asphyxiated have to face the firestorms raging with the force of typhoons outside. Firestorms suck the oxygen out of the air, so you cannot breathe or, if you can, the heat will scorch your lungs, or you might die in melting asphalt or drown in a cooking river. By the end of the war, in the spring of 1945, up to 600,000 people had burned, or choked, or boiled to death in these man-made storms.

Then consider the aftermath, when concentration camp inmates were forced to dig out the charred remains of people in the air raid shelters, whose floors were slippery with finger-sized maggots. One of the rare German writers to describe such scenes, Hans Erich Nossack, wrote:

Rats and flies ruled the city. The rats, bold and fat, frolicked in the streets, but even more disgusting were the flies, huge and iridescent green, flies such as had never been seen before. They swarmed in great clusters on the roads, settled in heaps to copulate on ruined walls, and basked, weary and satiated, on the splinters of windowpanes. When they could no longer fly they crawled after us through the tiniest of cracks, and their buzzing and whirring was the first thing we heard on waking.2

Same events, different perspectives.

Were all these victims—the bomber pilot blown up in the sky, the civilian baked to death in a cellar, and the prisoner who had to gather corpses with his bare hands—equal in their suffering? Does death flatten all distinctions? In fact, the story gets more complicated. Wolf Biermann, the singer and poet, was six when the bombs rained on Hammerbrook, a Hamburg working-class district where he lived with his mother, Emma. To escape the flames Emma dragged her boy into the Elbkanal, and swam to safety with Wolf clinging to her back. He remembers three men burning “like Heil-Hitler torches,” and seeing a factory roof “fly through the sky like a comet.” But Biermann also knows that in that same year his father was murdered in Auschwitz. As he puts it in his song “The Ballad of Jan Gat”: “I was born in Germany under the yellow star [of David], so we accepted the English bombs as gifts from Heaven.”

Later in 1943, in an attempt to “Hamburgerize” Berlin, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, also known as “Bomber” or “Butcher” Harris, decided to unleash the full might of Bomber Command on the capital. My father, a Dutch university student who had refused to sign a loyalty oath to the German occupation authorities, had been deported from Holland and forced to work in a factory in east Berlin. The first wave of RAF bombers arrived over his head on a cold November night. A shallow ditch is all the foreign workers had to protect them. Some were killed during that first raid, when the factory received a direct hit. Nonetheless, the next morning my father and his friends were disappointed that the RAF did not fol-low up immediately with another huge raid to exploit the general disorder.
As it happens, it took almost two years of daily destruction—the British by night, the Americans by day, and the Soviets firing off their large guns called Stalin Organs—to flatten much of Berlin. “Hamburgerization” (the phrase was Harris’s) was a failure, for this largely nineteenth-century city of sturdy brick buildings and wide boulevards would not burn as easily as older cities with narrow medieval quarters whose wood-beamed houses caught fire instantly. And so the bombing went on and on, leaving my father and millions of others in a state of permanent exhaustion and exposure to the cold and rats.

Thomas Mann, exiled in southern California, declared that the Germans were reaping what they had sowed. This, by and large, has been the prevalent attitude in the Allied countries, both during and after World War II. After all, it was the Germans who started the destruction of Europe. German bombers had demolished much of Warsaw, Rotterdam, and Coventry before the RAF unleashed “strategic bombing” on German civilians. Strategic bombing was also known as “area bombing,” aiming to destroy whole cities rather than specific targets, or “morale bombing,” aiming to break the morale of the civilian population. Already in 1940, three years before Hamburg, Hitler was fantasizing about reducing London to ashes. He told Albert Speer:

Göring will start fires all over London, fires everywhere, with countless incendiary bombs of an entirely new type…. We can destroy London completely. What will their firemen be able to do once it’s really burning?3

That the Germans had it coming to them is still good enough reason for English soccer fans to taunt German supporters in football stadiums by stretching their arms en masse in imitation of the bombers that laid waste to their country. And until recently most Germans showed no sign of protest. In his now famous lecture in Zürich, later published in The Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald took German writers to task for ignoring the destruction of Germany as a subject. This literary silence echoed a more general silence. “The quasi-natural reflex,” Sebald writes, “engendered by feelings of shame and a wish to defy the victors, was to keep quiet and look the other way.” Sebald mentions how in 1946 Stig Dagerman, a Swedish reporter, passed by train through mile after mile of rubble and wilderness that was once a dense part of Hamburg. The train was packed, like all trains in Germany, “but no one looked out of the windows, and he was identified as a foreigner himself because he looked out.” “Later,” says Sebald,

our vague feelings of shared guilt prevented anyone, including the writers whose task it was to keep the nation’s collective memory alive, from being permitted to remind us of such humiliating images as the incident in the Altmarkt in Dresden, where 6,865 corpses were burned on pyres in February 1945 by an SS detachment which had gained its experience at Treblinka.

This unarticulated sense of guilt may have played a part, even though the guilty German conscience about the Holocaust only emerged slowly and partially about twenty years after the war. The reason German liberals, scholars as well as artists, have shied away from German victimhood is also political. The bombing of Dresden, for example, has long been a favorite topic of German revanchists and guilt-deniers on the extreme right. A common rhetorical trick in far-right Web sites and such publications as the National-Zeitung is to turn the language used about Nazi crimes against the Allies. Thus, there is talk of the Allied “Bombenholocaust,” and the annihilation of German civilians, “just because they were Germans.” The figure “six million” is bandied about, as though that were the number of German civilians killed by Allied bombs. “There was also a Holocaust against the Germans,” concludes the National-Zeitung. “Yet in contrast to the denial of Nazi crimes, the denial of this Holocaust against the Germans is not threatened with punishment.” This is not the kind of thing most Germans would wish to be associated with.

And if Dresden, which even Churchill (rather hypocritically) condemned in hindsight, was easily harnessed to a malign cause, this was all the more true of such horrors as the ethnic cleansing of Germans in Silesia and Sudetenland at the end of the war. And so the very idea of Germans as victims acquired, as Sebald puts it, “an aura of the forbidden,” but not so much, as he argues, because of guilty “voyeurism” as because of the rancid stink of nasty politics. Extremes, of course, provoke other extremes. To counter neo-Nazi demonstrations against the “Allied Holocaust,” the “Anti-fascist Action” group in Berlin gathered in front of the British embassy for a “Thank You England” party, while chanting: “New York, London, or Paris—all love Bomber Harris!”4

Perhaps the author and former student leader Peter Schneider was right to contest Sebald’s claim by stating that it “was too much to expect [of the postwar generation] that they should break the stubborn silence of the Nazi generation at the same time as they considered the fate of German civilians and refugees.”5 But Sebald was surely right to think that paying such attention was long overdue. It was time to take the subject of German suffering out of the hands of the National-Zeitung and its bitter sympathizers.

2.

The silence was broken with a bang two years ago with the publication of Der Brand (The Fire), by Jörg Friedrich. This exhaustive and harrowing account, city by city, month by month, of Germany’s destruction became a best seller in Germany and provoked an endless round of TV discussions, polemics in magazines and newspapers, radio debates, and books, taking one position or another. It was as if Germans, having been mute for so long, needed to talk and talk and talk.
Friedrich is anything but a revanchist or a Holocaust denier. Quite the opposite: he is a bearded member of Peter Schneider’s 1968 generation, who spent much of his journalistic career exposing crimes of the Third Reich and detecting signs of neo-Nazism in the Federal Republic of Germany. Perhaps he felt that his work on the Nazis was done, and it was now time to look at the other side. In any case, his study of Allied “morale bombing” is every bit as passionate and filled with righteous indignation as his earlier contributions to such works as Enzyklopädie des Holocaust (Encyclopedia of the Holocaust). As a kind of visual companion to Der Brand, Friedrich has also published Brandstätten (Sites of Fire), a book of photographs of ruined cities, burned corpses, and other images of what it was like to be at the receiving end of area bombing.

  1. 1

    So muss die Hölle aussehen,” Der Spiegel, January 6, 2003, p. 39.

  2. 2

    Quoted in W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (Modern Library, 2004), p. 35. An English translation by Joel Agee of Nossack’s The End will be published in December by the University of Chicago Press, with a foreword by David Rieff.

  3. 3

    Quoted in W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction, pp. 103–104.

  4. 4

    So muss die Hölle aussehen,” p. 42.

  5. 5

    From Ein Volk von Opfern? (A People of Victims?), edited by Lothar Kettenacker (Rowohlt, 2003), p. 163.

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