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.
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.
Friedrich has been accused by some British commentators, who may or may not have actually read Der Brand, of calling Churchill a war criminal and excusing German war crimes by indicting the Allies. In fact, he neither calls Churchill a war criminal nor excuses German crimes. He mentions, albeit in passing, the fact that the Germans were the first to firebomb great cities, namely Warsaw and Rotterdam. He also observes that Göring’s Luftwaffe killed 30,000 British civilians in 1941. And he makes sure the reader knows that “Germany’s ruin was the result of Hitler.” Of course, this leaves the responsibility of other Germans out of the picture. But that is not the subject at hand.
Friedrich does, however, draw a sharp distinction between bombing cities as a tactic to assist military operations on the ground and bombing as a strategic doctrine to win the war through terror and wholesale destruction. The Germans, he claims, always stuck to the former, while the Allies opted for the latter. Whether this distinction is quite as clear as he claims is open to doubt. The Luftwaffe surely aimed at working-class areas of London during the Blitz as a strategy of terror, and not just as a battlefield tactic. But the allies took this doctrine to its limit, culminating in the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Bombing civilians was not in itself a new phenomenon. Friedrich mentions the German Zeppelin raids on Britain in 1915. Five years later Winston Churchill, as air and war minister, decided to put down an uprising in Mesopotamia with bombs. In 1928 Air Marshall Hugh Trenchard, who had taken part in those raids against Arabs and Kurds, proposed that the best way to destroy the enemy in future wars was not to attack his military forces directly, but to destroy the factories, the water, fuel, and electricity supplies, and the transportation lines that kept those military forces going. This is what the RAF tried to do in the first half of 1941. But its Wellington bombers had little chance of hitting factories or shipyards. It was hard to spot any target except by day or on bright moonlit nights, and even then it was almost impossible to drop bombs with precision. The price of trying was also very costly. More than half the bomber crews lost their lives. Only one bomb in five landed within a five-mile radius of the target. As the Germans themselves found out after the Battle of Britain, indiscriminate bombing of city areas was an easier option.
Already in 1940, when Germany appeared to be invincible, Churchill believed that there was only one sure path to winning the war and that was “an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.”6 One reason men of Churchill’s generation thought of such desperate measures, apart from their desperate situation, was the traumatic legacy of World War I. The idea of another war of attrition with armies butchering one another for years was intolerable. Better to get it over with fast.
However, the RAF had the wherewithal to attempt this only three years later, by which time the strategy had been fully developed out of a sense of impotence and failure. The main thinker behind it was Air Marshall Charles Portal, who had already had experience of bombing unruly tribesmen in Aden, where he was posted in 1934. Harris, his successor as head of Bomber Command, and another veteran of the bombing in Mesopotamia, was the man who carried it out. What had changed since the idea was first introduced by Trenchard was that war had expanded to all industries, including the workforce itself. Civilians, so it was hoped, would turn against their leaders if they were bombed out of their homes and had no means of survival. Hit them hard enough and their morale would crack. Londoners had already demonstrated that the opposite was true by their show of defiance under German bombing, but Portal dismissed this by claiming that the Germans, unlike the plucky Cockneys, were prone to panic and hysteria.
In fact, of course, the Germans did not turn against their leaders at all. Instead, as my father observed in Berlin, they pulled together pretty much as the Londoners did. It is impossible to know for sure, but there is little evidence that morale bombing, at least in Germany, made the war any shorter. Lord Zuckerman, himself a proponent during the war of hitting transportation lines and thus a fierce critic of strategic bombing, argued in these pages that the war might even have ended sooner if his tactic had been adopted.7 If so, this was certainly not obvious in 1943, when Albert Speer told Hitler that six more bombings on the scale of Hamburg would bring Germany to its knees.
Zuckerman’s transportation bombing might sound more humane than Harris’s terror, but to judge from Friedrich’s account, raids on transportation centers and other forms of tactical bombing were not necessarily less costly in human lives. Railway stations were usually located in the center of cities. The bombing raids on transportation lines in France and Belgium, in preparation for D-Day, killed 12,000 French and Belgian citizens, double the number of Bomber Command’s victims in Germany in 1942. Yet all these attacks had a clear military purpose.
It is hard to see, however, what purpose was served by bombing German cities and towns long after much of Germany had already been reduced to rubble. As late as 1945 huge US and British air fleets still went on dropping bombs on destroyed cities, as though they wanted to kill every rat and fly that remained in the ruins. The RAF dropped more than half its bombs during the last nine months of the war. From July 1944 until the end of the war 13,500 civilians were killed every month. And this at a time when the Allied air forces refused to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz, because that was not a military priority. Why? Why did Würzburg, a town of baroque churches and medieval cloisters, a place without any military importance whatsoever, have to be obliterated in seventeen minutes on March 16, 1945, less than one month before the German surrender? And why, for that matter, did Freiburg, or Pforzheim, or Dresden have to go?
Lord Zuckerman believed that “Bomber” Harris liked destruction for its own sake. Possibly that was it. There were also those, in Washington and London, who believed that Germans had to be taught a lesson once and for all. General Frederick Anderson of the US Air Force was convinced that Germany’s wholesale destruction would be passed on from father to son, and then on to the grandchildren, which would suffice to stop Germans from ever going to war again. That, too, may have been part of it. No doubt there were feelings of revenge and sheer bloody-mindedness as well.
But a more mundane explanation might be a combination of bureaucratic infighting and inertia. Once a strategy is in motion, it becomes hard to stop or change. Zuckerman drew attention to the struggles before D-Day between Harris and USAF General Carl Spaatz on one side and, on the other, proponents of transportation bombing, such as Air Chief Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. He wrote:
Harris and Spaatz soon joined forces in trying to prevent what they regarded as the subjugation of their “strategic” aims to the “tactical” needs of Overlord. Spaatz had an additional worry. The proposed “transportation plan” threatened his independence, and would place him under the command of Leigh-Mallory.
Such petty quarrels have consequences. And Friedrich has surely done us all a service to chronicle just how severe they were.
Something can be true even if it is believed by the wrong people. The fact that Friedrich’s book was hailed in some very unpleasant quarters, such as the already mentioned far-right National-Zeitung, is not proof that he is wrong. Nor is the fact that Martin Walser, the controversial novelist who believes that the Germans have repented enough, endorsed Der Brand by comparing it to Homer’s description of the Trojan War. In both cases, Walser says, the narrative is above distinctions between killers and victims. This kind of statement should be treated with care. There is still a difference between a state bent on conquering the world—and exterminating a given people on ideological grounds—and a state fighting to stop that. And although most German citizens may have been innocent of atrocities, there is a difference between concentration camp victims and a people that followed a leader bent on mass murder.
Again, Friedrich cannot be accused of nostalgia for the Third Reich or excusing its crimes. But he has done little to distance himself from the wrong supporters either. First of all, he chose the right-wing, mass-market tabloid Bild-Zeitung to serialize parts of Der Brand. It is as though he deliberately aimed his message at the crudest readership—not neo-Nazi, to be sure, but relatively ill-informed, mostly illiberal, and prone to sensationalism. More serious is Friedrich’s odd terminology, which comes uncomfortably close to the rhetorical tricks of the National-Zeitung. Cellars are described as Krematorien, an RAF bomber group as an Einsatzgruppe, and the destruction of libraries as Bücherverbrennung, or book burning. It is impossible to believe that these words were chosen innocently.
The question is why a former leftist Holocaust researcher and neo-Nazi hunter would do this. There are, of course, examples of people switching from one form of radicalism to another. One of the most odious books written on the alleged amnesia about German suffering is by Klaus Rainer Röhl, an ex-Communist who turned to the far right.8 Röhl blames the Americans, Jewish “emigrants,” and German ’68ers for brainwashing the German people into feeling guilty about the Jewish Holocaust, while denying the destruction of Germans in death marches, terror bombing, and “death camps.” Here speaks the fury—sometimes bordering on German self-hatred—of a disillusioned radical, swapping a leftist utopia for the sour resentment of the self-pitying right.
Friedrich, however, appears to have fallen prey to a different kind of rage. The last chapter of Der Brand and his book of photographs provide an indication. Der Brand ends with a long lament for the destruction of German books kept in libraries and archives. The lament is justified, but its placement at the end of a 592-page book is curious, as though the loss of books, in the end, is even worse than the loss of people—which, from a particular long-term perspective, may actually be true; but that does not make it morally attractive. The choice and especially the editing of the pictures in Brandstätten leave a similar impression. There are horrifying pictures of corpses being scooped up in buckets, and other images of frightful human suffering. (The fact that these corpses are being handled by concentration camp inmates is mentioned without further comment.) But the real calamity, as it is presented in Friedrich’s book, is the destruction of beautiful old cities, of ancient churches, rococo palaces, baroque town halls, and medieval streets. The first thirty-eight pages of the book are given to photographs of Germany, as it were, before Bomber Harris.
It is right to feel sad about the loss of all this historic beauty. For Friedrich this is something akin to losing the German soul. “Those who lose their lives,” he writes, “leave the places they created and which created them. The ruined place is the emptiness of the survivors….” The Germans, he believes, have been disinherited and lost their “central historical perspective.” The last photographs of the book contrast the beauty of old German streets with the ugliness of what came after.
Again perspectives count. Friedrich’s anger about feeling disinherited is not just directed at the Anglo-American morale bombers, but also at the postwar Germans who refused to recognize the damage. Out of the catastrophic destruction came a zealous need to construct a new, modern postwar Germany, stripped of history, which had been so badly stained by Hitler’s legacy. Hans Magnus Enzensberger once observed that one cannot understand “the mysterious energy of the Germans” if one refuses “to realize that they have made a virtue of their deficiencies. Insensibility was the condition of their success.”
It is this insensibility that angers Friedrich, this lack of feeling for the “needlessly sacrificed old cities,” the collective turning away from German history and culture. Perhaps he puts too high a premium on material rather than human damage. Friedrich might have mentioned that by far the bigger blow to German Kultur was the murder and expulsion of many of the best and most intelligent people of an entire generation. There is no calculating the loss to Germany of the cultivated German-Jewish bourgeoisie. Wrapped inside Friedrich’s highly conservative lament, however, is a leftist rage against Americanization and West German capitalism. This is where the old ’68er meets the chronicler of German victimhood. His aim seems to be not only to wrest the history of German suffering from the clutch of the far right but to rescue the glories of German history from the twelve years of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. And this, despite the pitfalls that Friedrich has not always been able to dodge, seems a perfectly respectable thing to do.
October 21, 2004
“So muss die Hölle aussehen,” Der Spiegel, January 6, 2003, p. 39. ↩
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. ↩
Quoted in W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction, pp. 103–104. ↩
“So muss die Hölle aussehen,” p. 42. ↩
From Ein Volk von Opfern? (A People of Victims?), edited by Lothar Kettenacker (Rowohlt, 2003), p. 163. ↩
Quoted in Richard B. Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (Penguin, 1999). ↩
Verbotene Trauer: Ende der deutschen Tabus (Forbidden Mourning: The End of a German Taboo) (Munich: Universitas, 2002). ↩