The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945, by Jörg Friedrich, Columbia University Press, 532 pp, £49, ISBN: 978-0231133807
Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden 1945, (eds) Paul Addison and Jeremy A Crang, Pimlico, 260 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978184413928x
On Christmas Day in the year 800, in a ceremony conducted by the Pope, the German king Charlemagne was crowned emperor. The last western Roman emperor had been deposed 300 years earlier. A thousand years later, in an effort to establish a French empire, Napoleon Bonaparte polished off the remains of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire.
Empire is, perhaps, a misleading term for what had long been a contracted, weak and divided entity, possessing little power and posing no threat to the established political order. German society and culture, however, generally impressed observers. In 1748 the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote: “Germany is undoubtedly a very fine country full of industrious honest people, and were it united it would be the greatest power that ever was in the world.”
Hume wasn’t alone in this view. Beautiful towns, a well-tended countryside and a generally high level of comfort had prompted many similar comments. The French, well aware of the political danger a united Germany would pose to them, had a longstanding policy of keeping their eastern neighbour weak. Indeed, this was a central French objective at the time of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years War, a hugely destructive conflict fought largely on German soil. England, which had given up on the idea of a continental empire, had a natural interest in a disunited Europe. These long established historical patterns were to have a significant influence on European history in the twentieth century, and indeed their influence is far from spent.
In the eighteenth century most German states were not taken very seriously by the major powers. Picturesque spires and a multiplicity of tiny principalities made them little more than interesting places to visit. For the Germans, however, there was always the danger that the great powers might once again require their towns and farms as battlefields. When that last happened, in the seventeenth century, it is estimated that twenty per cent of the civilian population perished.
The universal values of the eighteenth century Enlightenment had a natural appeal to this vulnerable people. Many Germans welcomed the arrival of Napoleon as the herald of a new rational and just international settlement, transcending the dangers inherent in the post-Westphalian order of the ancien regimes. This attitude, however, did not survive actual experience of the French. The Germans found that the new world was not that different from the old. The emperor, who expected Germans to accept French superiority as a self-evident truth, imposed taxes, put his relations in charge of kingdoms and marched 200,000 Prussians into Russia – most of whom did not return. The disappointment gave rise to militant anti-French feeling in the German lands, particularly among the Prussians, whose culture had previously exhibited strong Francophile tendencies.
The widespread hostility to France affected even the scholarly and humane, such as Baron von Stein, who called for a crusade against “the obscene, shameless and dissolute French race” to be completed with a burning of Paris. Passions had been excited by a series of French excesses, including the execution of a Nuremburg bookseller for having published the pamphlet Germany in her deep humiliation. German artists responded in music (Beethoven), painting (Caspar David Friedrich) and theatre (Heinrich von Kleist). The romantic counter-enlightenment, which celebrated cultural particularity, became a new force in German culture, which was to lead to the unification about which Hume had speculated.
For Germany the revolt of romanticism was the beginning of a journey. It began in a protest suffused in humanist and spiritual values, with political and military dimensions growing in importance. Nazism was by no means the pre-ordained or obvious outcome. Indeed that philosophy was in fundamental conflict with the values of classic German romanticism. Nevertheless, the journey was to end in 1945 with the collapse of the Nazi Reich, 4.5 million Germans dead and the destruction of virtually every German city, in what Jörg Friedrich has described as the bombing of Germany back to the seventeenth century. The reasons this disaster befell the German people have to do with the peculiarities of German and British history and, primarily, with the bizarre phenomenon of Nazism.
Throughout Friedrich’s calm, detailed, and passionate account of the destruction of his country from the air many raids are described in detail, such as the terror bombing of Wuppertal in May 1943:
The Mosquitos in the pathfinder force of No. 109 Squadron were the first from the Rhein rendezvous point to reach Wuppertal from the North. At six minute intervals, they marked the district of Barmen with red flare bombs. At about 3,300 feet above the target, these marker bombs then broke apart, each one dropping sixty flares that fell in clusters. On the ground, the flares glowed red for ten minutes. This wave was then followed by a subsequent wave of green marker bombs. Then came fifty-five fireraisers, dropping incendiaries into the dense wreath of color. The sky became very bright. The red and green markers were set with precision on either side of the residential quarter, the main force having been given instruction to aim for green. The planes rumbled as they approached, stretching out across 150 miles of sky. Over six miles across and almost two miles deep, the six hundred planes discharged their loads, about ten per minute. The first attack wave of forty four planes dropped only incendiary sticks, which made a sound like a waterfall as they wailed their way down to the city. Far more than 300,000 bombs fell that night. It was an unprecedented density. From above, it looked like the bombs were rolling down a slope. At 1:20 a.m, Barmen was sealed off by a fire stretching from the theatre to the Adler Bridge. The typical half-timbered buildings, the narrow and twisted alleyways, the valley basin which acted as a chimney and a treacherous wind all served to fan the flames. With the smoke filling everything,, the crashing of the “cookie” or “blockbuster” bombs that tore away entire buildings, the din of the collapsing roofs and facades, and the racing speed of the flames, it was impossible to tell what could still be saved. Building residents fled to the coolness of their cellars, while the flames continued to spread for three or four hours. Mile after mile, building after building was ablaze, some only in the attics, some all the way down to the ground floor. At 2:30 a.m, the fires had not yet all merged into one. It can take a while for individual blazes to fuse into the carpet that might eventually become a firestorm , drawing everything that moves into an oven from which there is no escape.
While Friedrich does not make overt judgments, the message which emerges again and again from his deeply-felt chronicling of Germany’s destruction is that the bombing was terrible, that it was a tragedy, that it should not have happened, that it was wrong. When The Fire was first published in 2002 – under its original title of Der Brand – it caused a considerable stir in Germany. It was not that the bombing had been forgotten, but that Friedrich’s passionate style was new. His account of the German experience, described by one Spanish reviewer as “an encyclopedia of pain”, is almost poetic at times.
Previously, the expression of strong feeling on this subject had been the preserve of the hard right and, as might be expected, was reductive and menacing. Friedrich’s achievement has been to reappropriate a crucial German narrative in the name of the humane and civilised culture that re-emerged in post- war Germany. Friedrich was and is an anti-Nazi unwilling to compromise with the surviving elite of a system marked by both barbaric theories and practice. For many years he was involved in exposing such people. Obviously for him there is no question of an overall moral equivalence between the Nazis and the western Allies. Otherwise he would have spent years harrying the survivors of Bomber Command. Indeed his western orientation is such that in the year following the publication of Der Brand, and in opposition to the more sensible feelings of his fellow Germans, he supported the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Notwithstanding this benign attitude towards the west, he has declined to structure the feelings which shape his extraordinary book around the sort of unending apology for Nazism which would diminish the pain and trauma of the bombed civilians and relieve the bombers of any possible moral responsibility. His book is part of a wider movement in Germany, the economic power at the centre of the new, voluntarily united, Europe. It seems the Germans are now ready to move on from the legacy of Nazi inhumanity and focus on the future.
Writing recently in Der Spiegel magazine (May 14th, 2007), the former editor in chief of Die Zeit, Roger de Weck, noted that Germany was now in its fourth post-war phase. The first phase encompassed the years of the Wirtschaftswunder and the rebuilding of the German economy. The second, from 1968 till the end of the 1970s, saw the period, as he describes it, of “future utopia”. This ended, he says, with the mass suicides of the leadership of the RAF (Red Army Faction). The third phase, from the end of the 1970s, was the period of coming to terms with Germany’s Nazi past (the so-called Vergangenheitsbewaltigung). Now, according to de Weck, this period has also come to an end, with more and more discussion about the discussion and little new to be said. Germany has now, he argues, come to terms with its past and entered into a new phase where it has started to talk about its future rather than its past. De Weck notes the “stupendous vote of confidence” shown by Israel recently in the new Germany, when it requested the German naval and military staff to assist in the post-war phase of the most recent Lebanon war.
The appearance of Der Brand also gave rise to debate in Britain. The British response to the bombing has always been mixed. Principled Christian attitudes were in evidence from very early in the war. In Firestorm, Nicola Lambourne writes: “While the blitz on London still raged, Richard Howard, the provost of Coventry in November 1940, spoke out from among the ruins of his cathedral for forgiveness not revenge …” In 1956 Coventry and Dresden were twinned, leading to numerous contacts between the cities. On February 13th, 2000 the Bishop of Coventry, in a sermon delivered in Dresden’s restored Kreuzkirche said: “Hitler’s war had unleashed a whirlwind into which we were all swept. The dynamic of war swept away our inhibitions. When the British and American air forces destroyed Dresden, we had suppressed our moral principles.” The secular world has also addressed the question of German suffering. Steve Crawshaw, London director of Human Rights Watch, put the matter plainly in 2004 when he argued that “the self-evident and well-documented German crimes are not a reason why the suffering of German civilians must remain off-limit for all time”.
Friedrich describes what happened to his country as a torture. His book is full of the horrors experienced on the ground. Typical is this account by a soldier home on leave:
… what happened next was frightful, it was an inferno, which I’d never before experienced even as a veteran soldier on the Russian Front … All around me I could hear injured people screaming who were trapped under demolished and burning houses.” A woman who made it to a shelter described her experience: “… I got a space in a bunker because I was pregnant. People kept coming in who were screaming and had been shot at; some could still walk and some were on stretchers. Next to me a woman collapsed whose back was full of bomb fragments. We sat in the dark for an eternity.” Then there was the scene following the departure of the bombers. “I can still see the open truck and the bodies piled up on it. Even more corpses were collected from the pavement and put on top of the pile. At St Mary’s square I found a male corpse without a head amongst the rubble. The whole city was covered with the smell of burning. I was stunned and ran back to the flak position alone, because I didn’t want to talk with anyone.”
If many in Britain have had difficulties with the bombing campaign, others have not. After Dresden, as Churchill was tip-toeing away from the strategic bombing campaign, Commander Arthur Harris commented that the Dresden bombing – which was already beginning to attract negative comment – was “one among many other highly effective operations”. Many regard Harris as a national hero and see this as nothing more than a statement of fact. The exculpatory arguments vary. Some claim that in war there are no rules. Some say the Germans started the war and are therefore responsible for everything that followed. Others say that German cities were legitimate targets and others again, in effect, say that there is no need to worry about civilian suffering in a country that perpetrated the genocide of the Jews. Attitudes of deep hostility towards Germans remain in areas of both elite and popular British culture. When interviewed by British journalists following the publication of Der Brand Friedrich encountered a repeated question: “No interviewer,” he says, “ … failed to ask if it was not Hitler who started both the war and the bombing of cities.”
Firestorm is a collection of essays mostly by British historians on Dresden and the phenomenon of strategic bombing during World War Two. Several varieties of response are found in its pages. Donald Bloxham, for example, writes: “The bombing of Dresden on 13-14 February 1945 was a war crime. This is a statement of informed historical judgment, one based on knowledge of the bombing and on the laws of war.” To the lay person this argument appears to have merit. After all, the fourth Hague Convention of 1907 forbade the “bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended”. While agreements of this sort are widely approved, there is also a feeling that agreed rules will always be ignored in a major confrontation. As such agreements are, as yet, unenforceable they do not impart any feeling of genuine security. In 1977 an even clearer protocol forbidding attacks “affecting the civilian population” was agreed. But that was during the Cold War, when US strategists – and no doubt Soviet strategists – were calculating first strike casualties in the multiple millions and when the object was to achieve a positive “kill ratio”.
Hew Strachan’s measured contribution to Firestorm is instructive. It is impressive partly because Strachan is not engaged in a tiresome “but didn’t the Germans?” style of pseudo-history, but with British military practice and tradition as a means of understanding the campaign of strategic bombing. Strachan, who is Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford University, reminds his readers that during the Great War Britain’s naval blockade of Germany caused an estimated 750,000 deaths. He sees the tactic as militarily ineffective: “The blockade had only a limited impact on Germany’s output of munitions … Its principal achievement was to restrict Germany’s food supply … however, wartime Germany gave its soldiers and munitions workers priority when distributing food … Those who came lowest down the food chain were the old, the young, the deranged, the physically unfit. These, the true non-combatants, were the principal victims of the economic war.”
Strachan fully acknowledges the reality of his country’s colonial past and its relationship to British military practice in twentieth century wars: “Colonial conquest,” he says “had accustomed Britain to waging wars, often of exceptional ferocity, and normally unfettered by any understanding of the laws of war, against entire peoples.” He points out that colonial wars were usually fought with inferior numbers but superior technology and gives the example of Kitchener, who brought troops across from Egypt to defeat a Mahdist army twice its size at Omdurman in 1898. In an afternoon 11,000 were slaughtered as against 48 British dead. The “force multiplier” in this case was the machine gun. As Hilaire Belloc wrote:
Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun and they have not.
Following the victory Kitchener ordered the Mahdi’s tomb to be destroyed and his remains desecrated. While the radical press in Britain was incensed, as they were by the incarceration of Boer civilians a few years later, there was also in the country a broad acceptance of these activities. One Egyptian reviewer of Friedrich’s book has declared that Churchill’s remains should be exhumed and desecrated in punishment. Perhaps he was mindful of the Omdurman slaughter, at which Churchill was present, or perhaps his suggestion was in part influenced by the memory of Britain’s invasion of Egypt in 1956 which, as it happens, Churchill privately regarded as folly.
Friedrich also refers to the barbarism of European colonial history. Discussing the slave workers on whom the German war economy depended and who were frequently the victims of area bombing he writes: “The slaves were demoralized enough. The Germans kept them in a state of humiliation that was uncommon in the power relations among the European peoples. Hitler’s regime treated the European victories as colonial conquests, especially in the east. This was propagated broadly and sympathized with broadly. In the colonial age, the master races held sway. A master race requires a slave race, and the Germans set up this antiquated model right in the middle of Europe.” It is perhaps possible to argue a moral equivalence between the treatment of certain indigenous peoples in Africa at the hands of Europeans and, for example, the behaviour of the Reichskommisariat Ukraine. However, the formal and allegedly scientific designation by the Nazis of an entire people as sub-human was not only particularly obnoxious but also bore implications of an ominous character. It was, after all, this ignorant categorisation of peoples on spurious biological grounds that facilitated the genocide of the Jews. Friedrich’s book would perhaps have benefited from some consideration of this question.
In relation to military excesses the facts are fairly clear: in certain circumstances countries will use any and every weapon available. After Dunkirk, which Churchill described as “the greatest military defeat ever experienced in our long history”, the British believed themselves in great danger. The US evaluation was that the British were finished. There was talk of the fleet going to sea to avoid capture when Britain fell into German hands. Pragmatic elements in the cabinet argued in favour of making settlement approaches to the Germans. Churchill pointed out that if they did so the British would find that they had lost national independence. Such an outcome would probably have meant something close to a Vichy-style Britain. Churchill stood his ground and made his magnificent speech of defiance.
Yet even that speech did seem to predict German occupation and British retreat. Churchill, who planned to treat the landing beaches with mustard gas, was quite willing to contemplate the use of bacteriological weapons against the German population. By winter 1943 a four-pound bomb filled with anthrax spores had been designed by the British and built by the Americans. It was said that “half a dozen Lancasters could apparently carry enough, if spread evenly, to kill anyone found within a square mile and to render the area uninhabitable thereafter”. In March 1944 Churchill ordered half a million anthrax bombs from the United States and said: “We should regard it as a first installment.” However, with a land invasion planned, the danger of contaminating the invasion area ruled out the use of anthrax. Later, when Hitler produced the V2 rocket, Churchill contemplated mass gas attacks in retaliation. In the event there were insufficient V2s to cause critical damage. Harris dismissed them as “those silly rockets”.
The Nazis did not follow up on the defeat of British land forces at Dunkirk with their capture. While this is a question that has been extensively debated, there is a consensus that it was puzzling failure and that such a capture would have offered Hitler the best opportunity of defeating the British. A second piece of luck (albeit assisted), and which does not in any way lesson the bravery of the British and Polish airmen who took on the Luftwaffe over the following year, also assisted survival. Just at the point when it seemed the RAF was about to collapse, Hitler stopped attacking it and switched his attentions to London and its civilian population, thus allowing the air force the crucial breathing space that enabled Britain to survive and stay in the war.
Once Britain had survived the crisis of 1940 the question arose as to how the war should be executed. Dunkirk had illustrated the old weakness of British land forces against continental armies while the navy, though useful, could not be the crucial element in defeating a continental power. As a former first lord of the admiralty, Churchill was well aware of the limited value of naval power when engaged in a continental war. That left air power. The traditional strategic role of the navy would, in the confrontation with Germany, be performed by the air fleet. This was not only Britain’s sole option, it was also one which fitted well with her traditional military thinking and indeed had been in development since the 1920s.
This was not only in response to the obvious military potential of the aeroplane but also partly to the loss of naval hegemony in 1918 following Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on freedom of the seas, later elaborated in the Washington naval treaties. Winston Churchill, it seems, was one of the first in Britain to understand the potential for strategic bombing. The Germans, for their part, had planned to firebomb London in 1915. As Minister of Munitions in 1918 Churchill planned a 1,000-bomber attack on Berlin. This would have been carried out had the German front not collapsed in that year. Friedrich quotes Churchill, writing in 1925: “The campaign of 1919 was never fought but its ideas go moving along.” The use of air power made it possible that “death and terror could be carried far behind the lines of the actual armies, to women, children, the aged, the sick, who in earlier struggles would perforce have been left untouched”.
Churchill understood the reality of US dominance which emerged with the end of the First World War. He knew that Britain was no longer a first rate power, yet he embodied the spirit of the world he was born into, a world where the elite gave their energies and emotional loyalty to the interests of an empire that controlled 25 per cent of the earth’s surface and dominated its vast oceans. Churchill bent his formidable intelligence and energy to ensuring an orderly retreat from this pre-eminent position, at as slow a pace as possible, while searching for new roles for what once had been the world’s only superpower. He was lucky, of course, but his understanding helped and in recognition his country now regards him as “the greatest ever Briton”. The unfortunate Chamberlain, on the other hand, is seen as a byword for spineless and craven surrender.
Yet Chamberlain’s way of looking at the world was logical. For centuries Britain had managed to prevent a major power emerging in Europe. Now, in its reduced state, it could no longer expect to do so. France, the European power long feared by the English, was not the threat but the formidable new German state, which since Bismarck’s time had built up startling growth and productivity in support of its passion to be a world power. In 1939, as the second act of its military assertion was about to take place, it had assembled an even more formidable force than in 1914. Isolated, Britain could not defeat this colossus. Did it not make sense to deal?
Churchill’s understanding was similar in its essentials to Chamberlain’s but not in its conclusion. He believed that Britain could prevail with the help of the US, which he correctly calculated would not tolerate the emergence of Germany as a major world power. He sent the Americans military designs, patents and other proofs of loyalty as evidence that Britain accepted her vassal status. This wise strategy encouraged the US to form the view that its interests would best be served by an intact Britain. And through luck and grit the warrior strategist was able to hang on until the Americans were ready to go to war against Hitler. It is for having called it right that the British now lionise the old imperialist.
That type of political intelligence cannot be assumed and indeed Churchill’s successor, Anthony Eden was, as Churchill suspected, not quite up to the job. He invaded Egypt in 1956 without US permission, leading to an ignominious climbdown with the real state of Britain’s weight in international power relations being unnecessarily exposed. Lessons were learned by some. Harold Wilson was not much of an imperialist and the canny Yorkshireman kept Britain out of Vietnam. Margaret Thatcher, though full of rhetoric, was also cautious in her own way, effectively confirming American indifference before she sent her navy to the Falklands. With the war her popularity in Britain soared by over 25 per cent, evidence perhaps that, while the empire might be gone, imperial impulses lived on. Tony Blair on the other hand, despite his pleasant manners and obvious intelligence, has seriously underperformed in this area. Without demonstrating any real grounding in his country’s history, he seems to have believed that nothing could withstand his moral passion and self-belief. Blair initially felt he could lead his people deeper into the European Union, underestimating the enormous cultural and historical forces which would have to be overcome in such a project. As a result he foundered, then switched tack to a US alliance, not in the cause of a crucial national interest as Churchill had done but in pursuit of an impractical moral vision. The result has been a deep and unnecessary British humiliation whose consequences for British politics and culture remain to be seen.
Paul Addison, who is joint editor of Firestorm, displays a tone of irritation bordering on hostility towards Jörg Friedrich’s account of German suffering. In this he echoes a common form of British populism, in which the twentieth century is seen primarily as having been the ground of a massive struggle between good and evil. Britain is invariably seen as representing good, whereas Germany is at the very heart of the century’s evil. The fact that there are major moral issues involved in twentieth century history serves to lend this populism an aura of legitimacy. Those who criticise Britain or speak sympathetically of German suffering are regarded as being in conflict with the fundamental morality of our times.
In his desire to defend Britain against any criticism, Addison drifts close to this unilluminating populism. Referring to the claim of moral equivalence between the Allies and the Nazis advanced by the far right in Germany since 1945, he comments: “More recently claims of moral equivalence between the actions of the Nazis and the Allies appear to have entered the mainstream of German discourse with the publication of Jörg Friedrich’s book Der Brand.” The thinking, it seems, is that any attempt to call into question British actions in Germany and highlight their humanitarian consequences necessarily dilutes the crimes of Nazism, for which every German must be arraigned. In his retrospect to the collection Addison refers to two historians who do not feature as contributors. It would seem that his actual contributors – four of whom refer to Der Brand – do not provide him with suitable material with which to criticise Friedrich. For this he is obliged to look outside the pages of Firestorm.
Frederick Taylor’s Dresden: Tuesday 13th February 1945, which, as Addison acknowledges, has been read as “a vindication of the bombing”, is referred to:
For English-speaking readers whose consciences had been weighed down for decades with guilt over Dresden, his analysis offered some relief. In removing distortions he presented a more even-handed account in which the people of Dresden could no longer be seen as innocent victims or the city as a target of no military value.
Addison also quotes, with apparent approval, Michael Burleigh’s unpleasant comments in a newspaper review of Taylor’s book, which he describes as “a robust defense of the Dresden raid that counters recent attempts to recast the nation that gave the world Auschwitz as the second world war’s principal victims …”
The holy grail of aerial bombing has always been precision. Yet even with new technologies, full precision remains elusive. The target is whatever the bomb hits. In the Second World War the British turned this inherent disadvantage to advantage through the development of area bombing. The strategy, as the name suggests, was to turn a large area into the target and as the war progressed the British honed this technique of strategic bombing into a weapon of unprecedented destruction. The strategic bombing of Germany became the most distinctive and defined aspect of British military activity during the course of the war, absorbing almost half of military expenditure. British Bomber Command, which Friedrich describes as “the true air fleet of the fire war”, flew operations on 1,482 nights and 1,089 days. Initially the damage was modest, but the British persisted and by the autumn of 1943 their technique had greatly improved – and was to improve further. Over eighteen months the number of bombers available increased by 400 per cent. In 1943 the British flew 36,000 night missions, while the Americans ran 12,000 daytime ones. The nightly phalanx of bombers, led by a master bomber known as “the master of ceremonies” and using radar pulses to direct planes accurately to area targets and coloured flare bombs to mark the target area, began to inflict considerable damage.
The planners also made a crucial, and it seems accidental, discovery. When weather conditions were favourable the fires set off by the bombs could join to cause a firestorm that would inflict immeasurably more damage than the bombs themselves. Since the objective of “area bombing” was to flatten as much of a target area as possible, Bomber Command considered firestorms highly desirable and set about reducing the chance element through the development of a new science: that of fire-setting. By 1943 it was established that a town was easier to burn down than blow up. The Air Ministry employed engineers from fire departments, who turned their skills upside down to explain how fires could best be spread. The main technique was the simple one of dropping tens of thousands of incendiary devices over a target area along with the bombs. These crashed through attics and quickly set items such as curtains and bedding alight. If the incendiaries were dropped close together the fires soon joined and if a sufficient number were set within a defined area a firestorm of enormous power ensued. Hitler’s bombing of London involved the use of incendiaries and he did fantasise about burning the British capital to the ground. However, the fires were too far apart and the fire service was able to contain them. Bomber Command learned that quantity and focus were key to success. Eighty million incendiary sticks were dropped on Germany, 650,000 of this number on Dresden. One of the last cities to be bombed, Dresden was a typical target in that it was old, with narrow streets fringed by half-timbered buildings. Cities with Gothic cathedrals were particularly attractive as the spires could easily be picked out from the air. The practice has been called area, morale and strategic bombing. Its most accurate designation, however, would be terror bombing.
By autumn 1944 German air defences were insignificant. Germany lay at the mercy of the bombers, who dropped the greatest density of munitions from that point. British commitment to bombing as its chief means of defeating the Germans remained unaltered, even after the land invasion. In the final months before capitulation the ancient cities of Freiburg, Heilbronn, Nuremberg, Halberstadt, Worms, Pforzheim Trier, Chemnitz, Potsdam, and Dresden, among others, were all effectively destroyed. As Friedrich sees it: “A steamroller worked its way through Germany one last time from January to May 1945. It was almost devoid of military purpose and was free from all tactical risk.” Churchill, it seems, agreed. In March 1945 he wrote “ … the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed”. There was, he said, a need for “more precise concentration on military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive”.
The German military was not, and perhaps could not be, the focus of carpet bombing, and while equipment production was disrupted factories continued to produce. On the eastern front the Wehrmacht suffered major losses, partly as a result of Hitler’s interference. On the western front it remained largely intact. By mid-January 1945 the western front was pretty much where it had been in September 1944, that is at the borders of the Reich. General Henry Arnold, commander in chief of the US air force, was baffled: “I don’t know the answer, we have either been too optimistic in our ideas of what we could do with bombing attacks, or we have missed tremendously in our evaluation of the effect that the destruction which we cause would have on the German war machine … with this tremendous striking power … we should get much better and much more decisive results than we are getting now.” One can understand his puzzlement. In early 1945 the combined bomber fleets had more than 10,000 aircraft available. The US alone produced 35,000 bombers and 38,000 fighter planes. Friedrich remarks: “Nothing in war history up to that time was even remotely comparable to the annihilating capacity of those hordes in the sky.”
Despite the 600,000 dead, many of whom were poisoned, boiled or roasted in their cellars, the bombing campaign was a failure. Its achievements, such as distracting the Luftwaffe, were minor in proportion to the effort expended. The time lag between destroying a civilian base and the withering of an army is not short. Armies always ensure that they receive whatever resources are available. The war would have had to continue for a long time for strategic bombing to have been decisive. In any case the bombers didn’t manage to kill a significant percentage of non-combatants. It was only after capitulation that the allies learned that most urban dwellers had managed to dodge the destruction that rained from the heavens.
Faced with annihilation from the skies the Germans dug into the earth. Mine shafts and cellars were used and bunkers built in what US analysts described as “the most tremendous constructional program in civilian or passive defense for all time”. Specially built underground tunnels, often of two storeys, offered protection for large numbers and were often equipped with common rooms, medical and catering facilities and sophisticated ventilation. As the pattern of bombing continued, cities had time to prepare for the expected onslaught. Fatalities were far less than expected. Again the post-war US commentary is instructive: “This civilian casualty total is far removed from the generally anticipated total of several millions.”
By law it was required that holes be opened up linking basements. As a result, when burning buildings collapsed on the basements where residents cowered the inhabitants were not necessarily burned alive or killed by carbon gas. Frequently people were able to move from cellar to cellar until they were beyond the flames and to escape. The 36,000 Frankfurters who took refuge in their basements could, if they had to, flee up to three-quarters of a mile through linked cellars to the Main river. Thus while the cities chosen by Commander Harris lost between 50 per cent and 90 per cent of their buildings, the overall loss of life was less than one per cent. Urban casualties, on average, were 1.5 per cent. In less than one year 5.3 million cubic yards of concrete was used in the construction of massive air raid shelters. With these shelters to hand, a certain everyday quality of life was maintained. After major raids white bread, meat, schnapps, wine and tobacco were distributed. In Duisburg a total of 220,000 slices of bread and butter was distributed after the three raids in November 1944. The soup kitchens, clothes coupons and compensations paid promoted a community spirit in the bombed cities. It didn’t, of course, bother anyone that frequently the replacement pots, bedding and utensils distributed after bombing had been the property of murdered Jews. Bunker and evacuation programmes together gave absolute protection to one-third of people at risk. A further 11.6 million people had the more limited protection of cellars. In towns where there were no basements people used slit trenches. These were used throughout the bombing by citizens escaping fire from enemy aircraft which flew down upon bombed cities to machine-gun the survivors. During raids the slit trenches were the only shelter for slave workers and “racially inferior peoples”, who were on no account permitted to use shelters.
Strategic bombing resulted in the destruction of numerous historic German cities from the medieval and early modern periods. This meant that after the war vast numbers of Germans had nowhere to live and experienced an extended period of acute distress. Problems were exacerbated by the arrival of many millions of German refugees driven out of Eastern Europe on the grounds of their ethnicity. Two million Germans are said to have died in these expulsions, which included communities settled in the east for many centuries. Not even the long assimilated were safe. In Poland, polonised Germans were denounced as “German meat with Polish gravy” and forced to flee. The brutal treatment of Slav peoples by the Nazis helps explain some of the cruel treatment meted out to the Germans as, no doubt, does racism and greed.
The cumulative effect of these horrors was the widespread realisation among Germans that Goebbels had lied to them and that the ultimate cause of their suffering was the Nazi regime. This time there would be no audience for stab in the back theories. The German people henceforth would realise their destiny without crossing their neighbours’ borders. The scale of the disaster accelerated the re-emergence of older German cultural values. Indeed the elaborate programme of civilian defence, although enacted through the government, reflected to a lesser degree Nazi impulses than the deep-rooted social character of German culture. (Attack, rather than defence, was at the heart of the Nazi enterprise. Hitler’s armies were designed to roll across borders. If comparable energy had been put into planning a defence of Germany and its people in the 1930s, Bomber Command might have been thwarted if not stopped.)
Visitors to surviving German towns in Eastern Europe, where German urban culture spread organically through trade and settlement over many centuries, are struck by the civilised and humane values embodied in the design and scale of public buildings, squares, streets and houses. Most comparable towns within the Reich were destroyed, as were many of the sublime achievements of late medieval and early modern German church architects.
In December 1944 the historic city of Trier was bombed to the ground. The loss of the Liebfrauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, weighed the heaviest. Ricarda Huch, who had seen it prior to the destruction, wrote:
In the interior the Gothic slimness and the imaginative richness of the individual elements joins the compactness of the whole to give an impression of blissful harmony. When the softly coloured light shines through the window in the evening one feels secure in the calyx of a heavenly blossom as the floor plan also resembles a rose. In its perfection and sublime grace the church is characterized as the house in which the virgin mother of the Lord is honoured.”
In Friedrich’s book there is a palpable feeling of sorrow at the loss of such buildings which it is easy to share. The author speaks of the bridge to the past being destroyed. This, however, does not appear to have been the case. Buildings are valuable evidence of heritage and tradition, but a people’s culture has an existence beyond its artefacts. In the case of Germany there is evidence that long-ingrained values survived both the Nazi interlude and the destruction of the inherited stock of historic buildings. One woman, mentioned by Friedrich, who had survived the bombing of Cologne and was attempting to survive in the ruined city, said that she had heard quite enough about the damage caused to the famous cathedral, implying that efforts should be concentrated on the living. This is precisely what happened. In a massive burst of energy which owed nothing to National Socialism Germans rebuilt their country. Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, types despised and persecuted by the Nazis, acted in a manner which patently owed a great deal to the older values of German culture.
Hitler, the amateur architect, did not regret the destruction of medieval, renaissance and baroque Germany. The humanist and Christian values which these buildings embodied were held in contempt. He told Albert Speer: “We’ll rebuild our cities more beautiful than they ever were. I shall see to that. With more monumental buildings than they ever had.” We can be reasonably sure what an oppressive vision that would have been. And just as Hitler did not much care for the buildings that were destroyed, neither did he have much time for the German people as they actually existed. Rather he wished them to conform to his one-dimensional ideal German. This was always an impossibility, as the bland imaginings of the Nazis were based on a false understanding of human nature. As a matter of instinct, most people avoid provoking the powerful. Hitler was sufficiently cunning to realise that while the population genuinely approved of much of what he had done, their general conformity did not mean they had been reconstructed as national socialists. The Nazis therefore saw a positive side to the bombing.
Despite Goebbels’s best efforts, for many Germans the whole Hitler business was just so much surface noise. Recent research suggests that in Soviet Russia, despite seventy years of unremitting communist pressure, most people’s interior lives were shaped by concerns that predated the Leninist seizure of power. A dozen years is a relatively short time for the re-engineering of the human soul, if indeed it can be done within any time frame. During the Nazi years many – perhaps most – Germans were living personal lives shaped by patterns established over long centuries. This always irritated Nazi thinkers, who wanted the new philosophy to permeate every aspect of German thinking and behaviour. If a resident of some Baroque town was continuing to go to his workshop, attend his church and care for his family, largely oblivious of the great things happening around him, perhaps when a planeload of incendiaries were dumped on his street he would start to pay attention. Hitler was aware of the issue: “People fight fanatically only when they have a war at their own front doors … Now even the worst idiot comprehends that his house will never be rebuilt unless we win.” In the end the dictator concluded that the Germans were not worthy of him or of his vision. In the final period before capitulation he revealed his hatred of the people and planned to add to the destruction of Bomber Command, ordering Speer to destroy infrastructure, including that essential to the population’s survival.
Because of the horrible murder of the Jews many have been reluctant to accept that the philosophy of National Socialism had not taken over the thoughts and values of ordinary Germans. Accepting that proposition appears to exculpate the Germans who not only witnessed Jewish persecution but collaborated in it. This line of thought is unsatisfactory. Germans of the 1930s and 1940s should bear responsibility for racist prejudice and for collaboration with and participation in the persecution of Jews. The Nazi party, and in particular its elite, were responsible for the decision –unprecedented in history – to eliminate an entire people based on the vile theory that they were a poisonous biological formation. There is a distinction between this and the standard racism of anti-Semitism and distinctions are important. Donald Bloxham, for example, argues against a blurring of the legal and moral distinction between war crimes and crimes against humanity. Similarly there is a distinction between persecution and genocide which should not be blurred.
In Firestorm Paul Addison does not appear willing to accept this distinction. Casting some doubt on Bloxham’s assertion that the bombing of Dresden was a war crime he comments.
Genocide, however was a far greater crime, and one in which many of the good citizens of Dresden were implicated. Victor Klemperer’s diaries offer an unforgettable account of the steadily mounting pattern of persecution which Jews experienced at the hands of an ostensibly Christian community.
The diary in fact tells a slightly different story. It records a mounting campaign of anti-Jewish persecution imposed by the regime and broadly accepted by the community. In his contribution to Firestorm Jeremy Crang draws attention to an interesting question that arises from Klemperer’s diaries. Crang asks: “Why did Klemperer and his wife not seize the opportunity to emigrate from Germany while they had the chance?” The answer which emerges from the pages of the diary is that they didn’t want to and that they hoped the regime might be destroyed and normality restored. Despite the nastiness Klemperer was exposed to – about half the comments he received on the street were hostile – it seems he recognised a crucial distinction between the German people and the regime. While Klemperer would have been wiser to have got out, throughout the diary of this decorated veteran of the Great War there is a note of disbeliefthat this persecution could be happening in his beloved Germany. The reader is left with the feeling that the diarist was still committed to the true Germany, a very different place from the world of the regime. Certainly he records that he felt betrayed by his fellow citizens and that his patriotism had evaporated, yet he lived out the remainder of his life near Dresden and condemned its bombing.
One of the lessons the world derived from the phenomenon of Nazism was that any indulgence of racism is hugely dangerous. The willingness of people to dislike and exhibit hostility towards others is deep-seated and, of course, still persists. In Ireland until relatively recently Jewish people had difficulty joining golf clubs. Today 53 per cent of African immigrants report that they have encountered racially based hostility in public. In the 1950s, when there was a labour shortage, many black Caribbeans – descendants of colonial slave workers – moved to Britain. They were not at all welcomed. Signs saying “No Blacks” were common, as were those reading “Jews Unwelcome” in Dresden in the 1940s. As late as 1968 it was possible to find pubs in England where only one type of glass was used to serve blacks and woe betide the barman who would serve a white man with one. The government did not endorse these attitudes, but if it had done and had also conducted its own campaign of advanced persecution one can imagine how a level of hostility comparable to that experienced by the Klemperers from ordinary Dresdner might have developed. Brave individuals exist but they are rare. In his diaries, Klemperer tells of a man who crossed the road and shook his hand saying: “I saw your star and I greet you. I condemn this outlawing of a race, as do many others.” Similarly in Britain – although the level of bravery is hardly comparable – a minority of locals in the pubs mentioned above were glad to be served in the same glasses as the immigrants.
The crucial difference was the government attitude. The post-war British elite did not have Nazi views on race. While many of that class were thoroughly racist, others appear to have welcomed the new cultural diversity. Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston, for example, found the jazz music played in the immigrants’ clubs exciting and exhilarating. She and her friends regularly visited black music clubs at night while her driver snoozed outside.
The Caribbean community is now a largely integrated and accepted part of the British community.
Maurice Earls is a bookseller and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.