"The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945" by Jorg Friedrich (translated from the German by Allison Brown), Columbia University Press, 532 pages, $34.95
"Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943" by Keith Lowe, Simon & Schuster, 489 pages, $30
When Jorg Friedrich's book "The Fire" came out in German in 2002, the book itself set off a raging conflagration. Its translation into other languages has only fanned the flames further. Both supporters and critics of the book agree that it is a landmark in Germany's attempt to come to terms with one of the most difficult and painful periods in its history.
Friedrich is among the pioneers of the approach that a history of World War II is not complete without an examination of how Germany's enemies treated Germans. In his view, what needs to be told is not only the story of what Hitler and the Nazi regime did to the world and the Jews, but also what the Allies did to the Germans. The fact that Friedrich is known in Germany as a leftist and an indefatigable foe of the right only complicates matters: It demonstrates that his call to explore the Allied treatment of the Germans is not an attempt to deny Germany's role in the crimes of the 20th century.
The late W.G. Sebald, one of Germany's leading contemporary authors, was adamant that as long as the Germans did not permit themselves to speak openly and fearlessly about what was done to them during the war, and they continued to suppress their own suffering, they would never attain the emotional health needed for a normal national life. A Germany that mourned only what it did to others, he said, was concealing a deep, dark unspoken source of pain from itself and the rest of the world.
Sebald's approach aligns with the argument put forward in recent years that the German people were also victims of the Nazi regime. "The Germans as victims" was a major theme in the successful 2004 movie "The Downfall" (directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel), which articulated a popular and widespread belief now being disseminated by German thinkers and historians. With the publication of Friedrich's book in English by a respected academic publishing house, international exposure to this controversial theory is growing. It is not hard to understand why it arouses the anger of so many Germans, let alone other victims of Nazism.
The book revolves chiefly around the Allied bombings of German cities. Friedrich claims that 500,000 people died in these bombings, over 75,000 of them children. The world knows the story of Dresden, but is not aware that this is really the tip of the iceberg. Dresden, he claims, was part of a much more serious and methodical campaign to wreak havoc on the Germans.
"The Fire" is troubling precisely because Friedrich's objectives are not entirely clear. While one reads the book, it is hard to ignore the feeling that the author is being deliberately vague. His effort to keep the German right from commandeering the country's history is something that people can understand and identify with. So as he tells the story of these attacks in minute detail, he dwells on the splendid cities that were laid to waste, the beautiful buildings that went up in flames. He writes about how they fit into Germany's long and illustrious history, of which the Nazi regime was only one brief and terrible chapter.
Hitler and the Nazi party are hardly mentioned in the book, and the issue of guilt is rarely touched upon. The same is true for the Holocaust and the fate of the Jewish people. One cannot disregard what Friedrich seems to be saying, namely that the crimes of the Nazis and the Holocaust have already been endlessly pored over, and the time has come to make room for "our suffering."
In the introduction to the English edition, Friedrich writes that since the book came out in Germany, he has been furiously attacked by non-German readers, who say: "You Germans started this, and whatever was done to you was retaliation for what the Nazis did. The bombardment of Hamburg and Berlin were preceded by the bombing of Coventry and the London Blitz."
Friedrich claims that there is no connection between the Nazi bombs dropped on Britain, Holland and Belgium, and the systematic strafing by British and U.S. bombers. Not only that, but he asks his readers in the West a question: So let's say that the citizens of Germany eagerly and willingly elected Hitler as their leader. Does that mean they deserve to be bombed to smithereens by the RAF? Apparently it doesn't even occur to Friedrich that many people will say yes.
The impression that Friedrich's primary goal is to tell a story that hasn't been told, a moment before all is forgotten, is very obvious from his narrative style. He goes into great detail, careful to leave nothing out. His descriptions are cold, dry and almost clinical. We read about the precise number of planes that set out on air raid missions, the type of bombs they dropped and the amount of explosive material they contained. He compares the ratio of bombs that caused structural damage and bombs that ignited fires, explores the scientific principles of combustion, discusses the types of bomb shelters in the targeted cities, and offers a precise listing of how many people were killed and wounded.
Allied war crimes?
Friedrich does not blame Hitler and his henchmen for the horrible catastrophe that befell the Germans. But what infuriates his non-German readers even more is the fact that he accuses Churchill and the commanders of the British and U.S. air force of war crimes for ordering the bombings. In Friedrich's eyes, Churchill and the notorious Sir Arthur Harris, commander in chief of the RAF Bomber Command, were war criminals because their choice of strategy was illegitimate, and because they knew that massive bombing of German cities would not hasten the end of the war or minimize losses on both sides, yet concealed this from their countrymen. There is no escaping the conclusion, he says, that all they wanted to do was punish and inflict harm on innocent people. Their preferred targets were the elderly, women and children - especially children.
Friedrich analyzes the rationale of the bombers and those who supported them: Bombings were a way to hurt the morale of German citizens: If five or six major cities were bombed, the citizens would rise up and force their leaders to stop the war. The problem, he goes on, is that most of the casualties were from cities and small towns that had no military or strategic importance. These places were not essential to arms production or important transportation hubs.
The misery and distress of these local people left the Berlin-based German leadership unmoved. The destruction and killing did not affect Germany's war effort or crush the morale of its citizens. Everyone talks about the mass bombings of Dresden and Hamburg, says Friedrich, which could be seen as having some military justification, but no one talks about the systematic, massive and totally useless bombing of other towns and cities. Even with respect to Dresden, it is hard to explain what military good might have come from wreaking such havoc at a time when Germany was already on the verge of defeat.
Realizing early on that fire was the most lethal of weapons, RAF scientists spent days and nights conducting complicated experiments to determine the best ratio of incendiary bombs to impact bombs, that is, the proportion that would inflict the most damage. Indeed, the massive air raids in the larger cities created the requisite conditions for a "firestorm." On this subject, Friedrich does not spare his readers' feelings. He describes the horror and destruction in graphic detail.
In the chapter about bomb shelters in these German cities, where he goes into the nitty-gritty of construction and size, and reports on what it was like to spend lengthy periods of time in these modern-day catacombs, the horror reaches a peak. These shelters, it turns out, which were designed to provide security from aerial bombings, turned into fiery traps filled with smoke and toxic fumes. In describing the ghastly deaths of thousands of hapless citizens from the poisonous gases that accumulated in these shelters and set off firestorms in the city streets, Friedrich seems to be inviting certain comparisons. He does not specifically compare these shelters to the gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps, but it seems doubtful that he would not be aware of a comparison that is so self-evident.
Friedrich meticulously records the fire and structural damage to libraries and archives throughout Germany, and gives figures for the number of books and important documents in these splendid edifices that went up in flames (though he says nothing about the "banned" books that the Nazis and student mobs burned in the squares of the big cities). Is he implying that Churchill and Harris were not only out to destroy the Germans physically, but also their past? Archives bear witness, more than anything else, to the existence of another Germany, before Hitler and the Nazis. It is the spirit of this Germany that Friedrich seeks to revive and bring back to life.
Keith Lowe, in his book on the July 1943 bombing of Hamburg, rejects Friedrich's radical conclusions, although he accepts some of his arguments. While Lowe also explores moral issues and the question of guilt, he is less dismissive of the claim that bombing German cities was meant to shorten the war and minimize the number of deaths. The destruction of Hamburg, he writes, was an exceptional case. The weather, the success in evading German radar, the temporary incapacity of the German air force - all these factors converged to pave the way for the glorious triumph of the Allied Forces and the tragedy that befell this historic and prosperous city.
But this set of circumstances at the beginning of the summer of 1943 did not repeat itself for a long time. Only in the winter of 1945 were the conditions, military and otherwise, ripe for renewing a large-scale attack on the cities of Germany. But by that time there was no longer any military need for the massive bombing of Dresden, Lowe argues, going along with Friedrich in this respect.
Lowe leaves the moral aspects of the bombing of Hamburg to the last chapter of the book. The other chapters offer a painstaking account of the American and British sorties, with all their successes and failures, accompanied by maps and detailed analysis. A place of honor is reserved for a discussion of the famous "Window" strategy that Churchill and the RAF decided to employ to confuse the German radar system: Thousands of strips of black metallic paper were dropped from British bombers, completely throwing the system out of whack.
Like Friedrich, Lowe does not shy away from gruesome descriptions, but he makes an effort to balance out the picture. He cites the testimony of the bombing victims, but also interviews pilots to hear their accounts of those difficult days. In the end, he does not accuse Harris and the RAF of war crimes, but claims they made serious mistakes. The idea of massive air raids, conceived at the end of World War I, was to win wars without the need for a ground offensive. Lowe proves the failure of this approach.
Prof. Eli Shaltiel is the editor-in-chief the "Ofakim" series published by Am Oved.
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