The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940–1945, by Joerg Friedrich. Columbia University Press, October 2006. $34.95
Approximately 36.5 million Europeans died during World War II. Included in this figure were the casualties from the strategic Allied air offensive against Germany which caused the death of between 750,000 and a million German citizens, and Nazi Germany’s genocidal murder of six million Jews. In the case of Great Britain, the air war was initially a response to Germany’s aerial bombing of British cities—such as London and Coventry—which by March 1941 had killed 30,000 people. The Holocaust, on the other hand, was a premeditated effort on the part of the Hitler regime to annihilate every Jewish man, woman, and child on the planet.
In the decades following the war Germany attempted to come to terms with the Holocaust. Among its many acts of contrition, the West German government supported the new State of Israel with economic aid, via reparation payments, as well as with political support for the fledgling Jewish state. German novelists and historians published works that exposed the murderous racist nature of the Nazi regime, and this introspection continued once the two Germanys were unified. Making amends for the Holocaust subsequently took such forms as the construction of public memorials to remind postwar generations of the horrific deeds of the Third Reich; conversion of concentration camps, such as Dachau, into museums that displayed the brutality of the Nazi system; the enactment of laws that made it a crime to deny the Holocaust; and mandating the teaching of the Holocaust in the schools. Theses acts of contrition were reinforced by the many young Germans who made “pilgrimages” to Israel to atone for the sins of their fathers.
Not all Germans, however, were contrite about their recent past. In the aftermath of the war, ultranationalists promoted the argument that the killing of hundreds of thousands of German civilians during the Allied air offensive was the moral equivalent of the mass murder of Jews and of the other victims of Nazi racial policy. During the Historikerstreit (German historians’ debate) of the 1980s, the conservative historian Ernst Nolte contended that Germany should not feel exceptional guilt for the Holocaust since the Allied area bombing of cities such as Hamburg and Dresden also directed a policy of extermination toward innocent civilians. This argument, however, remained on the periphery of political discussion until only recently, when the claims of moral equivalency entered the mainstream of German discourse with the publication, in 2002, of Joerg Friedrich’s best-selling book Der Brand (The Fire).
Friedrich’s history of the Allied air war against Nazi Germany was influenced by the criticism of the late German novelist W. G. Sebald. In a series of influential lectures, which were published in Germany as Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999) and in the US as On the Natural History of Destruction (Random House, 2003), Sebald bemoaned the fact that in the aftermath of the war the vast number of civilian dead and the extensive destruction of German cities by the Allied bombings had not sufficiently been brought to the attention of the German public either through historical or literary accounts. With the exception of Hans Erich Nossack’s harrowing eyewitness account of the firebombing of Hamburg, published in Germany in 1948 as the Der Untergang—here as The End: Hamburg 1943 (Chicago, 2004)—little had been written about the suffering endured by the German public during the war. Sebald attributed the absence of this history to feelings of shame caused by the genocidal actions of the Nazi regime. Specifically, given the policy that culminated in the mass murder of European Jewry, how was it possible to express sympathy for the vast majority of Germans who supported Hitler? As a consequence, stated Sebald, German scholars ignored the horrors of the air war. Sebald noted, “The darkest aspects of the final act of destruction, as experienced by the great majority of the German population, remained under a taboo like a shameful family secret.”
Born in Germany in 1944, Joerg Friedrich spent most of his professional career writing about Nazi atrocities before turning to an analysis of the Allied air war against his country. Thus it is not surprising that The Fire is filled with allusions to the Holocaust in describing the manner in which the ordinary German endured the firestorms that destroyed his cities. Unlike some on the German right, however, Friedrich does not downplay the excesses of the Hitler regime. Rather, he argues that like the Jews, the German people were also victims of the Nazis, insofar as the aggressive militant policies of the Third Reich were responsible for the Allied retaliation that led to the destruction of their country. Unlike right-wing historians, such as David Irving, who exaggerated the numbers of dead killed by the Allied bombing in Dresden, and belittled the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, Friedrich does not deny the full tragedy of the Holocaust. What Friedrich does argue is that the terror and suffering that the German people endured under Allied attacks was the moral equivalent of the Shoah.
Friedrich challenges the conventional history, which states that the Allied air war against Germany was motivated by strategic considerations alone. Rather, he points to much of the carnage perpetrated by the Allies as wanton acts of criminality, wherein the policy of the British, and to a lesser extent the United States, was motivated to inflict terror on the German people for the purpose of forcing the public to turn against its government. This policy of “morale bombing” was introduced by the British in the summer of 1943 and reached its climax with the destruction of Dresden in February 1945. In particular, the British employed high-explosive incendiary bombs to ignite firestorms that, as in the cases of Hamburg and Dresden, resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, leaving charred remains as gruesome as the piles of Jewish bodies photographed after the liberation of the concentration camps. Friedrich describes the horror inflicted on the victims by the firestorms:
In Hamburg . . . the storm was preceded by sunny, hot weather, which had already overheated the urban area. A chimney quickly developed, and only minimal additional heating was necessary to put the immense suction of the draft into motion. . . . Those who were caught in it were ripped into the furnace like poor souls into perdition.
Friedrich charges that this type of weapon, which he likens to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, should have been used only in the final phase of the conflict, with the objective of deciding the war. If not, claims Friedrich, then it served only for the purpose of mass extermination, and thus constitutes a war crime. Clearly, states Friedrich, this was not the case when Great Britain commenced to use incendiary bombs. Friedrich places the onus of responsibility for the decision to introduce terror bombing on Winston Churchill, who justified the mass death of civilians as collateral damage in the Allied objective of destroying German strategic military and industrial targets. But Churchill is cited as stating that the firebombing attack on Hamburg would serve as a prelude to the “Hamburgization” of Berlin, which in his opinion would bring an end to Hitler’s regime and the war. This of course did not happen. From August 1943 to March 1944, nineteen major raids constituted the Battle of Berlin, which resulted in 9,390 civilian deaths. This, concludes Friedrich, “was an astounding ratio for an operation that was supposed to decide the war.” Turning to the German city of Heilbronn, which Friedrich describes as wine country, he argues, “unless wine was considered a product of war . . . the bombing of Heilbronn was purely a civilian massacre. . . . According to Churchill’s law, anywhere with industry was part of the battlefield . . . but Heilbronn was a vineyard, and was incinerated because people lived there.” Friedrich concludes that the Allied air raids were designed to kill millions of people, and “as far as can be discerned from the archives, there was no lack of willingness on the part of the Allies to do just that.”
Friedrich notes that in its pursuit of terrorizing the German population, the Allies made no allowances for the number of children that were victims of the bombing attacks. One could argue that not all Germans were innocent victims because of their loyal support of Hitler, but killing children? Against the deaths of 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust, Friedrich calculates that the air war killed 75,000 children under 14 years of age—45,000 boys and 30,000 girls, with an additional 116,000 injured. All told, children accounted for 15 percent of the total deaths. The Nazis killed children, so did the Allies.
These few examples represent the tenor of Friedrich’s indictment of the Allied air war against Germany’s civilian population. When it comes to the question of moral capital, Friedrich finds little to separate the perpetrators of the Holocaust from those who sanctioned the air war against Germany. Friedrich finds that the Allies had as little regard for the lives of civilians as did the Nazis, and points to the fact that although the Allies bombed hundreds of German cities and towns, they refused to even consider bombing the railroad lines to Auschwitz, where Jewish victims hoped for an attack, which could easily kill them in the process. He points out that the RAF was skeptical of risking the lives of British airmen “for no purpose.”
But Friedrich also reveals that during the Allied air raids, the small number of Jews who remained in Germany was prevented from entering air-raid shelters or bunkers. Friedrich informs us that “under no circumstances whatsoever would the bunker community tolerate Jews in their circle.” We know from Victor Klemperer’s diary, I Will Bear Witness (Random House, 1999), that the Allied raid over Dresden provided him with the opportunity to rip off the yellow Star of David that all Jews were required to wear, after which he found shelter by passing as a non-Jew. In the German town of Soest, the municipal administration required Jewish residents to surrender their homes to bombed-out Aryan families. In fact, many Germans were led to believe by Nazi propaganda that the bombing raids were in retaliation for Germany’s treatment of the Jews.
By noting the presence of anti-Semitism among the German population, Friedrich inadvertently raises questions that seemingly contradict the argument supporting moral equivalency. Given their support for Adolf Hitler, how culpable were the German people for the discriminatory and violent persecution of the Jews that culminated in the Holocaust? Were they indeed the innocent victims of a bloodthirsty Allied leadership bent on their destruction, or did the ordinary German get what he deserved for his support of a criminal regime?
Until the setbacks in the Soviet Union in 1943, the Nazi government in general and Adolf Hitler in particular were immensely popular among the German people. Enthusiastic support for Hitler remained despite the brutal bombing of civilians in Warsaw (1939) and Rotterdam (1940) and the air war against British cities (1940) such as London and Coventry. This popularity did not waver even as information reached Germany concerning the mass killing of Jews in Eastern Europe which, in turn, had been preceded by the maltreatment of Germany’s Jews by the Nazi government. Scholars continue to debate the complicity of the average German in regard to the Holocaust. But as the historian Jeffrey Herf informs us in The Jewish Enemy (Belknap/Harvard, 2006),
During World War II, anyone in Nazi Germany who regularly read a newspaper, listened to the radio, or walked past the Nazi political posters between 1941 and 1943 knew of the threats and boasts of the Nazi regime about intentions to exterminate European Jews, followed by public assertions that it was implementing that policy. Claims of ignorance regarding the murderous intentions and assertions of making good on such threats defy the evidence, logic, and common sense. With confidence we can say that millions and millions of Germans were told on many occasions that the Jews had begun the war to exterminate the Germans, but that the Nazi regime was exterminating the Jews instead.
Indeed, by February 1945, when the Allied air war against Germany leveled the city of Dresden, the German people could not be separated from Hitler.
Although the ordinary German may not have been so innocent a victim, nevertheless there may be some truth in the charge that the terror bombings were war crimes. But, as the British historian Donald Bloxham has noted, Dresden and Auschwitz are not in the same moral category. The air war could arguably be construed as a war crime, but the Holocaust was a crime against humanity. War crimes are generally associated with actions against civilian populations in the course of military action, whereas, crimes against humanity are more commonly an end in themselves, whereby the state of war provides a useful cover for their enactment (see “Dresden as a War Crime,” in Firestorm, edited by Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang: Ivan R. Dee, 2006). Bloxham’s distinction is useful for gauging the difference between the Holocaust and the air war, inasmuch as it may all come down to the matter of intentionality. The Nazis sought as a matter of state policy to annihilate the Jewish population of Europe, whereas the intention of the Allies was to win the war that Germany had started by all means that were available. Friedrich does not take this distinction into account, a difference that should have raised doubts about the efficacy of his argument equating the Nazi genocidal war against the Jews with the Allied bombing of Germany.
The Fire is a landmark event in German historiography on the subject of World War II and the Holocaust. The continued popularity of the book demonstrates that it obviously has resonated with the German public, and as time distances us from the Holocaust, Friedrich’s charge, tu quoque (“you did it, too”), will have contributed to a revision of the horrendous crimes of the Third Reich. The argument for moral equivalency suggests a trend in Germany’s political culture that portends a retreat for its responsibility for the Holocaust. It may be only a question of time, therefore, before memorials for the victims of Allied bombings will find their place alongside the victims of the Holocaust; and future generations of Germans will comfort themselves with the conviction that the crime of their fathers was no worse than that of their enemies.