Tuesday, January 21, 2003

German historian takes a controversial look at the impact of Allied firebombing on the German population

Interest has been building for some time. In a series of lectures in 1997, author W.G. Sebald criticized his fellow novelists for ignoring the topic of German suffering, and in 2002 Nobel Laureate Gnter Grass responded with a short novel about the Red Army's massacre of German refugees in the waning days of the war. But the person most responsible for the revival of suppressed memory is Jrg Friedrich, an independent historian who previously specialized in the Holocaust.

His book, "The Fire: Germany Under Bombardment, 1940-45," which has been on the bestseller lists since last November, is both painstaking and painfully detailed. It catalogues, city by city, raid by raid, the razing of Germany, recording every lost architectural masterpiece, every percentage of living space destroyed, every death toll. It also depicts the human cost of the firestorm: piles of suffocated victims in bunkers, incinerated corpses shrivelled to the size of hand luggage, children boiled alive in water used to extinguish burning houses.

Most controversially, "The Fire" uses a vocabulary previously reserved for Nazi war crimes to characterize the strategy of indiscriminate area bombing that was developed by Arthur T. Harris, commander in chief of the RAF Bomber Command, and endorsed by Churchill. While the book does not explicitly call Sir Winston a barbarian, it characterizes the deeds he authorized as "massacres, "acts of terror," and "campaigns of mass extermination."

Born in 1944, Friedrich is a jovial, aging left-winger who holds interviews in, of all places, a British tea room on Berlin's Kurfrstdamm, a posh boulevard almost completely destroyed in World War II. When the conversation turns to the raids, he becomes deadly serious. The idea for the book, he says, evolved from his work on the Holocaust, which led him to examine the Nazi war-crimes trials. "One of the military commanders accused of civilian massacres in the Ukraine asked the question, 'What's the difference between lining people up against a wall and dropping bombs on them?' I tried to find an answer and couldn't, other than the fact that the one killing took place horizontally, and the other vertically."

Predictably, the British aren't amused at the implications of such words for the man recently voted the greatest Briton of all time. The conservative Daily Telegraph reviewed "The Fire" under the headline "Germans Call Churchill a War Criminal," and the book has elicited criticism in liberal papers like The Guardian as well. German historians like Hans-Ulrich Wehler have also taken Friedrich to task for emotionalizing the issue and focusing on the gory details instead of on the larger context. The wholesale destruction of cities, they point out, was a staple of military theorizing in the late 1930s, and was first practiced by the German Luftwaffe in Spain, Poland, and Holland. In the wake of the evacuation of British ground troops from the Continent at Dunkirk, the RAF was Britain's only means of attacking the German war machine, yet precision raids suffered high losses and rarely hit the intended military targets. (The only casualty of the first precision air raid on Berlin, for instance, was a suburban woodshed.) The advantage of indiscriminate area bombing was that you were bound to destroy something, and it was hoped that if ordinary Germans took enough of a pounding, they would rebel against the government that had initiated the war.

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