Bad, but was it wicked too?
From The Economist print edition
BOMBING German cities into a wasteland was terrible: anyone reading Jörg Friedrich's book, now published for the first time in English, will be in no doubt of the cultural destruction and human suffering that it caused. For many Germans, the experience of reading the unvarnished awfulness of their own, their parents' or grandparents' wartime experiences was cathartic. The translation will fill a gap in contemporary understanding in the English-speaking world of what happened in the air in the second world war. Mr Friedrich deserves credit for both his diligence and his descriptive powers.
For all that, the book is flawed. Many bad things happen in wartime and countries that start wars often experience the worst of them. Its implicit thesis is that the allied bombing campaign was a vindictive and unprovoked attack on a country that itself adhered scrupulously to the rules of war. That is not something a reputable historian would argue. The author's outrage, and the sarcastic and melodramatic prose that this fuels, dims any understanding of the context in which Winston Churchill and his air chiefs decided that the air onslaught on German cities was the best (or least bad) course of action, and stuck to this even when the cost, to both bombers and bombed, became increasingly awful.
With the benefit of hindsight, bombing smashed neither morale nor war production. But wartime leaders do not have the benefit of hindsight. The bombing proved dreadfully mistaken. But had it worked, it would have ended the war more quickly. It was not wicked or without reason.
Mr Friedrich seems to assume that the allied commanders always knew that they would win the war, and decided to accelerate victory for their own brutal reasons. Yet the truth is that the allies were not at all sure they would win, even once Stalin's huge army had begun to march westwards. Hitler's propaganda machine was boasting about new secret weapons which would change the course of the war. That proved to be vainglory. But there was no way of knowing this until the very end—and until that time came, it was vital to defeat Hitler as completely and as quickly as possible.
There are other weaknesses too. The book is badly translated, to the point that readers who do not know German will find some passages baffling. Worse, Mr Friedrich's desire to puncture Anglo-American self-satisfaction comes perilously close to suggesting that the Germans were right to defend Nazism, and the allies were wrong to attack it.