Friday, December 01, 2006

book review

Bombing Germany

Bad, but was it wicked too?

Nov 30th 2006
From The Economist print edition

The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-45
By Jörg Friedrich. Translated by Allison Brown

Columbia University Press; 532 pages; $34.95. To be published in Britain by Columbia in January

Buy it at

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.


Penny said...

Freidrich feels Nazi Germany "adhered scrupulously to the rules of war"... really?? While the Nazis were formally honoring the Geneva Conventions on the battlefield, as Friedrich lauds them for, they were also in full military uniform systematically gasing millions of civilians. Their historically unparalled crimes against humanity were known to the Allies, maybe not the full scale, but, known. There was no moral equivalency between the Allies and Nazi Germany.

Perhaps Friedrich has forgotten the London Blitz as well:

"The Blitz inflicted about 43,000 deaths and destroyed more than a million houses, but failed to achieve the Germans' strategic objectives of knocking Britain out of the war or rendering it unable to resist an invasion."

Freidrich's revisionist history is very flawed.

Edward Lucas said...

fair point--but please remember that what you are attacking is my characterisation of Friedrich's argument.


Penny said...

Your perception of Friedrich's flaws in this book is shared by others:

Anonymous said...

This book seems to be so outrageous that it forces me to do something I almost never do, defend Russia. Has this author ever heard of a little place called Stalingrad? How about a spot called Leningrad? German behavior in either of those places was far, far worse than anything the allies did in the bombings, and in fact more than adequate justification for razing Germany to the ground. That's to say nothing, as Penny properly does, of the concentration camps. Seems we're through the looking glass here.

Then again, the Russians have been writing books like this for decades.

eatyourbeans said...

I struggled through this book a few years ago; it took a long time because my German is poor. My impression was that justified or not his sentiments were natural and healthy.

Back in the 60s or 70s there was an American TV comedy called Hogan's Heroes about the madcap escapades of downed American and British bomber crews in a German POW camp. Week after week, the stupid German guards were snookered by these merry boys. As I recall, what they were doing over and to the German cities when they were shot down was not mentioned.

Anyway, American audiences loved Hogan's Heroes, which is not surprising. But the show was also quite popular in Germany!

Now, speaking as an American I can understand Friedrich's rancour and shadings and omissions a hundred times more than I can those German families sitting in their shoddy 1950s apartments built on the rubble of their vanished Mediaeval cities, chortling and guffawing at this TV show. Certainly the adults would have remembered the fire bombings and cowering in the bomb shelters. Ha-Ha-Ha! Wot a card, dat Hogan ist! Now that is sick.

So, maybe, we should treat this book as a welcome sign that the Germans aren't really such an alien species, at least not anymore.