Germans call Churchill a war criminal
Die Deutschen nennen Churchill einen Kriegsverbrecher (Daily Telegraph, 19-11-2002)


Speaking the unspeakable

In the final phase of the second world war, Germany suffered destruction by bombing on an unprecedented scale. Yet, in the 50 years since the bombing raids, little has been spoken or written of that era of terror and degradation. What was behind this individual and collective amnesia?

In the latest exclusive essay from the London Review of Books, Christian Schütze examines the emergence of a new critical appraisal of German responses to the wartime bombing of their country.

Wednesday August 27, 2003

On the Natural History of Destruction by WG Sebald, translated by Anthea Bell. Hamish Hamilton, 205 pp., £16.99, February, 0 241 14126 5

Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-45 by Jörg Friedrich. Propyläen, 592 pp., €25, November 2002, 3 549 07165 5

Payback by Gert Ledig, translated by Shaun Whiteside. Granta, 200 pp., £8.99, May, 1 86207 565 4

In a series of lectures on German responses to the wartime bombing of their country, delivered in Zurich in the autumn of 1997, WG Sebald asked why "the sense of unparalleled national humiliation felt by millions in the last years of the war had never really found verbal expression, and those directly affected by the experience neither shared it with each other nor passed it on to the next generation." Destruction on a scale without historical precedent - 600,000 dead civilians, 131 burned-out or devastated cities, 43 cubic metres of rubble for every inhabitant of Dresden, 7,500,000 people left homeless - entered the annals of the new nation in the form of vague generalisations, seemingly without leaving any trace of pain. Years of blank terror and sleepless nights, hunger and destitution, spent in a landscape of rubble colonised by rats and heavy with the smell of pestilence and decay, might have been expected to stifle any positive attitude to life. Instead, the Germans began to clear up. And, as Alfred Döblin wrote at the end of 1945, they walked "down the street and past the dreadful ruins, as if nothing had happened."

Why did the epic history of the raids never get written? Sebald suspects a process of "pre-conscious self-censorship: a way of obscuring a world that could no longer be presented in comprehensible terms." The "now legendary and in some respects genuinely admirable" reconstruction prevented any backward view. There was a silent agreement, equally binding on everyone, not to speak about what they had experienced, to relegate the events of their own history to the back of the mind. The "rise from total degradation" was acknowledged, but eliminated from the stock of emotions or even, as Sebald speculates, chalked up as one more item on the credit account: how much we've overcome without showing any signs of weakness. In any event, the established German writers who had survived the Nazi period through 'inner emigration' (if only at the cost of various kinds of compromise and distortion), and who might have been expected to tackle the subject, were absorbed in the task of touching up their own biographies.

Sebald is not the only writer to have asked these questions. Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Alexander Kluge, too, observed signs of individual and collective amnesia, an obsession with the future, a dogged desire to lose oneself in work, above all an 'inability to mourn' (the title of a well-known book by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich). What they failed to suggest was the form the mourning should have taken. Should the Germans, perched on the ruins of their cities, have bemoaned their fate to the world? When someone did wail the critics were severe. Didn't you shout 'yes' when Goebbels asked you on 18 February 1943 in the Berlin Sportpalast: "Do you want total war?"

Expressions such as "national humiliation" or the "rise from total degradation" reveal Sebald to have been a child of the postwar period and a writer significantly moulded by years spent in a country which never experienced a comparable historical rupture. One year old at the war's end, he grew up in the Allgäu, a region in the foothills of the Alps that was largely spared the war's effects. He was to hear about it, but too little, to his regret. Enzensberger (born 1929) and Kluge (born 1932) were just old enough to be scarred by it. Anyone who was older than, say, 16 by 1944-45 had stared death in the face more than a few times: that generation still dreams at night of bombs falling and remembers the overwhelming sense of relief at having escaped the slaughter, a sense which anyone younger could not have experienced with such intensity. It was a heady feeling of liberation, and gratitude that on the other side of the rubble there was the possibility of a new life. National humiliation was felt only by Nazis and dyed-in-the-wool militarists.

Survivors were alone in their grief. Collective laments were ruled out by the pictures that were shown of Oradour and Stalingrad, Ravensbrück and Auschwitz. Many found satisfaction in the fact that the world order had been restored. Nemesis had followed hubris; crime had received its just punishment. Thomas Mann said it, too: everything must be paid for. Expressions of self-pity were rare. Even before 1945, there were rumblings of guilt. "Ja, wir tragen unser Leiden mit Geduld, an der ganzen Scheisse sind wir selber schuld," people sang under their breath, recognising that they themselves were responsible for "this bloody mess". Soldiers returning from the first world war had shown their scars and boasted about what they'd done; they felt undefeated. After the second, they said nothing about what they'd experienced, mumbled in monosyllables about POW camps and, as members of a guilt-laden, defeated army, refused to pass on details to their children and grandchildren. Sebald grants them an individual "right to remain silent".

The views he expressed in his lectures brought him a few letters which reinforced his suspicion that unconscious linguistic rules had been operating. People talked about the catastrophe only in the conversational tone reserved for Kaffee und Kuchen among the petty bourgeoisie, or in hollow formulations such as "on that terrible night when . . ." The discussion following his lectures didn't reach a wider public: there seemed to be no demand for recollections of the bombing.

All that changed last autumn with the publication of Jörg Friedrich's Der Brand (The Blaze), which remained in the top 10 of the German bestseller lists for months on end. Extracts appeared in the mass-circulation Bild; there were reviews everywhere; some readers, old Nazis mainly, felt obliged to point out that "war crimes had been committed by the victors, too." A spate of TV documentaries, rapidly put together from archive material, followed. 'Eye-witnesses' gave an account of what it had been like in the air-raid shelters, and explained how they had managed to carry their children through the firestorms. Considered opinion on the larger historical and political context was scarce. In many cases, the words people used further confirmed Sebald's impression that they thought in stereotypes. 60 years had blunted their memories. "We felt no hatred for the Allied pilots" was a recurrent motif. The pilots, too, got a chance to speak. Watching footage of the fires they had started, they said they hadn't thought anything of it at the time. Now, some said they felt sad; others, that if the circumstances were the same they'd do it again. Friedrich himself was omnipresent in the media, giving interviews and taking part in discussions. Two generations after the events, 'critical appraisal' was in full swing.

Most interviewers and commentators have been suspicious about this. Had the settling of accounts really come out of the blue? Nothing much had happened on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the large-scale bombing of Lübeck and Hamburg. Why now? The claim that Friedrich's book had broken a taboo was effective in PR terms, but it was incorrect. Long before his book appeared, there had been studies of the air war, reports by local writers and, on the anniversaries of the attacks, endless articles in newspapers and the illustrated weeklies. In 1985, one of the main television channels showed a four-hour documentary on the subject. Even today there are continuing controversies about particular events. For instance: were Dresden refugees on the banks of the Elbe shot by low-flying planes as some of the terror-stricken inhabitants claimed?

During the Cold War, no East German article recalling the destruction of Dresden's 'cultural treasure' was complete without reference to the 'US killer pilots' and 'Anglo-American air gangsters'; GDR propaganda took, word for word, phrases that Goebbels had rubber-stamped. In West Germany, the bombing of the civilian population was the preserve of the radical press, right and left-wing, which treated it in an essentially identical manner. As far as the democratic majority was concerned, it wasn't appropriate to accuse their new Nato allies and protectors of former misdeeds. Thus when Friedrich's book appeared a number of critics wondered sneeringly why the courage to demand a reckoning had been found only now that the cold war was at an end. Others asked whether Friedrich had pointed out sufficiently clearly that Germany had actually started the war.

Friedrich says he isn't interested in settling accounts: he wants to make good a deficiency. The most serious historical work on the bombing war so far has been concerned with its politics, strategy, techniques and organisation, giving the view from the strategist's desk or the pilot's cockpit. Born like Sebald in 1944, Friedrich describes what the air war did on the ground.

Even before they had read the book, reviewers, mindful of Günter Grass's recent novel, Crabwalk, about the fate of the refugees who went down in the Wilhelm Gustloff, were certain they were about to hear a great lament about German suffering. Friedrich's book is not a lament but it is, in parts, an indictment. It describes in overabundant detail an orgy of devastation which came to an end only in April 1945, when Air Marshal 'Bomber' Harris established (to his regret) that there were no targets left for Bomber Command to hit. Friedrich's charge is that the outcome of the war was already clear, and many German cities were destroyed for no military reason. In Pforzheim, a town on the edge of the Black Forest, one third of the inhabitants were killed. The devastation was motivated solely by a wish to punish the German population.

Friedrich provides many particulars on the millennial history of cities reduced to ashes in a matter of hours; he can recite anecdotes, legends, myths and prophecies of disaster that came to pass. And by way of contrast he describes the scientific studies carried out by British incendiary experts on the combustibility of medieval German towns. Because the book takes the form of a montage, the effect is polemical, however laconic the accompanying text. It is a modern, dramatic way to write history: the narrative is punctuated by citations from diaries, flashbacks, commentaries, documents, verification of sources and interpretations of why those involved did what they did.

Friedrich's method turns on a variety of causally linked images. A fanatical officer plans to defend a village on the edge of the Ruhr with a couple of members of the Hitler Youth. Rather than put any of his soldiers at risk, the American general has the village destroyed by bombs. In the process a Gothic chapel unique to the region is hit. 30 bodies are pulled from the ruins: Sisters of Charity and wounded German soldiers, Russian and French prisoners of war and Ukrainian labourers who had thought the church was a safe haven. Perhaps some of them had stealthily waved to the bombers, as happened with concentration camp internees or Jews in hiding. The writer and broadcaster Ralph Giordano, who had to live in hiding as a young Jewish boy in Hamburg and was lucky to escape with his life from the Operation Gomorrah raid of July 1943, acknowledged on television that the sight of the bombers had filled him with jubilation: "We were overjoyed: they were our liberators. But I don't have this feeling any more." He has criticised Friedrich, in the weekly Jüdische Allgemeine, on the grounds that it is inadmissible "to single out Bomber Command from the larger history of that terrible event". Was Friedrich, he asked, ministering to the wish of some Germans to see themselves as special victims?

But the book's central contention is that after the first world war civilised values went by the board. Military planners in the 1920s stopped regarding war as a contest between soldiers on a battleground. Once it became possible for bombers to penetrate deep into the enemy's hinterland and demolish the key sources of his strength, the arms factories, war became a Volkskrieg - every factory worker was a soldier and every nurse a combatant. In Britain, Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard developed an effective theory of air warfare based on this approach. In Germany, it merged effortlessly with the heroic ideology expounded by National Socialism's chief theorist, Alfred Rosenberg. Hitler was delighted: there would be no more civilians sitting in front of their warm stoves, allowing the soldiers to do the dirty work for them. Everybody a warrior!

Friedrich gives a painstaking description of the way the concept of 'moral bombing' came into being. In 1941, following the loss of war material at Dunkirk, the most effective instrument available to the British for participating in the war and relieving its ally the Soviet Union was its (initially small) bomber fleet. Churchill decided to whip up "a mighty fire" in Hitler's own "backyard", and Harris wanted to set up "an extremely interesting experiment with the Germans". In May 1940, three German planes on a mission to bomb a French airfield near Dijon went off course and bombed Freiburg. Hitler blamed it on the British and pledged a fivefold revenge. The war of terror was underway. Each side was going to put the other's population to the test. Which would hold out longer, before it overthrew its government and ended the war?

As we know, the theory got it wrong. The Germans didn't have heavy bombers, and the British were mistaken about the way bomb victims would react, despite their own experiences in 1940-41. The air raids, Friedrich argues, didn't provoke anything more insurrectionary than the craving for a bowl of hot soup. There was "an overriding need for sleep and absolutely no desire to overthrow Hitler". Churchill had hoped that the sailors and workers who had brought revolution to the streets of Berlin in 1918 would reappear, but they had long ceased to exist. Instead, there was an omnipresent surveillance machinery, which, in 1944 alone, brought 25,297 Volksgenossen ('national comrades') to trial for undermining military morale, looting or listening to enemy broadcasts; between 1941 and 1945 15,000 German civilians were executed as parasites or defeatists.

On the other hand, those who obligingly kept quiet about the loss of their houses and families received special concessions from Party organisations - bread, butter, ration cards for clothes and furniture, even coffee beans - as well as a promise from the Führer that they would be in the vanguard of the revenge that would be exacted with the new 'wonder weapons'. Air-raid bunkers were built, but Hitler didn't set much store by them: terror could only be conquered by terror.

The unarmed 'warriors' were therefore delivered up to the bombs, as required by the new rules of war, and the bombs shredded, entombed, suffocated or incinerated women and children, old people and infants, POWs and hospital patients, friend and foe, Nazis and concentration camp internees, guilty and innocent. As Friedrich puts it: "The bombing war was the product of the industrial era, and Germany's ruin the product of Hitler's."

After the Ardennes offensive in the winter of 1944-45, the outcome of the war was a foregone conclusion - but it hadn't ended. An uprising was far from the minds of the German population, most of whom simply wanted to surrender. The representatives of the system were still strong enough to organise sporadic resistance, however, and this provoked further bombing raids from an overwhelmingly superior Allied air fleet. Friedrich points out that many of the final episodes of destruction, labelled as 'meaningless' by the Germans, were responses to equally meaningless acts of resistance - a connection all too readily overlooked. But Allied interviewees admitted, too, that there was no stopping "the largest war machine ever assembled". The bombers and bombs had been procured at enormous cost: they couldn't be left to rot.

In 1985, Harris stated on German television that the war would have been brought to a speedy end, and contemporary Europe made to look quite different, had he been given 4,000 bombers for a single all-out assault that would have eradicated any will to resist. Friedrich shares his view. The attack never took place; instead, the raids were mounted and the cities bombed one by one. Bomber Command's technique was already honed to perfection by 1943, and by 1945 the skies over Germany had gone 'raving mad'. First, 100,000 incendiary bombs, then mines, which ripped away windows, doors and roofs, so creating a draught for the firestorm. Within half an hour individual fires had coalesced into one massive conflagration. Finally came the high-explosive bombs that ruptured the water supply and forced the fire brigades to seek cover. Nobody could stay outside the shelters, but those inside were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide or shrivelled by the heat. Just by describing how people died and neighbourhoods were laid waste, Friedrich makes it plain that there was no logical justification for what took place. But he also cites reports from the Luftwaffe on the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 and Rotterdam in 1940, which read, he says, like an "instruction manual for Bomber Command".

Interviewers asked Friedrich whether writing his book had made him a pacifist and whether he would demonstrate against the war in Iraq. Quite the opposite, he replied. Why? Because bombs are no longer 'blind', provided they are used properly, and civilian casualties can be avoided. Friedrich makes no concession to bourgeois pieties. He speaks of fighter planes 'bagging' 40 people, describes bombers as 'Einsatzgruppen' and bomb victims as 'Ausgerottete', which equates them with those systematically killed in the concentration camps.

Friedrich is exhaustingly thorough in counting up just how many bombs of what type were dropped from how many planes on which German, British, French, Belgian or Italian city. His concern is not with the accountancy of war, however, but with the suffering inflicted. This includes the suffering of the pilots, whose chances of surviving their allotted 30 missions was low; their casualty rate by the end of the war was 44%, that of their civilian victims 1.5%. It is hardly surprising that they wanted to give the Germans, who had started it all, a taste of their own medicine.

By quoting the accounts of survivors, Friedrich gives a vivid sense of what exactly this meant. In mid-March 1945, the city of Swinemünde on the Baltic was filled to bursting with half-starved and exhausted refugees from East Prussia and Pomerania. After an American air raid, a young boy, who had taken refuge with his family in a railway wagon, wrote:

"We could still hear the early warning siren, but I don't remember anything at all about the bombing raid. When I woke, it was dark. People were lying on top of me and I couldn't breathe. I asked the boy who was lying on me to get off, but he only groaned out loud and got heavier. Wherever I put my hand it was all slippery. When I managed to lift myself up, I saw my brothers sitting there, the tops of their heads blown off."

According to official estimates, the raid killed 23,000, a count which Friedrich finds hard to believe. Of the victims, 1667 were named, but most of the dead were not identified, their remains buried in bomb craters or carted to a mass grave. Thousands of other refugees were pressing in behind. According to the flight log of the 8th US Air Fleet, the massacre of Swinemünde was an attack on marshalling yards.

What helped people in Germany to survive the bombing war was suppressing the sympathy they felt and getting on with the practical business of restoring their lives. Friedrich suggests that the same attitude helped them later to get over their memories. Anyone who has read his book may feel they know the answer to the question posed by Sebald and others: the great epic of the bombing will never be written because there is no need to intensify the reality. Yet intensification was what Gert Ledig attempted with his novel Payback, which first appeared in 1956. Sebald believes it failed then because it "went beyond anything Germans were willing to read about their recent past". In the story of a one-hour bombing raid, Ledig compresses a dozen simultaneous narratives: the most brutal forms of death are described, people are driven to suicide because of unendurable burns, women are raped beneath the ruins, an American pilot parachutes down into the inferno he has helped to create, goes mad and is lynched.

Ledig portrays scenes which were still common knowledge in 1956, either through first-hand experience or from hearsay; he contrives to make them both shocking and hackneyed. His flickering chamber of horrors was outstripped or refuted by personal experience. Why would anyone want to read it? A new edition appeared in 1999, now followed by an English translation. If Der Brand is bought by those who survived the bombing in order to refresh their memories (which alone would ensure its bestseller status), and also manages to appeal to the second postwar generation, then Payback will no doubt be recognised by that same generation as an impressive attempt to speak about what is usually referred to as 'unspeakable'.

· Christian Schütze was born in 1927 in Dresden. In 1943-44, he was part of an anti-aircraft battery, then briefly a soldier, before being taken prisoner by the Americans. He recently retired as home affairs editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung.


Germans call Churchill a war criminal

By Kate Connolly in Berlin

(Filed: 19/11/2002)

Winston Churchill was effectively a war criminal who sanctioned the extermination of Germany's civilian population through indiscriminate bombing of towns and cities, an article in the country's biggest-circulation newspaper claimed yesterday.

In an unprecedented attack on Allied conduct during the Second World War, the tabloid Bild has called for recognition to be given to the suffering inflicted on the German population during the strategic air campaign of 1940-45.

The newspaper's campaign, provoked by a new German history of the bomber offensive, breaks six decades of virtual silence on the subject, and is being seen as the latest manifestation of a belief among Germans that they too were victims of the war - albeit a war started by their country.

The newspaper is serialising Der Brand (The Fire: Germany Under Bombardment 1940-45) by the historian Jorg Friedrich, which claims to be the most authoritative account of the bombing campaign so far.

Mr Friedrich claims the British government set out at the start of the Second World War to destroy as many German cities and kill as many of their inhabitants as possible. Civilian deaths were not collateral damage, he says, but rather the object of the exercise. He argues that Churchill had favoured a strategy of attacking the civilian population centres from the air some 20 years before Hitler ordered such raids.

Britain's war leader is quoted during the First World War as saying: "Perhaps the next time round the way to do it will be to kill women, children and the civilian population."

Friedrich goes on to quote Churchill defending the morality of bombing: "Now everyone's at it. It's simply a question of fashion - similar to that of whether short or long dresses are in."

Der Brand is far removed from the dry style of most German histories, and is filled with emotive accounts of the horrors of bombing, but carries few references to the man who brought retribution on Germany, Adolf Hitler.

Friedrich argues that the Allied policy of seeking to break German morale through bombing proved mistaken, the attacks merely serving to weld together the German population.

The debate is certain to anger those in Britain who see the strategic air campaign as a necessary evil.

The British, led by Sir Arthur Harris, C-in-C Bomber Command, were the leading proponents of "night area bombing", involving the systematic destruction of German industrial capacity and housing. The policy resulted in the laying to waste of city after city, including Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden, and the deaths of some 635,000 Germans.

The policy was to some extent forced on the RAF by the failure of daylight operations against pinpoint targets early in the war. It also reflected the fact that, for much of the conflict, bombing was the only method by which Britain could attack Germany.

German raids on Britain in the Blitz of 1940-41 were seen to have freed the British from the obligation not to attack civilian centres.

The serialisation of the book will furnish the far-Right in Germany with arguments to back its revisionist claims. It is also likely to overshadow recent reconciliation attempts between Britain and Germany over the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 in which tens of thousands died.

In a symbolic sign of friendship, British businesses have paid into a fund to reconstruct the Frauenkirche or Church of Our Lady which was destroyed in the raid and is set to be reopened in 2006.

Yesterday Antony Beevor, the British historian and author of the bestselling Berlin: The Downfall, 1945, criticised the German claim that Britain's war of attrition was unnecessarily brutal. "The trouble is this argument is removed from the context that they were the ones who invented terror bombing," he said, referring to German attacks on Coventry, Rotterdam and Warsaw.

"They literally obliterated whole cities and that certainly preceded what the British did," he said. "What we did was more terrifying and appalling, but it was a natural progression in this war.

"One can certainly debate the whole morality of bombing, but for Germans to say Churchill was a war criminal is pushing it a bit," he said.

Friedrich, 58, said his two years of research prompted him to change his views radically on the Allied bombing.

"Previously it appeared to me to be a just answer to the crimes of the Third Reich, but I've since changed my mind," he said. "Until the Second World War there was a common consensus that the massacre of civilian populations was illegal."

For the past year Germans on both the Left and Right have been locked in a new and intense debate about the war and their role as its victims as well as perpetrators. The debate was sparked by Gunther Grass, the Nobel prize winner, in a novel fictionalising the wartime account of a passenger ship torpedoed by the Soviet navy killing thousands of Germans on board.


The battle for history


Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 21/01/2007


Antony Beevor reviews The Fire: the Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 by Jörg Friedrich, tr by Allison Brown


When this book first appeared in Germany in 2003, many Germans were encouraged to see themselves as the real victims of the war. Jörg Friedrich's inflammatory comments about the strategic bombing offensive implied that Churchill was a war criminal. But, blinded by moral outrage, Friedrich is simply not interested in understanding how the tragedy inflicted on German cities came about.

The origins of the strategic bombing campaign in fact lay in the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918. Leaders of the new service, determined to leave behind their subservience to the Royal Navy and the Army, insisted that the RAF should be a strategic arm. Its senior officers fostered the myth that "the bomber will always get through". This attitude prepared the way for the heavy bomber and Air Marshal Harris's obsession with smashing German civilian morale along with the country's industry.

The Americans, meanwhile, claimed that, unlike the RAF's night-time operations, their daylight bombing was a precision attack against industrial targets – yet in the poor weather that so often prevailed over northern Europe, US bomb patterns were no tighter than the RAF's and frequently less so. Harris, however, had no qualms about accepting the cruel truth that cities were the only targets large enough to hit effectively.

One of the other major influences on this strategy, as W G Sebald pointed out, was that Britain had invested so much in lives, industrial capacity and treasure that its bomber arm had become an operation that could not be stood down.

The British embraced aerial bombing to avoid another battle of attrition on the ground, like that in Flanders. Revenge, too, played a part, of course, but it was not just revenge for the bombing of London and Coventry and other British cities. Friedrich compares British bomb casualties with those in Germany, where their numbers were more than 10 times higher. But he evades the question of civilians killed by the Luftwaffe in other countries and the fact that the RAF was the only force capable of striking back on behalf of all those suffering under a cruel occupation.

He does not acknowledge the career of Gen Wolfram von Richthofen, the destroyer of Durango and Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, then Rotterdam, Belgrade, the Venetian splendours of Chania and Heraklion, and the countless cities in the Soviet Union – including Stalingrad, where more than 40,000 civilians are estimated to have died from Luftwaffe bombing. This is the true danger of such revisionist works in Germany. The context is removed and cause is separated from effect to emphasise the sense of German suffering.

Friedrich's most astonishing assertion is that Churchill "should have and could have stopped the war" in the summer of 1940. Is he therefore suggesting that Britain should have left Hitler in undisturbed control of Europe from the Atlantic to the Pripet Marshes? That is a much more serious form of revisionism than the cult of the victim.

When it comes to bomb loads and tactics, Friedrich tries to make it sound as if the RAF invented the idea of combining high explosive bombs with incendiaries. In fact, this was something the Luftwaffe Condor Legion had developed in Spain several years before, namely at Guernica. Of course the subsequent bombing of civilian targets in Germany and the creation of firestorms is morally indefensible, even if the Luftwaffe did kill many more civilians overall than the Allied air forces. But "total war", it should be remembered, was rather more of a Nazi invention. The British began as amateurs in 1939 and became professionals only under duress.

In 1942 and 1943, Britain was unable to invade across the Channel. The strategic bombing campaign was Britain's "second front" to help the Soviet Union, which was taking almost all the casualties. This plan proved very effective militarily. Some 80 per cent of the Luftwaffe fighter and anti-aircraft strength on the Eastern Front was brought back to defend the Reich. This contributed greatly to the huge advances made by the Red Army, above all to the surprise offensives, such as Operation Bagration in June 1944.

German reconnaissance aircraft stood little chance of survival. Friedrich reveals an astonishing ignorance of what was happening on the Eastern Front. He refers to bombing raids on the Krupp factories in the spring of 1943 as "pinpricks", when he acknowledges that the damage postponed the production of Tiger and Panther tanks by two months. And this was just before the Battle of Kursk, the greatest clash of armour in history.

Of course, it is hard to justify the continued pounding of German cities after the summer of 1944, since it had by then become clear that bombing would not bring collapse and surrender. Even the pugnacious Churchill began to have serious doubts. But the truth is that we were running short of ground troops, and having fashioned this terrible and not very accurate weapon, it seemed unthinkable to stop using it before the war was finished.

In those days, few people on either side minded how many enemy civilians died, providing it reduced their own casualties. Friedrich's diatribe, while understandable in his own, extremely selective field of view, proves the rule that the urge today to impose contemporary values and attitudes on earlier periods can produce only bad history.


27 January 2007 08:58

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS £21.95 (544pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Fire, by Jörg Friedrich, trans. Allison Brown

The inferno that still blazes

By David Cesarani

Published: 18 January 2007


One reader of Jörg Friedrich's epic account of the Allied air offensive against Germany during the Second World War told him it was "an encyclopedia of pain". The seemingly endless recapitulation of death and destruction certainly makes it hard going. But Friedrich's method and style are mesmerising. This is a book that demands to be read, no matter how uncomfortable the experience.

But it also calls for caution. The book aroused controversy in Germany because it seemed to draw an equivalence between Nazi genocidal policies and Allied goals in the air war. When Friedrich characterised the bombing campaign as a "comprehensive extermination strategy", he seemed to be evoking the victimhood of the Jews in order to curry sympathy for the Germans.

Allison Brown's fine translation reveals that, while Friedrich may not be entirely acquitted, his thesis is more complex and ambiguous than some of his critics allowed. Friedrich describes the air war as a high-tech duel in which the balance of advantage oscillated. It took the RAF many years to reach the point at which it could gut German cities, and was able to do so with impunity only in the last months of the war. Until then, each raid was a battle in the air rather than a massacre on the ground.

The rate at which lumbering Wellington bombers were shot down meant that the crews were "flying in their coffins". The first daylight raids by the US Army Air Force resulted in slaughter among the bombers. It was no surprise that air crew barely thought about the effects of bombing. Their main concern was staying alive. Nor were the civilians innocent victims of a strategy devised by politicians and generals. The devastating raids on Warsaw, Rotterdam and London were applauded in the German press. When the RAF hit back, it won a chorus of approval. Anyone reading a newspaper in London or Berlin could get a clear idea of the misery that bombing was inflicting.

However, the RAF embarked on area bombing only after years of striking ineffectually at economic and military targets. The initiative came from the Chief of Air Staff Sir Charles Portal rather than "Bomber" Harris, who is usually blamed. Harris certainly believed that the RAF could win the war by levelling 40 German cities, but he discovered that this was not so easy. The RAF ended up targetting medieval city centres because it was easier to identify them (cathedral spires were particularly useful) and they burned well.

Even then, Harris rarely achieved the knock-out blow he aimed for. The RAF "succeeded" in Hamburg in July 1943 because weather and other factors coincided to produce a firestorm. Harris's dream was to repeat the exercise on Berlin and so topple the Third Reich. But Berlin was, literally, made of sterner stuff. It did not burn well. The RAF suffered horrendous losses in pursuit of Harris's elusive apocalypse.

The statistics are surprising. While 1.5 per cent of the German urban population was killed in air raids, over 40 per cent of RAF crew were shot down. German civil defence measures were effective and, until late 1944, the Luftwaffe, in a fearsome combination with anti-aircraft artillery, took such a heavy toll that only one in three RAF airmen had any hope of completing the regulation 30 missions.

The high death toll among the Germans, over 425,000, was not a result of firestorms such as those in Hamburg and Dresden. These were unusual. Rather, it was caused by steady attrition. The bulk of the killing came in 1945 when cities were swollen with refugees and the Allies had air supremacy. Friedrich is scathing about the policy of hitting targets with limited military significance when the war was nearly over.

However, his own evidence is ambiguous. He asks "Did Hildesheim [a pretty city with a medieval core] have to be wiped out because of the train station?" Well, later he explains why the Germans considered that "train stations were the front".

He notes that until autumn 1944, arms production was only slightly reduced by the bombing, but his chapters on air-raid protection and counter measures show how they drained resources from other fronts. Friedrich powerfully demonstrates that bombing failed to destroy civilian morale and actually forced the population closer to a regime skilled at propaganda and welfare measures. But he also observes that, by March 1945, German troops could not see the point of defending rubble, while civilians muttered "The Brits should come and bring this to an end".

At times Friedrich's bias takes over. While he excoriates the British for practising the "politics of annihilation", he claims German bombing campaigns were improvised. By suggesting, on flimsy grounds, that Hitler was lured into a "trap" when he ordered the bombing of London, he implies that the Germans cannot be accused of sowing the wind.

By focusing narrowly on the experience of the bombers and the bombed, Friedrich creates a stupendous memorial to human suffering and cultural loss, but he screens out the wider effects that made them necessary and justifiable. He ignores the likely impact on the land war if resources consumed by air defence had been unleashed against Allied troops and tanks. If civilians died for lack of bunkers, it was because Hitler wanted more pillboxes at the front. The Nazi leadership, not the Allies, decided that mass death was a price they could afford to pay and that a judicious mixture of hand-outs and terror would keep the population in line.

The most heart-rending passages describe the fate of the elderly, women and children. Whereas a soldier could always surrender, they had no choice. But if Hitler had possessed enough steel and concrete he would have protected his people, and confounded the Allies. Ultimately, German suffering was the responsibility of his regime and those who supported it. Friedrich avers that "it is not my profession's to judge who deserved or did not deserve what". But by arguing consistently that Germans did not deserve "the fire", he comes close to excuplating the regime that doomed them.

David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London


Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 25/02/2007


Facing the firestorm


Dominic Sandbrook reviews Inferno: the Devastation of Hamburg by Keith Lowe


Towards the end of July 1943, leaflets began falling from the sky above the city of Hamburg. Children playing in the streets whispered that the leaflets were poisoned, and ran home for fire tongs to pick them up. Reading them was forbidden, but almost everybody sneaked a look. The leaflets instructed Hamburgers to leave the city immediately, because it was about to be attacked by Allied bombers.

Nobody took any notice. It was only propaganda, after all, and the war seemed so far away. So they carried on as before in the glorious summer weather, laughing at the visiting circus, listening to Hungarian orchestras, watching the latest romances at the cinema or simply wandering the streets in the evening sunshine. And then, on July 24, the bombers came.

The destruction of Hamburg was one of the great human catastrophes of the Second World War. By comparison, the ordeals of London or Coventry scarcely come close; the only parallels are Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After a week of Allied raids, almost 50,000 people had been killed and 40,000 injured; a million people were made homeless; and 40,000 homes, two dozen hospitals, hundreds of schools and scores of banks, churches, offices and theatres had burnt to the ground. Even the zoo was destroyed, and its animals - zebras, jaguars, tigers, monkeys - were either blown up or put down.

When British troops entered the city two years later, they were horrified at what they found. "It was more than appalling," one said later, remembering "an atmosphere of ageless quiet, a monument to man's power of self-destruction".

Facts and figures cannot do justice to the sheer horror of what happened to Hamburg in July 1943. But Keith Lowe's admirable book, which is impeccably researched and engagingly written, is full of moving little details and stories.

We read of children fleeing the firestorm that engulfed the streets, stumbling over piles of charred corpses, sobbing as their hair caught fire. A schoolboy saw his neighbours running towards a canal: the asphalt had begun to melt in the heat, so their feet got stuck, their legs began to burn, and the flames engulfed them.

Perhaps most harrowing was what Herbert Wulf saw after the fires had died down: two prostrate figures, "no longer recognisable as man or woman", covered with a burned crust a centimetre thick, "still giving their last signs of life through guttural sounds and small movements of their arms".

If Lowe's book merely wallowed in the gory detail, though, it would be nothing more than war pornography. But he is a better historian than that. For one thing, he gives us a genuinely suspenseful account of the bombing raids from the point of view of the Allied pilots. He not only handles the inferno superbly, but is also adept at conveying the nervous mood before a raid, the pilots grabbing a last cigarette and exchanging a last black joke as they climbed up to their bomber.

As he points out, the Allied pilots who took part in the raids are often reluctant to discuss their experiences today, afraid of being pilloried by younger men incapable of understanding the pressures of the time. But in this case they need have no fear, for Lowe tells their story with tact and genuine sympathy.

Anyone writing about the Second World War faces as much of a moral challenge as a historical one. Even directly after the war, many people in Britain shuddered to think of the carnage their bombers had wrought. But Lowe steers well clear of the simplistic pieties of A C Grayling, whose recent book on the iniquities of the Allied campaign added nothing new to the debate. There is less certainty and more complexity in Lowe's account.

Unlike Grayling, he pays careful attention to the historical context, especially to the legacy of the First World War. After all, "Bomber" Harris, the much-reviled architect of the Hamburg raids, had seen the bloodbath of Flanders first-hand, and believed bombing was the only way to spare his comrades the horror of the trenches. As Lowe points out, it was a disturbingly seductive rationale: which of us, in Harris's position, would have chosen differently?

It is an ambiguous conclusion, perhaps, but none the worse for that, and it rounds off a thoroughly engaging and sobering book. There are rather too many military histories of the Second World War, but this one deserves its place on the shelves.



March 04, 2007

Eve of destruction

Frederick Taylor

INFERNO: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943 by Keith Lowe

Viking £25

In his introduction, Keith Lowe, a novelist-turned-historian, cannot resist reminding us how the effect of 9/11 on New York pales alongside the destruction inflicted by the RAF on Hamburg nearly 60 years before. “The sheer horror of this action still consumes Americans with righteous indignation,” Lowe blithely tells us about 9/11, “but, tragic as this event was, it was essentially only the destruction of a handful of buildings.”

Well, yes, but . . . Enormities such as the bombing of Hamburg represented ghastly way-stations in a ruthless, technology-driven, six-year war between mighty military-industrial powers that cost the lives of tens of millions. The deaths of 3,000 human beings in the Twin Towers, on the other hand, resulted from a freelance terrorist atrocity, perpetrated in peace-time by adherents of a radical death cult, an act without legitimacy in moral or international law. So, are we actually in the same ethical ballpark here? The author’s judgment on this issue remains irritatingly unclear.

In truth, the level of frightfulness visited upon Germany’s second city that fateful night in 1943 is literally incomparable, except perhaps to the later annihilation of Dresden. The “firestorm raid” began as just one component operation in a joint Anglo-American bombing campaign against Hamburg spread over 10 days. The designated aiming point for the 787 British bombers that crossed the North Sea on the night of July 27 lay in Hamburg’s city centre, but, due to navigational error, the RAF ended up saturation-bombing the close-packed working-class districts about two miles to the east. Aided by freakishly dry and warm weather, these areas formed the epicentre of the first man-made “firestorm” — a searing, greedy tornado that consumed everything in its path at temperatures that reached 1,600 degrees. In unspeakable circumstances, 40,000 people perished. Afterwards, most of Hamburg’s 1.8m inhabitants fled, spreading the virus of panic throughout the country. The Third Reich itself teetered on the brink.

Two special factors enabled the raid’s rare destructive power: the heat wave, and the introduction of a new device, “Windows” — a mass-release of metallic foil over the target — which “blinded” the German defenders, rendering their radar-guided night fighters and antiaircraft artillery helpless. The RAF’s pathfinders could thus target-mark at leisure, and the waves of bombers could make their runs unhindered, dropping a deadly mix of high-explosive and incendiary bombs in a concentrated fashion that transformed this otherwise routine raid into an historic cataclysm.

The story of that hellish summer night is one that Lowe tells well, unblinkingly, exactly as he should. His book is worth having for this one tour de force. However, other aspects of his account invite caution. The author declares that the RAF distributed warning leaflets before the raid. Although none have survived, he believes that the number of witnesses is proof enough. This observation will raise a wintry smile among veteran air-war historians, all too familiar with the unreliable nature of collective memory. The mythology of air warfare is full of similar “warning” tales. It was not Bomber Command’s policy to preadvertise its attacks. Why encourage the enemy to prepare his defences (which were, in Hamburg’s case, notoriously formidable)?

Lowe also neglects pertinent sources, including the historian Ursula Böttner’s detailed analysis of the economic and social consequences of the bombing. Böttner does not share Lowe’s belief that its effects proved relatively short-lived and indecisive. She concludes that Hamburg never really recovered, that industrial production and morale suffered serious, lasting damage, and this was also true elsewhere in the Reich. Other recent research backs this trend towards a more positively nuanced view of the Allied air campaign’s overall effectiveness. It says, of course, nothing about its morality, which remains a matter of controversy.


 N Z Z  Online

Grausame Notwendigkeit?

Die Debatte um den Bombenkrieg gegen Deutschlands Städte

Die flächendeckende Zerstörung der deutschen Städte in den Jahren 1942 bis 1945, der über eine halbe Million Zivilisten zum Opfer fielen und die 55 000 alliierten Bomberpiloten das Leben kostete, hatte im Spätherbst letzten Jahres zu einer emotionalen Debatte in den deutschen und britischen Feuilletons geführt. Ausgelöst hatte sie der Privatgelehrte und Publizist Jörg Friedrich, dessen Buch «Der Brand. Deutschland im Bombenkrieg» mit dem Gestus des Tabubruchs auftrat und wohl nicht zuletzt dadurch zum grossen Verkaufserfolg wurde. Wie dieses Buch diesseits und jenseits des Ärmelkanals beurteilt wurde, kann man jetzt in einem von Lothar Kettenacker, dem stellvertretenden Direktor des Deutschen Historischen Instituts in London, herausgegebenen Sammelband nachlesen.

Zum Widerspruch reizte die Kommentatoren vor allem Friedrichs Wortwahl, durch die er den Bombenkrieg in die Nähe des Holocausts rückte, zumal er keinen Leser daran hinderte, in Britanniens Kriegspremier Winston Churchill einen Kriegsverbrecher zu erblicken, der Hitler an Menschenverachtung kaum nachgestanden habe. Dass dadurch die deutschen Untaten mit den tatsächlichen oder vermeintlichen der Alliierten aufgerechnet und letztlich relativiert werden sollten, gehört daher in Deutschland wie Grossbritannien zu den häufigsten Vorwürfen. Horst Boog, der wohl beste Kenner der Geschichte des Bombenkriegs, wies zudem zahlreiche sachliche Fehler und Übertreibungen nach, erkannte aber Friedrichs fiktionale Kraft an: «Wenn er dem Buchtitel noch den Untertitel ‹ein Roman› . . . hinzugefügt hätte, . . . könnte man sagen: ‹Grossartig!›»

Der Historiker Hans Mommsen dagegen verteidigte Friedrichs Wertungen weitgehend und stand damit ziemlich allein unter seinen Fachkollegen, welche immer wieder die fehlende Kontextualisierung bemängelten. Der Oxforder Historiker Nicholas Stargardt etwa wies darauf hin, dass ein ahistorisches und einseitiges Bild entstehen muss, wenn man ausschliesslich von den deutschen Opfern spricht. Lothar Kettenacker rief darüber hinaus in Erinnerung, dass Grossbritannien gegenüber der Sowjetunion nur mittels der Bomberflotte seinen Wert als Bündnispartner beweisen konnte. Bewegend sind die sehr persönlich gehaltenen Anmerkungen Peter Wapnewskis, der von den gemischten Gefühlen in den Luftschutzkellern berichtete.

Die Dialektik von Zerstörung und Befreiung war ideologisch unverblendeten Deutschen nicht erst im Nachhinein erkennbar. Insgesamt zeugte die Debatte, nüchtern betrachtet, von einem hohen Reflexionsniveau, und man hätte sich nur gewünscht, dass auch Friedrich selbst nochmals zu Wort gekommen wäre. Gut möglich, dass sein Buch trotz aller notwendigen Kritik dereinst als wichtiger Meilenstein auf dem Weg zu einer gesamteuropäischen Erinnerung an den Zweiten Weltkrieg erscheinen wird. Nicht trotz, sondern wegen seiner groben Einseitigkeiten und Verzerrungen.

Christoph Jahr

Lothar Kettenacker (Hg.): Ein Volk von Opfern? Die neue Debatte um den Bombenkrieg 1940-45. Rowohlt Berlin, Berlin 2003. 191 S., Fr. 25.80.

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 26. August 2003, Ressort Feuilleton





Barbarische Strategie

Von Rudolf Walther

Militärschriftsteller vertreten die These, die neuesten Waffensysteme der Luftkriegsführung verfügten über eine so große Treffgenauigkeit, dass die „überflüssige Grausamkeit“ (Edward Luttwak) früherer Städtebombardements endgültig der Vergangenheit angehöre. Die Realitäten nach Luftangriffen in Serbien, Afghanistan und im Irak sahen und sehen anders aus, selbst wenn man sie als „Kollateralschäden“ verharmlost.

Unabhängig voneinander entdeckten britische, französische und italienische Offiziere bereits vor dem Ersten Weltkrieg die strategischen Möglichkeiten eines Krieges aus der Luft. Zunächst sollten Flugzeuge im Ersten Weltkrieg nur Aufklärungsfunktionen übernehmen, aber schon ab 1917 begann die Bombardierung englischer, französischer und deutscher Städte.

Politiker wie Militärs stießen dabei auf das politisch-moralische Janusgesicht dieser Kriegsführung. Mit dem zweifelhaften Argument, den Kampfwillen oder die Moral eines Landes zu brechen, ermordet man gezielt Unbewaffnete oder nimmt deren Ermordung billigend in Kauf, was nach damals geltendem Völkerrecht verboten war. Lord Hugh Montague Trenchard, der Vater der Royal Air Force (R.A.F.), stellte in einem Memorandum vom Januar 1918 dagegen fest, dass selbst jene Bomben, die Industrieanlagen verfehlen, „die Moral feindlicher Arbeiter beschädigen, weil sie deren Leben und Wohnung zerstören und die öffentlichen Dienstleistungen unterbrechen“.

Der riesige Erfolg von Jörg Friedrichs Buch Der Brand, das die Folgen der alliierten Luftkriegsführung drastisch vor Augen führt, belegt auch, dass die politisch-moralische Ambivalenz ungebrochen virulent ist. Im Ersten Weltkrieg mussten die Flieger auf „selbstmörderische Höhe“ (Neville Jones) hinuntertauchen, um überhaupt eine Chance zu haben, ein Ziel zu treffen. Und sie hatten vor Augen, was sie anrichteten. Im Golfkrieg von 1991 flogen die Bomber in so großer Höhe, dass die Piloten die Wirkung der 24735 abgeworfenen Streubomben, jede bestehend aus 247 Ein-Pfund-Bomben, nicht mehr sehen konnten. Luftkrieg bleibt „eine vornehme Umschreibung für Massenmord an Zivilpersonen“ (Jürgen Todenhöfer).

Der vorliegende Sammelband Ein Volk von Opfern? Die neue Debatte um den Bombenkrieg 1940–45 enthält über zwanzig Beiträge zu diesem Thema. Neben den Rezensionen von Friedrichs Buch aus den großen deutschen Tages- und Wochenzeitungen hat der Herausgeber Lothar Kettenacker auch einige britische Reaktionen abgedruckt, denn dort war der Aufschrei groß, nachdem der Daily Telegraph mit der Schlagzeile polterte: Die Deutschen nennen Churchill einen Kriegsverbrecher. Der englische Historiker Mark Connelly erklärt die Aufregung in England damit, dass das Informationsministerium die englische Bevölkerung während des Krieges mit „einer Mischung aus Wahrheiten, Halbwahrheiten und unverfrorenen Lügen“ über die Ziele und Folgen des area bombing desinformierte und nach dem Krieg fast niemand präzise nachfragte. Auch die Tatsache, dass Churchill den militärischen Sinn des Städtebombardements in seinen Memoiren bezweifelte, hat weite Teile der britischen Öffentlichkeit nicht erreicht.

Joachim Trenkner rekonstruiert ein weithin unbekanntes Ereignis des Kriegsbeginns. Die deutsche Luftwaffe wählte am 1. September 1939 die Bombardierung des polnischen Städtchen Wieluº gleichsam als Hauptprobe (1200 Tote) für das acht Tage später in Warschau beginnende Massaker – das erste Flächenbombardement einer Großstadt (ZEIT Nr. 7/03). Herauszuheben unter den Beiträgen sind die Analysen von Richard Overy und Lothar Kettenacker, die das politische und militärische Dilemma, in dem Churchill steckte, untersuchen. Die Bomber der R.A.F. bildeten 1940 die einzige englische Offensivwaffe, und nach dem deutschen Überfall auf die Sowjetunion am 21. Juni 1941 verlangte der Bündnispartner Stalin von den westlichen Alliierten einen Beleg für deren Verlässlichkeit. Die Kompensation bestand zunächst in der Bombardierung von deutschen Industrieanlagen und Verkehrswegen. Die mangelnde Treffgenauigkeit der Bomben und das penetrante Drängen von Teilen der R.A.F. erzwangen den Übergang zum Flächenbombardement deutscher Städte. „Eine barbarische Strategie“, aber Overy zufolge die einzige, die Hitlers Marsch zur „Supermacht“ verlangsamen konnte.

Lothar Kettenacker (Hrsg.): Ein Volk von Opfern?
Die neue Debatte um den Bombenkrieg 1940–45; Rowohlt Berlin Verlag, Berlin 2003; 192 S., 14,90 ¤




„Wir hatten keine Gewissensbisse wegen Dresden“

Die Debatte über den Bombenkrieg: Neue Bücher zeigen, dass die Strategie der Alliierten überaus brutal, aber militärisch wirksam war


LOTHAR KETTENACKER: Ein Volk von Opfern? Die neue Debatte um den Bombenkrieg 1940 – 1945. Rowohlt Berlin 2003, 193 Seiten, 14,90 Euro.

ROBIN NEILLANDS: Der Krieg der Bomber. Arthur Harris und die Bomberoffensive der Alliierten 1939 – 1945. Edition q, Berlin 2002, 424 Seiten, 29,70 Euro.

SPIEGEL SPEZIAL: Als Feuer vom Himmel fiel. Der Bombenkrieg gegen die Deutschen. Spiegel Verlag, Hamburg 2003, 5,00 Euro.

HORST BOOG, GERHARD KREBS, DETLEF VOGEL: Das Deutsche Reich in der Defensive. (Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg VII) Deutsche Verlags- Anstalt Stuttgart/München 2001, 831 Seiten, 49,80 Euro.

Bereits besprochen: Jörg Friedrich: Der Brand. Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940 - 1945. Propyläen Verlag, München 2002, 25 Euro.


Der Pilot hat seinen Frieden mit sich gemacht und mit dem Tod, den er brachte. „Unsere Denkweise war: Je größer der Schaden, den wir anrichteten, um so eher würde der Krieg enden. Wir hatten keine Gewissensbisse wegen Dresden. Für uns war es ein weiteres Ziel, das anzugreifen war.“

Dies berichtet ein Veteran der 460. Bomber-Squadron der RAF dem britischen Militärhistoriker Robin Neillands über das mörderische Flächenbombardement auf Dresden im Februar 1945. So unterschiedlich können die Sichtweisen noch 60 Jahre nach der Verwüstung Deutschlands durch die strategische Bomberoffensive der Westalliierten sein. In der Bundesrepublik hatte Jörg Friedrichs Buch „Der Brand“ vergangenes Jahr mit der umgekehrten Perspektive ungeahnten Erfolg. Deutsche als Opfer, das – angeblich – gebrochene Tabu löste eine moralische Debatte aus, die bis heute anhält und die ein vorzügliches Spiegel-spezial-Heft anschaulich beschreibt.

Sieg in der Luft

Wissenschaftlich gesehen, ist Neillands Buch „Der Krieg der Bomber“ in vielerlei Hinsicht der Anti-Friedrich. Der Brite führt vor allem auf, was zu Gunsten des von Friedrich Angeklagten spricht. Der Deutsche pflegt den Gestus eines Staatsanwalts, der atemlos die Gräueltaten des Angeklagten erzählt, als habe er sie eben erst aufgedeckt; ein Bußprediger im Namen all der Toten und Verbrannten und Verschütteten, der absichtsvoll Tabus brechen will, die längst keine mehr waren. Er gerät damit ins „Dickicht der Aufrechnung“, wie Ralph Bollmann von der tageszeitung schreibt. Sein Artikel über das „Brand“-Buch und die Beiträge vieler anderer Autoren sind versammelt in dem spannenden Band „Ein Volk von Opfern?“, das die wichtigsten Beiträge zur Friedrich-Debatte zusammenfasst.

Friedrichs Eigenwilligkeit in Stil und Argumentation, sein Habitus des Tabubrechers, als sei er eine Art Goldhagen der Bombenopfer, stößt auf berechtigte Skepsis, wie dieser Sammelband zeigt. Öffnet Friedrich doch – sobald die Geschichte von Deutschen als Opfern handelt –, den Weg zu einer „sentimentalisierten Darreichungsform“, so darin SZ-Autor Willi Winkler. Vielleicht ist es aber noch eher ein cri de coeur, zu dem der Autor angesichts des furchtbaren Loses der Bombenopfer jedes Recht hat. Nur: Neu sind seine Erkenntnisse nicht.

Zu Recht schreibt Herausgeber Lothar Kettenacker zwar: „Kaum ein Historiker ist heute noch bereit, die flächenmäßige Bombardierung deutscher Städte zu rechtfertigen, weder strategisch noch moralisch.“ Das strategische Bombardement löste nicht ein, was seine Schöpfer sich seit den zwanziger Jahren von ihm versprochen hatten: den Feind aus der Luft niederzuzwingen. So richtig diese Erkenntnis ist, sie verleitet zu leicht zu der Ansicht, die zum Beispiel der Fernsehprofessor Guido Knopp gern vertritt: Die Luftoffensive habe den Krieg kaum oder gar nicht verkürzt. Der renommierte Historiker Hans Mommsen vertritt in Kettenackers Buch ebenfalls die These, der „Aufwand an technischer Anstrengung und Personal stand in keinem Verhältnis zum Ziel der rascheren Kriegsbeendigung, sondern hat womöglich den inneren Zusammenhalt des Regimes noch weiter gestärkt“. Friedrich setzt sich mit der Effizienz der Bombenangriffe seltsamerweise nicht systematisch auseinander. Ohne Antwort auf diese eher militärhistorische Frage lässt sich die moralische, die er angestoßen hat, aber kaum beantworten.

Für die britische Seite, dies zeigt der Band des am Deutschen Historischen Institut in London lehrenden Kettenacker ebenso deutlich wie Neillands Buch, ist die Friedrich-Debatte eher ein Kuriosum. Ja, argumentieren sie, die massenhafte Zerstörung deutscher Wohnviertel war falsch und wurde vor allem gegen Kriegsende militärisch immer sinnloser, der Luftkrieg an sich aber war weder falsch noch sinnlos. Er war, schreibt sehr pointiert Richard Overy vom Londoner King’s College, „barbarisch, aber sinnvoll.“ Der beste deutsche Kenner der Materie ist wohl Horst Boog vom Militärgeschichtlichen Forschungsamt, der, kurz vor Friedrichs Buch, im siebten Band des Standardwerkes über den Zweiten Weltkrieg den Krieg der Bomber ausführlich beschreibt. Was dem nüchternen Text im Gegensatz zu Friedrich an Eindringlichkeit fehlt, macht er durch Präzision wett. Und es wird auch darin deutlich, wie wirksam die Luftoffensive der Alliierten war.

Shock and Awe

Die Bomberoffensive hat den Krieg nicht gewonnen. Was im Irak- Krieg „shock and awe“ genannt wird, ein alles niederwalzendes Bombardement gegen Führung und Infrastruktur des feindlichen Militärs, galt im Zweiten Weltkrieg dem feindlichen Land, seinen Städten, seiner Industrie, seinen Menschen. Der im Irak zumindest behauptete Versuch, zivile Opfer zu vermeiden, galt in den vierziger Jahren wenig bis nichts – auch wenn, wie Neillands beschreibt, die Amerikaner den Ausradierungs-Kurs des britischen Bomber-Chefs Arthur Harris oftmals zugunsten von Präzisionsangriffen unterbanden. Letztlich haben sie dem Terror aus der Luft aber schon mit der „Pointblank-Direktive“ 1943 „zur Untergrabung der Moral des deutschen Volkes“ zugestimmt. Der Plan schlug fehl – die Wehrmacht musste am Boden niedergekämpft werden. Dennoch, und das geht in der von Friedrich ausgelösten Debatte leicht verloren, hat der Luftkrieg den Krieg ohne Zweifel verkürzt.

Neillands schreibt der Bomberoffensive eine „bedeutende Rolle bei der Niederwerfung Deutschlands“ zu. Overy meint sogar: „Ohne die Bombardements wäre ein mögliches Ergebnis ein neuer Stellungskrieg gewesen, eine Pattsituation, in der Deutschland zwar nicht gewinnen, in der es aber auch nicht besiegt werden kann.“ Diese Hypothese treibt die Sache wohl zu weit. Aber sie fragt mit Recht, wie viel länger Deutschland ohne den Krieg der Bomber durchgehalten hätte. Dieser ersetzte von 1941 an zunächst die zweite Front, zu der Großbritannien die Kraft fehlte. Und der Luftkrieg war eine Waffe im Überlebenskampf. „Im Augenblick höchsten nationalen Notstands wurde eine Streitkraft geschaffen, die Gewalt von schrecklichem Ausmaß gegen den Feind zu entfesseln vermochte“, schreibt Mark Connelly von der University of Kent. Und diese Gewalt blieb, nachdem die USA die nächtlichen Raids der Briten durch Tagesangriffe auf Rüstungsziele ergänzten, alles andere als erfolglos.

Den Widerstand gebrochen

Vor allem zerstörte sie die bis dahin so gefürchtete deutsche Luftwaffe. Boog schildert präzise, wie Angriffe hunderter waffenstarrender „Fliegender Festungen“ und „Liberators“ die Jagdverteidigung aufrieben. Es war, wie Boog etwas untertreibend schreibt, „gleichsam ein Nebenprodukt der strategischen Bomberoperationen“. Aber eher ließe sich sagen, beides sei nicht voneinander zu trennen, denn zumindest die US-Tagbombardements 1943 und Anfang 1944 („Big Week“) zielten vor allem gegen die Luftrüstung des Feindes. Die Deutschen wussten um die Gefahr, sie hatten aber keine Wahl, als den größten Teil ihrer Jäger den gewaltigen Geschwadern entgegenzuwerfen – und sie zu verlieren. Im Frühjahr 1944 hatten die Alliierten dank des neuen Fernstrecken- Begleitjägers P-51 Mustang die Luftherrschaft selbst über dem Reich gewonnen, zumindest am Tage. Es war, wie Boog zu Recht sagt, „einer der am meisten entscheidenden Siege des Krieges in der Luft“. Erst dieser ermöglichte es den Alliierten, innerhalb eines Jahres Frankreich und dann Deutschland selbst zu besetzen.

Darüber hinaus wurde die Infrastruktur der deutschen Kriegsmaschine – Verkehrsmittel, Treibstoff, Waffenproduktion – durch den strategischen Bombenkrieg zwar nicht ausgeschaltet, aber doch irreparabel beschädigt. Wenn auch, so Boog, gegen Kriegsende „die meisten Städtezerstörungen militärisch überflüssig waren, so waren es die Angriffe auf die deutschen Verkehrsverbindungen zu jener Zeit noch nicht“. 1944 erreichte, schätzt Overy, die Hälfte des vorgesehenen Kriegsmaterials die Wehrmacht nicht mehr. Neillands stimmt dem zu: „Ohne Treibstoff und nötige Verkehrsverbindungen brach der deutsche Widerstand schließlich zusammen.“ Boog schildert dies anschaulich am gescheiterten Versuch der Luftwaffe, 1944 Verstärkungen an die französische Invasionsfront zu fliegen.

Auch mobilisierten die Deutschen zur Abwehr der Angriffe massive Kräfte, die an der Front fehlten – ein Umstand, den britische Historiker ein wenig über Gebühr zur Rechtfertigung des Luftkrieges anführen, der aber auch nicht falsch ist. Allein ein Drittel der deutschen Artillerie wurde zur Luftabwehr benötigt, die noch dazu vergeblich blieb. Das Argument, die Rüstung des Reichs sei trotz der Angriffe stetig gewachsen, lässt Overy nicht gelten: Man müsse sich „nur vorstellen, wie die deutsche Kriegsindustrie ohne die Bombardements ausgesehen hätte“. Letztlich aber gesteht auch Overy eines zu, und fast klingt es, als spräche er vom Irak-Feldzug des Jahres 2003: Die größte Fehleinschätzung der alliierten Strategen „war die Erwartung, dass der Bombenkrieg eine politische Krise im Land des Gegners und damit ein Ende der Kämpfe herbeiführen würde“.

Es heißt manchmal, Geschichte wiederhole sich nicht. Was sich aber wiederholt, ist die Weigerung, aus der Geschichte zu lernen.