Beneath Dresden lay the catacombs. Towards the end of the second world war, the authorities decided that these cellars under the beautiful baroque Old Town could provide cover from British air raids. On February 13 1945, the bombers arrived and many civilians fled below to avoid being killed by shrapnel or crumbling buildings, or being burned alive.
But, writes Jorg Friedrich in his book The Fire: the Bombing of Germany 1940-45, “this tightly meshed underground construction was a landscape of insanity”. Such was the incendiary impact of the bombing that heat, gases, flames and smoke whipped through the labyrinth. People panicked. In one underground corridor, 50 people got so wedged that their bodies were found fused together from the heat. Underneath the junction of Margarthenstrasse and Marienstrasse there was a steel door connecting two passageways at a right angle. Two groups of people ran towards the door from opposite sides, desperately seeking a way out of a huge subterranean oven. Each blocked the other group from going through the door and so they all died. Under Moritzstrasse, a man ran for an exit shaft, but the following crowd pulled him back and he was killed in the crush. Two hundred people pressed on this crowd from behind, so that the body could not be budged. Again, everyone died.
This was where most of the 35,000 victims of the RAF on February 13 and USAAF attacks the following day died.
Friedrich’s book, a bestseller in his homeland four years ago and which now appears in English, is thick with such horror stories. They were hard for him to avoid in meticulously detailing, over nearly 600 harrowing pages, how 635,000 Germans, mostly civilian, died and 7.5 million were made homeless when British and US bombs were dropped on 131 cities and towns. “For more than 50 years after the second world war,” wrote the war historian and journalist Max Hastings, “German writers remained remarkably muted about the issue of Allied bombing of their country.”
The Fire is part of a growing German literature, including WG Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, that breaks this near silence about their wartime suffering. This is no neo-Nazi apologia (Friedrich is a former Trotskyist who hitherto spent his career indicting the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe for what it did to Coventry), rather an investigation of memory repressed for more than half a century. Friedrich tells me his 93-year-old mother, who experienced the bombing of Essen, cannot talk to him about what she saw: she embodies what Sebald called a “pre-conscious self-censorship, a way of obscuring a world that could no longer be presented in comprehensible terms”. Surely, I ask as we sit in the gathering gloom of Friedrich’s Berlin apartment, your mother must dream about the past? “I don’t know. She can’t talk to me about it.”
For many, to mourn was not justified because of Nazi war crimes. Sebald wrote: “Some of those affected by the air raids, despite their grim but impotent fury in the face of such obvious madness, regarded the great firestorms as a just punishment.”
Friedrich wants not only to put the suffering on record, but to question the moral justification for the air raids. This makes English publication fraught, at least for Friedrich, who considers some of what the British did to be war crimes. He is dreading his publicity tour: “The British have simply put a defence around this bombing campaign. It is unquestionable and yet I am questioning it.”
Indeed, The Fire is being published in English by an American academic publisher, Columbia University Press. “I don’t think there is any conspiracy about this,” says Simon Winder, head of Penguin’s history division. “I think the reason is much more lazy than that – it’s just the idea of translating it may have proved too much.” Winder did see a manuscript, but with another book on the subject by the historian Richard Overy commissioned, declined to take it on.
The tenor of Friedrich’s book has irritated even British historians who regard the bombing as a mistake. “Everything he says in the book is true in terms of the details of the effects of the bombing,” says Hastings. “It is when Friedrich speaks of ‘war crimes’ that I become suspicious. What worries me about Germany, and indeed Japan, today is that there is an increasing move towards the doctrine of moral equivalence, but I think it’s important to reject that. It’s one thing to say, as I do, that the bombing of Germany was a great mistake, and another to compare it to the killings of Jews or the appalling things the Japanese did.”
Keith Lowe’s book, Inferno, on the bombing of Hamburg in which 45,000 people died, is due next year. He says: “Something we tend to forget is the suffering we put the Germans through and Friedrich highlights that in no uncertain terms. That’s a good thing.
However, the way he goes about it is not something I can agree with. When he writes about libraries being set ablaze by our bombs, he describes it as book burning; and when he writes about people killed in cellars where they were sheltered, he used the word crematoria. He thus uses the language of the Holocaust in describing our bombing of Germany. But to equate what we did with what the Nazis did is nonsense really.
“The intentions of Bomber Command were completely different from those of the SS. Arthur Harris [Air Marshall Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the commander in chief of Bomber Command] wanted to end the war as quickly as possible.”
Friedrich does more than indict the British for killing German civilians. He contends that the Luftwaffe and the RAF changed the nature of war. “The idea is that the cities and their production and their morale contributed to warfare,” he says. “So warfare is not simply the business of an army, it’s the business of a nation. Therefore everyone is a target. That is how Churchill and Hitler changed the nature of warfare. That is what Bin Laden says. The idea is we all deserve it. You and me and those German, British, and Japanese civilians in the mass graves: they all deserve it.”
I point out that the first protocol to the fourth Geneva Convention of 1977 forbids military attacks upon civilians. Civilian targets are defined as “all objects which are not military objectives”. Article 52 defines military objectives as “those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralisation, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage”. One might, see how Article 52 might justify bombing civilians, so long as they fell under the description of military objectives.
“This is all true,” replies Friedrich, “but civilians were targets irrespective of military necessity. We saw it in Dresden and we have seen it in many places since. We see it still today. Such is modern war. And from the first there was no international court to indict those such as Harris and Sir Charles Portal, the British air force chief who, in 1942, ordered the annihilation of 900,000 enemy noncombatants. Nor is there any charge of a war crime against Winston Churchill, who was in charge of the British war effort and knew what was happening.”
Should these men be charged with war crimes? “The question should at least be asked,” he says guardedly.
Even in Britain, the reputation of Harris has been controversial. In 1948, disappointed at postwar criticism and that he alone of wartime commanders-in-chief was not offered a peerage, Harris left Britain for South Africa, returning in 1953 when Churchill, re-elected prime minister, offered him a baronetcy. Even after his death in 1984, Harris was dogged by opprobrium: in 1992 the Queen Mother was jeered as she unveiled a statue outside the RAF church, St Clement Danes, in London. The statue was repeatedly sprayed with graffiti. “It is very unfair,” says Lowe. “If you’re going to blame Harris, you’ve got to blame Churchill as well.”
But, I ask Friedrich, wasn’t the loss of life in Dresden the tragic consequence of a raid premised on military necessity? The British military historian Corelli Barnett argues that Harris took a “purely operational decision to attack Dresden, a key road and rail centre behind the German divisions fighting the Red Army”, and it was “fitting that the most notorious Bomber Command attack of them all” took place a fortnight after the full horror of the Nazi extermination camps became known to the world.
Frederick Taylor, in his acclaimed Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945, argued that behind the seeming peace lay armaments factories and marshaling yards; Dresden was channelling men and armaments east to fight the Red Army.
Friedrich thinks such justifications are absurd. At that stage in the war the optical precision instruments manufactured in Dresden for submarines and fighter planes could never have been used. He cites a memo from Albert Speer to Hitler at the end of January 1945 that said: “We have eight weeks and we’re finished.” He goes on: “It is 150% evident that all those parts in Dresden would have never become weapons because of a lack of coal, a lack of locomotives and a lack of railway lines.”
He doubts Dresden was as important for the transport of troops and armaments as Taylor alleges. “Like George Bush in Iraq they had bad intelligence and made a terrible mistake. But British historians do not believe it was a mistake. They bought this argument.”
Not all Britons who reflect on the bombing of Dresden take this view. The philosopher AC Grayling, in his recent book Among the Dead Cities, argues that many of the raids were unnecessary and disproportionate. He focuses on Operation Gomorrah, the raid on Hamburg. He writes: “It clearly and unequivocally targeted the civilian population of a large city, which was carpet bombed at night to fulfil the aim, graphically described in Sir Arthur Harris’s own words … of ‘crushing Boche, killing Boche, terrorising Boche’. If Operation Gomorrah was an immoral act, then how much more so were Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Grayling’s argument is that area or carpet bombing was immoral. “Bombing attacks that were genuine attempts at precision bombing – targeting oil, V-weapon launch sites, railways lines, U-boat pens – killed people too; but here the defence applies that there was a war on and that these things happen in war. It cannot be said deliberately targeting civilians and dropping thousands of tons of bombs on them remorselessly is a side effect of war.”
Harris, whose words have the virtue of bluntness, wrote in February 1945: “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.”
“Even if I bought that argument about supply lines,” says Friedrich, “would that justify the killing of 30,000-40,000 people? When the Germans killed 30,000 PoWs, that was treated as a war crime. Perhaps Dresden should be.”
Does he believe all bombing raids on German cities were war crimes? “We have to take it city for city. The legitimacy of Hamburg is a different question from that of Wurzburg. But regarding Dresden, even if you buy the argument about supply lines, you are entitled to look at tens of thousands of people who were killed and ask were the supply lines worth it.”
When the book first appeared, a Protestant priest told him German civilians had to die in British bombing raids, Friedrich says, “because this is the answer of heaven to the Holocaust. Philosophers, priests and poets have been the most cruel defenders of British mass killing. But how could they all have deserved it? Even the 30,000 children?”
Is there not something in this, I ask? It was the Germans who started the war and the bombing of civilians. Harris prophesied, climbing on the roof of the Air Ministry in London one night as bombs were exploding all around, “They have sown the wind, and so they shall reap the whirlwind.”
“I agree,” says Friedrich. “The Germans did start the war. And we did bomb London and the cities of the English Midlands first. It is even true that the British learned from what the Luftwaffe did. For him [Harris] Coventry wasn’t the grave of 600 persons but an innovation in warfare. He learned from it how to get at the infrastructure of a medieval city, how to make firefighters’ work more difficult by destroying water mains and so on. Then, as the war progressed, this whole method of city bombing became a combined endeavour – each side learned from the other about radar, anti-aircraft and so on. Churchill and Hitler changed during the war. They were pushed to the abyss.”
Are you suggesting Hitler and Churchill are morally equivalent? “No. That would be silly.” Rather, Friedrich is echoing the prescient wartime words of English pacifist writer Vera Brittain in Seeds of Chaos. She prophesied with “complete confidence that the callous cruelty which has caused us to destroy innocent human life in Europe’s most crowded cities, and the vandalism which has obliterated historic treasures in some of her loveliest, will appear to future civilisation as an extreme form of criminal lunacy”.
There have been many conciliatory gestures over the years. In the 60s, young people went from Coventry to Dresden, those two cities whose historic cathedrals were left in ruins, to help rebuild a bombed hospital. In 2004, a gift from the British people of a golden cross was placed on top of the rebuilt Dresden cathedral, the Frauenkirche. It had been made by a London goldsmith whose father had flown in a bomber over the city on February 13 1945.
Friedrich thinks such gestures are insufficient and believes the British head of state ought to make a symbolic gesture to recognise the suffering of German civilians. In this the Queen seems to be in a vexed position: when she visited Dresden in 2004, she did not lay a wreath at the Frauenkirche because, Canon Paul Oestericher contended in the Guardian, “her advisers feared tabloid headlines”.
What should the Queen do? “There are mass graves in cemeteries where the bomb victims lie – in Kassel for example,” Friedrich says. “Why not simply go to these mass graves of the bombing campaigns and stand there and pray? Ronald Reagan went to the SS graves. Why could not the Queen pray for Germany’s civilian dead?”
Bill McCrea, pilot, on the raid on Hamburg of July 27 1943: ‘All I was thinking about was dropping my bombs and getting home – the same as everybody … It was an appalling sight. Every so often it was just burbling up, just like a volcano. Every so often there was another explosion, another bomb went in … there was just a whole sea, a mass of flame.’
Ted Groom, flight engineer, on the raids of July 1943: ‘Today, I would think “Poor sods”. But at the time, when you’re young, you just think “Cor, this is a damn good show tonight!” I never thought about them, because I could remember London, Coventry and all these places. To me it was something that they’d asked for.’
Gretel Simon, survivor of the bombing of Kassel, October 1943: ‘When the first bombs hit around 8.25pm, the bricks around the hole through the wall were flying around like pieces of rubble. After every close hit there was such a churning of dust and air through the cellars that you thought the building would collapse … The sound of buildings crashing down nearby was so dreadful, as was the terrible thunder of two factory chimneys that collapsed, both landing right next door. Peeking out through the cellar hole you could see only a sliver of the sky, glowing red.’
Elisabeth Gerstner, on the bombing of Bonn, July 1944: ‘I saw the aeroplanes in the sky, a whole swarm of silver birds glistening in the sun. Then I saw the bombs falling. The blast knocked me down the steep stairway to the bunker. I banged with my fists and my feet against the door and they opened up for me. Usually they don’t open up the bunker door once the bombs start falling.’