Reviewed by Michael Weaver
Published on H-War (August, 2009)
Commissioned by Janet G. Valentine
The Air War in Europe from Inside a German Basement
There is an abundance of books on the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) from the perspective of the Allies, but few works from the point of view of German civilians. Jörg Friedrich’s narrative, therefore, expands our understanding of the history of World War II. Friedrich exploits accounts of survivors to paint a truly frightening story of civilians who had to endure bombardment and fire from the air for years. He brings to life the experiences of individuals as they rode out air raids, most often in the cellars of homes. He paints vivid word pictures of what it was like when massive bombs broke cities to pieces, and thousands of incendiary bombs started countless fires. Instead of analyses of whether the campaign met specific strategic objectives, Friedrich describes sitting through yet another air raid while melted tar oozed through cracked windows, and fires outside robbed the air of oxygen.
The air war from inside cellars and bomb shelters comprises a major portion of this book. Following air raids, as Friedrich writes, some survivors managed to walk out, while rescue crews dug out other civilians, dead and alive. Asphyxiation inflicted more casualties than did fire: “The cellars were both shelter and grave” (p. 337). Stout, reinforced concrete could resist bomb blasts and collapsed buildings, but would then function as an oven, and then as a coffin. Thousands roasted to death in the basements of their own homes, or in public air raid shelters. Civilians learned of the danger of staying put after the bombers had passed. If expanding fires did not overcome them, poison gases or oxygen deprivation would. They often joined the fire fighting teams to try to save what they could of their city, but the fires were too extensive. After the conflagrations ran out of fuel, survivors had to rescue trapped families and identify the dead. A person might even carry the charred remains of a relative to a cemetery in a bucket, such was the raids’ destructiveness. This book gives a more complete picture of the effects of area bombing on urban zones.
Friedrich goes into great detail describing the evolution, testing, and use of various types of high explosive and fire bombs, air defenses, radar countermeasures, bomb shelter construction, and fire fighting. He uses the words of leaders, such as Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Air Marshal Arthur Harris, to buttress his criticisms of their objectives and strategies. More than once, however, he commits puzzling errors. Royal Air Force (RAF) pathfinders were not escorts, they were target locators. He writes that the Allies designed their strategic bombers “for an offensive over the most remote enemy territory possible,” a peculiar description for densely populated areas like the Ruhr Valley (p. 18). He also missed that Bomber Command switched to nighttime raids to avoid Luftwaffe fighters, not “because of the long approach” (p. 63).
Friedrich emphasizes the RAF’s nighttime area bombing campaign, at the expense of the American contribution to the campaign. He rejects any assertions that the bombardiers were trying to strike industrial or military targets. Their goal was “inescapable mass extermination” of German civilians (p. 314). The types of weapons Bomber Command used suggest that their intent was a combination of terror bombing and city burning. Friedrich also cites the statements of British leaders in his effort to argue that their goal went beyond victory to retribution and destruction.
Friedrich employs several methods of condemning the campaign. He uses inflammatory language and purple prose to incite an emotional reaction from the reader. Friedrich equates the campaign with chemical warfare, and the strategy with that of “suicide bombers” (p. 485). He describes Bomber Command’s efforts in organizational and engineering terms, which implies that the British had dehumanized their enemies into abstract targets, thereby magnifying the malevolent aspect of their campaign. He uses language to assign moral meanings and judgments to the Allies’ acts of war in a pattern designed to condemn them as immoral, and their air war as criminal acts that were perhaps worse than those committed by the Nazis. At the same time, Friedrich is pretty hard on the German use of V weapons because their lack of precision meant that they were useful only for targeting cities and civilians, but this criticism of German strategy is a rare exception.
The author’s reasoning is often debatable. Friedrich offers a new interpretation of the Luftwaffe bombings of Warsaw and Rotterdam in 1939 and 1940: they were “desperate measure[s] taken in the chaos of war,” which made them excusable (p. 54). He rejects the argument that the Luftwaffe’s bombing of cities in Poland, Holland, and England justified the bombing of German cities because the Allied response was disproportionate. Saarbrucken, unlike Coventry, was bombed thirty times. He also argues that because the Allies made some poor choices in their ground campaign north of Aachen, they failed to conquer Germany more quickly and were therefore responsible for the greater destruction Germany suffered in 1945. Friedrich ultimately blames the policy of unconditional surrender for the carnage of 1945. He does not seriously consider that Germany could have averted that catastrophe by surrendering sooner.
Friedrich documents the destruction of Germany’s architectural heritage, its burned libraries, and the loss of archival documents to firebombing. The author details the history of city after city, the wars each endured, and the distinctiveness of the architecture the fires ravaged. Residential areas of old sections of towns, he notes, were especially vulnerable due to their wooden construction. As imposing as they were, stone buildings and castles were at risk, because unlike the paintings and tapestries inside, they could not be moved away from the target zones. Even though the Germans were able to move, store, and protect much of their historical heritage in safe places like salt mines, the losses were still grievous. Friedrich, however, never addresses the fact that Germany’s cities, people, and antiquities never would have been bombed if Germany had not started the war.
The Fire says much about what happened as a result of the bombing campaign, but the heart of the book is the meaning Friedrich attaches to it all. He is not always explicit in spelling out his ultimate arguments, or theses. They instead take firm shape as the accumulated result of his word choice and rhetorical style. According to Friedrich, the CBO, especially the firebombings by the RAF’s Lancasters, was an immoral effort to exterminate defenseless civilians. Friedrich rejects Allied claims that the bombing campaigns against petroleum refineries and the transportation network sought to eliminate gasoline production and wreck lines of communication. Since these target sets were located near noncombatants, the campaigns were actually designed to kill people. Germany was the victim in this war, not the perpetrator. The book reasons that whoever starts a war is irrelevant to the conduct of, and targeting during, a war. Friedrich essentially argues that the suffering of German civilians was so awful that nothing could justify it, not even the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Friedrich momentarily helps his argument by using the RAF’s desire for efficiency and effectiveness against it, emphasizing the relatively low casualty rate the CBO inflicted in contrast to the costs and losses to the Allies. Was it worthwhile to lose tens of thousands of airmen in order to kill just 0.7 percent of the [German] population? He would have strengthened his case, however, had he argued for a type of warfare that pitted only armed forces against armed forces, instead of just hinting at that preference. For example, what if the men and materiel of the CBO had been turned into infantry and landing craft? Could the Allies have thus invaded France in 1943 and shortened the war, thereby sparing civilians the horrors of aerial bombardment?
Friedrich weakens his argument further with his refusal to engage the strongest counterarguments. His overwrought use of language and manipulation of figures undercuts his efforts. He dismisses just war theory ideas except when they help him establish victim status for Germany. Friedrich never discusses the doctrine of double effect, the supreme emergency, nor the criterion for reprisal or punishment of an aggressor. The book avoids the issues of German responsibility and culpability in the war’s origins, nor does it address the relationship between war aims and the level of violence to which an aggrieved state may go to defend itself, and to prevent the aggressor from rising up to attack again. He does not consider the possibility that the German state may have been responsible for imperiling its own cities and civilians by embarking on a war of conquest. Instead, he compares the war to the Thirty Years’ War. According to the author, in World War II, as during the seventeenth century, European powers waged war in order to control and dominate Germany. Thus, Germany became a battlefield because of the desires of other powers to subjugate and partition Germany. German territory, living spaces, culture, and people were victims.
One implication of The Fire is that a nation that wages a war of conquest may have to receive the same protections under the customs of war for its civilians as does the nation that is being victimized. Friedrich suggests that the conduct of war has to be separated from the nature of the regimes involved, and the substance of their war aims. In the end, a victimized or invaded country, such as the United Kingdom or the Soviet Union, would have to exercise considerable restraint in its application of violence. An implication of the meaning of this book is that civilians must never be targeted, or even put at risk under any circumstances. Instead, a country that has been attacked may have to exercise decisive restraint in its military strategy and its choice of weapons, tactics, and targeting in order to spare the civilians of the aggressor. The attacked country may have to forego its own security, and give up its pursuit of victory, justice, and reprisal, to assure that the civilians of the country that started the war are not put at risk. Thus, an aggressor may use its own civilians as human shields for protection against military countermeasures after striking first. The moral equivalency Friedrich attempts to establish produces unjust consequences.
Although The Fire contains much that scholars should refute, individuals should nevertheless read it. It is a book that should be debated and disputed, not condemned.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Michael Weaver. Review of Friedrich, Jörg, The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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