The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945
By Jörg Friedrich
Columbia University Press, 552 pages, $34.95.
In the aftermath of World War II, Germany attempted to come to terms with the Holocaust. But ultranationalists were not contrite about the recent past, and contended that the killing of hundreds of thousands of German civilians during the Allied air offensive was the moral equivalent of the mass murder of the Jews. This argument, however, remained on the periphery of political discussion until recently, when the claims of moral equivalency entered the mainstream of German political culture with the publication of Jörg Friederich’s best-seller, “The Fire” (“Der Brand”).
Friedrich spent much of his professional career writing about Nazi atrocities before turning to an analysis of the Allied air war against his country. It is not surprising, therefore, that “The Fire” is filled with allusions to the Holocaust in his description of how ordinary Germans endured the firestorms that destroyed such cities as Hamburg and Dresden. Unlike some on the German right, however, Friedrich’s tome does not downplay the Holocaust. Rather, he argues that, like the Jews, the German people were victims of the Nazis, insofar as the Hitler regime was responsible for the Allied retaliation that led to the destruction of their country. Friedrich is attempting to make the case for moral equivalency between the Allied war against Germany and the Nazi genocide — a dangerous argument, not least because it is coming from someone whose work is considered part of mainstream, “respectable” discourse.
Friedrich charges that the Allied carnage was an act of wanton criminality, motivated to inflict terror on the German people for the objective of turning the public against its government. In fact, the policy of “morale” bombing was introduced by the British in the summer of 1943 and reached its climax with the destruction of Dresden in February 1945. The British employed high-explosive incendiary bombs that, once ignited, caused firestorms that resulted in the death of thousands of civilians, whose charred remains were as gruesome as the piles of Jewish bodies photographed after the liberation of the concentration camps.
Friedrich argues that this type of weapon, like the atomic bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, should have been used only with the objective of deciding the war. If not, he contends, it served only the purpose of mass extermination, and thus constituted a war crime. From August 1943 to March 1944, 19 major raids constituted the Battle of Berlin, which resulted in 9,390 civilian deaths. This, Friedrich writes, “was an astounding ratio for an operation that was supposed to decide the war.” Friedrich concludes that the Allied raids were designed to kill millions of people, and “as far as can be discerned from the archives, there was no lack of willingness on the part of the Allies to do just that.”
When it comes to the question of moral capital, Friedrich finds little to separate the perpetrators of the Holocaust from those who sanctioned the air war against Germany. He points to the fact that although the Allies bombed hundreds of German cities and towns, they refused to even consider bombing the railroad lines to Auschwitz, one place where inhabitants wanted an attack. He notes that the Royal Air Force was skeptical of risking the lives of British airmen “for no purpose.”
The continued popularity of “The Fire” obviously has resonated with the German public, and Friedrich’s argument may eventually become a mainstream view, as Germany contemplates its wartime past. It behooves scholars of the Holocaust to confront Friedrich’s thesis, lest future generations of Germans construct memorials for the victims of Allied bombings alongside the victims of the Holocaust, and comfort themselves with the conviction that the crime of their fathers was no worse than that of their enemies.
Jack Fischel is the author of “The Holocaust” (Greenwood Press, 1998) and “The Holocaust and Its Religious Impact” (Praeger, 2004).