The Magazine

Scorched Earth

Was the destruction of German cities justified?

Jul 31, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 43 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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Among the Dead Cities

The History and Moral Legacy

of the World War II Bombing of

Civilians in Germany and Japan

by A.C. Grayling

Walker, 384 pp., $25.95

I am sure I can count on readers of this magazine to have sat up late with Victor Klemperer's diary of survival under the Third Reich:

I Will Bear Witness. This is the single most important document from the era of National Socialism. It gives an account of every day of Hitler's 13-year dictatorship, written by a German-Jewish convert to Protestantism who had married a heroic Protestant woman, and who briefly imagined that his dual loyalty (to employ an otherwise suspect phrase) might win him some immunity. Swiftly disabused on that score, Klemperer resolved to depict his beloved Germany's collapse into barbarism.

The diary possesses three dimensions that are of great interest to us. By its portrayal of innumerable acts of decency and solidarity on the part of ordinary Germans, it seems to rebut the Daniel Jonah Goldhagen diatribe about "willing executioners." By its agonizing description of the steady and pitiless erosion of German Jewry, it puts to shame all those who doubt--whatever the argument may be over numbers or details--that Hitler's state had a coldly evolved plan of extirpation. And it forces one to reconsider the Allied policy of "area bombing."

By February 1945, the Klemperers had been moved to a center in Dresden to await the final transport to "the East," from which none of their friends had ever returned. They were among the very last; those married to "Aryans" had been permitted some latitude. But they knew very well what was coming. And then, beginning on the night of February 13, the most beautiful city in Germany was suddenly set on fire from end to end, by a scientifically designed bombing pattern that swept away its architecture and roasted and melted and buried at least 40,000 of its citizens.

The Klemperers were not at the exact epicenter, but Victor was injured in the eye by debris and slightly scorched, and the couple were nearly separated. Finding Nazi authority destroyed after the departure of the Anglo-American bombers, they took off their yellow-star armbands and began to walk toward the Red Army.

So we might phrase the question in this way. Did the immolation of Dresden and so many other German cities liberate the Klemperers, or would the Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) have equally happily burned them to death?

In the latter case, we would never have been able to read the record of the Third Reich's own Winston Smith, which is almost a small thing when compared with the treasure house of manuscripts, churches, universities, galleries, and museums that vanished into filthy smoke. And perhaps one should not overemphasize cultural artifacts over human beings: Hundreds of thousands of German civilians, including the flower of the German anti-Nazi labor movement, were burned or buried alive in these incredible bombardments, where we know from declassified papers that Churchill's advisers told him to blast working-class districts because the houses were more tightly packed together.

There is something grandly biblical and something dismally utilitarian about this long argument between discrepant schools of historians and strategists. In the Old Testament, God reluctantly considers lenience for the "cities of the plain," on condition that a bare minimum of good men can be identified as living there. The RAF code name for the first major firestorm raid on Hamburg was "Operation Gomorrah." And this was a city that had always repudiated the Nazi party. Some say that Dresden was not really a military target and that it was obliterated mainly in order to impress Joseph Stalin (perhaps not a notably fine war aim) while others--Frederick Taylor most recently--argue that Dresden was indeed a hub city for Hitler's armies, and that doing a service to a wartime ally is part of the strategic picture in any case.

This leaves us with a somewhat arid and suspect antithesis: Were these bombings war crimes, and if so, were they justified on the grounds that they shortened the duration of the criminal war itself?

Anthony Grayling, a very deft and literate English moral philosopher, now seeks to redistribute the middle of this latent syllogism. He argues from the evidence that "area bombing" was not even really intended to shorten the war, and that in any case it did not do so. And he further asserts that the policy was an illegal and immoral one by the same standards that the Allies had announced at the onset of hostilities. This, at least, has the virtue of recasting a hitherto rather sterile debate. And some of what he says is unarguable.