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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.

Many smaller German cities--Würzburg being the most painful example--were of no military importance and were destroyed despite their exquisite architecture for no reason except to serve as bomb-fodder, and as practice for bombers. The British government had indeed publicly forsworn any deliberate attack on civilian targets. The famous Air Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris, who was criticized at the time in Parliament and the press, and within the Churchill administration, took the view that since Britain had starved hundreds of thousands of Germans by a naval blockade in the preceding 1914-18 war, there was little moral difference in the precise way in which one took German life. He more or less admitted that he was incinerating German cities in 1944 and 1945, not because he had to, but because he could. It was what Bomber Command had trained to do. It was the only way he knew of taking the war to the enemy.

Lest anyone take refuge in the idea of retrospective scruple here, allow me to quote what Winston Churchill minuted to his Chiefs of Staff on March 28, 1945:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise, we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. [Italics mine.]

One is compelled to notice that Churchill here is still repressing his moral misgivings underneath pragmatic ones: Any more of this "terror" and there's not enough Germany to take over. But both impulses are still present. (As they were when he rejected the wicked Morgenthau Plan aimed at the postwar depopulation and de-industrialization of Germany at the Quebec meeting with Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. Even Tories like himself had assimilated J.M. Keynes's Economic Consequences of the Peace, about the failure of Versailles, and were resolved not to repeat the crime or the blunder.)

Once again demonstrating that he is not a hindsight-historian, or over-the-shoulder philosopher, Grayling quotes from the extensive debate that occurred in contemporary Britain. Rather to the credit of my fellow countrymen, I think, there were eloquent complaints in both houses of Parliament, in the press, and among intellectuals. Some of these were honorable--it was found that the inhabitants of badly bombed English cities did not want a policy of retaliation--and some were based on a faintly spurious post-1918 quasi-pacifism and moral equivalence. George Orwell was a great scourge of the illusions of the latter faction, but when he visited Germany after 1945 he was struck almost dumb by the hitherto unguessed-at extent of the devastation.

Suppose we leave these moral qualms to one side for a minute, even though their suppression would potentially license anything, from torture to genocide, if it "worked." The simple question would then become: Did it work? Changing the discourse a little too swiftly for my taste, Grayling argues that only precision bombing of oil facilities in particular either did work or ought to have been tried. At one point, it is true, Albert Speer reported to his Führer that the industrial capacity of the Third Reich could not take any more saturation bombing. But he regained his nerve, and his giant enterprise of slave labor and state capitalism continued to perform astonishingly well until the very end. The things that really "shortened" the war were "pinpoint" attacks on Hitler's fuel lines, and the remorseless advance of the Red Army after the titanic battle at Kursk.

Mention of the latter somehow shrinks Grayling's moral universe. If the Anglo-American effort was benefiting from Stalin's total war in the East, then what does mere bombing of civilians have to do with it? One might as well shift the center of ethical gravity, and refocus on the mass Russian rape and pillage, followed by the incarceration of Eastern Europe and the partition and looting of Eastern Germany, that was also a price of Hitler's defeat. (Victor Klemperer, who rashly opted to become an East German Communist after 1945, wrote a successor diary about that horror, too.)

That ensuing nightmare may also have been the revenge for the Hitler-Stalin pact--and nobody charges British and American forces with any systematic atrocities against German civilians after 1945--but it is therefore also a blast of the hellish wind that Hitlerism sowed, and thus part of the restatement of the problem to begin with. Grayling has thus not been as daring as he believes he has.

In a recent exchange with him at the Goethe Institute in Washington, I offered a criticism of British policy that went further than his. Like him, I was brought up in urban areas of England that still showed the scars of Nazi bombardment. Like him, I began to doubt the official justifications for the policy imposed by Air Marshal Harris. But these misgivings ought to begin well before the horrible attack on Hamburg in 1943. In 1938, the British government was contacted by emissaries from the Kreisau Circle, a group of courageous German oppositionists led by Count Helmuth von Moltke. They told Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax that if Great Britain would stand adamantly by its guarantees to Czechoslovakia, and promise to make a stand against fascist irredentism, they could put Hitler under arrest. Their aim would be the restoration of German democracy, but their pretext would be that they had averted a war. This could only be done if the British maintained a belligerent policy instead of a capitulationist one.

Who knows if this would have succeeded? We only know that officers as highly placed as Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of German military intelligence, and many influential politicians and diplomats, were part of the plan. We also know that Chamberlain and Halifax refused to talk to them. There is something unbearable in the idea of a British regime, that would not fire or risk a shot against Hitler in 1938, later deploying horrific violence against German civilians instead. There is also something intolerable about the Munich deal with Hitler, a sellout of Prague which led inexorably to the Nazi-Soviet pact, resulting shortly in the destruction of magnificent German cities in order to bring a smile to the face of Stalin. I will never be one of those Englishmen who can complacently regard the years between 1940 and 1945 as a "finest hour."

On the other hand, once the battle had eventually been joined, one has little choice but to regard it as an anti-Nazi war at last. And to me, this involves viewing it from the standpoint of a German antifascist, or a non-German slave laborer or other victim of German racism. And here, atheist though I am, I have to invoke something like the biblical. It was important not just that the Hitler system be defeated, but that it be totally and unsentimentally destroyed. The Nazis had claimed to be invincible and invulnerable: Very well, then, they must be visited by utter humiliation. No more nonsense and delusion, as with the German Right after 1918 and its myth of a stab in the back. Here comes a verdict with which you cannot argue. I choose to quote Thomas Mann, a non-Jewish German who had to decide the matter in great personal anguish. In his Doctor Faustus, the narrator calls the ruin of Munich by the bombers "a Last Judgment" and then goes on to say:

Granted, the destruction of our cities from the air has long since turned Germany into an arena of war; and yet we find it inconceivable, impermissible, to think that Germany could ever become such an arena in the true sense, and our propaganda has a curious way of warning the foe against incursion on our soil, our sacred German soil, as if that would be some grisly atrocity. . . . Our sacred German soil! As if anything were sacred about it, as if it had not long ago been desecrated again and again by the immensity of our rape of justice and did not lie naked, both morally and in fact, before the power of divine judgment. Let it come!

"Let it come!" Good grief; it is hard to think even of any non-German wishing to go that far. (Mann used to broadcast on American radio to Germany.) But anything less than the apocalyptic seems inadequate. Eva Klemperer, a staunch and principled German Lutheran, told her husband that, after what she had experienced under Hitler, she could not find it in herself to truly regret the firestorm of Dresden. And what of the Slav and Balkan and Polish and Jewish slaves in Speer's underground hell holes, forced to dig out pits for the rocket-bombs that were being directed at London? Did they not cheer silently every time the very earth shook with revenge?

Heinrich Böll, one of the greatest of Germany's postwar writers--and a conscript on the Eastern front--wrote a posthumous letter to his sons, telling them that they only needed to know one thing about their fellow citizens: Did they refer to May 1945 as the defeat of Germany, or the liberation? I shall put this tersely and take my chances: A "pinpoint" bombing of Dresden's railheads in 1945 would still have left the Nazi authorities in power and allowed them to send the last transports to the killing fields.

A time for the ultimate ruling sometimes has to come, or else Negro quasi-serfs might even now be selling ice cream to obese children on the still-wooden boardwalks of Atlanta. If the party of Abraham Lincoln instead of Andrew Johnson could have followed the war parties of William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, think what America might have been spared. In the present case, the parties of Kurt Schumacher and Willy Brandt and even Konrad Adenauer were able to follow, and they managed their work as German democrats because there was simply no rival narrative or myth. Tabula rasa.

Nonetheless, and because one must always respect other narratives, one should also acknowledge the absolute right of Germans to reconsider this subject. There have been some important recent examples. The best is that of the late W.G. Sebald, whose book
On the Natural History of Destruction took its title from an article that Lord Zuckerman, one of the advocates of area bombing, could never bring himself to write. It uses the word "annihilation" somewhat promiscuously: The Allies do not have to prove that they did not intend the annihilation of Germany. A more questionable book is Jörg Friedrich's Der Brand (The Fire), a populist success that insinuates the word Holocaust into the argument. This is pardonable in one way, since "holocaust" literally means to be consumed by flames. But one should not tolerate any easy comparison to more definitive German terms such as Endlosung, or "final solution," which seem to mean much less yet which signify much more.

Grayling is rightly insistent that nothing he says should be construed as permission for any such cheap self-pity, let alone equivalence. But he commits two errors of judgment and taste. First, he abandons his vow to avoid hindsight, and suggests that the British and American bomber crews should have refused to obey their orders. In a war with a totalitarian regime that still had rockets more advanced than anything in the possession of the Allies, this recommendation seems morally null at best. It was not then known for a certainty that area bombing might not do the job, and those in command had the duty as well as the right to try any expedient. And then there is this, as if in tribute to today's other "moral equivalence" ratbags:

A surprise attack on a civilian population aimed at causing maximum hurt, shock, disruption and terror: there comes to seem very little difference in principle between the RAF's Operation Gomorrah, or the USAAF's atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York by terrorists on 11 September 2001 . . . To say that the principle underlying "9/11," Hamburg and Hiroshima is the same is to say that the same moral judgment applies to all three.

Well, one can certainly agree that the last sentence is a null and tedious tautology. But one does not scan the works of professional philosophers in order to come across tautologies. One scans them to see tautologies exposed. This drivel is exactly what German and other neo-Nazis do utter, as any reader of their nasty websites can discern, and its repetition by Grayling is a subversion of all the care and measure that he brings to the subject. In what declension of "just war" theory, on which he wastes a few pages, would Osama bin Laden be allowed into the argument? Proportionality?

I will admit that I have never heard or read a justification for the hideous destruction of Nagasaki, and I can say that the late Edward Teller once told me that he always favored a "demonstration" detonation to convince the Japanese leadership to surrender, which means that we might have avoided Hiroshima as well. Any argument that any action is moral, on the ground of its being "war-shortening," is thin and glib, and may also be hateful and false. (It may even be that Harry Truman hit Japan with atomic weapons in order to impress Stalin. If so, what a lot of cities that boorish Moloch appears to have needed as a human sacrifice!)

However, if we are to be allowed alternative historical courses and speculations, there is a "moral" that Grayling overlooks. What if the RAF had been in good enough shape to inflict "terror" on Berlin in the fall of 1939? What if the United States had determined to strike the Imperial Japanese Navy first? What if the League of Nations had decided to stand by the Spanish Republic and Abyssinia, and had pounded Franco's and Mussolini's armies before they could get off the mark?

Those who oppose violence on principle are called pacifists. Those who oppose it until its use is too little and too late, or too much and too late, should be called casuists. Those who try to resist their own despotisms, and who appeal in vain to lazy democracies who are also among the potential victims, and who welcome the eventual arrival of the bombs and planes--I am thinking of some courageous Serbian and Iraqi democrats--should be called our allies now, and in Europe should have been our allies no later than 1933.

Moral crisis is the vile residue of moral cowardice, and Grayling has fully proved this without quite intending to do so. His book is a treatise, not on the dubiety of the retributive, but on the urgency and integrity of the "preemptive."

Christopher Hitchens is the author, most recently, of Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.