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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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.