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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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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.