Friday, March 02, 2007

Literature: The Fire - The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945 by Jorg Friedrich

"The bombardier, whether or not he aimed for a target, caused damage. He fired a shot basically like a cannon’s, but vertically. It was all the same whether he fired blindly or aimed. The site where the cannonball hit was a target of some kind. Sometimes it was hit intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. The rules changed, however, when the pathfinders and bombers began to divide up the work. The grammar of shot and target became insignificant. The pathfinder no longer indicated a point but rather outlined and area. It then was not a matter of “hitting” discreet objects within an area—instead, the demarcated area comprised all that was simply was not supposed to be and was to be removed from the world. Annihilation is the special extension of death. The victim does not die his death, because he does not have one. He finds himself in a sphere in which life has ceased."

This paragraph occurs a mere 69 pages into Jorg Friedrich’s study of the allied air war in Germany, The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945. I cite this not as an example of reportage or analyses, but as exceptional writing. This is dense yet distilled thought: crystalline, clinical, and dispassionate. This passage captures Friedrich’s tone for the rest of the book. It is not judgmental because it need not be. The subject matter alone is the judgment and the justice, if that is what it can be called. Friedrich relates a six-word commentary of Der Brand (the original German): “It is an encyclopedia of pain.” I contend that this book is actually a dictionary. It is a dictionary of loss.

Friedrich makes no attempt to justify the German position in the war - he knows he can’t. He does not make a case for the firebombing as an Allied war crime. All war is crime and Augustine’s concept of a “just war” is just so much theologic masturbatory fluff. Friedrich carefully documents the history of air warfare (from The Great War to 1945), the weapons of such (planes, ordinances, radar), people (pilots, navigators, bombardiers), and the intercourse between them. He addresses the strategy of the bombing campaign exhaustively leading to Dresden, but highlighting Hamburg and Berlin in the wake.

The author addresses the land, the terrain, that was affected, introducing each region with a brief history, often reaching back 1500 years, illuminating the cultural loss resulting from the bombing. He does the same for buildings: Goethe’s birthplace, Beethoven’s house. He details libraries destroyed and priceless art lost. With a heartbreaking clinical clarity, the author leads us through first-hand accounts of the morbidity and mortality of the bombing, describing the modes of death in fire bombing, survivors bringing their dead loved ones' remains in pales and buckets and leaving them lined up by the cemetery (“A boy in a Luftwaffe uniform came out of a cellar crying with a covered enamel pail in his hand. Someone asked him what was the matter, to offer some comfort. It was his parents … All day long the people of Darmstadt brought their dead in old pails, a whole family in a washtub.”). The author describes the mass burials and cremations necessary for disease prevention.

In his deductive manner, Friedrich moves from the sky, to the land, to cities, to the buildings, to the people and culture (nearly equated), all lost to the science of terror. This is what was not taught us in our anemic history surveys in high school and college. Depicted is horror too often lost in the present’s fascination with the new pornography: death, torture, and suffering. We should be braced by descriptions like:

“Incineration forced the body to make expressive gestures that the beholder tried to decipher.

‘A young woman was lying there like a sculpture that didn’t come out very good. The legs were charred high-heeled boots were stretched out high backwards; the arms raised as if in defense. The face was still preserved in outlines; the mouth with brownish rows of teeth wide open, so that you could not tell if the face was laughing or screaming.’

The laughing was not funny and the scream was not painful. This creature was an expression not of feelings, but of its creator. It was a sculpture of the fire war.”

Whether Berlin of Baghdad, war is crime.

This review was first published in

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2007