The Fire

Jörg Friedrich’s book The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945, was first published in Germany in 2002. In 2006, it was published in an English translation (by Allison Brown) by Columbia University Press. The Fire consists of seven sections: Weapon, Strategy, Land, Protection, We, I and Stone. These chart the development of aerial attack on Germany during the Second World War, the counter-measures undertaken by authorities, the experience of those under attack and the destruction wreaked upon cities and culture. The book received extensive publicity when it came out in Germany: according to the Columbia blurb, it features ‘meticulous research’ into a strategy the wisdom of which ‘has never been questioned’. At the end of last year, we — Brett Holman and Dan Todman — received unsolicited copies for review. Despite some anxieties about the implications of such a marketing strategy (for the profession as a whole and for individual careers), we decided to collaborate on a review in the form of a conversation, which we’ll post at Airminded and Trench Fever and highlight at Cliopatria and Revise and Dissent.

Dan Todman: It’s very clear from the way this book is presented and the way it has been publicised that it’s meant to be contentious. If we start with the moral aspect of strategic bombing — a key area for recent literary and philosophical debate by writers such as W. G. Sebald and A. C. Grayling — there are times when Friedrich comes close to saying something explosive in his treatment of German civilians as innocent victims. Yet he always backs off from the logical endpoint of his argument. Here is Friedrich describing the essential randomness of bombing for ‘terror’:

The annihilation principle does not ask such questions. Not until it is too late does everyone know that they can be struck. Terror does not seek to achieve anything; its regime is absolute. It comes out of the blue, needs no reasons, atones no guilt. Its success might be unconditional subjection, but even that does not end the horror. It makes no deals; its resolve is inscrutable and its aim, absurd.

… there was no correlation between the annihilation of the Jews and the annihilation by bombs. And no analogy. And death by gas will not create one. (296)

Ultimately, even in his epilogue written for the English translation, it seems to me that Friedrich makes a moral judgement on bombing only by implication.

Brett Holman: He does always seem to step back from the brink when he is about to actually come to a conclusion. (I say ‘seem’ because he very often uses such flowery, allusive language that I sometimes find it hard to work out what he is saying.) And yes, that epilogue was disappointingly tame — it was his chance to explain the purpose of The Fire to a readership very different to the one it was originally written for.
But the whole tenor of the book does lean towards the Germans-as-victims side of things. Or what is much worse, suggesting that area bombing is equivalent to the Holocaust — despite his explicit denial of same in the above quote. I’m not the first person to notice that he often uses words like ‘crematorium’ when describing the effects of incendiary bombing, which is perhaps apt but certainly unfortunate in this context. At one point Friedrich calls 5 Group ‘No. 5 Mass Destruction Group’ (306), which I thought was perhaps a mistranslation. Judging from Jörg Arnold’s H-German review, it may well be — he translates the original German as ‘group of mass extermination Nr. 5′, which is even worse! To me, Friedrich’s choice of words seems very pointed, and very telling.
It’s also odd how the victims of Allied bombing always seem to be nuns and children, never Nazi officials or Gestapo agents. (Which, by the way, echoes wartime propaganda — critics of which cynically marvelled at the amazing accuracy of the enemy’s unguided bombs in seeking out orphanages and nursing homes.) Never does he admit that any hits on factories, or disruption of production due to loss of workers or infrastructure had anything more than a minor, temporary effect. The impression I got from reading The Fire was that bombing didn’t help the Allies win the war at all, and only killed innocents.

DT: Indeed — with the possible addition of the unfortunate slave workers or prisoners of war who are also mentioned in the text. I wonder if there’s a double problem here: first of the sources Friedrich uses, and secondly, as you note, of his/his translator’s syntax/rhetorical style. As Arnold notes, much of the work on the effects of bombing on the ground comes from local/regional histories in which that victim discourse was bound to be strong. As it happens, much of this material was new to me, and I’m grateful for the chance to access German works that would otherwise be unavailable to me, but I’m wary about knowing the context in which they were produced (particularly where Friedrich’s footnoting is not exactly of academic standard).
In terms of style and translation, my perhaps prejudiced reaction was that this was a very ‘non-British’ book. The high emotional register in which Friedrich writes, and the rhetorical devices he employs, are not the default mode of most English language historians, even those working for the popular market. The Fire reads as a very constructed text. I found this offputting, even after I had read myself into the book. It may just be the limited selection of books that I’ve read, but my impression is that for the ‘respectable’ market at which author and publisher seem to be aiming, this is a more accepted mode elsewhere in Europe. Sometimes, I have to say, I think it works in the sense that it leads the reader to make a connection they might otherwise not. One might say that this is a topic about which emotion should run high: but not, I would suggest, to the exclusion of sense.
It’s also an inadequate translation for a supposedly academic press to have put out. To take a repeated example, anti-aircraft guns don’t fire ‘grenades’, they fire ‘shells’. To me, that suggests a translator without the background knowledge to make sense of what they’re reading, and a press that didn’t bother to send the translated text to an English-language academic reader before publication. This is not just snippy military historian nit-picking accuracy stuff. If you can’t get that right, what else have you ignored?

BH: Like you I wonder about the sources. For one thing, he draws upon David Irving extensively, who isn’t just a Holocaust denier but also untrustworthy when it comes to the bombing of Germany, as Richard J. Evans showed (Telling Lies About Hitler, 2002). I agree, the small errors (and it’s not just the military stuff: when was Churchill ever an ‘attache’ (272)?) suggest an unfamiliarity with the material, at least on the Allied side of things: the book would have benefited enormously from an expert reader. This is important — for one thing, while he often suggests that this or that particular city had no important war industries, and so — by implication — shouldn’t have been bombed, he rarely asks whether the Allies knew this, or delves deeply enough into the philosophy of area bombing, if I can put it like that, to see what effects Bomber Command intended and what it thought it was achieving.

DT: This area of accuracy is vital, it seems to me, if one wants to make the sort of big splash which Friedrich and his publishers plainly do. The risk in relying on synthesis is that you pick up moral as well as factual judgments. Given Irving’s celebrity and downfall, it seems strange to treat him as an unproblematic source. Relying on local historians’ judgements that ‘there was no war industry’ implies a misunderstanding of what total war entails.

BH: Where Friedrich comes closest to my own area of research, for example in his account of the origins of strategic bombing (in section 2, ‘Strategy’), his narrative is generally poor, and he says some very strange things. The strangest perhaps is when he claims that Churchill ‘pioneered this concept’ of strategic bombing, and that ‘he had a planned thousand-bomber attack on Berlin’ while Minister of Munitions in 1918 (51). For one thing, the Minister of Munitions didn’t get to plan air raids; at most he planned aircraft and bomb production. For another, the idea and practice of strategic bombing was by 1918 firmly entrenched; there had been much pre-war speculation about the possibility, and the first strategic air raids on cities were carried out in 1914. Churchill did play a small role, while at the Admiralty, in fostering the early strategic strikes launched by the Royal Naval Air Service (which Friedrich doesn’t mention), but as an account of the origins of strategic bombing, this grossly exaggerates Churchill’s role and is utterly inadequate.

DT: Do you think this is a matter of confusion, or of a misreading of another source? The reference here is to Churchill’s Thoughts and Adventures (1932).

BH: I’ve got the relevant bit of Thoughts and Adventures here. If this was Friedrich’s only source for this passage, he’s reading far too much into it. Churchill writes only in very general terms about the offensive planned for 1919, and doesn’t even talk about his own role. Maybe it’s a reading backwards of Churchill’s role in the Second World War, as the leader who ordered the bombing of Germany and poured resources into the task? It would certainly be very neat if that same leader invented strategic bombing in the first place, but history is rarely neat!

DT: This lack of consideration of moral/factual/analytical judgements extends to the part bombing played in winning the war. I think that The Fire makes it clear, entirely unintentionally, that it did help the Allies win. No-one reading Friedrich’s chapters on the measures put in place to defend cities can be in much doubt about the resources that bombing soaked up. To put it in simple terms, there was a hell of a lot of concrete under the ground in Germany that wasn’t being used to make field fortifications and a lot of guns pointing skywards rather than at the advancing ranks of T34s in the East, not to mention a substantial scientific effort. This link isn’t drawn.

BH: I wondered about that too, and wondered why he didn’t wonder about it. He makes some rather forced conclusions. For example, on page 278 he notes that a Bomber Command raid on Nuremberg destroyed a Panther tank production line, and then says that by that time — 2 January 1945 – ‘tanks were no longer helping Germany advance’. It seems to me that this implies (again, he won’t just come out and say it) that Nuremberg was a pointless and therefore unjustified, target, just because Germany was on the defensive.

DT: Yes: it’s a slightly strange argument that having moved over to the offensive, the Allies should have held back. More to the point, it ignores the logic (and the extensive scholarship) of total war. De-escalation in the middle of an enormous global conflict might be something for which we’d retrospectively wish, but it’s hard to see how it would have happened.

BH: In similar fashion, he spends a lot of time talking about the Allied advance into Germany — which reinforces the impression of Germans as victims — and not so much about why the Allies had to attack Germany in the first place. Of course, every reader is likely to have a pretty good idea of why, but surely there should have been a more extended discussion of Germany’s own efforts at city bombing — Belgrade, Rotterdam, Warsaw. Guernica isn’t even in the index, and Coventry is mainly invoked to show that German city bombing was as nothing in comparison to what they received in return.
The high emotional register you mention was certainly strange for a book from an academic press. Ultimately, however, I think it is quite effective. As I read the central section of the book, ‘Land’ — which visits each part of Germany in turn, describing the history of various cities, their experience in the war and the air raids they endured — I moved through several stages: at first horror at the lives destroyed, and the way they were destroyed, through fire and suffocation; then numbness and even boredom at the repetition; and finally crushing despair as the enormous extent of destruction became clear. Much of this material was new to me also, as too were the later sections (‘Protection’, on Germany’s civil defence system, was especially fascinating to me). It’s constructed, as you say, but at least it’s artfully so.

DT: I absolutely agree, and I think that this is a primary reason to recommend the book to English language readers. For me, the final section, ‘Stone’, which concentrates on the damage to German architectural, cultural and intellectual heritage was particularly affecting. In part, this was because it was a part of strategic bombing which, rather stupidly, I’d never thought about, whilst being aware in general terms of the damage that must have been done. More than that, however, it seemed to me a clear example of what was tragic about strategic bombing. Inevitably, bombing cities meant the destruction of much of what had been good or valuable in German culture, that which might have offered a conceptual alternative to the nihilism of Nazism. Friedrich’s point, I suppose, would be that this applied to people as well as artefacts, books and buildings. It doesn’t necessarily follow, however, that strategic bombing was a failure, or that it shouldn’t have taken place.

BH: Yes. In fact, all through this whole section, I couldn’t help but wonder — if Germany was so cultured, so civilised, how and why did it put itself in a position where other nations thought they had no option but to obliterate its cities? It’s an old, old question, though, and not one we are likely to answer here …

DT: What about the reception of the book? How controversial do you think it actually is?

BH: It takes two to make a controversy: one to say something and the other to be outraged by it. Have you seen much evidence of the latter? It’s probably unlikely that The Fire could have as much effect in English-speaking countries as it did in Germany, where it was a best-seller and led to a flood of recollections about living through the bombing. But I would have expected some sensitivity to a German coming close to saying that British airmen murdered his countrymen in their hundreds of thousands. Or can such a viewpoint be tolerated in Britain today? (I’ve seen nothing about it in Australia yet, even though many thousands of Australian airmen participated in Bomber Command’s attacks on German cities.)

DT: You’re right. Friedrich’s book is only just on the way out here, but so far as I can see there has been nothing like the reaction the publisher would like. It may still come. But my feeling is that it won’t. See, for example, David Cesarani’s Independent review. I’d suggest four reasons for this. First, the idea of strategic bombing as the bad bit of Britain’s good war is well established. That doesn’t mean that it is understood or morally resolved. But saying that British airmen killed lots of German civilians is not exactly new: I think you’d arouse more controversy going on TV to justify the iconic Dresden bombing than you would do by claiming it was an awful tragedy that we shouldn’t have done. If anything, the quandary over strategic bombing serves to spotlight the high purpose for which most Britons like to think they fought. Second, the proportion of the British population directly involved in bombing and still surviving is extremely small, whereas the proportion of the German population who can still configure themselves, if they choose, as victims, is large. Third, there has always been a strand of British thought which sees the Nazi era as a tragedy for Germany. Friedrich’s book, with its celebration of the cultural heritage Germany lost, fits that understanding rather well. Fourth, there will be much here which is new to British readers — not the Bomber Command stuff, all too obviously drawn from the Official History, Middlebrook and Hastings, but the descriptions of what was going on on the ground. Novelty will overcome outrage.

BH: That’s probably not such a bad thing, because for me the main value of The Fire is in the account of the effects of the bombing. The cultural loss that you mention was just staggering, and I too had little idea of this. I like your suggestion about the connection between the questionable morality of bombing and the unquestioned justness of Britain’s cause. It’s almost like a myth of the bomber offensive – ‘well, it was a dirty job, but we had to do it …’ I wonder if this attitude has been present all along, or whether it has evolved more recently? Frederick Taylor’s bestselling Dresden (2002) probably played a part in this process (and may have pre-empted some of the sales of The Fire), but unflinching accounts of the British bombing of Germany go back to at least Len Deighton’s Bomber (1970), and yes, even Irving’s The Destruction of Dresden (1963). As you say, that Allied airmen killed hundreds of thousands of German civilians is not a shocking concept in the English-speaking world, at least to anyone who’s been paying attention. Friedrich’s ambiguous stance on the ‘was it murder?’ question will probably result in The Fire having little impact in Britain and elsewhere — whereas it was probably necessary in Germany, given remaining taboos and sensitivities.

DT: I suspect that this ‘dirty job but had to be done’ aspect was present at some level from the war itself. Mark Connelly’s history of Bomber Command, Reaching for the Stars (2001), is quite good on this aspect. I think there’s also an undercurrent of (technological?) pride which doesn’t get spoken about in liberal circles except jokingly, and which is part of a national myth – ‘we always start wars badly, we’re not fighters by nature, but don’t rouse us or we’ll give you back twice what you gave us’. Again, hopefully the value in Friedrich’s book here will be to make people think about the broader moral implications without necessarily rejecting the overall strategy.

So. A useful book, but not a good work of history? A populist work, with some relevance to historians? Would you let undergraduates read it? Would you buy it for a research library?

BH: The short answer: ‘It depends’! I couldn’t recommend The Fire as an investigation into how or why the Allies bombed Germany, or whether it was moral for them to do so — at least, not by itself. It’s much more valuable as an account of what the bombing did to Germans and their heritage — but it does neglect the economic effects.

DT: Agreed. I’d be reluctant to set it as class reading for undergraduates, but I might well use it as a comparative text (perhaps with Taylor’s Dresden) in an MA class.

BH: Yes. Paul Addison’s and Jeremy A. Crang’s edited collection Firestorm (2006) or Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities (2006) might also be good points of comparison. But as a primary source for understanding modern Germany’s changing relationship with its past, The Fire is probably essential. We’ve been fairly critical of it here, but overall I think we’d both agree that it manages to be more than the sum of its parts.
Jörg Friedrich. The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Distributed in Australia by Footprint Books.

5 Responses to The Fire

  1. […] to collaborate on a review in the form of a conversation, which we’ll post at Airminded and Trench Fever and highlight at Cliopatria and Revise and […]

  2. Chris Williams says:

    Nice review, chaps, towards which I shall point my undergrads. I note that you’ve not yet got it for QM library – or at least you hadn’t got it last week when I browsed my way down all the bombing-related stuff that’s there. Let me know if you do get it, though, and I’ll bung it into the errata of my summer school reading list.

  3. David Silbey says:

    Very nicely done. A model for reviewing this kind of work, I think.

  4. Ross Mahoney says:

    Very good review of what has been a controversial work since it’s translation into english. I had not considered buying but think I might now just to have a look at it. I tend to agree with Brett though that this work needs to be read in conjunction with other more recent works on the Strategic Bombing Campaign in order to gain a balnced view. I think the main problem is that we will never have a satisfactory answer to its conduct and effectiveness. I fear it is one of those historical subject that will haunt us, much like the Holocaust, for many years. Great style of review too.

  5. […] Holman at Airminded and Dan Todman at Trench Fever recently pushed the boundaries of history blogging with their innovative joint review of Joerg […]

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