Jorg Friedrich: His book accusing the Allies of war crimes for the bombing of Dresden has finally been translated into English

Historians in the News

Beneath Dresden lay the catacombs. Towards the end of the second world war, the authorities decided that these cellars under the beautiful baroque Old Town could provide cover from British air raids. On February 13 1945, the bombers arrived and many civilians fled below to avoid being killed by shrapnel or crumbling buildings, or being burned alive.

But, writes Jorg Friedrich in his book The Fire: the Bombing of Germany 1940-45, "this tightly meshed underground construction was a landscape of insanity". Such was the incendiary impact of the bombing that heat, gases, flames and smoke whipped through the labyrinth. People panicked. In one underground corridor, 50 people got so wedged that their bodies were found fused together from the heat. Underneath the junction of Margarthenstrasse and Marienstrasse there was a steel door connecting two passageways at a right angle. Two groups of people ran towards the door from opposite sides, desperately seeking a way out of a huge subterranean oven. Each blocked the other group from going through the door and so they all died. Under Moritzstrasse, a man ran for an exit shaft, but the following crowd pulled him back and he was killed in the crush. Two hundred people pressed on this crowd from behind, so that the body could not be budged. Again, everyone died.

This was where most of the 35,000 victims of the RAF on February 13 and USAAF attacks the following day died.
Friedrich's book, a bestseller in his homeland four years ago and which now appears in English, is thick with such horror stories. They were hard for him to avoid in meticulously detailing, over nearly 600 harrowing pages, how 635,000 Germans, mostly civilian, died and 7.5 million were made homeless when British and US bombs were dropped on 131 cities and towns. "For more than 50 years after the second world war," wrote the war historian and journalist Max Hastings, "German writers remained remarkably muted about the issue of Allied bombing of their country."

The Fire is part of a growing German literature, including WG Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, that breaks this near silence about their wartime suffering. This is no neo-Nazi apologia (Friedrich is a former Trotskyist who hitherto spent his career indicting the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe for what it did to Coventry), rather an investigation of memory repressed for more than half a century. Friedrich tells me his 93-year-old mother, who experienced the bombing of Essen, cannot talk to him about what she saw: she embodies what Sebald called a "pre-conscious self-censorship, a way of obscuring a world that could no longer be presented in comprehensible terms". Surely, I ask as we sit in the gathering gloom of Friedrich's Berlin apartment, your mother must dream about the past? "I don't know. She can't talk to me about it."

For many, to mourn was not justified because of Nazi war crimes. Sebald wrote: "Some of those affected by the air raids, despite their grim but impotent fury in the face of such obvious madness, regarded the great firestorms as a just punishment."

Friedrich wants not only to put the suffering on record, but to question the moral justification for the air raids. This makes English publication fraught, at least for Friedrich, who considers some of what the British did to be war crimes. He is dreading his publicity tour: "The British have simply put a defence around this bombing campaign. It is unquestionable and yet I am questioning it."

Indeed, The Fire is being published in English by an American academic publisher, Columbia University Press. "I don't think there is any conspiracy about this," says Simon Winder, head of Penguin's history division. "I think the reason is much more lazy than that - it's just the idea of translating it may have proved too much." Winder did see a manuscript, but with another book on the subject by the historian Richard Overy commissioned, declined to take it on.

The tenor of Friedrich's book has irritated even British historians who regard the bombing as a mistake. "Everything he says in the book is true in terms of the details of the effects of the bombing," says Hastings. "It is when Friedrich speaks of 'war crimes' that I become suspicious. What worries me about Germany, and indeed Japan, today is that there is an increasing move towards the doctrine of moral equivalence, but I think it's important to reject that. It's one thing to say, as I do, that the bombing of Germany was a great mistake, and another to compare it to the killings of Jews or the appalling things the Japanese did."...

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