Blogs > Cliopatria > Gerhard L. Weinberg: Review of Dagmar Barnouw's The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans (Indiana University Press, 2005)

Dec 31, 2005 9:33 pm

Gerhard L. Weinberg: Review of Dagmar Barnouw's The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans (Indiana University Press, 2005)

This is a very detailed discussion of the way in which in the opinion of the author the memory of German suffering in World War II has been overlooked and disregarded in Germany, the United States, and elsewhere.

Since the author is unfamiliar with the relevant literature, she asserts that it does not exist. For example, there is a massive set of volumes on the expulsion of Germans from portions of East and Southeast Europe -- presumably to be found in the library of the University of Southern California where she teaches -- but she is unfamiliar with it.

The generally known fact that these expellees had a political party of considerable importance in postwar Germany is unknown to her. Those of its leaders who because of the party’s significance were included in Konrad Adenauer's cabinet, Waldemar Kraft and Theodor Oberlander, cannot be found in her index. Since she is unacquainted with the massive memoir literature of the 1945-1960 era, she similarly asserts that it never appeared. The general reconciliation with Germany both in Europe and in the United States, especially when contrasted with the absence of a similar development in East and Southeast Asia, does not fit into her endless screeds against President George W. Bush, Israel, and Holocaust commemoration and hence is nowhere mentioned.

There are interesting autobiographical materials in the book, but these are sadly marred by dependence on unreliable secondary works like those of David Irving. The lengthy discussion of the former SS officer who rose to be head of Aachen University under another name is marred by the erroneous assertion that Theo Buck was his successor (p. 254), when in fact that position was occupied by Bernhard Sann. The discussion of the actual air war is as bizarre as much of her other review of the war. It is described as Churchill's (p. 130). She is evidently not aware of the fact that when the Germans started bombing cities in Poland in September 1939 -- while the British were dropping leaflets on German cities -- Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty. The discussion of bombing, like that of the expellees, suffers from the author's unfamiliarity with a literature that in her imagination does not exist. The author's ignorance of the military and geographic realities of World War II is dramatically illustrated by her claim that not only the Russian but also the Allied forces waited on the other side of the Vistula in 1944 while the Germans put down the Warsaw uprising (p. 276, note 11). How British troops in Burma and American forces in Alaska could have helped the Poles in Warsaw will remain the author's secret. She is clearly unfamiliar with the book by Neil Orpen, Airlift to Warsaw, which the University of Oklahoma Press published in 1984 and which covers the subject.

The author has great difficulties with statistics, and these difficulties may provide a clue to the nature of the book as a whole. Just two examples. Professor Barnouw maintains that of the German prisoners of war taken by the Soviet Union only 5% survived (p. 53). The correct figure is about 65%, still a sad figure, but nothing resembling her fantasies. On the other hand, when it comes to Jewish victims, the statistics are altered in the opposite direction. In a notorious scene, the commander of one of the murder squads assigned to the Eastern Front, Otto Ohlendorf, testified at the main trial at Nuernberg that his unit murdered ninety thousand Jews and other victims. In her reference to this, the number somehow shrinks to nine thousand (p. 236).

It will be obvious to any reader of this work that Professor Barnouw has an interesting thesis that may well deserve exploration. That cannot, however, be done in the shoddy way that it is handled here.

The Indiana University Press is rightly known for important contributions to scholarship. This reviewer cannot imagine how it came to be misled into publishing a work as defective as this one.

Response by Dagmar Barnouw

Mr. Weinberg’s highly prejudiced and distorting “reading” of my book and his insulting attack on Indiana University Press that “came to be misled into publishing a work as defective as this one” are hard to answer. He has not engaged with one single argument made in the book he was charged to review but simply rejected all of them as undeserving of all readers’ attention. It is true, in his concluding sentence he refers to the book’s “interesting thesis that may deserve exploration” but immediately adds that this “cannot, however, be done in the shoddy way that it is handled here,” leaving the reader of his “review” without a clue what this thesis might be.

Weinberg’s judgment of the book’s “shoddiness” is backed by a long list of events, persons and scholarly literature of the postwar era that I allegedly did not have knowledge of because I did not mention them. But refusing to engage in any way with my arguments, he did not understand either that the issues that seem so important to him are irrelevant to my arguments or that I have indeed dealt with them (viz. the politics of the Association of Deportees; my discussion of Sebald’s claim that there had been no literature on the air war before his series of lectures on that topic in the late nineties). All he has to say about my “interesting autobiographical materials” (why are they interesting?) is that they are “sadly marred by dependence on unreliable works like those of David Irving.” That generalizing judgment of Irving’s work and of my alleged “dependence” on it reflects Weinberg’s very narrow perspective on the issue of air war. For my discussion of the bombing of Dresden where my family was bombed out (one city among many others discussed) I drew on a variety of materials, including literary and scholarly studies, photographic documentation and eyewitness reports. I included three references to Irving’s classic The Destruction of Dresden (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964) because they corroborated earlier and later witness accounts. These were my only references to any of Irving’s work. I also pointed out that Irving’s numbers of the Dresden air raid dead tend to be high and the official numbers used during the commemorative year 2005 (criticized by many citizens of Dresden) tend to be low. Instructively, they were considerably lower than they were 10 years ago—a “fact” that does not reflect the result of historical research over the last ten years but political expediency, both American and German. One should mention here that many numbers concerning that still “unbelievable” bloodbath of W.W.II are “soft” and depend on the political, moral, and professional perspective of the person who uses them.

Irving, a gifted archival researcher and a troubled man, has been “fatally” tainted for many academics and public intellectuals because of his later associations with the radical right. In my view, this does not mean that I cannot make use of his good earlier work for fear that this would taint my own arguments in the eyes of believers in Nazi Evil who would reject them anyway. His value as a researcher was shown in 1983 when, at a press conference announcing the German publication of Stern’s acquisition of Hitler’s recently discovered diaries, he asked the crucial question: had the ink been chemically tested to prove the age of the document? It had not; Mr. Weinberg had not thought of that when he authenticated the document for Stern; it turned out to be a fake.

For Weinberg, a book that explores critically the postwar political uses of “Nazi Evil” in America and Germany and argues for more open and rational discussion of these issues needs to be discredited by any means, among them serious distortions and strategic confusions. A good example of Weinberg’s approach is his treatment of the last chapter of my book, “This Side of Good and Evil: A German Story.” It analyzes the irrational reactions of German politicians and public intellectuals to the 1995 revelation of the two lives of an SS officer, an obscure Nazi “theologian” in the SS institution Ahnenerbe under the name of Schneider and, under the name of Schwerte, a well-known liberal academic and social-democratic administrator for the first 50 years of the Bundesrepublik. This long chapter with its wealth of new arguments and information about the Nazi dystopia explores some of the most important moral and political issues of the postwar era, the intricate fallacies of the politics of remorse and of the power of impotence. For Mr. Weinberg it “is marred by the erroneous assertion that Theo Buck was his [Schwerte’s] successor” and therefore deserves no further discussion. This is a truly extraordinary statement given the nature of that chapter, of the book as a whole. Unwilling to engage with my arguments, Weinberg just seeks to discredit them by claiming yet another error I made, another example of the “shoddiness” of my study. The error is Weinberg’s, as in so many other cases. Theo Buck, one of Schwerte’s most vitriolic critics, was not his immediate successor at Aachen university. Schwerte was 85, long since retired, when he “outed” himself in 1995 and started the media feeding frenzy fed by his former colleagues and friends in high political office. But Buck, who contributed mightily to the media war against the “traitor” and” pathological “liar” Schwerte, really the arch-Nazi Schneider, did hold Schwerte’s former position at the time of this attack.

All that remains to say about Mr. Weinberg’s shoddy treatment of a serious study entrusted to him for a serious review on the level of HNN reviews is that it confirms my findings (rather than “thesis”) in this book. The American Manichean vision of W.W.II, pitting the absolute goodness and innocence of the victors against the absolute Evil and guilt of the vanquished would have a profound impact in the postwar era that indeed marred the “reconciliation” with Germany invoked by Mr. Weinberg. Naturally, Germany was received back into the comity of nations on the terms of the victors. But these terms meant upholding “forever” the German anxiety of the memory of their enduringly Bad past. The victors had plenty of help from the Germans, since that anxiety proved so easily exploitable by the politics of remembrance both in Germany and the U.S. These politics created powerful hierarchies of suffering protected from any critical discussion over the last six decades. Arguably, the absence of informed rational discussion of Nazi persecutions has hindered rather than helped to develop a better understanding of the still in many ways unclear historical meanings of W.W.II—the worst war in Western history of which the deeds of the Nazi-regime are one important part.

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More Comments:

fred sommer - 6/1/2009

What is that 'country that won the Cold War?' Reimer should name the country.

Gudrun J Everett - 3/11/2007

Mr. Weinberg's style of critising Professor Barnouw's book is typical of those who have since the end of WWII appointed themselves guardians of politicised history.

I was a witness to WWII in Poland and Germany and to Post-War Conditions. Just last October I completed my memoirs with emphasis on surviving a 400-mile trek by horsewagon and on foot to escape the atrocities of Stalin's advancing hordes. My book deals with my experiences as one of the 15 million expelled Germans, including details of post-war famine and homelessness in bombed cities and in refugee camps. (Amazon - I CAN'T FORGET: a Journey through Nazi Germany and WWII.)

I am pleased to find that scholars like Professor Barnouw records history - (THE WAY I WITNESSED) - without allowing herself to be held hostage by political agendas.

And permit me to compliment Mr. Frederick Thomas for his intelligent defense of Professor Barnow's scholarly work.

Thomas Reimer - 1/5/2006

Most of the stuff Weinberg cites is irrelevant. Neither the BHE in the 1950s, nor the BdV today have any voice in Germany, the whole political class treats them like they have the plague since a half century. This was slightly different in the 1950s, due to vote catching, but so what. Today, the victims of the largest ethnic cleansing in 20th century history can't even get a central museum built to their plight in their own country. Incidentally, neither can those who care about the victims of Communism in the very country that won the Cold War and saved the free world, nor does their suffering make any impact in school textbooks. This belittling of so many victims shows that there is something seriously wrong with the official world memory. Prof. Barnouw is very right (and courageous) in showing that in her book.

Frederick Thomas - 1/3/2006

Mr. Weinberg should be ashamed of himself. He seems to believe that the awful German suffering in WWII, 3.5 million civilians murdered by the Soviets during the last four months alone, following millions of others killed by systematic British (and some US) fire-bombing of civilian neighborhoods should not even be acknowledged.

The object of Mr. Weinberg's systematic mythologization is simple: it purports to cover up Soviet, British and some American atrocities by blaming the Germans for things they never did, and exaggerating the things they did. There must be a special circle in hell for such inhumane propagandizers. The Germans deserve the right to remember their dead, and have their suffering acknowledged generally, Mr. Weinberg's efforts notwithstanding.

Ms. Barnouw's eloquent and highly literary celebration of the sufferings of the Germans is what I would hope for one with her academic background. That Mr. Weinberg cannot get it that this may be the most appropriate way to do what she is attempting here is not surprising.

D. M. Giangreco - 1/2/2006

I have not read The War in the Empty Air, but if the dodging and weaving in author Barnouw's response to the Weinberg review is indicative of the book itself, then Weinberg's analysis must certainly be far more right than wrong.