If you go into bookstores in many German cities and look for the 'local history' section, you are likely to find a book showing that town's devastation in 1945. Even our current town, small though it is, was more ruined by 1945 by aerial bombing and artillery fire than I would have expected, until I reflect on its location on the Rhine (the local bridge was in the end destroyed by the Wehrmacht before it could be captured) and the presence of the railroad. You look at crumpled houses and piles of rubble in places which – due either to the undamaged surrounding buildings or place-names in the caption – you recognise and which you walk by every day.
Having grown up in a place that has never been bombed, this is a strange experience.
When we visit my wife’s family, we travel to Schweinfurt, which – as a centre of ball-bearing production – was extensively bombed by the US Air Force. When I was young, I knew people – now deceased – who had been on bombing raids to Germany, and I wonder now how many of them bombed cities which I’ve lived in or visited.
It’s only a little more than sixty years ago. That is not a long time.
My mother possesses a piece of shrapnel from one of the first bombs dropped on her home town in Britain, something which sat among other treasures in a display case in our living room. This ugly, malevolent object fascinated me as a child. It was part of the iconography of my family’s history, a symbol of the conflict which brought not only German bombs to my mother’s town but also swarms of foreign soldiers, among them my father.
It never really struck me how odd it was that my parents had lived through bombing raids. Or that for two generations people from both sides of my family had set out from Britain and America to fight Germany. It didn’t really strike me as something to think about too much until, I suppose, I came to live here.
Now, it takes a major act of imagination to picture those times in Germany today, so prosperous, civilised and tidy. In fact, from today’s perspective, the entire period of National Socialism seems like some kind of fevered, horrible nightmare rather than something which could really have happened.
Of course, it did. This is a fact with which Germany has been painfully wrestling since those dark times. This coming to terms with a painful past – this Vergangenheitsbewältigung – became a central issue in German culture, particularly after the late 1960s. For some, both this self-reflection and the physical and psychological reparations may not have gone far enough. However, as Ian Buruma describes in The Wages of Guilt, his excellent comparative study of post-war memory in Germany and Japan, Germans have, overall, faced their past crimes with more openness, honesty and genuine regret than perhaps any other nation in history.
It is only recently, however, that they have openly begun to turn to their own victims during the war. There have been a recent spate of fictional and historical accounts of German civilian suffering during the war, which has, to say the least, been uncomfortable for some. Buruma discussed some of these works a few years ago, pointing out the remarkable shift among some on the German left toward even acknowledging that there had been German suffering.
There has been a long, heated debate about the morality of the allied bombing campaigns in Germany. Because that bombing was one part of what was a just and unavoidable war, criticism of allied bombing strategy has become suspect, as it is sometimes seen as questioning the broader aim of defeating Nazism. For some, ‘the Germans’, seen largely as a monolithic mass of 'willing executioners' under their demented leader, are often in this view perceived as, to put it simply, fair game. Recognition of their suffering or questions about the morality (or effectiveness) of the strategies pursued by the allies in systematically turning German cities to ash are thus often percieved to be morally suspect. (This is a view which runs so deeply among the British, for instance, that I’ve even heard a self-described left-wing ‘pacifist’ – making a facile connection between Bavarian conservatism and fascism – argue that the allies didn’t drop enough bombs on southern Germany.)
There are many problems with this view. Not least the assigning of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ roles to entire populations. (Which then stand for all eternity: as history and the modern world point out, this year’s – or this war’s – perpetrator can be next year’s victim and so forth.) Moreover, by removing the mourning of one’s own losses from mainstream discourse, they are left to those who would eagerly use them for more dishonourable purposes, as the German far-right has long done with the allied bombing campaigns. Much like patriotism, I think it’s a very sensible idea for the left to – in a very different way and for different purposes – to take on such issues and incorporate them into their own thinking, lest these themes be left to the right-wing demagogues.
On the other hand, it is too simple to take an absolutely pacifist stand from the point of view of a comfortable, modern-day Europe and to condemn strategic decisions taken in the midst of a war whose outcome which was far from certain against an enemy who had perfected the theory and practice of ‘total war’. It remains insufficient to simply say that war is wrong because it causes suffering. Indeed, the right war at the right time may, in fact, cause less suffering than would an apparently principled ‘wait and see’.
All these discomforting points, and the lack of an easy answer to them, emerge from Christopher Hitchens’s review of A.C. Grayling’s recent book, Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the World War II Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan.
The complexities of these debates are easily apparent. And they are maddening. Hitchens, for example, points out that the British government refused even to speak to a group of German oppositionists in 1938, who advocated Britain taking a stronger stand against Hitler’s expansionist aims.
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."
Grayling concludes that the allied bombings were both morally questionable and strategically useless. Hitchens, despite his own horror at the destruction caused and genuine sympathies with those who suffered seems more ambivalent.
This seems to be most firmly based on his suggestion that - whatever strictly 'strategic' or 'military' value those raids had (or may not have had), the widespread and utter destruction of Germany by 1945 served, in the end, at least one salutary purpose: the thorough extinguishing of the possibility of postwar National Socialist resurgence. ‘No more nonsense and delusion,’ he writes, ‘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.’
Making a broader point, and turning to different historical contexts, he continues:
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.Of course, there is the possibility than the notion of a Stunde Null, of a zero-hour from which everything began anew is in many ways a myth. (As was to be pointed out in the 1960s, there had been limits to allied de-Nazification.) However, it does seem to be the case that the absolute calamity which National Socialism caused for Germany did, finally, provide a certain kind of inoculation against its subsequent resurgence. (Compare this with, perhaps, the more open admiration for Mussolini and the nostalgia for fascism which seems to infect parts of Italian society today.)
This argument is plausible. But, uncomfortably, it suggests that modern German civility, in some way, is the legacy of the utter horror of area bombing. Is this true? Can this be true? Would a less-thorough destruction have allowed the Nazi nightmare to fester more openly into the present day? Possibly.
But possibly not. Hitchens’s more thoughtful comments on Grayling’s book are marred somewhat by his eagerness to attack what he sees as a misguided pacifist absolutism on the part of the modern left, in particular its (general) rejection of the Iraq war. Some timely pre-emptive wars, as he points out, might indeed have had a positive effect on history. That’s true. But the wrong pre-emptive war – I think we can say – can have the opposite effect. And this point can also be applied in more detailed ways: as he notes, the allied attack on Hamburg, ‘Operation Gomorrah’, devastated ‘a city that had always repudiated the Nazi party’. In what way did that aid obliterating Nazism?
All these questions of strategy, though, are rather beside the point when reflecting on civilian suffering in wartime. And in another recent article, Hitchens makes this point very well.
In the current Vanity Fair, his article accompanies a photo essay on victims of Agent Orange, one of several chemical defoliants sprayed in massive quantities on the jungles of southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
In Vietnam, between 1961 and 1971, the high command of the United States decided that, since a guerrilla struggle was apparently being protected by tree cover, a useful first step might be to "defoliate" those same trees. Famous corporations such as Dow and Monsanto were given the task of attacking and withering the natural order of a country. The resulting chemical weaponry was euphemistically graded by color: Agent Pink, Agent Green (yes, it's true), Agent Purple, Agent Blue, Agent White, and—spoken often in whispers—Agent Orange. This shady gang, or gang of shades, all deferred to its ruthless chief, who proudly bore the color of hectic madness. The key constituent of Agent Orange is dioxin: a horrifying chemical that makes total war not just on vegetation but also on the roots and essences of life itself. The orange, in other words, was clockwork from the start.
More than twelve million gallons of this poison were sprayed during the war, and the results have been painful illnesses, 'ecocide' on a mind-numbing scale and horrendous deformities in generations of children born to those Vietnamese and Americans subjected to its long-lasting effects. Hitchens visits clinics and hospitals in Vietnam, and the stories he finds there are, to put it insufficiently, chilling. And here, there is no question – I think – of strategic thinking or the claims of necessity which can soften the blow of these crimes.
The authors of which have never been brought to justice.
If there is perhaps something about modern Germany and Japan which provide some ground for hope when surveying modern combat zones, it is in the knowledge that states of war are not eternal, natural laws. On the other hand, the opposite is also true: if anything, it seems that periods of peaceful coexistence are subject to the same inevitable laws which shape a satellite’s decaying orbit. And there are different kinds of natural laws which can be affected by war. As Agent Orange makes clear, wars have legacies which are not only ideological and social, but also – almost literally – burned into the deepest fibres of our being, and the modern use of depleted uranium ammunition, for example, shows that we’ve hardly learned a thing.
America has never really had much of a culture of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Being dragged down by the weight of the past is not so much an American thing. We're far too optimistic and forward looking for that. It is long past due that this change. But how do you come to terms with a historical crime which is not even, strictly speaking, confined to the past? As Hitchens points out,
some of the victims of Agent Orange haven't even been born yet, and if that reflection doesn't shake you, then my words have been feeble and not even the photographs will do.