Der Brand: Weapon, Strategy27 Mar 2003
I'm about 1/3 through reading Der Brand, the historical account of 'Germany in the bombing war 1940-1945'. I've finished the first two sections entitled 'Waffe' and 'Strategie'. Since a couple of readers have mentioned that they will be reading it as well, I'll give my impressions so far.
This book looks at the bombing from the point of view of the civilian victims on the ground, the 500,000 dead and 30 million homeless. Most of them were not in Hamburg and Dresden, but in middle sized cities throughout Germany, in bombing raids that made no headlines but killed a few hundred people each night.
Is such a view of any value today? Does it have any meaning for non-historians to look at the 'victims' that belonged to an aggressor nation? I think yes. First, this is the gestation of modern Germany, the hour before 'Hour Null'. The earliest pictures of post-war Germany tend to be the Trummerfauen, the women carrying away the rubble in the cities by hand. We don't see what created the rubble, and what those women endured before it was safe enough to begin the cleanup. I think it's important to know that to understand Germany's view of itself and its place in Europe and the world today, what ties to the past were shattered by the bombs and what ties remained.
Second, by today's standards we distinguish between 'regime' and 'civilians', at least we try, and today's weapon technology is capable of that to some degree. The weapons of 60 years ago were not as selective. Success was dropping a bomb within two miles of target, and success rates were 30% or less, with 5% loss of aircraft and crews for each raid (as long as the German air defense still existed). Those weapons were not precise enough to target only a factory or a railway station. A neighborhood was as precise as they could get.
The bombing of civilian neighborhoods had the military objectives of causing economic collapse through millions of homeless and shortage of factory workers, and of demoralizing the civilian population. Neither objective was achieved. Was the bombing of German cities a war crime? I don't think that this is a question that can be answered today. We cannot apply today's standards to the actions of a generation and a half ago. And victors, by definition, are never tried for war crimes. I am, however, very glad that I do not have to make the difficult decisions that Churchill and the Allied military leaders of the time had to make. I'm not sure I'd be able to sleep nights, no matter what I chose.