Germany's anti-war mood has been reinforced by a bestseller about German suffering in allied bombing raids. But that's nothing newby Reiner Luyken / March 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: Der Brand Author: J?rg Friedrich Price: Propyl?en, 25 euros
The German language differentiates between Zeitgeschichte and Geschichte?modern history and history proper- although nobody quite knows when the one slips into the other. When I went to school in Munich in the 1960s, history teaching stopped in 1933. By this calculation the second world war should by now be safely in the past, but it keeps popping up as Zeitgeschichte.
Last November, the mass-market tabloid ‘Bild’ serialised a book by the historian J?rg Friedrich, ‘Der Brand’, probably best translated as ‘The Blaze’, that gives “powerful and spectacular expression to the last untold atrocity of the 20th century,” the air attacks on German cities from 1940 to 1945 by the RAF and US air force. The book topped the bestseller lists for weeks. Germans were?so Friedrich’s admirers claim?for the first time able to speak as openly as any other people about their own suffering: a “final taboo” had been broken.
Historically, Friedrich does not appear to have broken new ground. One reviewer even accused him of insufficient knowledge of more recent research. Friedrich assembled previously published material into a comprehensive narrative. That had not been done before. But if there was such a rich seam of earlier publications, wondered Volker Ullrich in ‘Die Zeit’, how could one declare he had shattered a taboo?
I was born in 1951. I still recall the giant gashes in the cityscape of my hometown, Munich, and the huge heaps of debris that were later turned into the Olympic Park. At my school, the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes were still taboo. The school was not far from Dachau. The concentration camp was never mentioned, let alone visited. German suffering, on the other hand, was engraved into my mind by a teacher who seemed endlessly to pore over Wolfgang Borchert’s play Drau?en vor der T?r, a lament for the “betrayed” war generation.
In my strongly anti-Nazi family the Holocaust was frequently mentioned. The German suffering was not ignored, either. There was an attitude, though, that what had befallen the German people was of their own doing, a dreadful punishment perhaps, but nothing one should complain about. Those who did complain were the Ewiggestrigen, or reactionaries, who refused to learn their lesson. Perhaps this was a not entirely humane attitude towards the victims of the bombing nights and the mass expulsions from the east. It touches on the vexed question of whether a people should pay the price for their support of an atrocious regime. My family’s answer was an emphatic “yes.” After all, 8.5m Germans, one fifth of the adult population, were members of the Nazi party. Hitler’s concept of total warfare explicitly abrogated the distinction between soldiers and civilians: all were part of the battle of the superior Germans against inferior races.
My generation began to forget about our parents’ suffering. Was that not quite normal? Soon, there was hardly a trace left of the war’s ravages. Now, reading Friedrich’s account of Munich’s devastation, it leaves me curiously unaffected. I learn how many millions of incendiary devices and how many hundreds of thousands of bombs, what kind of mines and what types of timing mechanisms were dropped on the city in 73 raids. Friedrich quotes a contemporary diarist who cannot imagine how one could even contemplate rebuilding all the smashed churches and houses that had been put up over 800 years. Well, they were rebuilt. In some places, there are now period buildings that never stood there before. The old king’s residence and the great Fra?nkirche rose in greater splendour than ever. And in the basement of one baroque church is a new vault where every day dozens of people pray to a priest who was murdered in Dachau. I must admit that this priest who stood up against the regime still brings tears to my eyes?but not those 6,632 inhabitants of the city who were killed during the raids, not even the 435 children. In fact, I find the bureaucratic mind who meticulously compiled these figures as unsettling as the figures themselves.
Perhaps my lack of empathy is born out of the knowledge that the Nazis were, in those early postwar years, still amongst us. The mayor of our parish scoffed contemptuously at the school in which my mother had been educated, and which was driven into exile in 1933, as diese Judenschule. SS-General Karl Wolff had found refuge in our neighbourhood before he was arrested in 1962 to be tried for war crimes. Many crimes were never investigated, not least the first bombing run of the war that led to the devastation of the Polish town of Wielun on 1st September 1939: it seems to have been a test run for the Luftwaffe’s Junkers 87 B. Neither Wielun nor Guernica, the Spanish town obliterated by German incendiary bombs in 1937, are mentioned by Friedrich.
Perhaps WG Sebald had the right explanation for my missing compassion when he identified a German “ability to forget what one doesn’t want to know and to overlook what is before one’s eyes”? He wondered, in a lecture series given in Zurich in 1997, why “the sense of national humiliation felt by millions in the last years of the war” never found expression in German literature. He accused his fellow authors of having passed in silence over the experience rather than passing it on to the next generation. There were writers who dealt with the dreadful climax of the war. Thomas Mann wrote perhaps his most powerful novel, Doktor Faustus, from an assumed dwelling-he lived in exile-north of Munich. The Austrian Thomas Bernhard described his experience of bombing nights most intently. I have already mentioned Wolfgang Borchert. But there was no flood of creative outpouring. Heinrich B?ll’s Der Engel Schwieg, a novel of “irremediable postwar gloom,” was only published in 1992, 40 years after he wrote it.
Then, last year in February, G?nter Grass, the b?te noire of all revisionists, astonished everybody with Im Krebsgang, a book about the refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff, which was torpedoed in 1945 by a Russian submarine. Thousands drowned in the icy waters of the Baltic. Grass follows the fate of a woman who survived and gave birth to her only child in a rescue vessel. All her life, she chews endlessly over that fateful night. Her son, who grows up in west Berlin, does not want to hear about it any more. His offspring, though, a right-wing computer freak, gets ever more obsessed with the Gustloff-an obsession that ends in murder. Im Krebsgang did not turn out to be one of Grass’s better works. He seemed, as it were, to have been goaded by Sebald into writing it without being fully convinced by the story’s merit. Apart from the mother, the characters are lean and stereotyped. So is the language. The book appears to confirm Sebald’s contention that liberal Germany was unable to come to grips with her past.
But Sebald did not achieve that either. In his Zurich lectures, he couldn’t resist calling the allied bombing a “war of annihilation.” This is wide of the mark: these are words that to German ears are inextricably linked with Nazi jargon. Moreover, from Friedrich’s painstaking account, it is quite possible to work out the scale of this “war of annihilation.” The death rate in Munich amounted to 0.8 per cent of the population over the whole bombing campaign. The firestorm of Dresden claimed around 4.5 per cent of the people who were crammed into the town in that one night. Dreadful, yes. But it hardly compares with the industrialised extermination of the Jews.
Nevertheless, Friedrich himself feels free to shed all linguistic inhibitions. ‘Der Brand’ is full of allusions to the Holocaust. He turns air-raid shelters into Krematorien. Bomber Group Number 5 becomes Einsatzgruppe, a term that evokes the SS. When he deals with Anglo-American tactics and policies, his language is saturated with a sarcastic sneer. This tone has lately became quite fashionable in Germany. It may suit the Ewiggestrigen. It may also suit a younger generation that is searching for a new German self-confidence, free from the ghosts of the past. But the ghosts are still with us.