- The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940–1945
In 2002 Joerg Friedrich published Der Brand: Deutschland in Bombenkrieg 1940–1945. Four years later Columbia University Press published an English-language edition of Friedrich's book, The Fire, enabling those who do not read German to access and evaluate his argument in full. While Friedrich was by no means the first writer to describe the experience of life in Germany under the pressure of an increasingly devastating Allied air offensive (Hans Rumpf and Earl R. Beck, among others, had produced earlier accounts), his work became a bestseller in Germany. The German-language edition stimulated wide public discussion inside and outside of Germany (especially in Britain), and provoked an academic dialogue in Europe that was comparable in intensity to the debate over the Fischer thesis in the 1960s.
Many books become bestsellers because they are well-timed: they tap into a cultural nerve that has become awakened or sensitized. In a 1997 lecture series, the popular writer W. G. Sebald had opened the debate by discussing the repression of memory in Germany regarding the World War II air war. In 2002, Friedrich's impassioned criticism of Allied bombing—complete with graphic descriptions of the raids—seemed to clear the way for a long delayed moment of grieving and emotional stocktaking among a generation of Germans who had childhood memories of fire raids, air raid shelters, and burned out cities.
Readers in this country are likely to find the book frustrating, haphazard, and even infuriating in places. Friedrich's general discussion of the air war does not adhere to high scholarly standards: his methods of citation are random (or, more frequently, nonexistent), and he does not set his story into a context that facilitates a balanced and rigorous analysis. He gives his reader only a skeletal understanding of the relationship between the searing memories of the First World War's Western Front, and the political pressure—in the U.K. and the U.S.—for a turn to air power as a means of warfighting. If the Anglo-Americans were going to have to beat back yet another German quest for hegemony in Europe, they were not going to do it by repeating the Somme, Passchendaele, or the Meuse-Argonne. Perhaps the most scathing criticism launched at Friedrich's book heretofore has concerned his attempt to imply moral equivalence between the Allied air campaign and the Holocaust. In the original German-language edition the author [End Page 1281] appropriated terms of Nazism and Holocaust (Einsatzgruppen and Krematorien, for instance), and applied them to his descriptions of the Allied air war (bomber group, air raid shelter). These sensationalist comparisons were specious: they undermined the author's credibility, caused many readers to close the book in anger, and distracted attention from those parts of the argument that deserve attention.
The book, despite its many flaws, does deserve Anglo-American consideration. (Americans ought to recall that the British were not the only ones who used incendiary bombs extensively in the Second World War.) The Fire, besides offering an unsparing account of what it was like to live under the fall of bombs, makes clear just how much pain and suffering can be rained down on civilians without causing the kind of societal collapse that interwar bomber advocates had predicted. Finally, the book raises uncomfortable but unavoidable issues regarding discrimination and proportionality, the heart and soul of the jus in bello side of just war theory.