- Bodies and Ruins: Imagining the Bombing of Germany, 1945 to the Present by David F. Crew
The unconditional surrender of Germany to the Allied forces in May 1945 brought to an end the European phase of the most destructive war fought by humanity, and in doing so ushered in a decades-long struggle to make sense of it. Nowhere was the task of remembering the global catastrophe more complicated than in the lands that made up the defeated Third Reich. For German civilians, particularly those who had lived in the west, processing the wartime experience was complicated by both the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime and the dynamics of cold war. This tension in memories of and discussions about Germans as both victims and perpetrators of violence was at the core of much of the scholarly effort that began in the late 1990s to understand the German experience with the Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign, or bombing war. It is to the initial work of scholars such as W.G. Sebald and Jörg Friedrich and subsequent studies by Malte Thießen, Jörg Arnold, Neil Gregor and many others that the University of Texas-Austin historian David F. Crew adds his masterful study.
The central organizing theme of Bodies and Ruins is what the author describes as "the search for the 'right' stories…and pictures of the bombing war in local publications and pictures books from 1945 to the present" (9). After a useful introduction in which Crew situates his book within the still-evolving scholarship on the bombing war and its postwar consequences, he develops this theme in six chapters. The first explores the "local master narratives" created by Germans living in what became West Germany in the late 1940s and 1950s. Crew argues convincingly that the mostly homogenous accounts that focused on German suffering during the war became increasingly unsustainable beginning in the 1960s. Chapters two and three examine the important role images, primarily photographs, played in creating these narratives. He starts by examining how (and possible reasons why) authors initially chose to include the photographs they did in their local narratives, and how the passage of time and an expanded repertoire of images complicated the early focus on German suffering. Chapter three continues this examination of suffering with a focus on "horror pictures" (Schreckensbilder)—specifically, ruins, and to a much lesser extent, bodies—and the complex meanings these images had for Germans in the postwar period. Crew concludes his analysis of postwar West German narratives in chapter four, where he focuses on picture books, exploring their dual role of [End Page 1445] recording sites of mourning and celebrating the resilience and resolve of the survivors who reconstructed the country. From his extended study of West Germany, Crew turns to the east, focusing, in chapter five, on the "other Germany" and the specific case of the "Dresden narrative" (11). Crew argues convincingly that in the GDR, the country's communist regime created narratives of the bombing war to fit its Cold War propaganda agenda. Unlike in the west where local narratives proliferated, Crew concludes that this "political instrumentalization" of the city's destruction marginalized the experiences of other eastern cities (145). In the book's final chapter, Crew takes his analysis into the recent past, tracing how the local narratives constructed during the Cold War have shaped the national and transnational discussions that emerged in the wake of German unification.
As a work of both social history and the history of memory, Bodies in the Ruins is a success. The opening chapters are of particular relevance to readers interested in the (mostly) men (women are, unfortunately, are largely absent from the book) who documented the bombing war's effects on Germans. The author's thick description includes numerous examples of authors and scholars (Crew is careful to distinguish between the two) who published accounts of the bombing war, from short memorials written by local politicians, to nationally-known technical experts like Hans Rumpf, who...