Germanys forgotten victims
This article was brought to our attention via our Twitter account and after reading it and noticing the lack of shares it had on The Guardian’s Website we decided to repost this and share this story with you. It tells a horrific side of World War Two Prisoner of War Camps administered by the Allies after the end of the War in 1945. Did we fight a clean war?
Luke Harding explains why a new book on the allied bombing of German cities in the 1940s has created controversy
More than half a century on, the allied bombing of Germany’s cities during the second world war remains a controversial topic.
On Wednesday, Britain’s ambassador to Germany, Sir Peter Torry, travelled to the city of Kassel to mark the 60th anniversary of its destruction by British warplanes. Around 10,000 people died on the night of October 22 1943, when an immense firestorm swept the city.
“In the peaceful Europe which we live in today, it is hard for those who did not experience the second world war to understand the bitter emotions to which it gave rise,” the ambassador said.
There is nothing new about senior British officials touring German cities that were destroyed by British bombs: the Queen and Prince Charles have visited Dresden and Hamburg in recent years.
However, Sir Peter’s speech comes at a time when the role of the RAF during the second world war is being debated afresh.
Last week, one of Germany’s most controversial historians, Jörg Friedrich, published a new photo book about the issue. Called Brandstätten, or Fire Sites, it contains some of the most grisly images from the war ever to be published. None of them have been seen before.
The victims are not Jewish, but German. The charred, mutilated bodies of women, children and babies are all civilians who perished during the allies’ bombing campaign against Germany’s cities.
In his book, Friedrich argues that the RAF’s relentless campaign against Germany during the final months of the war served no military purpose. Instead, he says that Winston Churchill’s decision to drop more bombs on a shattered Germany between January and May 1945, most of them on small German towns of little strategic value, was a war crime.
“The bombing left an entire generation traumatised. But it was never discussed. There are Germans whose first recollections are of being hidden by their mothers. They remember cellars and burning human remains,” Friedrich told the Guardian in an interview in Berlin last week.
“It is only now that they are coming to terms with what happened.”
Around 600,000 German civilians died during the allies’ wartime raids on Germany, including 76,000 German children, Friedrich says. In July 1943, during a single night in Hamburg, 45,000 people perished in a vast firestorm.
But in the immediate post-war period, the German victims of British bombing were scarcely mentioned, being overshadowed by the far greater evil of the Holocaust.
Friedrich believes that most Germans refused to discuss what had happened because they regarded the British destruction of their cities as a sort of retribution for the crimes of the Nazi era.
The same point is made by writer WG Sebald in On the History of Natural Destruction, an elegant philosophical meditation on why the bombing occupies so little space in Germany’s cultural imagination.
“The Second World War is traditionally portrayed as a struggle between good and evil. Bombers were the weapons of the winners. But what actually happened on the ground wasn’t very heroic,” Friedrich said last week.
The historian’s previous book, Der Brand, or The Fire, published last year, created a storm of publicity in both Britain and Germany. In it, he came close to accusing Churchill of being a war criminal just weeks after a BBC poll had voted the wartime prime minister the greatest-ever Briton.
Reaction to Friedrich’s latest book has been critical, and one reviewer, for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, even suggested that it should be thrown in the bin.
Friedrich is unrepentant. “Churchill was the greatest child-slaughterer of all time. He slaughtered 76,000 children,” he said.
Most of the photos in Fire Sites had lain undiscovered in the archives of German towns for more than half a century before Friedrich found them. They offer a grim insight into what happened on the ground, revealing that many of the civilians who died in allied raids were asphyxiated in their cellars.
In Dresden, SS workers from a nearby concentration camp were called in to dispose of large heaps of bodies. The photos include the petrified corpse of mother and child collected in a bathtub, and the bleached skeleton of a baby killed during an air raid on Leipzig.
There are also pictures of dead animals – an elephant and a giraffe – killed by a British air raid on Berlin zoo.
Friedrich, who is now 59, grew up in Essen, in the Ruhr, a part of Germany’s industrial heartland that comprehensively pulverised during the war years. An allied bomb flattened the house next door.
“I asked my mother what happened to the neighbours. She said she didn’t know. She said everybody looked after themselves,” he recalled.
During the sixties, Friedrich moved to Berlin, took part in the ’68 movement, and became a Trotskyite radical. Like many young Germans, he interrogated his parents about their past, concluding that his father, a teacher, had no Nazi leanings.
Later, he became a writer and broadcaster, before turning to history. In the 80s, he wrote a book about the Holocaust (“I argued that the railway was its essential weapon”) and the German army’s war crimes on the eastern front, before turning his attention to the allied bombing of Germany.
This last project made him notorious. Der Brand was serialised by Germany’s mass-selling Bild tabloid, and left-wing students tried to storm his book signings, accusing him of revisionism for using the word “crematoria” to describe cellars incinerated by allied bombs.
Friedrich admits he is a revisionist, but says he is not interested in making moral judgements, merely in what happened. He is reluctant, though, to discuss what alternatives Churchill had.
“If you destroy a landscape of 160 cities, most of medieval origin, you do something to the cultural identity of a people. All I do is describe it,” he said.
His book recognises that Germany initiated the air war in the autumn of 1940, when 14,000 British civilians died in German raids launched from the French and Belgian coasts.
It was only in the summer of 1943 that Britain’s air marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris was able to respond. At first, RAF bombers were sent out in daylight to attack military targets, but a loss of aircraft forced a change in tactics.
The RAF began to bomb German cities during the night, an indiscriminate strategy causing huge civilian casualties. The attack on Hamburg, however terrible, could be justified on the grounds that the city was the centre of German submarine production, Friedrich concedes.
But, he argues, other raids on smaller, provincial towns could not. On February 16 1945, British bombers attacked the tiny town of Pforzheim, killing one-third of its 63,000 inhabitants.
In the official British history of the air war, Pforzheim merits only a footnote, despite the epic scale of the slaughter. “The RAF had run out of targets. The raid was most cruel,” Friedrich says.
Earlier this year, he attempted to get hold of pictures of British victims of German bombing from the public record office in Kew, but was told that they could not be published because of censorship rules.
As a result, Brandstätten concentrates almost exclusively on German victims. Der Brand has so far sold 185,000 copies, and been translated into six languages, but has failed to find a British publisher.
“One British editor told me my book would ‘estrange’ readers,” Friedrich said. Colombia university will bring out an English edition next year.
Friedrich has supporters inside Germany, including the country’s former chancellor, Helmut Kohl, whose home town, Ludwigshafen, was bombed by British planes during his boyhood, and whose late wife was bombed at Leipzig. He has offered editorial advice, and has praised the historian’s work.
Friedrich is not the first writer to tackle the tricky issue of German bombing victims. But Fire Sites is part of a new trend in Germany where, after more than half a century of collective silence, and the death of most survivors from the war generation, what happened to Germans during the Nazi era is being openly discussed.
“Germans in their seventies and eighties have not forgotten. Their memories are still vivid. People stand up in my public lectures and describe what befell their families,” Friedrich said. “They have tears in their eyes and they can’t breathe.
“The main fact is that the British bombing of German cities wasn’t very heroic. This was no heroic victory.”
Source: The Guardian Germanys forgotten victims Wednesday 22 October 2003