Terror from the sky

Picked up our Apocalypse issue yet? There's plenty of doom packed in it, but back in 2004, we spoke with author Jörg Friedrichs about another Berlin Armageddon.

Image for Terror from the sky
Cologne as shown in Jörg Friedrich’s “Brandstätten”

Picked up our Apocalypse issue yet? There’s plenty of doom packed in it, but back in 2004, we spoke with historian and author Jörg Friedrichs about another Berlin Armageddon and his controversial re-examination of WWII Allied bombing of German cities.

“Whatever lived as German stands now as an abomination and the epitome of evil. What will it be like to belong to a nation whose history bore this gruesome fiasco within it … a nation that cannot show its face?” Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus (1947)

It was long considered rude, unwise or dangerously nationalistic for Germans to talk about their own suffering in World War II. Two years ago historian Jörg Friedrich broke this taboo with his best-selling Der Brand, a 600-page account of the fate of civilians caught in the Allied carpet-bombing of German cities. In minute detail, Friedrich describes the apocalyptic effects of mass bombing on the ground: fires that melted the pavement and made rivers boil, cellars-turned-crematoria, people trampled to death in stampedes.

At around the same time Nobel laureate Günter Grass, the literary guru of the German Left published Crabwalk (Im Krebsgang), a novel about the sinking by a Russian torpedo of a German refugee ship, in which 8,000 people, mostly women, children and elderly, died. Both books answered writer W.G. Sebald’s call for Germans to speak out on what was for too long considered “unspeakable” (On the Natural History of Destruction): that Germans were victims of their own war. Worse, that they were the victims of barbaric acts committed by the Allies.

Both books triggered controversy, catapulting the issue out of the confines of literary circles, or right wing extremists propaganda. A ZDF TV series based on Friedrich’s book attracted 5.5 million viewers. They were heralded as the beginning of a new trend. Has Germany become a normal nation, one that can at last show its face, a nation entitled to a normal history?

Wasn’t it time to write about the Allies’ systematic bombing of Germany, in which 161 towns and cities were levelled, 3.5 million homes destroyed, half a million people killed, including up to 80,000 children, in which the RAF alone dropped a million tons of bombs? Was Churchill a war criminal?

Hitting two historic traditions with one book, Friedrich encouraged Britain to examine its glorified wartime past as much as it asked Germany to face its own ignored tragedy. Brits reacted with acrimony, the German establishment with unease until the popularity of Der Brand spoke for itself. The reunited people of Germany were hungry for historical accounts of their past.

Like a generation of well-known filmmakers (Herzog, Fassbinder, Wenders), Friedrich was born towards the end of the war. From Essen, in the Ruhr, one of the many cities made faceless and ugly by the WWII bombing, Friedrich grew up with little sense of what had happened to his country. After a life’s work dedicated to breaking the silence on Nazism and the war, including books, TV and radio features and a book about the crimes of the Wehrmacht, Der Brand was what he calls his “desertion”.

A year later, he published an even more graphic, hence more controversial book: Brandstätten (Places of Fire), a compilation of gruesome and shocking photographs of German air raid victims as never been shown before. Süddeutsche Zeitung advised readers to consign the book to the garbage, while ARD wrote it off as a “provocation” that sought to “compare the air war with the Holocaust”. To which Friedrich answered, “If you like looking at these photos, you’re crazy and you need a doctor. But this is a matter of truth.”

Der Brand and his iconographic sequel aren’t sardonic exercises in victimisation, nor are they revisionist books. They are a courageous attempt at shedding light on a forgotten part of German history by a German who had proved wasn’t afraid of confronting his own past. Friedrich might have an ultimate agenda, but a very legitimate one: to give the Germans the images and the words they need to write the national history they’ve been deprived of for the last 60 years.

Der Brand is available in English as The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 through Columbia University Press next autumn.

Was the carpet-bombing of German cities by the RAF a war crime? Was Churchill a war criminal as your book suggests?

I was accused of calling it a war crime, but I never said that, because, technically it is not a war crime. The firing of a rocket with chemicals is a war crime. Why? Because chemical warfare has been forbidden by the Geneva Convention since the 1920s. Then if you put a nuclear warhead on this same rocket, which devastates far more lives and property, it’s debatable whether it is a war crime or not. If it was a war crime, then since WW II all the big nations have been threatening each other with war crimes. This is absurd, as you see. As a civilian, if you are burned by nuclear radiation or incendiary warfare or by breathing poison chemicals, there’s not much difference. The question is, what defines the crime? The killing of civilians who do not participate in war or the use of the instrument of killing? The instrument might be forbidden but not the killing.

What about the protection of civilians we hear so much about nowadays?

Before WWII it was customary to protect civilians caught in a war. In the Hague rules of land warfare of 1904 killing civilians is clearly ruled out – which at the time meant artillery fire and bombs or grenades thrown from balloons. But the Hague rules didn’t address aeroplanes or sea warfare. For instance, the British blockade of the German North Sea coast in the First World War cost more lives by starvation than the bombing campaign. Legally, you couldn’t kill civilians with artillery fire, but you could kill dozens of thousands of innocent victims by besieging a town. Without a law, there is no crime. So in WWII, they argued it’s not illegal to destroy a city from the air.

I see two issues here: the legal one – law and the breach of law. And the breach of morals. When there is no law, anything’s acceptable. The strongest is right?

Absence of law is barbarism. Since WWII what’s most threatening to the life of mankind? To be killed during acts of war, nowadays acts of terror, or in the Cold War by nuclear weapons? When polled, about half of respondents in Islamic countries agree with acts like 9/11 and suicide bombers. These are acceptable to half of them. This is not a situation of law. This is the heritage of WWII. For two centuries it was customary that warfare was an engagement of soldiers, a fight between armed men. Since WWII the idea of war has completely changed. No civilian living through the Berlin crisis in the 1960s expected to be spared by law.

You’re suggesting here a parallel with terrorism: potentially, any civilian can be blown up?

Yes. The war of terror, it’s the expectation of nearly everyone. It can happen in the metro station, in a school or in an airport and this is warfare. So warfare is not something between armed men but against you and me that can be operated by everyone, first by states, now by gangs. So since WWII, something has changed which is defining our lives today. This is interesting to describe.

Alright, technically it’s not a war crime, even though, from a moral point of view, it sounds a lot like it. Every time US “surgical” strikes don’t work and kill an innocent baby, it’s called a war crime. So what about killing 80,000 kids from the air, this is not criminal? Or is it a question of intent?

If an air commander destroys a weapons store or an industrial site where for instance gas shells are produced, he knows that someone standing 10 metres beside this compound will be killed. He cannot be sure that only the industrial site is destroyed and no one else. So he takes into account that an innocent baby might be killed, it is an accident, it is not his intent. But if you fire an atomic warhead against a city, the physical process of this nuclear warhead won’t kill babies, patients in hospitals, pupils in school by accident, but by intent. That was a major point of contention with my British colleagues. They’re like a chorus saying that’s the wrong way to look at things.

So how can you prove that the RAF intended to kill as many civilians as possible?

If you inflame a city from one edge to the other it’s clear what happens. You obviously have no military target. It can’t be disputed, that the intent existed – from what we know from the records of the British and American air commanders and war cabinets was that they intended – by a famous order of the Royal Air Force in February 1942 – to kill 900,000 German civilians and wound another million. This was an order by the Chief of Staff of the Royal Air Force, Sir Charles Portal. A million wounded people mean a third or a quarter of them will die so this was an order kill a million German civilians. This is undisputable.

And the point of slaughtering civilians was to break German morale?

Yes, that’s undisputed. Not only morale, but also production. Because industrial production consists of machinery, halls, but also a workforce. I was born in the Ruhr region. My hometown Essen was bombarded more than 200 times, especially to destroy the Krupp factory which produced tanks and artillery pieces. Production was resumed 10 days after the bombardment, but the workforce was dead, so the slave labour programme you hear so much about came from the necessity to recruit a new workforce and therefore the authorities of the Third Reich engaged slave labour. They took workers from Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Russia and forced them to work in production. This is undisputed by all historians in the world. But now, while discussing that with my British and American colleagues, they justify this strategy.

How do they defend it?

First they say that Hitler started with Warsaw, Rotterdam, later Coventry, London and so on, which is absolutely true. At least in this war because actually British aeroplanes started this type of warfare against civilian populations in Iraq in the 1930s. Their doctrine was to crush popular uprisings with indiscriminate bombardments of villages.

Still within the larger context of WWII, Hitler started not only the war but the bombing of cities.

I describe this in my book. It’s a spiral. Before Hitler started to bomb Warsaw, he had to have an air force. And all the participants of the war had prepared for this type of warfare, so when does the crime begin? If you prepare to do it, if you start to do it? This is a difficult question.

So for you, Hitler only struck first but everybody was preparing for it?

When Hitler started the war and started aerial warfare, he did it in the midst of a continent which had been preparing for it since the 1920s. Strategies, weaponry, flying techniques, radar devices to find the targets on the ground, all that had been developed. So there was an understanding after WWI that the next war would have a new sphere and the air would be that new sphere and cities and civilians would be new targets. Within this understanding, Hitler started it and the others continued and they continued on a much radicalised scale. Think about how complicated it is to kill so many people during the night, 6,000 metres in the air and there are clouds over Germany. How do you find a city with bombers travelling at 400 kph? To get the civilians which you intended to kill was such a sophisticated problem that both sides, Germany and Britain, were in a certain way collaborating to fulfil this common intent. This sounds a bit absurd.

So you’re saying there was a competitive exchange of technology?

The problem of each weapon is to find its target. Without radar a bomber is harmless. These radar devices weren’t ready when the aerial warfare started. It took till 1944, to have the accuracy to find a city in the night and destroy it in such an artful way that you have tens of thousands of deaths. Both sides constructed these devices. When enemy aeroplanes were shot down, the first interest was technical, to get the radar which was then taken to Telefunken and Siemens in Berlin and they marvelled at the wonders the opposite side had built. Then they rebuilt it and improved it, like two producers of TV sets. Except they were competing in killing civilians and after four years they knew how it worked. So the argument about who started what is, for me, not very convincing.

Another question often heard among your critics is what could have been done instead?

The most intelligent answer to that was given to me by an Israeli journalist. I described to him what the British side argued – “no other choice” – and he said to me, that’s what the Palestinian suicide bombers tell us. You take a 15-year-old girl, wrap her in explosives and send her into a bus station or, as we’ve seen with the Chechen rebels’ black widows, to a school and you say: “I have no other choice.” What the black widow tells us today is what the black Winston Churchill told us yesterday. About 400 children died in this Ossetia school. In Hamburg, in July 1943, 8,000 children were killed in one night. Altogether 72,000 German children died in WWII during Allied bombings.

So, you’re actually comparing the way the Allies fought Nazi Germany to the way Muslim groups today fight Western imperialism – hence aerial bombings to terrorism. They’re weapons of terror?

That’s what Churchill called it himself. “Terror bombing.” This was a common description. If I read in papers the arguments of the black widows – “we have no other choice” – I remember what the Israeli journalist told me and that’s what Churchill argued. There is a similarity.

So there you see the beginning of something we now call terrorism?

Bin Laden, who I of course detest, might argue, what are the Americans complaining about? What did they do to Hiroshima, Nagasaki – how can you compare that to what I did? So Bin Laden says what the British historians tell me. Harry S. Truman, the Americans, the Germans invented this way of warfare, the capacity to destroy civilians by the million. Bin Laden is their pupil.

Are you also comparing their motives? Today’s terrorism is the weapon of the poor or the weak, who say they have no other option but to kill innocents to fight their enemy. Did Churchill have another option in his fight against Nazi Germany?

There are situations where there is no choice, no doubt. If they want to wage war on the US, Al-Qaida terrorists have no other choice but to take a plane and fly into the World Trade Center. There is a certain military logic there, like the suicide bombers in Baghdad. To fill cars with explosives is a military necessity since they have no army to confront the American troops. Now, the question whether what they decide to do is lawful or unlawful, having no other choice, is totally different.

Did Churchill have no choice other than to carpet-bomb German cities?

If he had had an army able to wage war on the continent, he wouldn’t have had to send aeroplanes. When you wage war, the question of choice doesn’t start with the first day of the war, but in which way you prepare for the eventuality of war. The whole British nation didn’t prepare for a war by having a defence with an army who could defend France. They had an expeditionary core of maybe 90,000, which couldn’t measure up to the German army.

Another question is the timing of the bombings.

Yes. The peak of the bombing campaign was not during those months and years when Churchill had no other choice, but in the last three months of the war, when there was no military value in most of the destruction. If you only take the losses of German civilians between January and May 1945, 135,000 German civilians were killed which means on average 1,200 a day and most of these killings had nothing to do with the progress of war and wearing down the German army. So the alternative to Dresden and its approximately 50,000 deaths is no Dresden. Because the destruction of Dresden had no impact on the outcome of the war.

So why did they bomb cities so late in the war, if there was no military purpose?

They had the planes, they had the pilots… Those German cities which till then weren’t destroyed were the possibility to practice this new method of warfare. The cities of military value – for instance in the Ruhr Valley or the ports in the north, like Hamburg, like Lübeck – were all bombarded more than 100 times; Cologne on the Rhine – 200 times. So cities like Würzburg, one of the treasure houses of baroque art in Germany, were all that was left at the end of the war. There are always two elements in warfare: first is to beat the enemy, second is to train your own forces and test the capability of your weapons in combat situations. The Americans tested new weapons in Afghanistan.

The British are not happy with your way of looking at history. Until your book came out they had a much more heroic vision of their campaign against “the Nazis”. Even Germans were made to forget about this part of WWII history. Would you say that the history we know is somehow the version of the victor?

Of the victors and of the vanquished. German historians have been writing history for 50 years. For me it’s especially interesting how the historians of the defeated look back.

Why was there so little about the bombing campaign before your book?

Some splendid works were written by my British and US colleagues. Max Hastings’ fabulous book The Bombing Campaign is the history of the bombing campaign up till the second the bombs left the plane. When the bombs leave the plane, the British records stop. I say my book starts 30 seconds later as the bomb hits the ground.

Obviously, if you’re British, that’s not a part of history you want to know so much about. But tell me why no German historians did that before?

One reason is that German feeling of being part of a nation and part of families who either ordered, committed, or witnessed crimes against humanity in terrible amounts. They have great difficulties commemorating this past. They have no emotions and no words about what they suffered. I gave lectures in more than a 100 cities all over Germany and looked in the faces of my readers. I saw such a mixture of feelings. The question, can I dare to be sad, can I say that my sister didn’t die in an act of justice or as the collateral damage of liberation, but in an act of cruel, total warfare, or even have been a victim of a war crime or was the victim of total barbarian negligence of the value of life? Germans were rotten Nazi lice that had to be destroyed. Can I commemorate the death of my sister as one of these lice, who was burnt in this act of liberation. This is a very singular experience for a nation. The words, the moral and legal judgements, the emotions are absolutely undefined. People don’t know how to come to terms with these events.

Do you see here the need to normalise history? Remember Martin Walser when he said that Germans have at some point to be allowed to be and feel like normal people. Is there a need to normalise the way Germans talk about WWII?

If you agree that commemorating history is normal, then we have to normalise. For centuries, historians have backed the authorities. In West Germany the entire political and legal system, our values were imports from the Western powers. Historians had the purpose of educating the people and telling history in such a way that the result of WWII – democracy, political restart, peace with the neighbour – appeared just and good to every pupil in every school. Even the partition of Germany was regarded by half of the German scholars and politicians as a necessary result of the war, not an injustice to the half that was enclosed by a wall. It was a necessary punishment for German imperialism. The status quo, including dictatorship and political murder in the German Democratic Republic, was justified by the role of GDR as a sort of a buffer zone which protected us from the Soviet Union. When I was a schoolboy, the expulsions and the mass rapes of German civilians in Silesia and Pomerania were everyday talk. There were a lot of books, series, films about these atrocities. Why? Because this was part of the Cold War. Bolshevik Beasts. They would do to all of us what they did to the refugees, if they conquered western Europe.

So the cultivated fear of a demonised USSR was supporting the necessity for a “westernised”, thus partially amnesic, vision of German history?

In fact, in the 1950s the same bombers that had killed us by the hundreds of thousands, the same methods of city destruction now protected us. Curtis LeMay, a great air commander who destroyed Tokyo and the German city of Münster was now a NATO commander. Those people who had great expertise in aerial warfare against us, were now our friends and our protection force against the Bolshevik rapists. While the memory of the atrocities in the East was still kept alive, we had to swallow the memories and feelings towards the ones who reduced our cities to rubble and killed children and parents and sisters and we became friends.

So Germany internalised the history of its former enemies, by then its new mentors?

You have much more critical publications about Roosevelt and Churchill in WWII in British and American publishing houses than in German ones. The defeated were silent – this is the internalisation of the aggressor who defeated you. You identify with him and you don’t just take his view but double it. I confronted a lot of demonstrations of students in university cities where I held lectures. These are 18-19-year-old students who hail the mass killing in German cities as a necessary punishment. No one in England or in the Netherlands would say that. In Germany, the vanquished, or this completely idiotic part of them, celebrate it. On the last commemoration day of the Dresden attack in Munich, there were demonstrators with a sign that said “Do it again Harris!” They were referring to the commander of the British bombers, asking for more.

Isn’t it a problem of education, schools and parents? Sebald talked about those years of silence, childhoods without any knowledge of the tragedy? Was it the same for you?

In the west of Essen where I lived with my parents, each second house was destroyed. I grew up in this bizarre landscape. With my friends we used to play and smoke in those ruins. It was really adventurous for young boys. But what were they? Of course we asked our parents, but the answers were laconic: something like “the war came – the bombs came – the houses fell.” All passive constructions, no subject, no perpetrator and a complete void of emotion. It was like talking about the weather: “The rain fell.” But what you have to understand is that those people who 10 years ago had showered us with incendiary bombs, by then our occupiers, were actually feeding us – literally I’d run along Tommies’ cars asking for “Schokolate”. They were our protectors, our true fathers: we loved them, we admired them. We adopted their culture, their music, their literature. They were our heroes.

But in the East, in the GDR, the version of history must have been pretty different…

When I hold lectures in Dresden, Leipzig or Magdeburg, people say this is nothing new to them. When they were in school they read all about the “Anglo-American gangsters”. During the heyday of the Cold War, the atrocities of WWII were instrumentalised on both sides of the Wall. Then came the détente and for us West Germans, the political necessity to come to terms with East Germany and the Russians. This was very difficult. First we had suppressed the memories of the Allied atrocities, now we had to forget about the atrocities committed by the Russians in the eastern part of Germany. And that was the task of my generation, the 1968 generation, the sons. We broke the silence imposed by our fathers and conquered the memory of their crimes. We began to rewrite history. We stopped looking into the Bolsheviks’ atrocities in the East to focus on the partisan warfare, the siege of Leningrad, the Holocaust in Ukraine, etc. We described the eastern side as a victim of the German war of annihilation.

So, breaking the silence over the Nazi past was not a moral but a political necessity?

If you look back, this happened in a specific political context. To make the détente work, we, Germans had to open the memories of the atrocities committed in the East and the Balkans, where 90 percent of the crimes happened. Genocide and war crimes are embedded in the occupation of the East. We had to look that history in the face. And we did.

And what made you abandon this introspective and apologetic history of WWII?

If you look at all the TV programmes, series, books, etc., no nation in the world has ever commemorated the shame of its own people as much as we did. It was a process of “re-education/rehabilitation” of Germany. We described, analysed German crimes to the last forgotten corner of history, filled history books with them until pupils were stuffed with it to the point they got fed up with it. I was typical of that generation formed by that necessity to which I dedicated 20 years and all my books until Der Brand. I did my part. We “did” it. In my eyes it’s completed. I’m somewhat of a deserter. I deserted a historical and generational trend of writing about German crimes.

But with Der Brand you made a radical switch of perspective from the Germans as perpetrators to the German as victims. Why you, why now?

Ten years ago I wrote a book about German warfare in Russia and described the war crimes and the siege of Leningrad, in which more civilians died of starvation – one million – than from the entire bombing campaign – 600,000 Germans. When I was describing the sort of warfare chosen by the German army in the east I had to ask myself: what is the difference between this land warfare in Russia which aimed at killing masses of civilians and the aerial warfare used by the enemy? For instance an officer participating in the siege of Leningrad comes home for his holidays to his home city of Cologne, where his family – children and wife – are targeted and maybe killed by the famous 1000 bombers offensive – 1000 bombers attacked Cologne in May 1942. Does that officer return to Leningrad with the clear intent that the lives of civilians have to be spared or it’s a war crime?

So for you, there is no fundamental difference between Germans killing civilians in the East and the British bombers killing civilians in Hamburg… No moral difference?

Well, that’s what I am criticized for. Those are conclusions which have been drawn from my books, but I personally don’t draw them, I leave the reader alone.

But what is your opinion?

This opinion, is of course, for a German author, a very delicate question. The book was just translated into seven languages. Everyone who reads this will ask themselves the difference.

Is it all the same?

I argued with a German historian on a Berlin radio station and he said the difference between what happened in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the cellars of Hamburg is the following: the children of the gas chambers of Auschwitz had no escape, they were brought and annihilated. The people in Hamburg had a choice. They could leave the war, they could stage mass strikes, rebellion, capitulation. And I asked him, there were 30 million Germans living in cities, targeted. Where should the children and elderly go? With which trains? In a Gestapo state, this is a complete fiction that 30 million people can leave the cities and go to a fantasy place.

So you’re basically saying there are “good victims” and “bad victims”?

That’s what the whole German nation discussed after my book was published. Can Germans who regard themselves as perpetrators, can they be victims at all? Can they claim the nobility of the victim? We, the liberated ones, the majority of whom had backed Hitler till the last days of the war, can we, liberated Germans, declare the way we were liberated a crime and us the victims of this crime?

You did!

You see, Anglo-Americans might be your best friends and your best protection from the Russians but if you come from those moon-landscapes that were our cities after the war you just can’t suppress that memory. Re-education is not everything. At some point you feel you have to tell the truth. Reach to all the emotions suppressed and kept in the silence of well-guarded family secrets. Tell all the words. And as a historian I accept no censorship. There is no good/bad part of history – one that should be told, the other silenced.

Has the new context of reunified Germany played a role in this urge to “tell the truth”?

Germany’s supposed to become a normal nation in a Europe of nations. But Germans don’t know how to feel about themselves. Until 1990 the division was clear and being a German meant nothing but being a member of a larger entity – Western free world/Soviet world. People were just educated to be part of something different. The reunification left them at a loss. What are we? A white spot in a sea of brightly coloured identities. There had been one German history until 1945. Then history of Germany as a separate identity stopped.

Are your books supposed to help them relate to their lost identity by filling the holes of their national history, bringing some missing emotional links?

It’s like in an accident and somebody experiences identity loss. To regain it, he has to return to the moment of the crash. Germany, as a nation, is in the same situation. We have to re-conquer our past by returning to the moment when our history crashed: 1945, Stunde Null, Hour Zero is proclaimed. The German history as such comes to an end and divides into two distinct histories. And started the generation of the lost sons. I’m a lost son myself.

Isn’t it primarily a political issue for today’s Germany?

I know that for German politicians, especially the left-wing it is a highly delicate question. I was invited by the SPD to talk about this question. They wanted me to tell them about the reactions to my book in the German cities I toured. They are worried about what they see as their desire for “victimisation”. They see me as the guy that delivers the stuff for this German victimhood. The SPD has a big problem in accepting that this white spot of words and emotion has to be defined and dealt with. I told them that ignoring that deep-rooted desire to reformulate and express feelings could only result in giving other political forces, more radical ones, what they haven’t found until now: a fertile ground where to anchor their dangerous ideas. Until now most of the far-right ideas have not been acceptable to the average German. But these emotions are easy to stir, for the worse.

A slippery ground too. Isn’t it scary to have written a book which feeds a certain desire for victimization, and thereby might find supporters amongst revisionists, old and neo- Nazis? A Pandora’s box of rediscovered nationalistic feelings?

For the success of this book, my personal biography as a ’68 generation anti-Nazi history writer was important. People knew who I was, where I was coming from. There could be no suspicion of neo-Nazi intellectual acquaintance. And whoever reads my book can understand it can’t be the work of a far-right-winger. I also show how the Jews and the slave workers suffered on the ground. No one described as precisely as I do the system of judicial murder in those days, how from 1943 to 1945 more than 30,000 people were executed for “defeatism”. That so-called “victimisation” is just for people who didn’t read my book.

Still, the reality you describe is atrocious. As a reader, you can’t help empathising. You forget about the larger context of the war. The Germans of your book are mainly victims.

What I actually show is that bombarded people can’t be defined as just innocent victims, but they’re also wolves fighting for their lives, in the midst of racial hatred, murders, rape, ideology of the master race, etc. I’m not describing victims but a microcosm, that of bombarded, terrorised cities and ad-hoc strategies for survival – the struggle for a roof, a hot tea, a piece of bread in the midst of total chaos and horror. How does the human psyche operate when confronted with such exceptional, atrocious circumstances, confronted with death, terror, hell? How do people behave, cope, anticipate? Seventy percent of my book consists in describing realistically, very graphically, the true situations of people trapped in burning cities. The women, the old, the young, the babies, even the animals trapped in zoos. Nothing emotional, just plain description.

You were accused of dramatising the tragedy…

The drama is there, speaking for itself. There is nothing to add to it. And true drama is far more impressive if you describe it in the most surgical, precise, scientific way. Of course in this case even the driest, coolest words, stir emotions.

What about the pictures? Wasn’t the description enough?

Why do we look for photos of Hiroshima? In all other aspects of WWII-partisan warfare, submarine warfare, fighting in Stalingrad, fighting in the desert, Hiroshima – we have photographic evidence, movies. We have a certain impression of what this landscape looked like. So why should we suppress the photographic evidence of how exactly aerial warfare works. Is there any reason to suppress a piece of historical heritage consisting of documents in order to give a picture of what happened, which is my job and duty.

A common criticism is your books lack context…

What is the context?

The context is thousands of terrible pictures from Russian, Polish, British cities, not even mentioning ghettos and death camps.

I’m describing here bombarded cities. What we see of reality is always an extract, beyond we don’t see. The history of WWII has a context too. Even Hitler has a context. So the context of WWII is a Europe created by WWI, for instance. The foundation of the German Reich in 1870 and the fate of this German Reich in the 20th Century.

Total historical relativism!

Everything has a context. There was a very famous exhibition in Germany, the Wehrmacht Exhibition. This was hailed by German academics, German politicians, teachers and so on as a sort of revelation. It showed nothing other than cruelties of the German army in the East. But when the German army killed the Jews in Ukraine this exhibition didn’t describe that Ukraine was a genocidal area where Stalin had annihilated the peasantry and worked them to death in Siberia.

 It’s a question of focus. You can’t put the spotlight on everything at once.

Everything has a context. When these pictures of German atrocities in Russia were shown, no one argued these crimes happened in Stalinist Russia.

Your book and that exhibition are actually very interesting in the same and unique way that they both go against mainstream history, break a taboo by taking a different angle…

I was one of the most severe critics of the Wehrmacht exhibition with the following argument, that it lacked context. It had one angle, of collecting atrocities and displaying them like war propaganda.

But so does your book then! And even more delicate are the comparisons you make. Many people might find shocking the way you term the mass killing of Germans “extermination”, or burning cellars “crematoriums”, words reserved until now to the Holocaust.

I don’t make any comparison, but when people see heaps of charred corpses, they spontaneously make comparisons and what is the only situation they know where people are treated like rubber? Not Dresden.

These pictures are obviously reminiscent of death camps.

There is a similarity. Mass killings have certain similarities. First, in the technique, second in the terrible sight these heaps of corpses make. This doesn’t mean they are the same.

Has Der Brand made a break in German historiography? Are other colleagues working on similar issues, taking a fresh, “normalised” look at their history?

There definitely is a new trend. And I think it is unstoppable. I can personally withdraw but now the path is open. Six hundred pages are not enough. More than 160 German cities went up into flames, some of them many times during the war. My book gives only the contours of what happened. There is still much work for historians to do. History has to be retold. And there is so much material. I’ve noticed that in every city, more and more documents are being exhumed, books of personal accounts, photo essays. Local papers, TV stations run series. Local historians, encouraged by public interest, write the chronology of their own cities.

In his last book Günter Grass accuses the 1968 generation, which used to hold “days of rage” against its complicit parents, of overreacting, and fostering a mood of indifference among its children. Are Germans hungry for their own history?

When I visit schools around Germany, teachers would always warn me of their students’ lack of interest in history. “They won’t listen,” they say. What happens? They actually are very interested. When I start telling them the story of their cities, the city where their parents and grandparents have lived, a story they never heard before, they’re stunned. In history class they’ve heard of Stalingrad, Guernica, Oradour, the bombing of London … nothing about the tragedy that happened in their own street. Look at their cities! They are ugly, faceless cities. But why? How was it before? What happened? I remember the feeling in Nuremberg with this school gym filled with 400-500 kids and not a murmur… it was indescribable. That was deeply moving. An anecdote: I was showing photos of devastated Berlin and a 20-year-old girl (from Berlin) said: “It looks like Sarajevo!” I was amazed. Sarajevo was actually a closer reality to her than her own city.

You’re saying German kids don’t know about their own history. Should textbooks be rewritten?

Kids need to understand history as a part of themselves. They need to relate to it. People felt that something was unsaid. Their cities might have physically vanished, but emotionally they are still there. And with my book, with photos, exhibitions, etc. the memory is coming nearer and nearer. It’s more than a longing for a lost property. It is a longing for roots. The new town is receding, the old one coming closer and closer to the memory of people. It is amazing how much of a grip the past has on these kids, when they come close to it. Yes, German history needs to be retold.

Originally published in Exberliner #20, October 2004.