Beyond Slaughter: Memories of ‘45

Jorg Friedrich, a military historian, is author of "Der Brand" ("The Fire"), a history of the Allied air campaign against Germany during World War II.

At high noon on March 12, 1945, just eight weeks before the capitulation of Germany to the Allied forces, 1,000 American planes attacked the city of Swinemuende on the Baltic coast of Germany. The city, crammed with refugees from eastern Germany who had been ethnically cleansed and systematically raped by the Red Army, was bombed mercilessly and sprayed by machine gun fire from American dive bombers, which chased people through the city.

Of the city’s 25,000 civilians, 23,000 were killed that night.

A similar fate befell the city of Wurzburg just four days later, when 225 Lancaster bombers dispatched by British bomber command dropped 1,100 tons of bombs. The city -- a bishop’s seat in southern Germany, one of the jewels of European rococo style -- was destroyed by flames in 17 minutes. Although the end of the war was imminent, 6,000 civilians were killed that night.


This was more than “shock and awe”: This was the final months of the relentless, five-year Allied bombing campaign that took civilian deaths to their apex -- bombing, burning, incinerating the cities of Germany in a round-the-clock effort to destroy morale, foment insurrection and weaken the industrial heart and soul of Adolf Hitler’s war machine.

This was no Iraq. Despite comparisons made in recent days between the bombing of German cities and the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad, this was actually the opposite. Instead of seeking to avoid civilian casualties as they are doing today, the Americans and British in the 1940s sought to maximize them.

Forty-five thousand people were killed in Hamburg during the air attacks; 50,000 in Dresden, 12,000 in Berlin, 10,000 in Kassel, 5,500 in Frankfurt and so on. In Pforzheim, a city of 63,000, one-third of the population was incinerated in one night in February 1945, even as the war was coming to a close.

Night after night after night, entire cities were lighted on fire, like a nonnuclear version of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Never before in modern history had a civilian population endured such a military assault. One and a half million bombs were dropped on 161 German cities and 800 villages over five years, leaving half a million civilians dead, including 75,000 children. An additional 78,000 of Hitler’s slave workers and prisoners of war were killed.

No one was ever punished for these acts. The winners, not surprisingly, didn’t indict themselves for war crimes.

And, in fact, there was nothing technically illegal about their actions.

According to Telford Taylor, the chief U.S. prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials, there was no international agreement limiting aerial bombardment to military targets -- so, technically, the bombing was legal.

Nevertheless, it was unprecedented and beyond any of the customs of war. The war itself was just, but the means by which it was conducted were unjust and unimaginable.

And worst of all, the bombing was an unmitigated failure. It simply didn’t work. It weakened Hitler but didn’t lead to his overthrow. It didn’t destroy morale or incite rebellion; 75,000 children killed and it didn’t do anything except, perhaps, strengthen the resolve of the German people against the Allies.

For years afterward, Germans didn’t mention these things. We lost the war, and rightly so. Now we were making peace with the world, and it seemed wrong, somehow, to speak about the wounds that had been inflicted on us by countries that were now our allies, our protectors.

In the years that followed, none of the numerous British and American historians of the bombing campaign fairly described the tragedy of mass destruction and massacre wreaked on the German cities. Even German historians who knew better didn’t dare to describe the devastation unleashed by the Allies.

At a press conference last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted comparisons had been made between the current campaign and the bombings in Germany. It’s a laughable comparison.

You cannot compare the mass destruction of incendiary warfare -- aimed at killing civilians in extraordinary numbers -- with the noisy but relatively precise and targeted attacks on Baghdad. Such comparisons are far too kind to Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the British leader of the Allied air campaign.

The difference is this: In Baghdad today, civilian deaths constitute failure; in WWII Germany, they meant success. The U.S. would be a pariah in world opinion today if it targeted even one Iraqi city the way it attacked German cities relentlessly for five years.

A better comparison is to Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. If the Iraqi leader were to use chemical or biological weapons -- which strike civilian and military targets indiscriminately over a large territory -- that would be comparable. Then Hussein would be the true heir of “Bomber” Harris.