Apr/May 2007

Bombs Away

Jörg Friedrich talks with Noah Isenberg

Noah Isenberg


When Der Brand, Jörg Friedrich's best-selling history of the Allied bombings of German cities during World War II, was published in Germany, in 2002, it unleashed a firestorm. For some, the notion that the British and American air campaigns against cities like Dresden, Hamburg and Essen constituted a new and atrocious war, utilizing weapons of mass destruction and targeting civilians rather than industrial centers, is problematic in itself. But Friedrich's harrowing descriptions of the incineration of men, women, and children—a story that aligned his book with other taboo-confronting efforts to examine the notion of German victimhood—was even more troubling. Translated as The Fire, Friedrich's book was recently published by Columbia University Press ($35). Friedrich appeared in a lively and contentious public discussion in January at NYU's Deutsches Haus with New School professor Noah Isenberg. Bookforum is pleased to publish excerpts from their conversation.

NOAH ISENBERG: One thing that distinguishes your work from other historical studies is the unconventional way in which you treat your subject: You blend sober statistical data and analysis with rather emotional, personal, eyewitness accounts of the bombings. Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Andreas Kilb called your method an act of "hysterical expressivity."

JÖRG FRIEDRICH: Well, I recommend that anyone write a hysterical book. You will gain a fantastic fortune and sell a hundred thousand copies—much like my writings, historical or hysterical.

NI: A lively and extended debate took place around your book in Germany, not unlike the response to another controversial work, Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, in 1996. While the public embraced that book, it was challenged and even attacked by historians. In the case of Der Brand, eminent historians like Hans Mommsen and Hans-Ulrich Wehler pointed to perceived deficiencies—Wehler wrote of "the discomfort of looking at the air-war atrocities of Hitler with those of Churchill on the same level."Did you write the book with a specific audience in mind?

JF: I don't write for historians. I write for readers. But I think if there is one task for a German historian, it should be the description and analysis of this singular experience. German historians have evaded the subject. I tried not to, and now let's criticize what I have done and improve on it. Mine is not the last word about the air war. It's only the first. The air war didn't happen in the air, as most of the British and American literature has it; my book starts at the moment the Anglo-American literature stops, when the bomb hits the soil.

NI: One fundamental difference in the English edition of the book is the inclusion of photographs, many of them haunting, gruesome depictions of the damage inflicted in the Allied air war. I'll give you just a few examples: a sequence of bombs being dropped, charred corpses, devastated cities, displaced citizens. In Germany, a year after the publication of Der Brand, you published a compendium of photographs, Brandstätten—Scenes of Fire—that provoked a number of impassioned responses on the part of a public that in the past had not wanted to look at these images, had not wanted to confront this chapter in their history, as W. G. Sebald and others have argued. What motivated you to include these photographs in the Columbia University Press edition?

JF: Well, very simply, it was a decision by Columbia, but though I was criticized for being pathetic or hysterical or whatever, I tried to publish photographs that were neither emotional nor hysterical. They are silent—silent pictures taken by policemen, by firefighters. Photography was forbidden during the air war, but these photographs found their way into the archives. And so I decided to reproduce them, and former chancellor Helmut Kohl, who likes my hysterical writing, told me, "Well, if you publish that, don't forget to take pictures from the German V-2 rockets and the bombardments of the British towns, too." And I said, "Well, wonderful."To me, it is not a question of German suffering as different from British suffering. It's the suffering of human beings under weapons of mass destruction. So I wrote to the British public record office: "Do you have photographs of British civilians, the recovery of corpses, from the German air attack, which produced thirty thousand casualties?" They replied, "Of course we have." "Oh, may I have some to reproduce?" "No, we never reproduce them." This is the question: Shall the targets of mass destruction—and we all are potential targets—have a glimpse of what was then the case?

NI: In his highly provocative 1999 study, The Holocaust in American Life, Peter Novick suggested that Jews, in particular survivors of the Holocaust, hold the gold medal in what he rather polemically termed "the Victimization Olympics."While the notion itself is very politically charged, readers might see in your approach to German victims of the Allied air war the desire to find them a proper place at the medals podium.

JF: Well, the radical right in Germany two years ago used the phrase bombing holocaust to describe the Allied air war. But this phrase was a classical item of the pacifist movement in the cold war, which was never a bombing holocaust or atomic holocaust. So I have nothing against the words, but these neo-Nazis, of course, tried to set up a competition between one vanishing mass destruction by warfare and the mass destruction, which is completely different, by genocide. This competition between victims of mass destruction is simply disgusting, nothing more.

NI: Given your attention to the indisputable damage, the human toll and enduring impact, caused by the Allied air war, I was rather surprised to read in the afterword to the English edition that you supported the US invasion of Iraq, the earliest stages of which, for example the "shock and awe"campaign, took the form of an overwhelming air attack.

JF: If we in Germany had had casualty ratios like in Baghdad—which had six hundred collateral casualties, people killed by accident, in the bombardment, against approximately five million people in Baghdad—we would have nothing to mourn in our cities.The heritage of the mass-destruction bombings? This is al-Qaeda and those creating mass casualties in buses, metro trains, Twin Towers. I once described to an Israeli journalist from Haaretz the problems Churchill faced in 1942. His army had been destroyed by the Germans. He had Stalin and nothing else. He had no other choice than killing civilians in the cities, because targeting industrial sites was much too dangerous. He lost more bombers than the Germans lost industrial sites. The journalist said to me, "That's what our suicide bombers tell us, too. 'We have no other choice than to send fifteen-year-old girls into a disco or onto a bus.'"

NI: Actually, that anecdote, which you raise in your afterword, leads me to another question, which also comes out of the Haaretz interview. Viewed from the moral perspective, would you say, then, that the acts of the suicide bombers and those committed by the Allied air war are to be viewed on the same level?

JF: No, but they obey the same logic—to put pressure on people in order to influence governments.

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