Jörg Friedrich's book The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945, was first published in Germany in 2002. In 2006, it was published in an English translation (by Allison Brown) by Columbia University Press. The Fire consists of seven sections: Weapon, Strategy, Land, Protection, We, I and Stone. These chart the development of aerial attack on Germany during the Second World War, the counter-measures undertaken by authorities, the experience of those under attack and the destruction wreaked upon cities and culture. The book received extensive publicity when it came out in Germany: according to the Columbia blurb, it features 'meticulous research' into a strategy the wisdom of which 'has never been questioned.' At the end of last year, we -- Dan Todman and Brett Holman -- received unsolicited copies for review. Despite some anxieties about the implications of such a marketing strategy (for the profession as a whole and for individual careers), we decided to collaborate on a review in the form of a conversation, which we'll post at Airminded and Trench Fever and highlight at Cliopatria and Revise and Dissent.
Dan Todman: It's very clear from the way this book is presented and the way it has been publicised that it's meant to be contentious. If we start with the moral aspect of strategic bombing -- a key area for recent literary and philosophical debate by writers such as W. G. Sebald and A. C. Grayling -- there are times when Friedrich comes close to saying something explosive in his treatment of German civilians as innocent victims. Yet he always backs off from the logical endpoint of his argument. Here is Friedrich describing the essential randomness of bombing for "terror":
The annihilation principle does not ask such questions. Not until it is too late does everyone know that they can be struck. Terror does not seek to achieve anything; its regime is absolute. It comes out of the blue, needs no reasons, atones no guilt. Its success might be unconditional subjection, but even that does not end the horror. It makes no deals; its resolve is inscrutable and its aim, absurd.
... there was no correlation between the annihilation of the Jews and the annihilation by bombs. And no analogy. And death by gas will not create one. (296)
Ultimately, even in his epilogue written for the English translation, it seems to me that Friedrich makes a moral judgement on bombing only by implication.
Brett Holman: He does always seem to step back from the brink when he is about to actually come to a conclusion. (I say "seem" because he very often uses such flowery, allusive language that I sometimes find it hard to work out what he is saying.) And yes, that epilogue was disappointingly tame -- it was his chance to explain the purpose of The Fire to a readership very different to the one it was originally written for.
But the whole tenor of the book does lean towards the Germans-as-victims side of things. Or what is much worse, suggesting that area bombing is equivalent to the Holocaust -- despite his explicit denial of same in the above quote. I'm not the first person to notice that he often uses words like "crematorium" when describing the effects of incendiary bombing, which is perhaps apt but certainly unfortunate in this context. At one point Friedrich calls 5 Group 'No. 5 Mass Destruction Group' (306), which I thought was perhaps a mistranslation. Judging from Jög Arnold's H-German review, it may well be -- he translates the original German as 'group of mass extermination Nr. 5', which is even worse! To me, Friedrich's choice of words seems very pointed, and very telling.
It's also odd how the victims of Allied bombing always seem to be nuns and children, never Nazi officials or Gestapo agents. (Which, by the way, echoes wartime propaganda -- critics of which cynically marvelled at the amazing accuracy of the enemy's unguided bombs in seeking out orphanages and nursing homes.) Never does he admit that any hits on factories, or disruption of production due to loss of workers or infrastructure had anything more than a minor, temporary effect. The impression I got from reading The Fire was that bombing didn't help the Allies win the war at all, and only killed innocents.