The Fire

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.

DT: Indeed -- with the possible addition of the unfortunate slave workers or prisoners of war who are also mentioned in the text. I wonder if there's a double problem here: first of the sources Friedrich uses, and secondly, as you note, of his/his translator's syntax/rhetorical style. As Arnold notes, much of the work on the effects of bombing on the ground comes from local/regional histories in which that victim discourse was bound to be strong. As it happens, much of this material was new to me, and I'm grateful for the chance to access German works that would otherwise be unavailable to me, but I'm wary about knowing the context in which they were produced (particularly where Friedrich's footnoting is not exactly of academic standard).

In terms of style and translation, my perhaps prejudiced reaction was that this was a very 'non-British' book. The high emotional register in which Friedrich writes, and the rhetorical devices he employs, are not the default mode of most English language historians, even those working for the popular market. The Fire reads as a very constructed text. I found this offputting, even after I had read myself into the book. It may just be the limited selection of books that I've read, but my impression is that for the 'respectable' market at which author and publisher seem to be aiming, this is a more accepted mode elsewhere in Europe. Sometimes, I have to say, I think it works in the sense that it leads the reader to make a connection they might otherwise not. One might say that this is a topic about which emotion should run high: but not, I would suggest, to the exclusion of sense.

It's also an inadequate translation for a supposedly academic press to have put out. To take a repeated example, anti-aircraft guns don't fire 'grenades', they fire 'shells'. To me, that suggests a translator without the background knowledge to make sense of what they're reading, and a press that didn't bother to send the translated text to an English-language academic reader before publication. This is not just snippy military historian nit-picking accuracy stuff. If you can't get that right, what else have you ignored?

BH: Like you I wonder about the sources. For one thing, he draws upon David Irving extensively, who isn't just a Holocaust denier but also untrustworthy when it comes to the bombing of Germany, as Richard J. Evans showed (Telling Lies About Hitler, 2002). I agree, the small errors (and it's not just the military stuff: when was Churchill ever an 'attache' (272)?) suggest an unfamiliarity with the material, at least on the Allied side of things: the book would have benefited enormously from an expert reader. This is important -- for one thing, while he often suggests that this or that particular city had no important war industries, and so -- by implication -- shouldn't have been bombed, he rarely asks whether the Allies knew this, or delves deeply enough into the philosophy of area bombing, if I can put it like that, to see what effects Bomber Command intended and what it thought it was achieving.

DT: This area of accuracy is vital, it seems to me, if one wants to make the sort of big splash which Friedrich and his publishers plainly do. The risk in relying on synthesis is that you pick up moral as well as factual judgments. Given Irving's celebrity and downfall, it seems strange to treat him as an unproblematic source. Relying on local historians' judgements that 'there was no war industry' implies a misunderstanding of what total war entails.

BH: Where Friedrich comes closest to my own area of research, for example in his account of the origins of strategic bombing (in section 2, "Strategy"), his narrative is generally poor, and he says some very strange things. The strangest perhaps is when he claims that Churchill 'pioneered this concept' of strategic bombing, and that 'he had a planned thousand-bomber attack on Berlin' while Minister of Munitions in 1918 (51). For one thing, the Minister of Munitions didn't get to plan air raids; at most he planned aircraft and bomb production. For another, the idea and practice of strategic bombing was by 1918 firmly entrenched; there had been much pre-war speculation about the possibility, and the first strategic air raids on cities were carried out in 1914. Churchill did play a small role, while at the Admiralty, in fostering the early strategic strikes launched by the Royal Naval Air Service (which Friedrich doesn't mention), but as an account of the origins of strategic bombing, this grossly exaggerates Churchill's role and is utterly inadequate.

DT: Do you think this is a matter of confusion, or of a misreading of another source? The reference here is to Churchill's Thoughts and Adventures (1932).

BH: I've got the relevant bit of Thoughts and Adventures here. If this was Friedrich's only source for this passage, he's reading far too much into it. Churchill writes only in very general terms about the offensive planned for 1919, and doesn't even talk about his own role. Maybe it's a reading backwards of Churchill's role in the Second World War, as the leader who ordered the bombing of Germany and poured resources into the task? It would certainly be very neat if that same leader invented strategic bombing in the first place, but history is rarely neat!

DT: This lack of consideration of moral/factual/analytical judgements extends to the part bombing played in winning the war. I think that The Fire makes it clear, entirely unintentionally, that it did help the Allies win. No-one reading Friedrich's chapters on the measures put in place to defend cities can be in much doubt about the resources that bombing soaked up. To put it in simple terms, there was a hell of a lot of concrete under the ground in Germany that wasn't being used to make field fortifications and a lot of guns pointing skywards rather than at the advancing ranks of T34s in the East, not to mention a substantial scientific effort. This link isn't drawn.

BH: I wondered about that too, and wondered why he didn't wonder about it. He makes some rather forced conclusions. For example, on p. 278 he notes that a Bomber Command raid on Nuremberg destroyed a Panther tank production line, and then says that by that time -- 2 January 1945 -- 'tanks were no longer helping Germany advance'. It seems to me that this implies (again, he won't just come out and say it) that Nuremberg was a pointless and therefore unjustified, target, just because Germany was on the defensive.

DT: Yes: it's a slightly strange argument that having moved over to the offensive, the Allies should have held back. More to the point, it ignores the logic (and the extensive scholarship) of total war. De-escalation in the middle of an enormous global conflict might be something for which we'd retrospectively wish, but it's hard to see how it would have happened.

BH: In similar fashion, he spends a lot of time talking about the Allied advance into Germany -- which reinforces the impression of Germans as victims -- and not so much about why the Allies had to attack Germany in the first place. Of course, every reader is likely to have a pretty good idea of why, but surely there should have been a more extended discussion of Germany's own efforts at city bombing -- Belgrade, Rotterdam, Warsaw. Guernica isn't even in the index, and Coventry is mainly invoked to show that German city bombing was as nothing in comparison to what they received in return.

The high emotional register you mention was certainly strange for a book from an academic press. Ultimately, however, I think it is quite effective. As I read the central section of the book, "Land" -- which visits each part of Germany in turn, describing the history of various cities, their experience in the war and the air raids they endured -- I moved through several stages: at first horror at the lives destroyed, and the way they were destroyed, through fire and suffocation; then numbness and even boredom at the repetition; and finally crushing despair as the enormous extent of destruction became clear. Much of this material was new to me also, as too were the later sections ("Protection", on Germany's civil defence system, was especially fascinating to me). It's constructed, as you say, but at least it's artfully so.

DT: I absolutely agree, and I think that this is a primary reason to recommend the book to English language readers. For me, the final section, "Stone", which concentrates on the damage to German architectural, cultural and intellectual heritage was particularly affecting. In part, this was because it was a part of strategic bombing which, rather stupidly, I'd never thought about, whilst being aware in general terms of the damage that must have been done. More than that, however, it seemed to me a clear example of what was tragic about strategic bombing. Inevitably, bombing cities meant the destruction of much of what had been good or valuable in German culture, that which might have offered a conceptual alternative to the nihilism of Nazism. Friedrich's point, I suppose, would be that this applied to people as well as artefacts, books and buildings. It doesn't necessarily follow, however, that strategic bombing was a failure, or that it shouldn't have taken place.

BH: Yes. In fact, all through this whole section, I couldn't help but wonder -- if Germany was so cultured, so civilised, how and why did it put itself in a position where other nations thought they had no option but to obliterate its cities? It's an old, old question, though, and not one we are likely to answer here ...

DT: What about the reception of the book? How controversial do you think it actually is?

BH: It takes two to make a controversy: one to say something and the other to be outraged by it. Have you seen much evidence of the latter? It's probably unlikely that The Fire could have as much effect in English-speaking countries as it did in Germany, where it was a best-seller and led to a flood of recollections about living through the bombing. But I would have expected some sensitivity to a German coming close to saying that British airmen murdered his countrymen in their hundreds of thousands. Or can such a viewpoint be tolerated in Britain today? (I've seen nothing about it in Australia yet, even though many thousands of Australian airmen participated in Bomber Command's attacks on German cities.)

DT: You're right. Freidrich's book is only just on the way out here, but so far as I can see there has been nothing like the reaction the publisher would like. It may still come. But my feeling is that it won't. See, for example, David Cesarani's Independent review. I'd suggest four reasons for this. First, the idea of strategic bombing as the bad bit of Britain's good war is well established. That doesn't mean that it is understood or morally resolved. But saying that British airmen killed lots of German civilians is not exactly new: I think you'd arouse more controversy going on TV to justify the iconic Dresden bombing than you would do by claiming it was an awful tragedy that we shouldn't have done. If anything, the quandary over strategic bombing serves to spotlight the high purpose for which most Britons like to think they fought. Second, the proportion of the British population directly involved in bombing and still surviving is extremely small, whereas the proportion of the German population who can still configure themselves, if they choose, as victims, is large. Third, there has always been a strand of British thought which sees the Nazi era as a tragedy for Germany. Friedrich's book, with its celebration of the cultural heritage Germany lost, fits that understanding rather well. Fourth, there will be much here which is new to British readers -- not the Bomber Command stuff, all too obviously drawn from the Official History, Middlebrook and Hastings, but the descriptions of what was going on on the ground. Novelty will overcome outrage.

BH: That's probably not such a bad thing, because for me the main value of The
is in the account of the effects of the bombing. The cultural loss that you mention was just staggering, and I too had little idea of this. I like your suggestion about the connection between the questionable morality of bombing and the unquestioned justness of Britain's cause. It's almost like a myth of the bomber offensive -- "well, it was a dirty job, but we had to do it ..." I wonder if this attitude has been present all along, or whether it has evolved more recently? Frederick Taylor's bestselling Dresden (2002) probably played a part in this process (and may have pre-empted some of the sales of The Fire), but unflinching accounts of the British bombing of Germany go back to at least Len Deighton's Bomber (1970), and yes, even Irving's The Destruction of Dresden (1963). As you say, that Allied airmen killed hundreds of thousands of German civilians is not a shocking concept in the English-speaking world, at least to anyone who's been paying attention. Friedrich's ambiguous stance on the "was it murder?" question will probably result in The Fire having little impact in Britain and elsewhere -- whereas it was probably necessary in Germany, given remaining taboos and sensitivities.

DT: I suspect that this 'dirty job but had to be done' aspect was present at some level from the war itself. Mark Connelly's history of Bomber Command, Reaching for the Stars (2001), is quite good on this aspect. I think there's also an undercurrent of (technological?) pride which doesn't get spoken about in liberal circles except jokingly, and which is part of a national myth -- "we always start wars badly, we're not fighters by nature, but don't rouse us or we'll give you back twice what you gave us." Again, hopefully the value in Friedrich's book here will be to make people think about the broader moral implications without necessarily rejecting the overall strategy.

So. A useful book, but not a good work of history? A populist work, with some relevance to historians? Would you let undergraduates read it? Would you buy it for a research library?

BH: The short answer: 'It depends'! I couldn't recommend The Fire as an investigation into how or why the Allies bombed Germany, or whether it was moral for them to do so -- at least, not by itself. It's much more valuable as an account of what the bombing did to Germans and their heritage -- but it does neglect the economic effects.

DT: Agreed. I'd be reluctant to set it as class reading for undergraduates, but I might well use it as a comparative text (perhaps with Taylor's Dresden) in an MA class.

BH: Yes. Paul Addison's and Jeremy A. Crang's edited collection Firestorm (2006) or Grayling's Among the Dead Cities (2006) might also be good points of comparison. But as a primary source for understanding modern Germany's changing relationship with its past, The Fire is probably essential. We've been fairly critical of it here, but overall I think we'd both agree that it manages to be more than the sum of its parts.

Jörg Friedrich. The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Distributed in Australia by Footprint Books.

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18 thoughts on “The Fire

  1. My advisor and friend Thomas Childers has written an interesting essay about Sebald and Friedrich's work: "FACILIS DESCENSUS AVERNI EST": THE ALLIED BOMBING OF GERMANY AND THE ISSUE OF GERMAN SUFFERING." Central European History 2005 38(1): 75-105.

  2. It’s almost like a myth of the bomber offensive — ‘well, it was a dirty job, but we had to do it …’ I wonder if this attitude has been present all along, or whether it has evolved more recently?

    That's a good question, and potentially the thesis for a good book. From my reading of the popular press in the immediate postwar era I can think of very little criticism of the bombing of Germany (although there was more disquiet about the atomic bombings than I had expected). Perhaps in part that was because the public was more cognizant of the campaign's high cost in lives on the British as well as the German side.

  3. Wasn't there significant criticism at the time? I seem to remember that a bishop got involved. Also, as far as monument culture goes, there was bad blood about Harris getting a statue - he did in the end get one outside St. Clement Danes, the RAF Church in central London, but not until some time after Dowding's was erected on the other side of the street.

    In fact, it seems to me that bomber-yes and bomber-no are the two most strongly held debating points about WW2 in Britain. Either pacifist horror or AJP Taylor+John Terraine influence on one side, and a mixture of "dirty job" and ill-concealed glee on the other..

  4. Wasn't there significant criticism at the time? I seem to remember that a bishop got involved.

    Elite criticism, yes; but I don't think much of it percolated downwards.

  5. Post author


    Dan mentioned Mark Connelly's book, and that would be a good place to start for such questions: it's not just a history of Bomber Command in WWII but also reactions to it during the war and how it has been remembered since then. I was surprised when I read it, there was more controversy about bombing during the war than I would have guessed.


    See above, but it depends on what you call 'significant'. Vera Brittain, a few rogue MPs and the odd bishop (George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, is probably the one you're thinking of) or two -- organised into the Bombing Restriction Committee -- tried hard to start a debate but were not, overall, very successful. Brittain's Seeds of Chaos caused a bit of a splash, but more in the US, I think, than in Britain itself. Connelly argues that after the war, Harris was essentially made a scapegoat by the government for the now distasteful area bombing policy and that the British people eventually bought into this -- though at the time, they had a pretty good idea what their boys were doing to Germany.

  6. Chris Williams

    Not just after the war, either - there's a clear moment after Dresden when Churchill and Lindeman suddenly decide that maybe area bombing wasn't the way to go. Zuckerman, of course, had already twigged that.

    At the time, the two critiques 'bombing is wrong because it kills civilians' and 'bombing is wrong because there are better things to do with Lancasters' tended to merge, whereas afterwards, the Terrainian one and the pacifist one split. George Bell himself was no pacifist, but an anti-appeaser, personal friend of Niemoller, advocate of national mobilisation, etc. I think that his main position was that the British needed to wage total war against the Nazis, but as far as possible spare 'the Germans'. He realised that this was hard to do, but saw area bombing as a step too far.

    I get echoes of the 'unconditional surrender' controversy in the bombing one - it's about whether or not there should be political considerations in war-fighting. But oddly enough, the people who argue that unconditional surrender was a mistake also tend to be those arguing that the Bomber Offensive wasn't.

    The other week I was reading Middlebrook on Hamburg. It's hard not to root for the firefighters, given what happened to the place and its people.

    The last word belongs to Blyth Power. From 'Bomber Harris':

    "But time has stained me
    Since they cut me dead down at the ministry
    Time grants no relief and no reprieve
    Now time has put the blame on me
    Time has robbed me and diminished me"

  7. I never thought about the cultural cost of bombing when I was studying strategic bombing, but it's become really apparent since I started researching my ancestors in World War 1 because of the loss of records on both sides. My great-grandad's service record was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, and the archives of the Prussian regiment which captured him were destroyed by Bomber Command in 1945.

    Incidentally, as a self-identifying nihilist I'd suggest that the Nazis were anything but nihilistic. They really believed in something, were absolutely convinced they were right, and went to great lengths to put their vision into practice. And it isn't Nietzsche's fault that they misunderstood and misappropriated him. Or that his name contains the letters n, i, and z...

  8. Brett,

    Echoing Jonathan Dresner's comment, I found the format of the review to be both engaging and effective. Kudos to Dan for coming up with the idea, and to the both of you for pulling it off so well. I'll be curious to see if (or, better, when) it's repeated.

  9. Dan Todman

    Gavin, I can only apologise - in all seriousness - to all nihilists for my colloquial usage. That was an inexact phrase, which I should have picked up. Thinking about it, 'philistinism' might have been better (arms himself with jawbone of ass and prepares for barrage of invective from Philistines)
    On the subject of British attitudes, I suppose an interesting vector for analysis would be the degree to which public perception was based on reporting of British bombing versus experience of German bombing.
    On the format: I'm glad it worked out - I think Brett will agree that it was quite a lot of work (in some ways more than a single author review). I can see it as a useful way to entice technically recalcitrant colleagues into the blogosphere.

  10. I suppose an interesting vector for analysis would be the degree to which public perception was based on reporting of British bombing versus experience of German bombing.

    I was flicking through Calder's The People's War last night and I noticed a late-war poll: apparently three in four Britons was still emphatic that Bomber Command strictly limited its attacks to military targets, and only one in ten had a more accurate view of the campaign. Harris' frank talk doesn't seem to have impinged much on the public mind ...

  11. Post author

    Thanks, Scott! As Dan says, it was a fair bit of work, but it worked well, I think. I'd be willing to do more but it would depend upon the book, for one thing. Of course, there's nothing to stop others from trying out this style of review.


    I don't know that Harris got to address the public/journalists much, or if he did, he somehow managed to censor himself (Connelly has gone back to the library, must get my own copy). When Harris wanted to complain about the BBC's squeamishness on the issue of bombing civilians, he wrote not to the BBC itself, or to a newspaper, but to his superior (see here). And if he had been outspoken to the press, it probably would have been suppressed by the censors, I suppose.

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  13. barbarashm

    thanks for a great review, but as always I find one view missing

    the What-If the bombing had not worn out the civilians in the big cities? and the stories of horror the fugitives from the cities brought to the countryside.

    how many of the Allied soldiers would have had to die because of crazed insurgents?

    cruel as it was, to get us as worn out and fed up with the war as possible prior to invading was the one sensible thing to do and it does not matter whether enough military installations were hit.

    it certainly was not "nice" but it boils down to whose life is worth more: that of a civilian enemy or that of your own soldier and as war is never nice and my people started it, it is only justified that we had to pay the price, children included
    as far as I know the Wehrmacht were never in doubt!

    also having been born in 1942 I certainly am grateful for anything that forced my elders to keep quiet and let me grow up and learn life under Allied supervision

    this ever growing passion (and competition) of my countrymen for claiming victimhood is disgusting, tactless and every other name you want to call it

    I am grateful to every British bomber pilot who did his job because it certainly influenced history so that I could have the wonderful life I had. Imagine the alternative, of having had to live it under Nazi-Rule ...

    I remember when Friedrich's book came out in Germany I read that he had drawn heavily on Georg Wolfgang Schramm "Bomben auf Nürnberg - Luftangriffe 1940-1945" a detailed account of all the air raids on that city and a very sober matter-of-fact account - somehow I seem to remember that he did not give Schramm his due

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  15. Post author

    Thanks, Barbara. It's very interesting to read a German perspective on the matter. Personally I can't see anything wrong with Germans recognising the extent of their loss (human and cultural) due to bombing, and questioning whether it was effective or justified -- at long as it doesn't obscure the reasons why they were being bombed in the first place.

    The what-if question is interesting. Civilian morale held up surprisingly well under prolonged aerial bombardment, but there must have come a point when, combined with the military reverses in the east and then the west, stoicism turned into weariness. (Some cities were bombed a couple of hundred times or more.) So there were likely intangible effects like that, but without the defeats of German armies in the field they wouldn't have amounted to much.

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