COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS £21.95 (544pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Fire, by Jörg Friedrich, trans. Allison Brown

The inferno that still blazes

One reader of Jörg Friedrich's epic account of the Allied air offensive against Germany during the Second World War told him it was "an encyclopedia of pain". The seemingly endless recapitulation of death and destruction certainly makes it hard going. But Friedrich's method and style are mesmerising. This is a book that demands to be read, no matter how uncomfortable the experience.

But it also calls for caution. The book aroused controversy in Germany because it seemed to draw an equivalence between Nazi genocidal policies and Allied goals in the air war. When Friedrich characterised the bombing campaign as a "comprehensive extermination strategy", he seemed to be evoking the victimhood of the Jews in order to curry sympathy for the Germans.

Allison Brown's fine translation reveals that, while Friedrich may not be entirely acquitted, his thesis is more complex and ambiguous than some of his critics allowed. Friedrich describes the air war as a high-tech duel in which the balance of advantage oscillated. It took the RAF many years to reach the point at which it could gut German cities, and was able to do so with impunity only in the last months of the war. Until then, each raid was a battle in the air rather than a massacre on the ground.

The rate at which lumbering Wellington bombers were shot down meant that the crews were "flying in their coffins". The first daylight raids by the US Army Air Force resulted in slaughter among the bombers. It was no surprise that air crew barely thought about the effects of bombing. Their main concern was staying alive. Nor were the civilians innocent victims of a strategy devised by politicians and generals. The devastating raids on Warsaw, Rotterdam and London were applauded in the German press. When the RAF hit back, it won a chorus of approval. Anyone reading a newspaper in London or Berlin could get a clear idea of the misery that bombing was inflicting.

However, the RAF embarked on area bombing only after years of striking ineffectually at economic and military targets. The initiative came from the Chief of Air Staff Sir Charles Portal rather than "Bomber" Harris, who is usually blamed. Harris certainly believed that the RAF could win the war by levelling 40 German cities, but he discovered that this was not so easy. The RAF ended up targetting medieval city centres because it was easier to identify them (cathedral spires were particularly useful) and they burned well.

Even then, Harris rarely achieved the knock-out blow he aimed for. The RAF "succeeded" in Hamburg in July 1943 because weather and other factors coincided to produce a firestorm. Harris's dream was to repeat the exercise on Berlin and so topple the Third Reich. But Berlin was, literally, made of sterner stuff. It did not burn well. The RAF suffered horrendous losses in pursuit of Harris's elusive apocalypse.

The statistics are surprising. While 1.5 per cent of the German urban population was killed in air raids, over 40 per cent of RAF crew were shot down. German civil defence measures were effective and, until late 1944, the Luftwaffe, in a fearsome combination with anti-aircraft artillery, took such a heavy toll that only one in three RAF airmen had any hope of completing the regulation 30 missions.

The high death toll among the Germans, over 425,000, was not a result of firestorms such as those in Hamburg and Dresden. These were unusual. Rather, it was caused by steady attrition. The bulk of the killing came in 1945 when cities were swollen with refugees and the Allies had air supremacy. Friedrich is scathing about the policy of hitting targets with limited military significance when the war was nearly over.

However, his own evidence is ambiguous. He asks "Did Hildesheim [a pretty city with a medieval core] have to be wiped out because of the train station?" Well, later he explains why the Germans considered that "train stations were the front".

He notes that until autumn 1944, arms production was only slightly reduced by the bombing, but his chapters on air-raid protection and counter measures show how they drained resources from other fronts. Friedrich powerfully demonstrates that bombing failed to destroy civilian morale and actually forced the population closer to a regime skilled at propaganda and welfare measures. But he also observes that, by March 1945, German troops could not see the point of defending rubble, while civilians muttered "The Brits should come and bring this to an end".

At times Friedrich's bias takes over. While he excoriates the British for practising the "politics of annihilation", he claims German bombing campaigns were improvised. By suggesting, on flimsy grounds, that Hitler was lured into a "trap" when he ordered the bombing of London, he implies that the Germans cannot be accused of sowing the wind.

By focusing narrowly on the experience of the bombers and the bombed, Friedrich creates a stupendous memorial to human suffering and cultural loss, but he screens out the wider effects that made them necessary and justifiable. He ignores the likely impact on the land war if resources consumed by air defence had been unleashed against Allied troops and tanks. If civilians died for lack of bunkers, it was because Hitler wanted more pillboxes at the front. The Nazi leadership, not the Allies, decided that mass death was a price they could afford to pay and that a judicious mixture of hand-outs and terror would keep the population in line.

The most heart-rending passages describe the fate of the elderly, women and children. Whereas a soldier could always surrender, they had no choice. But if Hitler had possessed enough steel and concrete he would have protected his people, and confounded the Allies. Ultimately, German suffering was the responsibility of his regime and those who supported it. Friedrich avers that "it is not my profession's to judge who deserved or did not deserve what". But by arguing consistently that Germans did not deserve "the fire", he comes close to excuplating the regime that doomed them.

David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum