The morality of dropping bombs

Classic Podium: From a speech in the House of Lords by the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, on the British bombing of German cities during the Second World War (9 February 1944)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
DO THE Government understand the full force of what area bombardment is doing and is destroying now? Are they alive not only to the vastness of the material damage, much of which is irreparable, but also to the harvest they are laying up for the future relationships of the peoples of Europe, as well as to its moral implications?

I recognise the legitimacy of concentrated attack on industrial and military objectives, on airfields and air bases. I fully realise that in attacks on centres of war industry and transport, the killing of civilians, when it is the result of bona fide military activity, is inevitable. But there must be a fair balance between the means employed and the purpose achieved. To obliterate a whole town because certain portions contain military and industrial establishments is to reject the balance.

Let me take two crucial instances, Hamburg and Berlin. Hamburg contains targets of immense military and industrial importance. It also happens to be the most democratic town in Germany, where the anti-Nazi opposition was strongest. Injuries to civilians resulting from bona fide attacks on particular objectives are legitimate according to International Law. But owing to the methods used, the whole town is now a ruin. Unutterable destruction and devastation were wrought last autumn. On a very conservative estimate, 28,000 persons were killed.

Never before in the history of air warfare was an attack of such weight and persistence carried out against a single industrial concentration. Practically all the buildings, cultural, military, residential, industrial, religious - including the famous University Library with its 800,000 volumes, of which three-quarters have perished - were razed to the ground.

Berlin is four times the size of Hamburg. The offices of the government, the military, industrial, war-making establishments in Berlin are a fair target. Injuries to civilians are inevitable. But, to date, half Berlin has been destroyed, the residential and the industrial portions alike.

Through the dropping of thousands of tons of bombs of extraordinary power, men and women have been lost, overwhelmed in the colossal tornado of smoke, blast and flame. It is said that 74,000 persons have been killed, and that 3 million are already homeless. The policy is obliteration, openly acknowledged. That is not a justifiable act of war.

Berlin is one of the greatest centres of art collections in the world. It has a large collection of Oriental and classical sculpture. It has one of the best picture galleries in Europe, comparable to the National Gallery. It has a gallery of modern art better than the Tate, a museum of ethnology without parallel in this country. One of the biggest and best organised libraries - state and university, containing two and a half million books - in the world. It is not possible so quickly to rebuild libraries or galleries. It is not very easy to rehouse those works of art which have been spared. Those works of art and those libraries will be wanted for the re-education of the Germans after the war.

Why is there this inability to reckon with the moral and spiritual facts of war? Why is there this forgetfulness of the ideals by which our cause is inspired? How can the War Cabinet fail to see that this progressive devastation of cities is threatening the roots of civilisation?

How can they be blind to the harvest of even fiercer warring and desolation to which the present destruction will inevitably lead when the members of the War Cabinet have long passed to their rest?

The sufferings of Europe, brought about by the demoniac cruelty of Hitler and his Nazis, and hardly imaginable to those in this country who for the last five years have not been out of this island or had intimate association with Hitler's victims, are not to be healed by the use of power only. What we do in war - which, after all, lasts a comparatively short time - affects the whole character of peace, which covers a much longer period.

It is of supreme importance that we who are the liberators of Europe should so use power that it is always under the control of law. For because the chief name inscribed on our banner is "Law", the Allies stand for something greater than power.