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January 03, 2007

War and Guilt - The Case of World War II: The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 - Jörg Friedrich

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945
by Jörg Friedrich
Pp. 532. Columbia University Press, 2007
Hardback, £21.95

After World War One, there was a bitter debate about the value of fixing war-guilt on Germany. After World War Two, the mainstream of German politics fully accepted responsibility, a marked contrast with the situation in Japan. The latter refusal continues to resonate in regional tensions in East Asia causing, in particular, serious offence to China and South Korea. There are unwelcome signs that revisionist Germans are similarly contesting their responsibility for World War Two.

The translation of a work first published in 2002, Friedrich's is a questionable study that is one-sided and lacks in perspective. It is an example of a more general problem with recent German work that focuses on civilian losses, both to Allied bombing and as a result of the Soviet advance, and is apt to underrate or ignore the extent to which in Europe during World War Two the Germans began and developed anti-societal warfare.

Thus, Hermann Knell's To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and Its Human Consequences in World War II (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), which has had a considerable impact in Germany with its account of the RAF's devastation of Wurzburg in 1945, inaccurately presents German policies in the 1930s and the attack on the Soviet Union as defensive and preventive.

Friedrich is in this tradition and the anonymous reviewer in The Economist of 2nd December 2006 noted that the implicit arguments were not those of "a reputable historian" and that he

comes close to suggesting that the Germans were right to defend Nazism.
One might add that it is unclear what a reputable publisher thinks it is doing. There is an interesting discussion of the book in the January 2007 History Today.

Those who like their history slanted will find plenty to note in the book. Thus, for example, the V weapons are presented as weapons of reprisal, the value of the Germans fighting on against the Western Allies in late 1944-5 is not adequately challenged, and Friedrich does not consider sufficiently the earlier need for the Western Allies to make a major contribution at the time that the Red Army was bearing the brunt of the war with Germany.

In fact, prior to the launching of Barbarossa, air attack had seemed the most effective option for Britain, and this remained the case until late in the war. Thereafter air attack was seen as an aspect of an integrated warmaking that was intended to reduce pressure on the frontline Allied forces. The consequences, as Friedrich shows, were ghastly for those who were bombed, as well as for the many who died mounting the air assault, but the responsibility can be traced directly to the power that launched the European war, Nazi Germany.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter and is the author of World War Two: A Military History (London, 2004). He is also the author, amongst much else, of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006), The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming 2007).

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