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Jörg Friedrich. Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945. Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 2002. 591 pp. Map, bibliographical references, index. EUR 25.00 (cloth), ISBN 3-549-07165-5.

Reviewed by Douglas Peifer, Air Command and Staff College.
Published by H-German (November, 2003)

[Disclaimer: The views expressed in this review are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Friedrich's Der Brand has generated the same level of public interest, professional debate, and journalistic attention as did the Goldhagen controversy of the early 1990s, the Historikerstreit of the 1980s, and the Fischer debate of the 1960s. First appearing in serialized form in the Bild Zeitung, Friedrich's portrayal of the Allied air war against Germany from the perspective of the bombed has generated an ongoing discussion about how Germans can remember the German civilian victims of the bombing campaign without forgetting or minimizing the Third Reich's role as aggressor and first practitioner of city aerial bombing. Within Germany, historians, literati, and public intellectuals have voiced their views, including Wolf Biermann, Horst Boog, Christoph Jahr, Walter Kempowski, Hans Mommsen, Klaus Nauman, Martin Walser, and Ulrich Wehler.[1] German television, the popular press, and the book industry have capitalized on public interest to air documentaries, publish serials on the Bombenkrieg, and spur book sales of monographs on the topic.[2] British historians have joined the fray, with the British popular press lambasting Friedrich's work and warning of German revisionism.[3] And last but not least, this extended debate about history, memory, and the German victims of the Combined Bomber Offensive unfolded in the context of a widening Atlantic divide between the United States and Germany, with commentaries and forums about Der Brand taking place during the high point of the Bush Administration's diplomatic effort to convince Europeans that force must be used to remove Saddam Hussein.[4]

Der Brand has engendered this amount of attention and debate not because it unveils startling new revelations or calls for fundamental reinterpretations of the historical record. Instead, Der Brand has captured the public's attention and readership because it touches several sensitive debates in which history, memory, and the present interact. First, the book is one of several in which the progressive Left has rediscovered events from the past which had never faded from the memory of the conservative right: the German civilian casualties of the Anglo-American air campaign, the maritime evacuation of Germans from East Prussia, and the post- World War II expulsions of Germans from the Sudetenland, Poland, and elsewhere.[5] The progressive Left's reacquisition of a portion of the memory spectrum long voluntarily ceded to conservatives has raised concern that Germans may embrace a cult of victimhood that relativizes Germany's role in the outbreak of war, in the implementation of the Holocaust, and in the Wehrmacht's deliberate violation of rules of warfare on the Eastern front.[6]

Secondly, the book has stirred interest because it tackles a long vein of scholarship on the issue of morality in war, specifically a long running debate about jus in bello criticisms of Allied area bombardment strategies during the Second World War.[7] The British reaction to Friedrich's work focuses on this issue, with the British boulevard press particularly enraged by Friedrich's assertion that Churchill was responsible for the death of tens of thousands of innocent women and children. In addition, Friedrich correctly points out that from the ground perspective, the much publicized contrast between British night-time area bombardment and American high altitude precision daylight bombing was often moot, with American bomber groups exacting a high civilian casualty rate.[8] While Friedrich's analysis of the brutalization of the air war presents nothing new, his previous work examining Wehrmacht crimes and Nazi justice enabled him to approach the subject without risking automatic dismissal as a right-wing apologist.[9] For a German public sensitized to the distinction between legal and illegal conduct in war as a result of decades of scholarship on German war crimes, Der Brand offered the opportunity to broaden focus and subtly reengage German Nuremberg era rebuttals of tu quoque.[10]

Tied to this historical analysis of the morality of the Anglo-American air campaign against the Third Reich is a related third debate, namely what lessons one can draw from the past that have current relevance and applicability. Der Brand was published in November 2002, shortly before the high water mark of the Bush administration's effort to garner international support for the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein. German peace activists frequently proclaimed that history proves force is not an answer, with commentators such as Hans Mommsen noting that one should not be surprised at German opposition to war given their historical experience.[11] Friedrich echoed similar sentiments elsewhere, commenting that since 1945 Germans have empathized more with the bombed than the bomber.[12] While evidence linking sales of Der Brand to then current discussions of war against Iraq is circumstantial, numerous interviews make connections between the two and suggest that the interaction between history, memory, and current affairs increased interest and readership of Der Brand.[13]

Despite all the attention it has garnered, Friedrich's 591-page work is problematic, approaching the subject in an impressionistic, suggestive manner that leaves the reader with a sense of unease. He divides his work into seven main parts, with the first two (Waffe, Strategie) accounting for approximately a third of the book, the next section (Land) accounting for another third, and the final four parts (Schutz, Wir, Ich, Stein) accounting for the final third. Throughout, he eschews traditional citation methods, instead simply listing his largely secondary sources for each page without the use of endnote numbers. His thematic approach tends to blur the chronological sequence of events, and his use of terminology deeply associated with the Holocaust and National Socialism (cellars as "Krematorien," the 5th RAF Bomber Group as an "Einsatzgruppe," cities as "Hinrichtungsstaetten," the destruction of libraries as "Buecherverbrennung") seems deliberately provocative.

Friedrich's treatment of the weapons and strategy of the air campaign against Germany provides a fair introduction to the topic for non-military historians and the public. He commences his work with a detached, technical discussion of the weapons and platforms that made a strategic bombing campaign possible: explosive and incendiary bombs, long range bombers, radar technology, and bomber crews. Moving to strategy, he traces the evolution of strategic air war from its World War I roots through the Combined Bomber Offensive against Germany, though his propensity to move back and forth in time and his conflation of strategic and tactical air raids makes it difficult to follow the overall evolution of the bombing campaign. Others have written better and more detailed analyses of weapons development and air power strategies in World War II.[14] What Friedrich does well, however, is to translate what these weapons and strategies meant to the citizens of Luebeck, Cologne, Hamburg, the Ruhr, Berlin, and some 158 mid-size towns the size of Pforzheim, Wuerzburg and the like. His imagery of women stuck in the melting tar of a street like flies on flypaper, of families recovering the charred remains of their loved ones in buckets, and of cellars baking their inhabitants alive is stirring and unforgettable. Friedrich writes in terms of images, experience and emotion, providing graphic depictions of human suffering at the expense of a careful, chronological reconstruction of the air war against Germany.

Friedrich devotes over one third of his study to his discussion of the German Land. Loosely following the chronology of an air campaign limited by range and frontline, he first discusses air attacks on the cities of North Germany, then shifts to the West and the Ruhr attacks. He subsequently examines the fate of the South German cities, and ends his city-by-city examination with a discussion of Berlin and the East. His approach is relentless and detailed: with each city or town, Friedrich presents a brief account of its history, heritage, and main cultural treasures before examining its demise and destruction. The entire section is marked with a sense of sadness and loss, not just for the miserable death of thousands of innocents described in vivid and unrelenting specificity, but for a cultural loss than can never be restored.

Friedrich's chapters on Schutz and Wir are the most intriguing sections of his study. In Schutz, Friedrich describes the hierarchy of refuge (from blast trenches to cellars to elaborate bunkers), civil defense measures, the recovery and disposal of bodies, and the state's role in aiding bombing victims and evacuating non-essential personnel from Germany's cities. Rather than drive a threatened population to revolt, city bombing initially brought the population closer to the state. Using both positive and negative tools of persuasion, the same state that gave out Butterbrot and Suppe to bombing raid survivors was ready to execute ruthlessly plunderers and those who subverted the military spirit (Wehrkraftzersetzer). This theme is developed in greater detail in Friedrich's discussion of the Wir. He notes how as the situation worsened, the repressive state focused on the issue of Haltung (conduct) over Stimmung (morale). German propaganda emphasized grim perseverance, promising that wonder weapons would soon allow Germany to strike back at the Allies and exact a bloody revenge. Each of these topics has been treated in greater detail elsewhere and Friedrich overlooks much of the most recent scholarship in German and English.[15] Nonetheless, these sections succeed in laying bare the interaction between protection and repression in the individual-state relationship.

Friedrich's final two sections are less effective. In Ich, Friedrich attempts to describe the sensory reaction, emotion, and experience of being bombed. His discussion of the physical reaction of the body to extreme stress rests on a handful of books and memoirs, overlooking the wealth of literature on the related phenomenon of combat stress, war neurosis, and shell shock.[16] In Stein, Friedrich examines German efforts to rescue cultural sites, works of art, libraries and archives. Placing this discussion at the end to the work violates Friedrich's overall framework of decreasing concentric rings (strategy, the land, refuge, we, I), and proves disconcerting following several chapters devoted to group and individual suffering. The section would have been much more effective as part of Friedrich's earlier discussion of Land which focused on history, heritage, and destruction.

Overall, the Friedrich book is an evocative book heavy on imagery, eyewitness accounts, and impressions. Highly effective as a literary dirge and lamentation, Friedrich's book comes up short when judged by the standards of the history discipline. He blurs chronology, overlooks the newest scholarship on many of his topics, skims over the broader context in which the strategic air war developed, and employs terminology in a careless or deliberately provocative manner. Most troubling to historians will be Friedrich's narrow focus and lack of context: while he briefly mentions Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry, and the Holocaust, these fade from view throughout much of the book as he examines German suffering and loss in unrelenting detail. The topic itself--the German experience at the receiving end of a prolonged and costly strategic bombing campaign--is a valid and important area of historical inquiry that should not be taboo to German scholarly inquiry. And indeed, a body of German scholarship does exist on the topic, ranging from detailed analyses of Freiburg, Muenster, and numerous other German cities during the Bombenkrieg to studies focusing on popular opinion, the evacuation of children, life in the bunker, flak helpers, and the mechanisms of relief and repression. One might even concede that some of the military history on the strategic bombing campaign focuses too heavily on operations, aircraft, technologies, and the war in the air with insufficient description of the human costs of war, with Friedrich's work performing a valuable function of redirecting attention to war's terrible cost in human lives, suffering, and cultural treasures. What makes one uneasy about Friedrich's book is that it addresses only one dimension of this, focusing sharply on German loss while scarcely acknowledging the death and devastation that Germans inflicted on others during the Second World War.[17] Der Brand is deeply moving as a literary work but troubling as a work of historical scholarship.


[1]. Wolf Biermann (Der Spiegel, 25 July 2003), Horst Boog (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 10 December 2002), Christoph Jahr (Neue Zuericher Zeitung, 12 December 2002), Walter Kempowski (Die Welt, 12 December 2002), Hans Mommsen (Frankfurter Rundschau, 23 December 2002), Klaus Nauman (Der Tagesspiegel, 23 December 2002), Martin Walser (Focus, 10 December 2002), and Ulrich Wehler (Sueddeutscher Zeitung, 14 December 2002; Der Spiegel, 6 January 2003).

[2]. ZDF's "Der Bombenkrieg" aired on 4 February 2003. The Spiegel series "Der Bombenkrieg gegen die Deutschen" appeared in January 2003 (Der Spiegel Nr. 2,3,4), and was published in expanded form as a Spiegel special "Als Feuer vom Himmel fiel" in March 2003. See Spiegel Zeitgeschichte Dossier available at,1518,246827,00.html. Among the monographs that have appeared within the last years including Dietmar Arnold, Ingmar Arnold, and Frieder Salm, Dunkle Welten: Bunker, Tunnel und Gewoelbe unter Berlin (Berlin: Ch. Links, 1999); Horst Boog, Gerhard Krebs, and Detlef Vogel, Das deutsche Reich in der Defensive: strategischer Luftkrieg in Europa, Krieg im Westen und in Ostasien 1943-1944/45, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Bd. 7 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2001); Maximilian Czesany, Europa im Bombenkrieg: 1939-1945 (Graz: Stocker, 1998); Michael Foedrowitz, Bunkerwelten: Luftschutzanlagen in Norddeutschland (Berlin: Ch. Links, 1998); Holger Frerichs, Der Bombenkrieg in Friesland 1939-1945: eine Dokumentation der Schaeden und Opfer im Gebiet des Landkreises Friesland (Jever: H. Lueers, 1998); Volker Hage, Die Literaten und der Luftkrieg. Die Literaten und der Luftkrieg. Essays und Gespraeche (Frankfurt: Fischer, 2003); Volker Hage, Hamburg 1943. Literarische Zeugnisse zum Feuersturm (Frankfurt: Fischer, 2003); Lothar Kettenacker, ed., Ein Volk von Opfern? Die neue Debatte um den Bombenkrieg 1940-45 (Berlin: Rowohlt, 2003); Michael Krause, Flucht vor dem Bombenkrieg : "Umquartierungen" im Zweiten Weltkrieg und die Wiedereingliederung der Evakuierten in Deutschland, 1943-1963 (Duesseldorf: Droste, 1997); Klaus Naumann, Der Krieg als Text: das Jahr 1945 im kulturellen Gedaechtnis der Presse (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1998); Irmtraud Permooser, Der Luftkrieg ueber Muenchen 1942-1945: Bomben auf die Hauptstadt der Bewegung (Oberhaching: Aviatic, 1997); Winfried Georg Sebald, Luftkrieg und Literatur: mit einem Essay zu Alfred Andersch (Muenchen: C. Hanser, 1999); Gerhard E. Sollbach, Flucht vor Bomben: Kinderlandverschickung aus dem oestlichen Ruhrgebiet im 2. Weltkrieg (Hagen: Lesezeichen, 2002).

[3]. Correlli Barnet charged Friedrich with dangerous revisionism in The Daily Mail, with much of the British popular press focused on German criticism of Churchill. See Ian Buruma, "Germany's unmourned victims," The Guardian (26 November 2002); Lothar Kettenacker, "Wollen sich die Deutschen etwa als Opfer sehen? Die britische Debatte um den Luftkrieg," Die Zeit, No. 50/2002.

[4]. Adam Garfinkle, "Germany in the Spring," 7 April 2003 Foreign Policy Research Institute (; Anne Applebaum, "Germans as Victims," International Herald Tribune (15 October 2003): A23.

[5]. In addition to the Sebald and Friedrich books that are the focus of this forum, recent books on the subject include Guenter Grass, Im Krebsgang: eine Novelle (Goettingen: Steidl, 2002); the monographs listed in n. 2; Stefan Aust, Stephan Burgdorff, and Rudolf Augstein. Die Flucht: ueber die Vertreibung der Deutschen aus dem Osten (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2002); and Klaus Rainer Roehl, Verbotene Trauer. Ende der deutschen Tabus (Muenchen: F. A. Herbig, 2002). While Roehl and others make much of the "breaking of taboos" and the examination of hitherto off-limit issues, much of this is overblown with a great deal of material published on these topics. Taking the maritime evacuations, for example, both Brustat-Naval and Fredman published details about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff decades before Grass novella on the topic. Fritz Brustat-Naval, Unternehmen Rettung. Letztes Schiff nach Westen (Herford: Koehler, 1970); Ernst Fredmann, Sie kamen uebers Meer. Die groesste Rettungsaktion der Geschichte (Duesseldorf: NWZ Verlag, 1981).

[6]. Julia Klein, "Germans as Victims of World War II," The Chronicle of Higher Education 49, no. 32 (18 April 2003); Kettenacker, ed., Ein Volk von Opfern? Die neue Debatte um den Bombenkrieg 1940-45.

[7]. See Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars. A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 1977); A. J. Coates, The Ethics of War (Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press, 1997); and James Turner Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) for an introduction to the literature. For a detailed discussion of the evolution of British and American air strategies during the interwar years and World War II, see Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[8]. Recent American scholarship bears out this perspective. Biddle comes to similar conclusions in her book, noting that "the problems posed by operational circumstances and the lure of finding a quick end to the war caused the Americans to stray very far indeed from their "precision" ideal. The toll this took on German civilians--formally considered '"collateral casualties"--was enormous (Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare, 245). See also Thomas R. Searle, "It Made a Lot of Sense to Kill Skilled Workers: The Firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945," Journal of Military History 66, no.1 (January 2002): 105-109.

[9]. Joerg Friedrich, Das Gesetz des Krieges. Das deutsche Heer in Russland, 1941 bis 1945: der Prozess gegen das Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Muenchen: Piper, 1993); Freispruch fuer die Nazi-Justiz: die Urteile gegen NS-Richter seit 1948: eine Dokumentation (Berlin: Ullstein, 1998).

[10]. In both the Trial of Major War Criminals and various successor trials including the High Command Case, German defense lawyers attempted to use the tu quoque (you likewise) line of defense only to have it ruled inadmissible. Doenitz's defence lawyer, however, was able to slip in an affidavit from Admiral Nimitz admitting that the US Navy had waged unrestricted submarine warfare in the Pacific, effectively shielding him from one of many charges he faced. See Douglas Peifer, The Three German Navies: Dissolution, Transition, and New Beginnings (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002), 79-87.

[11]. Hans Mommsen ends his review of the Friedrich book with the comment, "Dass nach diesen Erfahrungen der Gedanke an die Moeglichkeit eines Praeventivkrieges gegen den Irak und der Glaube an die Moeglichkeit, kritische Bedrohungen mit kriegerischen Mitteln dauernd auszuschaltern, in der Bundesrepublik nur bei einer Minderheit auf positive Resonanz stoesst, sollte nicht verwundern....[es geht darum] grundsaetzliche Lehren aus den Erfahrungen des Zweiten Weltkrieges zu ziehen, sofern das ueberhaupt moeglich ist. Dazu gehoert die Einsicht, dass die Eskalation des Luftkrieges aus militaerischen und aus humanitaeren Gruenden gleichermassen verfehlt war." Hans Mommsen, "Moralisch, strategisch, zerstoererisch." Rezension von Der Brand, Frankfurter Rundschau (23 December 2002).

[12]. "Die Haltung der Deutschen und ihr seelischer Platz ist seit 1945 unter der Bombe und nie im Bomber." Cited in Reinhard Mohr, "Kritik an Friedenskultur. Die Alten sagen 'Dresden', die Jungen sagen 'Oel'," Spiegel Online (2003).

[13]. See for example the interview between Kai Mueller and Christian Schroeder of the Tagesspiegel, retired General Klaus Naumann, and Joerg Friedrich entitled "Gibt es den gerechten Luftkrieg," Tagesspiegel (23 December 2002); Reinhard Mohr, "Kritik an Friedenskultur. Die Alten sagen 'Dresden,' die Jungen sagen Oel,'" Spiegel Online (2003); Mariam Lau, "'Der Brand' und das Zweistromland," Die Welt (19 December 2002).

[14]. See for example Horst Boog, Gerhard Krebs, and Detlef Vogel. Das deutsche Reich in der Defensive: strategischer Luftkrieg in Europa, Krieg im Westen und in Ostasien 1943-1944/45 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2001); Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); Edward B. Westermann, Flak: German anti-aircraft defenses, 1914-1945 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001); R. Cargill Hall, ed., Case Studies in Strategic Bombardment (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museum Program, 1998).

[15]. Ralf Blank takes Friedrich to task on this point in his review of Der Brand, noting "Die voellig unzureichende Reflexion von gerade auch neuerer Forschungsliteratur ist ein grosses Manko einer Publikation, die sich in ihren Aussagen ueberwiegend auf Literatur und nicht auf Primaerquellen stuetzt." Ralf Blank, sehepunkte 2 (2002), Nr. 12 (15.12.2002) available at Among the recent publications that Friedrich ignores are Michael Foedrowitz, Bunkerwelten: Luftschutzanlagen in Norddeutschland (Berlin: Ch. Links, 1998); Gerhard Kock, Der Fuehrer sorgt fuer unsere Kinder-- die Kinderlandverschickung im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Paderborn: F. Schoeningh, 1997); Michael Krause, Flucht vor dem Bombenkrieg: "Umquartierungen" im Zweiten Weltkrieg und die Wiedereingliederung der Evakuierten in Deutschland, 1943-1963 (Duesseldorf: Droste, 1997); Gerd Ueberschaer, Freiburg im Luftkrieg 1939-1945 (Freiburg: Ploetz, 1990). Recent English language sources overlooked include the Biddle, Westermann, and Cargill Hall monographs cited in n.14.

[16]. See for example Anthony Babington, Shell-shock: a history of the changing attitudes to war neurosis (London: Leo Cooper, 1997); J. M. W. Binneveld, From shell shock to combat stress: a comparative history of military psychiatry (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1997); Peter Leese, Shell shock: traumatic neurosis and the British soldiers of the First World War (New York: Palgrave, 2002); Zahava Solomon, Combat stress reaction: the enduring toll of war (New York: Plenum Press, 1993); Elmer Ernest Southard, Shell-shock and other neuropsychiatric problems presented in five hundred and eighty-nine case histories from the War literature, 1914-1918 (Boston,: W.M. Leonard, 1919).

[17]. Joerg Friedrich notes that his forthcoming book of photographs of bombing victims and destruction is limited to German victims because the British Public Records Office was unwilling to release the sort of "horrific images" he had found of German victims. One wonders whether Friedrich should not have looked harder for pictures showing the innocent victims of the Wehrmacht. Joerg Friedrich, Brandstaetten. Der Anblick des Bombenkriegs (Berlin: Propylaeen, 2003); Ray Furlong, "Horrific fire-bombing images published," BBC News (22 October 2003) at

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 29/02/04 05:09:55
©S D Stein

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