BERLIN — When the morning of March 12, 1945, dawned on the German resort city of Swinemuende, Leon Kolberg climbed out of his bunker and found himself in a city of the dead.
“A woman was walking down the street with one hand missing, the other holding a baby,” said Kolberg, then a 14-year-old refugee. “People were stacked on the footpaths, bodies everywhere. The buildings were gone. I got lost.”
The American bombers’ diaries show that their targets that day were ships and rail lines in the city on the Baltic Sea. The Russians, only 12 miles away, had asked their American and British allies to aid their advance.
Some 1,500 German soldiers were identified and buried after the raid, but most of the 23,000 people who were killed in 45 minutes of bombing were German refugees trying to flee the advancing Red Army.
“It is one of the great slaughters of the Second World War,” charges German historian Jorg Friedrich. “Did children deserve to die? Or women?”
Igniting debate, protest
The country that slaughtered millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and Slavs has been hesitant to raise questions about its own peoples’ suffering in a war that its Nazi leaders started. But Friedrich, whose earlier work focused on Nazi atrocities, has ignited a raucous debate with a new book that questions the morality of the Allied bombing of German cities in World War II.
The serialization of Friedrich’s book, “The Fire: Germany Under Bombardment, 1940-1945,” in Bild, Germany’s largest tabloid, has released a torrent of wartime reminiscences in German newspapers and television programs.
It also has unleashed a torrent of protest elsewhere. Journalists in Britain, whose cities were pounded by Hitler’s Luftwaffe and later by German V-1 “buzz bombs”and V-2 missiles, have taken particular umbrage at Friedrich’s account of the deaths of 635,000 German civilians.
“I am not interested in blaming anyone,” Friedrich said. “I am interested in clearing up the facts.” Yet his use of words such as “massacre” and “crematorium” were bound to raise hackles because they suggest that there is some moral equivalence between the Nazis’ genocide and the Allies’ military tactics.
In London’s Daily Mail, military author Correlli Barnett called Friedrich a dangerous revisionist whose “historical travesty” is an attempt to justify Adolf Hitler’s crimes. In the Guardian, columnist Ian Buruma wrote that German right-wingers have long dwelled on their victimhood. “All Friedrich has done is break a left-wing taboo.”
“It has been a topic that professional German historians have stayed away from, in part because they haven’t known what to do with it,” said Tom Childers, a University of Pennsylvania historian. “Do they dare talk of German suffering when Germany was responsible for the suffering of so many millions?”
“The right have claimed this topic for years. And why not the left? Suffering is human suffering, and these are shattering stories.”
Born in 1944, “I am the generation of sons who questioned their parents,” said Friedrich, whose schoolteacher father raised him in the Austrian mountains after their German city of Essen was bombed. “We asked: `What happened in the war? Where were you in 1941 when the first Jews were deported? Who wrote for the Nazi papers?”‘
Friedrich spent most of his career writing about the Nuremberg war crimes trials, Nazi guards, Nazi justice. For years he thought of the Allied bombs “as something that came from the sky that punished the rotten and criminal kingdom of evil.”
Then he read the testimony at Nuremberg of a German general who defended shooting Belarus villagers who were suspected of helping the partisans, saying that was better than bombing indiscriminately.
Although the Nazis also bombed indiscriminately and their efforts to slaughter and starve Russian civilians are well-documented, Friedrich spent a decade pondering the German general’s defense of his conduct as he researched the Allied firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg and the leveling of cities such as Cologne, Kassel and Wurzburg.
“How can we deal with the fact that those massacres took place?” he asked. “Because it was a just cause? But are those just means?”
Friedrich argues that Allied air raids such as the one at Swinemuende, now part of Poland, were unnecessary, and reflect Allied rage at the Germans’ refusal to capitulate.
Shortening the war?
There again he runs into flak. Tami Davis Biddle, a historian at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said the Allies were desperate to knock out Hitler before he could develop terrifying new weapons, including an atomic bomb.
Intelligence reports predicted a long fight, so in January 1945 the Allies decided to bomb both synthetic oil refineries and eastern German cities to help the Soviet Army finish off the Third Reich faster.
For years, historians have debated whether bombing German cities, particularly as the British did, was an effort to choke the Nazi war machine or to destroy German morale. Some argue that the Americans and British merely tried to do to German civilians what Hitler had first tried to do to the residents of Rotterdam, Warsaw, London and Coventry. In fact, German pilots first practiced the tactic in the Spanish Civil War, killing some 1,600 civilians in a 1937 raid on the Basque village of Guernica that was memorialized in a mural by Pablo Picasso.
Biddle said a series of documents show that when the Allies targeted eastern German cities, they knew their bombs would fall on refugees as well as massing troops.
“Who is going to be in that population? It is going to be women and children. It is a statement of the desperation and the level of fear among the Allies that no one stops and says, `Wait a minute, maybe we should rethink this . . . . ‘”
Kolberg, now 71 and living in Australia, said that for 57 years he has wondered why the Americans would bomb a place full of civilians. While there were some ships in the harbor and German soldiers in port, most of the people in Swinemuende that day were helpless.
British historian Roger A. Freeman, who has chronicled the U.S. 8th Air Force in World War II, notes that American B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers flew about five miles above their targets to avoid anti-aircraft fire. And when smaller, faster fighters dropped through the clouds to strafe trucks and trains, they flew at about 300 m.p.h., making it difficult or impossible to distinguish civilians from soldiers.
“Remember,” said Freeman, “this was total war, and the civilian population was involved as never before.”
What happened that March day six weeks before the Germans surrendered holds lessons for the future, as well, said University of Pennsylvania historian Tom Childers, whose father and uncle flew in the 8th Air Force.
“All of the moral ambiguities of modern war are on display in an air war — and this remains true in Afghanistan and it will be the case should there be war in Iraq,” he said. “With the air war, with the Germans dropping bombs on Rotterdam or Warsaw or London, or the British hitting Darmstadt, you have military forces attacking places where civilians will be hurt.
“It forces you into making the kind of argument that this is a just war and awful things must be done, so traditional notions of morality are among the first casualties.”