Thursday, February 10, 2005

So it goes – firebombing, politics and memory

Firestorms can be a natural. They can also be manmade. Their awesome power can exert an almost mythic hold, a grip on the conscious and unconscious mind.

13 Feb is the sixtieth anniversary of the fire-bombing of Dresden. Soul-searching and finger pointing reach a small crescendo.

The 9 Feb International Herald Tribune, for example, reports concern that the occasion will be exploited by the National Democratic Party (NPD), an extreme right movement that stresses German “victimhood” during World War Two (see here).

The NPD was elected to the Saxony State Parliament in September 2004 with 9.2 percent of the vote, and hopes to break the national 5% floor so that it can get representation in the Federal Parliament.

What to make of this?

Clearly, the NPD is abusing history in order to manipulate widespread psychological insecurity arising from conditions of great economic uncertainty (5 million Germans are employed, disproportionately in the old East Germany; and more jobs are disappearing to Central and Eastern Europe and beyond). And there’s a touch of irony in the name of a key NPD ideologue: Peter Marx. Who says history does not repeat as farce?

What to be done ? Theodore Dalrymple’s piece in the City Journal, published by The Manhattan Institute, concludes with paralysing gloom:

As I walked through Dresden, I lamented the loss of an incomparable city, while thinking how difficult it must be to be a German, for whom neither memory nor amnesia can provide consolation.

This doesn’t get us very far. But Dalrymple’s piece shouldn’t be dismissed altogether, because – in addition to important reminders of the position taken after the war by the likes of Victor Gollancz – it airs at least three important points even if it doesn’t explore them effectively.

First, the post war cultural formation in which the “comforts of victimhood” have been largely unavailable to Germans:

Walking with the widow of a banker through the one small square in Frankfurt that has been restored to its medieval splendor, I remarked how beautiful a city Frankfurt must once have been, and how terrible it was that such beauty should have been lost forever. “We started it,” she said. “We got what we deserved.”

Second, a reminder of how the old East German government used Dresden to deny history in its own way:

A sixth of the population of the former German Democratic Republic were Mitarbeiter—collaborators with the…Stasi—and had spied upon and denounced their neighbors, friends, relatives, and even spouses. [note: Nicole Wissbrok advises this is an exaggeration: a more reliable estimate is that one in fifty GDR citizens was an informer for the state]

Despite this, the communists made use of the destruction of Dresden for propaganda purposes throughout the four decades of their rule. The church bells of the city tolled on every anniversary of the bombing, for the 20 minutes that it took the RAF to unload the explosives that created the firestorm that turned the Florence of the Elbe into a smoking ruin as archaeological as Pompeii. “See what the capitalist barbarians did,” was the message, “and what they would do again if they had the chance and if we did not arm ourselves to the teeth.” Needless to say, the rapine of the Red Army went strictly unmentioned.

Third, the sheer horror of what happened (an issue profoundly explored in W G Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction):

I don’t think any decent, civilized person can look at pictures of Dresden after the bombing without being overcome by a sense of shock. The jagged ruins of walls emerging from fields of rubble, as far as the eye can see or the camera record, are a testament, of a kind, to human ingenuity. Only the long development of science and knowledge could have achieved this.

Dalrymple is, however, wholely wrong-headed in his condemnation of Kurt Vonnegut’s influential novel Slaughterhouse Five with the category error that it takes no account of the historical context.

He also criticises Vonnegut for relying on David Irving’s “inflated estimate of the deathtoll” in the latter’s 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden. But, according to another historian I spoke to, this is a mistake because Irving was actually one of the historians who established that the number who died in the February 1945 Dresden raid was much lower than estimates of 250,000 to 400,000 that had been widely circulated in Germany since the event (Irving estimated between 50,000 and 100,000. More recent research seems to largely agree on a of around 35,000 . The largest single loss of life due to non-nuclear bombing in World War Two is thought to have been the RAF’s Operation Gomorrah on Hamburg in 1943, in which some 3,000 aircraft killed 50,000 people in just one of 69 raids on that city).

[As Dalrymple acknowledges, in 1963 Irving was some way from the Holocaust (or, more correctly, Shoah) denier that he later became, writing that Allied bombing was “carried out in the cause of bringing to their knees a people who, corrupted by Nazism, had committed the greatest crimes against humanity in recorded time.”]

For a better grip on the historical context, and a wiser view on the potential significance – or otherwise – of the NPD’s recent political gains, I spoke to Gitta Sereny.

Gitta’s books include: Into that Darkness, an exploration of the life and mind of Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka (a reviewer is correct to write:“Sereny's masterpiece takes us deep into the soul of man and examines his reasons for evil. This book cannot be recommended too highly - it is a mammoth contribution to our understanding of human nature and evil”); Albert Speer, his Battle with Truth (arguably her most significant book); and The German Trauma.

It was Gitta who said that Irving, for all his later catastrophes, had actually done valuable historical work in the 1960s in determining more accurate figures for fatalities at Dresden.

And she has no time for the idea (by no means limited to the far right) that the Allies were out solely to destroy a cultural treasure and civilian lives with next to no military value. Dresden was an important troop movement centre…and yet this wrong idea [of targeting a cultural treasure] has become entrenched in people’s minds”.

The worry, she thinks, is that the notion is almost impossible to remove even though it’s not true. “Mistakes of this kind become deeply entrenched in popular memory and imagination. This is an important psychological phenomenon, and not only over Dresden”.

But she is sanguine about the NPD. “They are and will be marginal, insignificant…This can even be a good thing because it gets what is underground out in the open, where people can see it for what it is, and defeat it ”.

Gitta Sereny’s faith in German politics and culture – rebuilt and strong – is based on years of hard experience, observation and thought. It rings sounder and truer than Theodore Dalrymple’s gloom, which verges on lazy.

The Dresden raid may “only” have killed around 35,000, but that firestorm was a hell. So along with Gitta’s optimism I also listen to a warning from Kurt Vonnegut, still with us but frail and talking to the BBC earlier today.

Vonnegut reminds that revenge was a – if not the – motivation for the Allied bombing (and, whatever its military value, it was explicity presented to the British public as revenge, and widely seen that way, at the time). He also raised a concern that revenge had largley driven the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. But revenge on its own, he said, is a profound mistake.

In 1945 the Allies took particular pains to get Deutsche Gramaphon up and running again, recording the great treasures of Western music. In 2003 US troops stood by as the Baghdad Museum was trashed.

1 comment:

Caspar Henderson said...

David Hayes responded to this post with the following:

"One point that struck me was that the single biggest loss of life in air raids during the second world war was 10 March 1945 in Tokyo - a terrible event where as many as 200,000 died, in short more even than in the atomic bomb raids.

The toll made even higher by the spread of the fire around the city's wooden houses and buildings.

I remember years ago reading extracts from Saotome Katsumoto's book 'The Day Tokyo Died' which recalls the event

That is not of course to detract from the toll of suffering in Hamburg, Dresden and many other places during that period".