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
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
What to be done ? Theodore Dalrymple’s piece in the City Journal, published by
As I walked through
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
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
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
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
It was Gitta who said that
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. “
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.
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.