Saturday, April 16, 2005

Moral bombshells

Freeman Dyson, of all people, reviews two books on World War Two in the New York Review of Books - Armageddon: the Battle for Germany 1944-45 by Max Hastings, and The End: Hamburg 1943 by Hans Nossack.

[Frustratingly, the review is behind the paying archive barrier in the issue cover dated 28 April, an issue which also contains Max Rodenbock’s fascinating piece on Lebanon in which he argues - tantalisingly - that a chance of creating a real nation has emerged at last (see here).]

I hadn’t thought very much about Hastings before reading Dyson’s review. There is still a stock image in my head of a slightly anoraky war hack of the Falklands War, going on to curmudgeonly heights at the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard. The prejudice is obviously unfair. Recently, for example, he’s been writing an often sensible column in the Guardian comments such as one praising Martin van Crefeld’s Defending Israel.

Dyson makes a strong case for Armaggeddon’s strengths – the effective way in which Hastings has compiled eyewitness accounts, and drawn some illuminating conclusions (in more than one sense, the Germans and Russians were fighting World War One all over again, whereas the Western Allies were acting more cautiously).

Dyson also draws four lessons – predictable from a man of his generation, character and intelligence: one, the immense importance of the Geneva Conventions; two, the fact that the Germans fought with tremendous skill and bravery, almost always outclassing other armies and only defeated by overwhelming numbers (but that, thankfully, the utter destruction into which the Nazis led the German people killed the false god of Soldatentum in German culture once and for all); three, the value of international alliances (which necessitate caution); and four, the moral ambiguity of war even when it is fought in a good cause.

Dyson dwells on this last point, moral ambiguity, with a focus on the Allied and especially the British bombing campaign. He argues that the campaign was not only immoral but counterproductive because, in his judgment, it sucked up about a quarter of the British war effort but had little effect on German war production. “We learned after the war” he writes, “that, in spite of the bombing, German weapons production increased steadily up to September 1944”.

I don’t completely buy the argument on lack of effectiveness. No less a figure than Albert Speer, minister of armaments from 1942, said after the war that British and American bombing put challenges on the German war economy almost as great as the Russian campaign. If this is true, it is therefore all the more remarkable that Speer managed to oversee increasing armaments production even under such pressure. Further, as Dyson half-acknowledges, when the Allies did turn to bombing German oil refineries in the last few months of the war, the impact on the German capacity to make war was significant. What if they had targeted oil refineries earlier?

On moral ambiguity, Dyson is quite right. For one, he reminds of the huge losses of aircrew by Bomber Command. More than 40,000 highly trained aircrew were killed. Until the last few months of the war, a crewman had only a one in four chance of surviving to the end of his tour of thirty operations, and many survivors signed on for a second tour [In 1990 or 91, I learnt to hang-glide with a two tour survivor, by then a retired vet living in New Zealand. He described what it was like, as a nineteen or twenty year old, sitting down to breakfast every morning and not knowing which of your friends would not be there because they had died last night. He had trouble learning to hang glide as the joystick of a Lancaster and bar of a hanglider are pushed in opposite directions if you want to go up. At seventy or so, he took a lot of sharp bumps hitting the ground, but was quite undeterred.]

Dyson argues that the bombing campaign was worthless but that he owes his own life to it. Instead of being sent to die, the authorities put his scientific brilliance to work researching for the airforce. They had learnt some things from the carnage of World War One. [Elsewhere, in an autobiographical essay, Dyson recounts how he – a pacifist at the time – spent most of the war trying to convince the higher ups to increase the size of the bomber’s escape hatch so that more crews would be able to bail out. He did not succeed.]

Dyson writes that “there is overwhelming evidence that the bombing of cities strenghtened rather than weakened the determination of the Germans to fight the war to the bitter end”. Nozzack’s The End would appear to lend support to this argument. Previously I had decided not to read it, because an extract published online didn’t give me a good impression (see this post on the anniversary of the bombing Dresden). But Dyson has changed my mind. He quotes Nozzack, writing shortly after the firebombing of Hamburg:

It would be a mistake…to speak of latent unrest and rebellion at the time. Not only the enemies but also our own authorities miscalculated in this respect. Everything went on very quietly and with a definite concern for order, and the State took its bearings from this order that had arisen out of the circumstances. Wherever the State sought to impose regulations of its own, people just got upset and angry…Today the State credits itself with having exercised “restraint”, but that is ridiculous. Others say we were much too apathetic at the time to be capable of revolt. This is not true either. In those days everyone said what was on his mind, and no feeling was further from people than fear.

Nozzack’s conclusion, Dyson writes, is that the bombing decreased the respect of citizens for the State but increased their loyalty to the community.

It’s useful to look at these books around the time that Downfall, a German film about Hitler’s last days, is on general release. I agree with those who think it’s a good bit of film making, both compelling to watch and responsible – that it does not, for example, glorify the SS, but that it does bring us up close to very uncomfortable and very real things about human nature (see here) . [Something not mentioned in the end titles of the film – and which I had forgotten until Dyson mentioned it – is that the Russians lost 350,000 soldiers dead in just that final three weeks of the assualt on Berlin.]

People who we see as unequivocally see as evil were not all equally so, did not see themselves in that way, and they are just as human as you and me. Further – and equally uncomfortably: if you absent, as they often did in their minds, the horrendous things they were fighting for, it is possible to understand the sense of heroism or plain humanity many of them felt, and sometimes not without reason.

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