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Will We Ever Learn Anything From Our Past?

Having reviewed ‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W.G. Sebald before half term, I will use this week’s blog to bring to your attention another of his books that I found to be a challenging but ultimately fascinating read.  Then I think it would be a good idea to leave this melancholic writer behind for the time being – until, perhaps, I read some more of his work over the summer – and to end the school year with some more cheerful themes.

‘On the Natural History of Destruction’ is a series of essays about the Second World War, and specifically the bombing of Germany by the Allies during the second half of the conflict, with Sebald concluding that it is hard to find much legitimacy in what happened or to accept the justifications used at the time, and since, for such destruction and loss of life.

The facts that Sebald deploys are stark.  The RAF alone dropped one million tons of bombs on enemy territory, with about 600,000 German civilians falling victim to the air raids.  Three and a half million homes were destroyed, while at the end of the war seven and a half million people were left homeless.  There were 31.1 cubic metres of rubble for everyone in Cologne and 42.8 cubic metres for every inhabitant of Dresden – but, as he wisely concludes, we do not grasp what it all actually meant.

The author’s condemnation is not reserved solely for those who planned and carried out the bombing, with plenty of criticism directed to his own countrymen.  As far as he knows, the question of whether and how it could be strategically or morally justified was never the subject of open debate in Germany after 1945 – no doubt, he believes, mainly because a nation which had murdered and worked to death millions of people in its camps could hardly call on the victorious powers to explain the military and political logic that dictated the destruction of the German cities.

He makes a controversial point that it is also possible that quite a number of those affected by the air raids, despite their grim but impotent fury in the face of such obvious madness, regarded the great firestorms as a just punishment, even an act of retribution on the part of a higher power with whom there could be no dispute.  Apart from the reports of the Nazi press and the Reich broadcasting service, which always spoke in the same tone of sadistic terrorist attacks and barbaric gangsters of the air, protests against the long campaign of destruction by the Allies seem to have been few and far between.  According to several accounts, the German people faced the catastrophe that was taking place with silent fascination.

In contrast to the mainly passive reaction of the Germans to the loss of their cities, which they perceived as an inescapable calamity, we are told that the programme of destruction was vigorously debated from the start in Great Britain.  Not only did Lord Salisbury and George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, repeatedly and very forcefully express the opinion, both in the House of Lords and to the general public, that an attacking strategy directed primarily against the civilian population could not be defended morally or by the laws of war, the military establishment responsible for conducting the campaign was itself split over this new kind of warfare.

The evidence for this conclusion is that the feuds between various factions were continued in memoirs, and the verdict of historians trying to maintain an objective balance swings between admiration for the organisation of such a mighty enterprise, and criticism of the futility and atrocity of an operation mercilessly carried through to the end against the dictates of good sense.

Sebald certainly knows his history, even if firm conclusions may remain elusive, telling us that the origin of the area-bombing strategy lay in the extremely marginal position of Great Britain in 1941.  Germany was at the height of its power.  Its armies had conquered the entire continent of Europe and were about to advance further into Africa and Asia, and the British were simply left to their insular fate without any real chance of intervening in the action.  The government decision in February 1942 ‘to destroy the morale of the enemy civilian population and, in particular, of the industrial workers’ did not, as is frequently claimed, spring from a wish to bring the war to a speedy conclusion by the massive deployment of bombers; it was the only way of intervening in the war at all.

He continues by saying that the criticism later levelled at the ruthless pursuit of such a programme of destruction, partly in view of the Allies’ own casualties, concentrated chiefly on the fact that it was sustained even when selective attacks could be made from the air, with far greater precision, on targets like factories making ball bearings, oil and fuel installations, railway junctions and the main transport arteries – operations which, as Albert Speer commented in his memoirs, would very soon have paralysed the entire system of production.  Critics of the bombing offensive also pointed out that, even in the spring of 1944, it was emerging that despite the incessant air raids the morale of the German population was obviously unbroken, while industrial production was impaired only marginally at best, and the end of the war had not come a day closer.

As ever with the study of the past, into the mix of background factors must be placed the personalities of those with the authority to make the key decisions.  Sebald highlights this in relation to the bombing by making the point that, having taken three years to develop the required industrial capacity to allow such an intense campaign to take place, simply letting the aircraft and their valuable freight stand idle on the airfields of eastern England ran counter to any healthy economic instinct.

In such circumstances, the personality of Sir Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command – a man who, the author says, liked destruction for its own sake – was in perfect sympathy with the innermost principle of every war, which is to aim for as wholesale an annihilation of the enemy, with his dwellings, his history and his natural environment, as can possibly be achieved.  Harris’s plan for successive devastating strikes, which he followed uncompromisingly to the end, was overwhelmingly simple in its logic, and by comparison any real strategic alternatives, such as disabling the fuel supply, were bound to look like diversionary tactics.  Sebald concludes powerfully that the war in the air was pure and undisguised.  Its continuation in the face of all reason suggests that the victims of war are not sacrifices made as the means to an end of any kind, but in the most precise sense are both the means and the end in themselves.

For all the talk of learning from the past, no one ever seems to reach the obvious conclusion that the bombing of a civilian population during war does not destroy the morale of those on the ground, but instead it almost always has the opposite effect of unifying them in defiance of the misery being inflicted.  Although the notion of the ‘Spirit of the Blitz’ in London does not stand up to close scrutiny, it offers a reasonable mirror to what happened later in Germany.  Since 1945, from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan to Ukraine, the bombing of civilians has taken a savage toll in war after war.  Such actions may give politicians and historians much to discuss, but they do not change the course of conflicts as those who order them expect.  

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