Margit Alm


Comments and Thoughts about the Book

Der Brand - The Fire

By Jörg Friedrich


The book was published in 2002 and became very quickly a bestseller in Germany. A German TV documentary based on Der Brand was also produced. It is to be hoped that Australia’s ethnic TV channel (SBS) will in due course screen this documentary. It is equally to be hoped that this book will be translated into other languages, at least into English, to demonstrate to the world to what devastating extent Germans were victims of WW2.

Countless volumes of literature have been written about the Third Reich and WW2 and an equal number of films and documentaries produced. No doubt, the writings and filmings will continue for a long time to come. But no one has dealt with this part of history as seen through German eyes. Germany had been labelled, rightly or wrongly – that is a matter for debate – the perpetrator, and it seems in the black-and-white-view of many people that perpetrators cannot also be victims. But war is more complex than that. It is not a black-and-white issue, but is full of shades of grey.

A synopsis on the front cover of Der Brand is well worth translating to provide a very broad overview of the book and put the scope of the destruction in the right perspective:

Germany’s bombardment lasted five years, from 1940 to 1945. It has no comparison in history and was, together with the flight and expulsion of Germans from the Eastern provinces, the biggest catastrophy the country had seen since the Thirty Year War. More than a thousand cities, towns and localities were relentlessly air-raided, dropping circa a million tonnes of phosphorous fire- and high explosive bombs on some thirty million civilians, mainly women, children and the elderly. Over half a million people were killed. Much of Germany’s cultural heritage, accumulated over several centuries, was irretrievably lost.

The destruction of Hamburg and Dresden is firmly embedded in the memory of many, but who knows that places, such as Pforzheim, Dortmund, Darmstadt, Krefeld, Kassel and many more, were turned to rubble. Todate no comprehensive contemporary work exists that demonstrates the factual dimensions of the events and the fate of those affected.

Now the Berlin historian Jörg Friedrich has closed this gap in the national memory of Germans and produced a book about the systematically planned and executed extermination campaign of Germany’s cities. Making use of a wealth of literature resources, he describes the development of the bomb, its devastating impact on the land, the traumatic experiences of those who sheltered in bunkers and cellars, death from heat, smoke inhalation, fire and air pressure, and the loss of an immensely rich cultural heritage.

The author divided his book into seven main chapters and in logical and systematic progression takes the reader on a journey of five years of bombardment.

The seven chapters are titled:

The Weapon, Strategy, Land, Protection, We, I, and Stone.

The book is very well documented and has a comprehensive index enabling anyone who does not want to read all of the 592 pages, to have their pick. I found his style easy to read, quite refreshing, even dynamic, certainly detailed, often very graphic in the description of the horrors, and sometimes, particularly in the first two chapters, quite technical. Very much to my joy, statistics are quoted heavily throughout the book.


Even though the book is divided into distinct chapters, all chapters are interrelated. For example: the suffering of the civilians is not just told in We and I, but throughout the book. The individual chapters deal with their specific core topic in more detail, but not exclusively.

I had wanted to read the book to see whether it filled a gap in my memory. It did not really do it: it did not add anything to how I remember the air raids over Hamburg and Osnabrueck, but the book proved an absolute eye opener to me and it confirmed what I remembered. Hamburg and Dresden and perhaps a few other places, like Osnabrueck, Cologne, Wuppertal and Essen, were place names engraved in my memory, but I had no idea that these places formed only the tip of the iceberg.


As I worked my way through the book, I contemplated over many of the issues raised and asked myself questions:

Credibility of the book: Is the book based on absolute facts and happenings or have events and statistics been spin-doctored to make them look more horrific? I do not believe so for one minute. Firstly, his statistics are very precise – to the last person, the last plane, the last bomb, e.g. 73,741 Flying Crew were lost during the war by (the allied) Bomber Command. The book is virtually littered with exact statistics, such as this one. Secondly, the author confirms in his book what I remember. Thirdly, why should he have exaggerated? Neither he nor Germany would benefit from it. I see this book as a justification to tell the story of what the so-called perpetrators suffered, that they were victims just as much as everyone else. In a war the ordinary people are always the losers, no matter on whose side they are.

The Pilots of Bomber Command

The book leaves the reader in no doubt about the dangers of flying air-raids. The pilots and their crew must all have been daredevils. There was after all the constant awareness of being possibly shot down by the German defence, even though on the whole Friedrich does not give the Luftwaffe too much credit.

The reader does not learn about these pilots’ fears and their anxieties as they were heading to Germany. Of course, that goes for all soldiers in a war on both sides. There is another gap to be filled – to tell the soldiers’ experiences. We have become over-saturated with Holocaust memorabilia, at the expense of a more balanced approach.

Moral Bombing

I knew from earlier readings and Rolf Hochhuth’s play on this topic that the bombardment of Germany was strategically planned, virtually as an extermination campaign. "The morale of the civilian population was to be destroyed, especially that of the industrial worker". Germany was to be bombed into submission, all resistance to be broken. The British Air Force Staff had calculated that this whole exercise could be completed in six months. It did not work; the Germans did not submit; they did not rise against Hitler; they fought and suffered and somehow lived on to the bitter end.

How much did the decisionmakers know about human nature? Humans – and animals – can be controlled through fear, but if you want to have their support/loyalty/attention you have to shower them with kindness (any good dog trainer can confirm that)and not with punishment; but kindness was not raining from the heavens. So the Germans continued their resistance. Furthermore, they were controlled through fear on the ground by the party machine.

This ‘moral bombing’ raises another important question: what is the difference between an air-based extermination campaign of civilians and the alleged exterminations in concentration camps? Can the Allied decisionmakers really point a finger at the German decisionmakers when they were acting no differently? Did they feel any compunction? Some of them did, but they found ways to justify their ‘moral bombing’ because they wanted a regime change in Germany.

(This sounds like déjà vu; we have just lived through it once again; only this time the casualties were far fewer and the missiles were targetted more precisely; but then the world would simply not tolerate a WW2 type slaughter any more.)

Now, I do not want to make apologies for the misery the people detained in concentration camps suffered. Most of them should never have been there, but Hitler’s mindset saw the need for it just as the Allied’s mindset felt that all-out bombardment, irrespective of human losses, was the way to go.

The Historic Connection

Friedrich starts his third chapter Land with a quotation by Ernst Jünger "The connection to the Middle Ages is now also broken." In this segment the author takes the reader on a journey through the German lands of north, west, south and east and reports in detail on the devastations heaved upon the various cities and towns. He invites the reader back into history, 1000 years and more. The reader learns how these places developed and acquired their rich culture; and then these churches and buildings, the whole structure and layout that weathered hundreds of centuries through many conflicts and wars, fell prey to the firestorms and bombs of Bomber Command, sometimes in one night, sometimes over several air raids. I thought this was very cleverly written; it makes the horrific impact of the air raids on these towns so much more prominent by comparing it with historic events.

Then there are the inevitable statistics: the number of casualties, the buildings and streets destroyed, the total devastation.

Friedrich tells it warts and all; he tells it to shock.

Below is the autopsy report of a doctor:

"The corpse of a youth, approximately, 16 years old, right arm in fighting position, lying totally naked on his back in the street. The hair is burnt, the skin of the feet charcoaled, chin and tip of the nose are dried up and totally burnt. Superficial charcoaling of the hands. Skin is reddish-brown, muscles of the torso appear cooked; the tongue surface is dry and brown. The lungs are enlarged, heavy. The blood in the right heart chamber is thickened, the left one is empty, the liver is hard …. Diagnosis: the youth burnt to death alive, in the street."


The Human Aspects

Three chapters are devoted to the human experience in this period; the first of these three deals with life in the shelters, from simple cellars and ditches that offer little protection to the huge bunkers with walls that are metres thick. (One of these bunkers still stands in Hamburg’s Heiligengeistfeld. The city administration has so far been unable to dismantle it without endangering surrounding residential and commercial property. The bunker has found its uses over the decades.)

This chapter and the next two bring out the beautiful and the ugly in people, which can be very disturbing.

Friedrich tells here about the fight for entry to the shelters and the priorities that applied: Foreigners from occupied countries seemed to have a lesser right than Germans, and Jews were not wanted at all.

There was pushing and shovelling to get in and out of shelters – when these had to be vacated – and death through trampling and similar circumstances occurred on a number of occasions. That is the typical reaction of people that panic and become irrational;it must be understood in that context.

Hospitals could not cope with the wounded and therefore terminally ill people were sent home. I have no difficulty with that, but some civil libertarians will.

Denunciations led to executions over minor incidents – that is unforgiveable but is the by-product of a dictatorship.

Pilots of shot-down planes that parachuted to safety were lynched in retaliation for the shooting-from-the-air of children in the streets. The war had turned to bestiality. How desparate these people must have been.

Looting was an absolute no-no. Bombed-out people were permitted to scavenge the rubble for their own possessions, but stealing items from the rubble was punishable by death, even for the most incidental items, such as clothing. Despite the chaos brought on by Bomber Command law and order was firmly in its place. Now – compare that to Iraq; (yet there are many newspaper readers and journalists who compare Iraq to WW2 Germany and post-war Iraq to post-WW2 Germany. It always leads me to protest.)

A massive people movement from the cities to the country, from north to south, set in motion, and the city people were far from welcome in the country.

But it was not all doom and gloom: many went out of their way to help others.

There are plenty of examples here too.

Most shattering were the eye witness reports and comments on people killed by the bombs: limbs and head blown off, people shrivelled to the size of a small child, charcoaled people galore, people sitting in positions as if alive, yet they were dead – the lungs had burst from the air pressure.

It was when I read these chapters that I asked myself: what did these people feel and think? What trauma did they suffer? What long-lasting psychological damage did they sustain, not to speak of the physical one? Today, even with minor traumatic incidents, people have access to care by specialists. That was a non-event in those days.

Here is another gap that still needs to be filled. The Holocaust survivors have recorded their memories and experiences over and over again. We are still being bombarded with more and more Holocaust publications of personal experiences. But have the survivors of "The Fire" told their story? Most of them who survived have probably died since then, but many are still alive. Now that the ice has been broken and Friedrich has published this very substantial work, people should sit down and write what they can remember. I think we owe it to future German and German-descended generations to record what happened and as it happened (that is the true facts) and record it such that it can be publicly accessed; record it by audio/video/film/manuscript: we have so many options today.

From what I can gather here in Melbourne, I am sure it will be appreciated by many.

But we also have to ensure that we do not eternally dwell on these issues a la Holocaust. WW2 is history, still living history for many, but nevertheless an event that lies in the past and cannot be changed. We have to see it in the light of prevailing circumstances at the time, not with hindsight of today. We want it chronicled, but then we want to move on.

In his final chapter Stone the author reports the horrendous loss of Germany’s rich cultural heritage. Sure, many of the ‘mobile’ valuables, such as paintings, sculptures, church doors, altars, etc. could be safely stored elsewhere, but buildings cannot be moved. Goethe’s place of birth in Frankfurt did not survive, the Beethovenhaus in Bonn did. Buildings can be reconstructed in their old design, but it is not the same – the heritage is gone.

At the end of the book, in his Editorial, the author acknowledges that much has been written about the bombardment but nothing about the suffering. He believes that much more work in this respect is necessary.

I could not agree more. There is no need for a German guilt, there is none, there cannot be collective guilt. What did the Germans do wrong, the ordinary Germans? They elected a man who manipulated his way into government – well, how familiar a bell rings that! They believed the man who promised – and delivered – a life out of the misery of post WWI: not only a return to a little bit of prosperity but also a lift in self-esteem and pride in themselves as Germans. They knew nothing of the web of conspiracy and intrigue at the top, both nationally and internationally. How much do people know? How much does the factory worker know of what goes at Board level?


So why did the Germans have to suffer so much? It is the same old story: the innocent masses have to pay for the egomaniac desires and power hunger of the few at the top. We saw it then, we see it today. The question remains: when will they ever learn?

We have one advantage today: thanks to our much more sophisticated communications network we are in a better position to ‘expose’ the leaders.

For those who are reasonably fluent in German, I can strongly recommend this book.



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