Sunday, December 10, 2006

"The Fire" that time and this

The publication of the translation of WG Sebald's remarkable essay on the Allied airwar on Germany coincided with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. So it was no surprise the reviews were defensive not only of the 60+ year-old Allied campaign but of the one in process. For example Daniel Johnson assured us that while strategy might have been more important than morality in World War II, since then "the overriding aim of American strategic doctrine ... has been to avoid enemy civilian casualties". Which will come as a great relief I'm sure to the relatives of the dead in this city. (I've written more elsewhere about Johnson's shameful review in a long essay on Sebald).

So when I saw that an English edition of Jörg Friedrich's The Fire, subtitled "The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945", was about to be published, a book which Sebald didn't live to read but which brought about the catharsis in German society he had recommended, I thought: uhoh, here we go again! While the reviewer's are likely to be less thirsty for Iraqi blood as they were in 2003, they will no doubt use the incontrovertibility of the one to win back some credence for the other.

However, the first review I've seen is an uncredited one in The Economist, and it avoids the comparison entirely and begins quite magnanimously:
Bombing German cities into a wasteland was terrible: anyone reading Jörg Friedrich's book [...] will be in no doubt of the cultural destruction and human suffering that it caused. For many Germans, the experience of reading the unvarnished awfulness of their own, their parents' or grandparents' wartime experiences was cathartic. The translation will fill a gap in contemporary understanding in the English-speaking world of what happened in the air in the second world war. Mr Friedrich deserves credit for both his diligence and his descriptive powers.
But of course, it can't be left at that. "For all that, the book is flawed" the review says, taking back what it has given. "Many bad things happen in wartime and countries that start wars often experience the worst of them." (I can think of one contemporary example to the contrary). It goes on:
The author's outrage, and the sarcastic and melodramatic prose that this fuels, dims any understanding of the context in which Winston Churchill and his air chiefs decided that the air onslaught on German cities was the best (or least bad) course of action, and stuck to this even when the cost, to both bombers and bombed, became increasingly awful.
While this looks bad for Friedrich, I would ask how much that initial catharsis is dependent on the lack of varnish and excess of tone and outrage? Can one happen without the other?

The review ends with the usual feeble resort: "Mr Friedrich's desire to puncture Anglo-American self-satisfaction comes perilously close to suggesting that the Germans were right to defend Nazism, and the allies were wrong to attack it." But those, like The Economist, whose leader this week exhorts the US administration not to withdraw from its occupation, those who wish to distance themselves from apparent Fascist-appeasing demagogues, might be interested to learn that in his Afterword to the English edition, Jörg Friedrich says he supported the 2003 invasion.

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