WORLD WAR II FIRE BOMBING
REMAINS SUPPRESSED SUBJECT
By Christopher Bollyn
While the reconstruction of Germany’s cultural landmarks is celebrated, discussion of how and why German cities were reduced to rubble by Allied firebombing continues to be a suppressed subject.
GOSLAR, Germany – In order to understand the extent of the destruction of Europe’s cultural heritage caused by the Allied firebombing of German cities, it is worthwhile to visit Goslar, one of the few medieval cities of Germany that survived the Second World War intact.
To stroll through Goslar’s 1,000-year-old streets and to dwell in its ancient buildings brings the modern-day visitor in touch with Germany’s medieval past. Goslar, and its famous silver mine, was the capital city of the Holy Roman Empire and a founding member of the Hanseatic League long before Germany became a nation in 1870.
Because Goslar survived the Second World War largely unscathed, it gives perspective to the culture that was lost during the widespread devastation that occurred when U.S. and British bombers incinerated some 1,000 German towns and cities during the final months of the war.
Thirty miles to the northwest is Hildesheim, a medieval Catholic bishopric founded in 814 by Ludwig the Pious. The old city of Hildesheim was obliterated in a holocaust caused by 250 British bombers dropping bombs and incendiary devices during a midday bombing strike on March 22, 1945. More than 10,000 inhabitants of Hildesheim, about one-third of the population, were killed and 82 percent of the city was reduced to rubble during the short and intense bombing strike, according to historians at its museum.
Although Hildesheim was rebuilt after the war, like most German cities destroyed by Allied firebombing, the rebuilt city looked nothing like the 1,100-year-old city that had been destroyed. The elaborately carved and painted half-timber Fachwerk houses from the 15th and 16th Centuries were replaced with austere non-descript modern constructions.
Until March 1945, Hildesheim had been considered "a jewel among German cities" because of its architectural and artistic treasures. In the aftermath of the war the only buildings that were rebuilt in their original form were the churches and Cathedral of Hildesheim.
The Cathedral of Hildesheim was built around a rose bush that Ludwig the Pious, son of Charlemagne, had discovered in bloom during a winter hunting trip. After the firebombing, the Cathedral was reduced to rubble and the famous rose bush was burned to the ground. The roots survived, however, and the 1,100-year-old rose bush still flowers high against the Cathedral wall.
Forty-four years after the bombing, in 1989, a citizen-led initiative succeeded in rebuilding the city’s marketplace with its 500-year-old buildings. One of the most remarkable reconstructions is the near-exact replica of the famous Knochenhauer Amtshaus, a late-Gothic masterpiece of Fachwerk construction originally built in 1529.
The multi-story building, which once again houses a guildhall, a museum and a restaurant, was rebuilt in the original Fachwerk style without using a single steel fastener. Some 7,500 wooden pegs hold the timber frame together and there is not a single right angle in the entire building, according to museum historians.
However, what is conspicuously lacking in the city museum is any display depicting the devastation that British fire-bombers brought to Hildesheim and its civilian population three weeks before the war ended in April 1945. Only two aerial photos of the devastated town can be found in the entire museum – in its uppermost attic.
Dr. Manfred Boetzkes, the historian who is director of Hildesheim’s museum told American Free Press that when the museum opened in 1989 it had an extensive display about the bombing, which even included specimens of the bombs that had been used. Conservative politicians from Hildesheim, however, found the display to be "too provocative," and it was soon removed.
When the firebombing display was removed, the themes of the museum were also changed to focus more on Jewish life in Hildesheim and Nazi persecution of Jews, a museum curator explained.
AFP asked Boetzkes if he thought a display on the firebombing of Hildesheim was necessary for the city’s historical museum. "Yes," he said, "I think so." Boetzkes added that a new display on the bombing is being planned.
Asked if Hildesheim’s post-war generations were aware of what the city had looked like before it was destroyed, Boetzkes said very few young people knew about the city’s former splendor.
In an effort to show what the city once looked like, Boetzkes has published a book, Alt Hildesheim in Aquarellen, that contains detailed watercolor paintings of the streets and buildings of old Hildesheim. The paintings were done between 1892 and 1919.
"There was no military or strategic reason to bomb Hildesheim," Boetzkes said. Asked then why the British had bombed the city and left two strategic industries outside of town untouched, Boetzkes said it was "psychological warfare" aimed at traumatizing and demoralizing the German population.
In a recently released film entitled "The Fog of War," former U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara, who participated in the firebombing of Tokyo as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, says if the U.S. had been on the losing side of World War II, he could have been tried as a war criminal.
"There’s a definition of what’s legally acceptable in war – it’s the basis for the war crimes element of the International Criminal Court in the Hague," McNamara says in an interview, "I don’t know whether the Tokyo fire-bombing in March of 1945 was thought to be illegal at the time. I doubt it. It was similar to what was done at Dresden and Hamburg and so on. Today, I think it would certainly be considered illegal."
Dresden, which was devastated in a massive firebombing attack on Feb. 13-14, 1945, has rebuilt many of its cultural landmarks. The restoration of Dresden’s famous Frauenkirche, which lay in ruins for decades, is today nearly complete. As in Hildesheim, in Dresden, where tens of thousands of civilians and refugees died in the holocaust created by the firebombing, there is no central memorial or museum space dedicated to the subject of the destruction of the city.
"I didn’t argue about the legality of the air war," Jörg Friedrich, the German author of two recent books on the Allied fire-bombing said, "this would have hindered the image I intended to draw. The landscape of the destruction has to be described.
"Germany, with the horrors of the Holocaust and the Russian campaign, cannot in any way be self-righteous about this," Friedrich said, "but we should engage in a common fight for the truth.
"You have to look into the face of the past," Friedrich said. "Then you can ask if it was a heroic one or a tragic one – or perhaps a criminal one – or if it included necessary evils in a tragic time. You have to look into this face even if it has a Medusa face, and in the British case the Medusa’s face is the bombing campaigns."
British prime minister Winston Churchill said the fire-bombing of German cities was designed to increase "terror" in a 1945 memo to his Chiefs of Staff: "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed," he wrote during the final weeks of the war.
Asked why it has taken so long for this history to be told, Friedrich said, "Until 1989 we were in a state of war, but in 1990 the war was over and the question could be asked, ‘What was the fate of this nation?’"
According to Friedrich, after 1870 the unified German nation posed a serious problem for the British Empire and their allies, who decided that Germany had to be destroyed. "Germany had to be fought by war," Friedrich said, "This had to be done city by city, man by man."