Here are two of the book reviews submitted by students on the course – I have put them up with the students’ permission. They aren’t necessarily the reviews that received the highest marks – I had a number of comments and corrections to make to both of them. But they are good examples of the sort of things students wrote, the different ways they approached the review, and they show some elements of good practice. If you’re a student looking at these, try to work out what the best features were, and why you think I liked them. What comments and corrections do you think I made?
The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945 by Jörg Friedrich
Dresden, Tuesday 13 February 1945 by Frederick Taylor
In the final lines of his account of the First World War, Ernst Jünger, encompassing a nation’s historical and militaristic pride and frustrations, stated that ‘Germany lives and Germany shall never go under!’ (1) Over the course of the bombing campaign the Allies certainly questioned this notion. Friedrich’s The Fire and Taylor’s Dresden analyse the impact of Bomber Command’s actions throughout the war, successfully illustrating how bombing altered the social, cultural and historical aspects of German towns and cities.
As the title suggests, Dresden focuses on a particular raid on a single city. Taylor skilfully interweaves historical aspects of the city into the narrative, together with an interesting overview of the other key events in the war. The reader is told how Bomber Command evolves over time and how it alters its strategy as a result of other factors in the war. Although the title would suggest a rather short-sighted approach, the reader is in fact immersed in the wider story of the fall of the Third Reich, much like how Beevor illustrates the events from the end of the siege of Stalingrad to the westward drive for the heart of Germany in Berlin: The Downfall 1945. Similarly, Dresden reads almost like a novel, linking personal accounts with a frequent switch of narrative from the air to the ground. His chronological, step-by-step account is involving and emotional for the reader, the nervous but professional bomber crews juxtaposed with the unprepared and unaware Dresdners, all the while intersected with accurate description of how Bomber Command functioned.
The Fire takes a different approach, being far more statistical and sober. The lack of chapters creates a feeling of repetitiveness. There are few first-hand accounts and events are focused on Bomber Command and the cities they hit. There is no deviation from the attacks and their effects, and so Friedrich collates the tragedy. Perhaps this is a mistake as the reader may soon become numb to the appearance of so many statistics, thus not appreciating the impact of each death. However one could argue that this technique illustrates the wider effect of the bombing across Germany. Whether in Dresden or a tiny village, each death counts towards the tragedy that constitutes the experience of German civilians on the Home Front. Perhaps Taylor does not properly show the fact that Dresden fared well in terms of buildings destroyed and loss of life in relation to population in comparison to other smaller towns and cities, as Friedrich does.
Friedrich holds a certain amount of bias and he does not favour Bomber Command or even understand the reasoning behind bombing at times. Bomber Command is led by revenge, hatred and a desire to destroy German people and culture. The mechanical, mathematical precision of the bombing sorties create an image of a bloodthirsty, inhuman command with the bomber crews being the pawns in the game of death. Friedrich, although aiming to pass no judgement on events (2), describes bomber crews as ‘Einsatzgruppen’, the same name given to SS killing squads active during Operation Barbarossa. Attacks are ‘massacres’, the people being gassed to death in cellars which are likened to crematoria. (3) His language shows that he considers the Allied bombing to be on a par with Nazi war crimes, a feature one reviewer described as being ‘deliberately provocative.’(4). Friedrich, it seems, is an anti-Nazi nationalist wanting to show that Allied bombing was a crime.
Taylor provides a more neutral perspective. The tactical evolution of the command is woven into the accounts of sorties. The personnel were not inhuman but professional, courageous and simply acting because it was their duty to. This does mean Friedrich is completely one sided, he accounts for the mentality of the bomber crews and their lack of opinion on the question of bombing civilians. He also accepts that reprisals were a reaction to the German bombing of Coventry and London, but that the allied attacks always far outweighed the German ones. It seems Friedrich is biased by believing the German experience was unique and perhaps not taken seriously enough by others. Taylor accounts for the Blitz, finding similarities between the feeling of futility and a community struggle in England with that of German cities.
Friedrich gives very little attention to the Nazi leadership and the war as a whole. Perhaps this would be defended by arguing that such description detracts from the message of untold civilian suffering, but it only serves to increase the feeling of bias or even an unwillingness to accept the other relevant conditions that affected the bombing campaign. Taylor does explain these factors, including the treatment of Jews in Dresden, the significant army presence there and the important industrial and transport links the city had. These are not an excuse for bombing- neither scholars ignore the tragedy of civilian casualties- but Taylor’s analysis, focusing on the demographics of the city and its role in the war economy holds more weight than Friedrich’s assumption that Dresden was a ‘remote and insignificant city.’(5) Friedrich is far more interested in describing the architecture and culture of the German conurbations. Although this fuels Friedrich’s overall thesis, that the bombing campaign irrevocably damaged German historical and cultural foundations, it does not hold the impact of Taylor’s first-hand accounts of human suffering.
What Friedrich loses through repetitiveness and a lack of exciting narrative he makes up for by conveying the long-term aspects of the bombing campaign on society throughout Germany. We learn of exhaustion, bunker fever and emotional paralysis, the feeling of helplessness and the blurring of the conception of time and space. The psychological aspects of prolonged pressure are shown, whereas Taylor’s account, focusing on a single attack, does not provide a view of how society dealt with repeated attacks. Of course Dresdners had largely avoided the Allied bombs throughout the first five years of attack, so the shock factor that Taylor conveys is gripping for the reader. Friedrich is successful as he attempts to convey the experience of a wider proportion of the population. Friedrich’s victims are filled with dread. In a different way Taylor’s, in Dresden, are naive to the possible suffering. Perhaps this makes their eventual experience all the more horrifying and poignant.
For Friedrich, the bombing of Germany represents the destruction of a landscape. Culture is lost forever: libraries are burnt down and medieval architecture is reduced to rubble. The ‘resonance in the stone’ (6) of German national pride was erased. Maybe, rather controversially, this was a necessary step. Friedrich touches on this, stating that ‘Potsdam was destroyed in order to annul the history of Prussian militarism.’ (7) Was the bombing campaign necessary to force the Germans to give in and break with the past? Years of Nazi indoctrination and aggressiveness could only be neutralised by a campaign of this sort. Friedrich does not convey this notion of punishment; he is alerting the reader to the terrible destruction of German history. However, in a similar way to the dropping of Atomic weapons on Japan, perhaps the Allied commanders felt the need to overtly destroy German cities in order to make the aggressors learn of their mistakes. Taylor’s work places bombing in the wider context of the war. It is more of a narrative, providing a story of how years of trial and error, and the right conditions, allowed for the attack on Dresden to take place. Taylor does not aim to influence the reader, other than showing the devastating impact the bombing had.
An interesting theme of both is the reference to religion. Taylor conveys the idea that both Bomber Command and German cities are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Without the suitable weather conditions, bombing raids were a failure. For the German population, a strong wind would increase the chances of a firestorm raging. Tragically, on the night of February 14th 1945, these variables were perfect for bombs to be dropped accurately and for a firestorm to develop. Friedrich, who continually refers to Saint’s days when explaining the dates of individual sorties, sees the bombs as God. The bomb, judging ‘power and powerlessness,’ (8) acted to create the apocalyptic conditions of a firestorm. It ignored culture, history, morality and law.
Taylor’s work, being more easily accessible, appeals to a wider audience. His gripping personal accounts and interesting narrative successfully describes the evolution of Bomber Command and the damage they inflicted on the German people. His work is not aiming to blame or find excuses. Instead it is an objective study that chronicles the events of the bombing campaign. If Friedrich’s work is the instigator, Taylor’s serves as a reappraisal, stating that Dresden was by no means an innocent city. Friedrich’s account is to be praised for its brilliant and captivating writing style, which although is often monotonous, directly contributes to his goal. The reader is immersed in the scale and destructive nature of the bombing campaign. Allowing for his historical inaccuracies and provocative language, Friedrich’s work is a haunting description of bombing that should be read not as a ‘balancing of accounts’ with regard to other nations’ war crimes but as an account of the immense destructive power of man and the effect this has on society and culture.
(1) Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, (1920) (Penguin, 2007), p.321
(2) Richard Bernstein, ‘Review’, New York Times 15/03/2003, accessed through http://tbrnews.org/Archives/a248.htm on 10/02/2009
(3) Jörg Friedrich, The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945, (2002) (Columbia, 2006), p.296 and p.331
(4) Douglas Peifer, ‘Review’ Air and Space Power Chronicles, (Spring 2004), accessed through http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/genocide/reviewsw159.htm on 10/02/2009
(5) Friedrich, The Fire, p.310
(6) Ibid., p.467
(7) Ibid., p.466
(8) Ibid., p.466
Bernstein, Richard, New York Times review of The Fire 15/03/2003, accessed through http://tbrnews.org/Archives/a248.htm on 10/02/2009
Cesarani, David, The Independent review of Dresden 13/02/2004, accessed through http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/dresden-tuesday-13-february-1945-by-frederick-taylor-569784.html on 10/02/2009
Friedrich, Jörg, The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945, (2002) (Columbia, 2006)
Jünger, Ernst, Storm of Steel, (1920) (Penguin, 2007)
Peifer, Douglas, Air and Space Power Chronicles review of The Fire, (Spring 2004), accessed through http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/genocide/reviewsw159.htm on 10/02/2009
Taylor, Frederick, Dresden, Tuesday 13 February 1945, (Bloomsbury, 2004)
In the two books, The Fire, The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945, and Dresden, Tuesday 13 February, 1945, the topic of German city bombing, during World War Two, is explored. Though Dresden does indeed have a narrower focus in terms of geography, its story is just as historically relevant as the all-encompassing book, The Fire. Both give citizens a platform for their story while giving background and other pertinent historical information. The manner of writing and the author’s approach to his topic is ultimately what drives the arguments: their writing style speaks volumes in what their argument does not explicitly state. The Fire, written by Jörg Friedrich, uses biblical and religious themes and references, and an explicit use of weighty words to make his point. His language creates, in essence, a new Nazi Germany in Britain, casting the Royal Air Force in the role of Adolf Hitler. The style of Dresden, written by Frederick Taylor, is far less aggressive but none the less attention-grabbing. He includes many primary, historical, and military sources and, in contrast, his position on war’s many complexities, is made in what he does not say.
The Fire is well researched, strongly supported with historical data, numbers and figures from death rates to tonnage of bombs are produced. Friedrich’s research is tainted however by its presentation. Facts and figures hold a weight of their own but when coupled with the emotionally evoking language they take new meaning, new severity and are given a direction. The Fire details a range of cities in Germany through the many stages of war. Friedrich introduces many people, many tragedies; he is successful in creating “an encyclopedia of pain” (Friedrich 486), a book of criticism of an institution. The Fire leaves little question of allocation of guilt.
The first action of casting a new Nazi Germany, a new RAF Hitler is achieved through Friedrich’s strategic marking of time, religious imagery and biblical references. Often times Friedrich marks bomb dropping days not by month but by religious holiday. For example, “The Palm Sunday attack of 1945” (Friedrich 177). Other Religious holidays included in marking bombing days include: Good Friday, St. Nicholas Day, The Feast of the Motherhood of Mary, St. Catherine’s Day, Christmas and Christmas Eve. This marking of religion along with the meaning to “in retaliation for Cologne, the Germans dropped…bombs on another symbol of Christianity” (Friedrich 72), creates the feeling that RAF was destroying a religion as well as cities. The destruction of cathedrals and churches is also heavily discussed on almost 100 pages of the book. While carrying this religious theme may only be a note of culture, it is continually used in such a sense to evoke anger and resentment towards the destroyer. Also, detailing religious destruction to this end can only be a parallel to that of Hitler’s destruction of both synagogues and Judaism as a whole.
The second action in painting RAF as evil as Hitler, revolves exclusively around the word “annihilation”. In a speech given to German Parliament on January 30, 1939, Hitler is quoted as saying,
Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!
The most important line of this speech being that of the “annihilation of the Jewish race”: powerful words that followed Hitler through his career and anti-Semitic campaign. Friedrich uses “annihilation” in many instances to describe the work of the Germany city bombing campaigns, “annihilation raids” (Friedrich 313). Also and a more powerful statement made by its use is from page 42, “clockwork of annihilation”: this phrase can almost be associated to the use of extermination camps’ methodical killings implemented by the Nazi Party. Finally, though it is hardly the last example, the phrase, “explanation for a politics of annihilation” (Friedrich 77) shuts the door to RAF explanation or strategy, simplifying their war actions to mass killings and solely evil intentions. Though translation may call to question the validity of word choice, it is continued use and coupling with the British government, officials and RAF, which give it enough power to determine author intent.
The last major writing theme used to characterize RAF and Britain has to do with the writing of lifestyle and culture. It is inevitable that the live of millions were changed by the German city bombings: Friedrich’s detailing of lifestyle changes due to RAF bombing resembles the lifestyle changes endured by those victimized by the Nazis or a part of the military themselves. For instance, page 434 describes the negative psychological effects of staying in bomb shelters, developing “bunker fever” a civilian condition similar to one developed from being on a battle field. Another issues developed due to time spent in bunkers was sickness, Friedrich describes this sickness as only to apply to infants: this description would seem to suggest that not only was RAF killing infants, they were reducing civilians to conditions suffered by those in the created Jewish ghettos and concentration camps. Most memorable from the book however, and most poignant, “Culture burned better than anything else” (Friedrich 471) The destruction of famous art, millions of books and in essence, culture, has the power to link RAF’s work in German cities to the censorship of the arts already preformed by the Nazis.
Dresden pulls from, though not exclusively, primary, historical, and military sources. His use of a variety of material, though all focused on the same city, gives a broad perspective into the lives of citizenry of Germany. The military strategy of RAF and USAAF, and German government practices and policies are examined and cited too. This diversity gives the book strength and depth while allowing for personal interpretations. In Dresden, the sources are allowed to speak for themselves. Taylor instead uses questions to give weight to the situation and leaves their complex answers out of his book. His book though deeply rooted in the story of Dresden, can be interpreted as a commentary on war in general.
The primary sources cited in Dresden are many; though they mostly follow the same group of individuals. Taylor is smart to include stories from all walks of life, from people of all situations whose experience with the Dresden bombings ended in a variety of ways. He presents his characters for who they are and allows them to tell the story, his word choice and editing avoid biases and his presentation provides balance. Taylor needed not to point out the diversity in results the bombing had on his “characters”, the reader is aware that there was cost and benefit of the RAF action.
While the horrific details of firebombing are ever present, Taylor is not limited in his thinking and gives commentary to war in general, not one side. “The conventions of war allow almost any tactic of destruction against defended fortress town and the people within it once it has refused to surrender” (Taylor 470). Taylor understands the complexity of the situation and tries not to place blame while still asking the difficult questions each side has the right to ask. Military options are examined as well; “Did anyone really expect the world to fight back while wearing kid gloves?” (Taylor 469). Expectations and accepted practices of war are challenged and left unanswered for readers to decide, for the next generation of war generals to decide, bearing in mind, “Humanity can no longer afford tolerance and war, and that is the ultimate lesson of the bombing of Dresden” (Taylor, xiv)
Jörg Friedrich and Frederick Taylor have very different styles and presentation methods in their work. Though their topics are similar and have some overlapping arguments, they differ greatly in the lasting impression they make. Taylor, by acknowledging the many facets of war, even if they were focused around a singular town, manages to produce a commentary on war that offers direction and lesson for the future. Friedrich struggles in this area greatly: his book, with recognized biases, doesn’t move forward, doesn’t help progress.
Final words are telling and both books close making a statement. Taylor chooses to quote the painter Goya in saying, “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters”. True to his style, Taylor lets the quote speak for itself acknowledging for a final time the tragedy of war. True to his style as well, Friedrich offers these closing remarks, “But paper has prevailed in the end. It lasts longer than fire.” His final statement offers a near threat. The accusations he makes, like the book he has written, will live on.