Magazine article Cross Currents

Dresden: The Fire Last Time

Magazine article Cross Currents

Dresden: The Fire Last Time

Article excerpt

A stand-up comedian has compared Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's views on the war in Iraq to those of a recovering alcoholic--as though he were fearful that the mere scent of combat would tempt the Germans to relapse into the unfortunate habits exhibited in World War II. The wit cut too close to the bone to elicit hilarity, but was not entirely off the mark when one considers the zig-zag course during the past half century of German public opinion about the Nazi era. After the largely ineffectual trials of Nazi war criminals and a passing phase of collective shame, the aptly named economic "miracle" became the surrogate symbol of nation-wide metanoia. The subsequent feigned obliviousness to the Reich's evil-doings--presumably the work of a small number of reprehensible fanatics--was shattered by European and American student agitation, crystallizing in the movement of '68, with such radical but irrelevant slogans as "Marx, Mao, and Marcuse," which precipitated in Germany a radical rejection of postwar values, even to the widespread acknowledgment (at least among the pundits and in the media) of guilt for the extermination of the Six Million.

But in reaction to that leftward swing, and as many formerly militant radicals aged over the following twenty years, there emerged an aggressive return in the late eighties to a sense of nationalist righteousness (think Neocon) with an attendant shift from ostensible pity for Nazi victims to self-pity at having been victimized by "others." Those others being mainly the Anglo-American world as represented by Nuremberg, and most recently by the invasion of Iraq. The path into that victimization phase was eased by the Historikerstreit, or conflict of historians, about the Holocaust as intentionally planned event of which the nation was guilty (associated with the liberal philosopher, Jurgen Habermas) vis-a-vis. the Holocaust as accidental contingency shaped by the blind forces of fate for which Germans should not be demonized (associated with the historian, Ernst Nolte.) This "revisionism"--originally a Marxist pejorative--was advocated in the name of an open-mindedness which ultimately reached the point of tolerating the possibility that Nazi atrocities, if not justifiable, were at least "understandable" (think Reagan at Bitburg).

A recent validation of the above shorthand history is the appearance or republication of several works relating to the second World War in which the pros and cons of German victimization and Allied criminality are analyzed, assessed, and sometimes exploited. The central issue concerns the death of hundreds of thousands of non-combatants, and the destruction by bombing of a fifth of all the dwellings in Germany "rendering homeless seven and a half million German civilians." The quoted phrase is from the U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey, published after the war and conducted by George W. Ball, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Paul Nitze, among others.

The massive firebombing campaign of the Allies against German cities had been discussed with more or less specificity in such earlier books as Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Gert Ledig's Payback, as well as in an abridged translation of The [Victor] Klemperer Diaries by a Jewish survivor of Dresden. The subject has more recently been taken up by Jorg Friedrich, a leftist writer whose previously acid criticism of the Third Reich was now focused on the Allied bombing campaign in Der Brand (the fire) subtitled "Germany Under Bombardment," to appear next year in English translation. Similar criticism, this time from the right, is Verbotene Trauer (Forbidden Grief), subtitled "The End of German Taboos" by Klaus Rainer Rohl, a protege of Ernst Nolte. The "taboos" being broken are silence about the evils of firebombing as well as the equation of the latter with current Al Qaeda terrorism.

An effort to comprehend these shifting currents is the late W. G. Sebald's lectures titled "Luftkrieg und Literatur" which were published in English as On the Natural History of Destruction, a pretentious title--derived from the primatologist turned bombing assessor, Solly Zuckerman--for a bland and brief essay which has gotten much attention by reason of the author's innovative and intriguing memoir/novels. …

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