The Effects of the Bombings in World War Two in Literature and Society. A Comparison between Gert Ledig’s Vergeltung and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. (Yvonne Karsmakers)


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Chapter 1: Historical and Social Backgrounds


Hindsight is the historian’s greatest enemy, and the easiest trap in which to fall. This is particularly so when studying war, where often the intense stress on those responsible for its conduct is not appreciated, and there is a dangerous tendency to judge the actions of individuals in the light of information concerning the enemy which they would not have had at the time. If, too, the subject is controversial, there is the added danger of emotion overriding cold analysis. The Second World War provides no better example of these dangers than the Royal Air Force’s bombing of Germany. (Messenger, 1984: 7)


It is easy to point fingers and lay the blame on someone when a situation does not affect you (any more). In order to study literature about a certain situation or period, however, it is necessary to be informed about the historical backgrounds and the debates concerning the subject. In this chapter, I will give a brief historical overview of the bombings in World War Two, as well as the new debate in Germany and the results of a small research project at the university of Hamburg, Germany and several universities in England. In the subsequent chapters, which will deal with two literary works about the bombings, Vergeltung by Gert Ledig and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, I will refer back to the sources used in this chapter. Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur and Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand will serve as the main basis for this chapter.


1. 1 Historical Background of the Bombings on the Nazi Homeland and the New Debate in Germany


Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.  […] And he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace. (Genesis 19: 24-27)


In the summer of 1943 the Allied forces launched an attack on the city of Hamburg and called it “Operation Gomorrah.” It was to be the largest and most lethal surface bombing the world had seen up to then, and would remain so until the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the napalm offensives of the Vietnam War. In the night of 27 to 28 July, over 35.000 people died in their houses, on the streets and in the shelters. The fire rained from the heavens, and the city found itself in the middle of a biblical apocalypse. To make sure the operation lived up to its name, the British Air Force Ministry employed scientists to design a bombing procedure to “fully erase” a city. The methods described by Jörg Friedrich in his book Der Brand (The Fire, 2002) lists the nature of the bombs and the order in which they were to be used to ensure success (Friedrich, 2002: 24). The meticulousness of these plans, which include test-results and cost-effect calculations, show that it was a well-organised and well-funded industry, set up to not only take out military objectives, but to discourage the enemy’s resistance while in the meanwhile testing a relatively new form of warfare: the Air Offensive.

The bombing of Hamburg in 1943 was not the first bombing on the German homeland, nor was it the last. On the 22nd of  September 1914 the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) bombed German zeppelin sheds at Düsseldorf and Cologne. This is marked by Charles Messenger in his book ‘Bomber Harris’ and the Strategic Bombing Offensive (1984) as the first use of strategic bombing in war, followed by French raids on Germany and in 1917, the German bombings of London. In response to this, the Royal Air Force was formed in 1918, which was equipped with bombers able to reach Hamburg and Berlin (Messenger, 1984, 13-14). Friedrich describes how Winston Churchill had already planned a “Tausend-bomber” attack on Berlin in 1919.  When that did not take place because the war had ended by then, the ideas were “stored” for later use. In 1923, the commander of the RAF, General Trenchard, declared that: “It is on the bomber that we must rely for defence. It is on the destruction of enemy industries and, above all, on the lowering of the morale…caused by bombing that ultimate victory rests” (Messenger, 1984: 17). In 1928, he stressed the importance of attacking the enemy industries:


Greift man einen Tag lang die Flugplätze des Feindes an, könnten vielleicht fünfzig Flugzeuge zerstört werden. Während ein moderner Industriestaat aber hunderd pro Tag produziert…. Durch einen Angriff auf die gegnerische Fabriken hingegen läßt sich die Produktion in wesentlich größeren Maß verringern. (Friedrich, 2002: 69)


If we attack the enemy’s airfields for a day, we may destroy approximately fifty airplanes. A modern industrial state, however, produces a hundred a day. …By attacking enemy factories, the production can be reduced to a considerably greater degree. [1]


The bomber planes were the ultimate means to win a war by destroying not only the enemy’s material capacity to fight back, but also his morale. This is what was called the Trenchard Doctrine: “Bomber, Stadt und Krieg sind unzertrennlich” (“bombers, city and war are inseparable” - Friedrich, 2002: 68). The workers from the cities, and their manpower, were seen as a “means to production” and therefore they needed to be destroyed.

At the beginning of the Second World War, although the doctrine was there, the real bombing offensive had not started. It was initiated only after the German bombings of English cities in 1940-1941, in which 30.000 people lost their lives. Churchill replied by sending bombers to Berlin, causing Hitler to make the following promise to his people:


Und wenn die Britische Luftwaffe zwei- oder drei- oder viertausend Kilogramm Bomben wirft, dann werfen wir jetzt in einer Nacht 150.000, 180.000, 230.000, 300.000, 400.000, eine Million Kilogramm. Wenn sie erklären, sie werden unsere Städte in großerem Ausmaß angreifen – wir werden ihre Städte ausradieren. (Friedrich, 2002: 70)


And when the British Air force sends two or three or four thousand kilograms of bombs, we will send 150.000, 180.000, 230.000, 300.000, 400.000, a million kilograms of bombs in one night. And when they claim they will attack our cities at large – we will annihilate their cities.


The bombing offensives had begun. In 1940, inspired by the fires that broke out in London during the air raids, Churchill and his strategists came up with the idea of using fire to destroy the vulnerable city centres, and this was to be the new British strategy for 1942. Arthur Harris, new chief in command of the bombers since February 1942, decided to forego the bombings of the oil- and naval industries of Germany, and instead employ the “maximal use of fire” as Churchill had suggested. The historical centre of Lübeck, a city easily identified by its geographical position near the “Lübecker Bucht,” was totally destroyed in the fires and 320 people lost their lives, the largest number of casualties in the British Offensive up to then (Friedrich, 2002: 87). When the same was attempted over the city of Cologne it was less successful: the modern city with its broad streets and well-equipped fire brigade resisted going up in flames. It took 261 more air raids to destroy the city-centre, which was finally achieved in 1945. However, the use of new navigation techniques was a success in itself and proof that England had the forces and the know-how to launch an all-out Air Offensive to attack the German cities (Friedrich, 2002: 89).

In 1945, the RAF had killed over half a million German civilians, destroyed 3,37 million houses, disabled the railway system and flattened millions of square meters of industrial premises to the ground. In order to do so, 55.000 British soldiers laid down their lives (Connelly, 2003: 72). Although these were striking blows to nazi-Germany, the bombing offensive alone did not win the war. It took many ground troups from the East and the West to put an end to the nazi-regime. But the war was won, and the means of the victory were hardly questioned at all. Sebald explains this in his work Luftkrieg und Literatur (2001):


Die Frage, ob und wie [der Bombenkrieg] strategisch oder moralisch zu rechtfertigen war, ist in den Jahrzehnten nach 1945 in Deutschland […] nie Gegenstand einer öffentlichen Debatte geworden, vor allem wohl deshalb nicht, weil ein Volk, das Millionen von Menschen in Lagern ermordet und zu Tode geschunden hatte, von den Siegermächten unmöglich Auskunft verlangen konnte über die militärpolitische Logik, die die Zerstörung der deutschen Städte diktierte. (Sebald, 1999: 21)


The question, if and how [the bombing offensive] was to be strategically and morally justified, never became the subject of a public debate in Germany in the decades after 1945, most of all because a nation that had killed millions of people in concentration camps and maltreated them until death followed, could hardly ask their victors for information about the military and political logic that dictated the destruction of the German cities.


Ursula Heukenkamp writes about “the missing front” of post-war discussion in her essay “Schuld und Sühne? Gestörte Erinnerung: Erzählungen vom Luftkrieg” (2001). She says “the official discourse on World War II focused exclusively on the military front and therefore completely denied the war experiences of those who had stayed ‘at home’” (Heukenkamp, 2001: 469). She writes that it was only in 1999, during the war in Kosovo, that the discussion started focusing on air-offensives. But still the victims of the bombings during the Second World War were not mentioned:


Nun galt es, den Luftkrieg als Werkzeug der Menschenrechte und der moralischen Werte darzustellen. […] Der Krieg aus der Luft erschien nun als sauber, modern und auch ehrenhaft. Zum Selbstbild der westlichen Demokratien paßte der Blick von oben, der nur Effekte, aber nicht die Menschen wahrnahm. Unpassend waren dagegen die traumatischen Erlebnisse früherer Bombenopfer. (Heukenkamp, 2001: 470)


Now, the air offensives were presented as the instrument of human rights and moral values. […] Warfare from up above seemed clean, modern and honourable. The view from above, which registered only effects and not people, fitted in with the self-perception of the Western democracies. The traumatic experiences of the prior victims of the bombings were incongruous to this perception.


When, after 1945, the stories from the soldiers were revealed, the victims of the bombings found no adequate ways to express their experiences. Nor was there any interest in their stories:  “Solange die Ruinen als Realmetaphern des ‘Grauens’ noch im Blickfeld waren, gab es wenig Bedürfnis nach Vergegenwärtigung des Vergangenen” (“As long as the ruins remained in sight as real-life metaphors of the horrors of the bombings, there was little need for visualisations of the past,” Heukenkamp, 2001: 473).

Even during the war, Heukenkamp explains, there was not such a need for visualisation and realisation of the horrors that happened in the cities. The “Heimat” (homeland) was being protected at the front. That the homeland was also being attacked did not fit into this ideological picture (Heukenkamp, 2001: 474). In 1950, the bombing of Dresden was commemorated publicly for the first time. Uncensored photographs of burnt bodies, children and burning buildings were published but only commented with clichés. The question of guilt was left alone, and it would be the last of such photographs to be published in a long time (Heukenkamp, 2001: 474). This was no different on the side of the Allied Forces. George Roeder says in The Censored War:


In the war as presented to the public, intestines stayed where they belonged, and with very few exceptions heads and limbs did as well. The files of material censored during the war also included photographs of American soldiers who died in training accidents, who shot themselves, or were killed or wounded by ‘friendly fire’. (Roeder, 1993: 24)


One of the things that hampered the visualisation of the horrors was, according to Heukenkamp, that the victims never “united.” “[Es hat] sich keine gemeinschaftliche Erinnerung gebildet. In der gesamten Nachkriegsgeschichte ist keine Gruppe hervorgetreten.” (“No collective memory was formed. In the entire post-war history, no group has stepped forward,” 479). There was no “wir-Gefühl der Opfer” (“feeling of belonging, of ‘us’, of the victims,” Heukenkamp, 2001: 483). 

According to Sebald and Heukenkamp, the German people did not question the motives of their victors and focused on the war at the fronts. They claim the subject of the bombings was a taboo, both as a nation and personally. However, in 2002, a German historian called Jörg Friedrich published a book that shed a whole different light on the person and the motives of Winston Churchill, as well as on the entire allied air offensive: Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945. Without pointing fingers, but with a very suggestive use of words, Friedrich implies to his readers that the bombings of the German cities were “Kriegsverbrechen” (war crimes), and should have been tried in the same way as the Nuremberg trials. Friedrich’s book has opened a new debate about guilt, blame and justifications in the Second World War. The main question in this debate is: Did this book really break an existing taboo on the subject? Friedrich claims to have finally broken the taboo, but critics such as Ralph Bollman, who heads the domestic section of the Tageszeitung in Berlin, claim that there was never a taboo at all:


Jeder Schulatlas verzeichnete die zerbombten Städte samt exaktem Zerstörungsgrad, bei jeder Stadtbesichtigung wurden Fotos der zerbombten Kunstdenkmäler vorgezeigt, in jeder Familie wurde wieder und wieder von den Bombennächten erzählt. […] Das Tabu, das Friedrich im Nachhinein herbeireden will, hat es nie gegeben. (Bollman, 2003: 138)


Every school-atlas showed the exact degree of destruction of the bombed cities, pictures of the bombed monuments of art were produced at every tour of a city, tales of the nights of the bombings were told over and over again in every family. […] The taboo that Friedrich would like to talk into existence with hindsight never existed.


Ralph Giordano agrees on this in Ein Volk von Opfern?: “Der Brand suggeriert eine Kriegshistorische Einmaligkeit die es nie gegeben hat” (“Der Brand suggests a war-historical matchlessness that never existed,” Giordiano, 2003: 167). The opinions about Friedrich’s book vary greatly. Nicholas Stargardt, professor of modern history at Oxford University, says that Friedrich focuses too much on the victims among German civilians and too little on the ‘bigger picture’:


Die Flakgeschütze, die Schwadronen von Nachtjägern sind kaum zu sehen. Es gibt keinen deutschen Angriffs- und Besatzungskrieg. Es gibt keine Ostfront. Keine Juden, keine Holocaust. Es gibt auch keine einzigen Zwangsarbeiter im Reich selbst, […], obwohl es sehr oft sie waren, die so gefährliche Aufgaben wie das Beiseiteräumen von Trümmern und das Entschärfen von Bomben nach den Luftangriffen übernahmen. (Stargardt, 2003: 60)


The Flak guns, the night fighter squadrons can barely be distinguished. There is no German war of conquest. There is no Eastern Front. No Jews, no holocaust. Nor is there a single forced labourer in the country itself, […] even though they were often the ones who had the dangerous tasks of cleaning up the ruins and defusing the bombs after air raids.


According to Stargardt, Friedrich only shows half of the story, which “das Leid zu Pathos gerinnen lässt” (“turns the suffering into sympathy,” Giordiano, 2003: 71). And with sympathy, there is the danger of having the text used to “redeem” the nazi-regime and to stir up new hatred, in the way Günther Grass describes in his book Im Krebsgang (“Crabwalk” 2003). Correlli Barnett, keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre and Fellow of the Churchill College in Cambridge, calls Friedrich’s book a “historischen Dolch in den Rücken” (“a historical stab in the back,” Barnett, 2003: 171), and says that:


indem er Churchill anschwärzt – und dadurch automatisch Hitlers eigene Kriegsführung rechtfertigt - dient Friedrichs historische Travestie zur Ermutigung der extremen Rechten in der gegenwärtigen deutschen Politik – und der englischsprachigen Neonazi-Sympathisanten ebenfalls. (Barnett, 2003: 172).


By denigrating Churchill – and thereby automatically justifying Hitler’s own warfare -, Friedrich’s historical travesty serves to encourage the right wing extremists in current German politics, as well as the English-speaking neonazi-sympathisers.


Volker Ullrich of the newspaper Die Zeit claims the opposite: that Friedrich wrote his book without getting caught up in the victim-perpetrator logic too much (Ulrich, 2003: 112). However, like Stargardt, he admits that Friedrich does not place the air offensives in a historical, nor in an political or military context, and that he does make his own opinion about whether or not the allied air offensive was a war crime very clear through his choice of words. By using emotional language such as “Auftrag zur Massentötungen” (“command to mass homicide”), “Zivilmassakern” (“massacre of civilians”), and by calling shelters “Krematorien” (“crematoriums”), victims of the bombs “Ausgerottete” (“exterminated”) and Bomber Group 5 as “Einsatzgruppe” (German term associated with the nazi killing groups), he steers the air offensives in the direction of the holocaust. (Ulrich, 2003: 114). Horst Boog, scientific director of the historical military research office in Freiburg, also notes this use of language and says:


Der Verfasser verfolgt solche Andeutungen nicht zu Ende, sondern belässt den Leser in einem emotional angeheizten Leerraum, sodass dem Buch eine eigenartige Unbestimmtheit und Unentschiedenheit anhaftet. Ist es eine Anklageschrift oder nur eine bildhafte Chronologie (allerdings ohne Bilder)? Jedenfalls ist Friedrichs Sprache geeignet, Emotionen und vielleicht auch Ressentiments zu wecken. (Boog, 2003: 133)


The author does not carry through his insinuations, but leaves the reader in an emotionally charged vacuum, so that a certain indeterminableness and indecision adheres to the book. Is it an indictment or is it merely a pictographic chronology (be it without pictures)? In any case Friedrich’s language is bound to stir up emotions and maybe even resentment.


Bollmann agrees to this:


Ob Churchills Bombenkrieg ein Kriegsverbrechen gewesen sei, müsse ‘jeder für sichselbst entscheiden’, verkündet er [Friedrich]. Doch das Buch lässt nicht den geringsten Zweifel, dass Friedrich selbst diese Frage längst entschieden hat. (Bollmann, 2003: 138)


He [Friedrich] proclaims that the question if Churchill’s air offensive was a war crime needs to be answered by each man for himself. But the book leaves no doubt that Friedrich has long since answered it for himself.


The debate about taboos is a recent one. Nowadays, our attention often goes to the missing parts of the information, rather than what is remembered. Which aspects from World War Two are not discussed, and is this because there is no information to be found, or because a taboo lies on this subject? Why is there a gap of sometimes decades before something can be described and commemorated? In the introduction to Luftkrieg und Literatur, Sebald says:


Trotz der angestrengten Bemühung um die sogenannte Bewältigung der Vergangenheit scheint es mir, als seien wir Deutsche heute ein auffallend geschichtsblindes und traditionsloses Volk. Ein passioniertes Interesse an unseren früheren Lebensformen und den Spezifika der eigenen Zivilisation, wie es etwa in der Kultur Großbrittaniens überal spürbar ist, kennen wir nicht. Und wenn wir unseren Blick zurückwenden, insbesondere auf die Jahre 1930 bis 1950, so ist es immer ein Hinsehen und Wegschauen zugleich. (Sebald, 1999: 6)


Despite the tiresome efforts to cope with the past, it seems to me, that we Germans today are a remarkably history-blind and traditionless people. We don’t have a passionate interest in our prior life forms or the specifics of our own civilisation, like the people of Great Britain. And when we do look back, especially to the years 1930 to 1950, it is always a looking at and a looking away at the same time.


Sebald claims that the Germans are not interested in their own past and that, if it were possible, they would avoid remembering World War Two altogether. German authors who witnessed the war also have not described it (well enough), says Sebald, because they were too busy with “Nachbessern des Bildes, das man von sich überliefern wollte” (“changing, with hindsight, the impression they wanted to leave of themselves,” Sebald, 1999: 7) to be able to describe what really happened. According to Sebald, it is hard to get a good idea of the horrors of the bombings, due to a lack of reliable information. The statistics are known, but “was all das in Wahrheit bedeutete, wissen wir nicht” (“what that meant in the real world, we cannot say,” 1999: 11). The destruction of the German cities “scheint kaum eine Schmerzspur hinterlassen zu haben im kollektiven Bewußtsein” (“seems hardly to have left a trace of pain in the collective awareness,” 1999: 12). Reconstructing the cities, with broader and better streets and infrastructure, was more important than mourning. “Nicht als das grauenvolle Ende einer kollektiven Aberration erscheint also diese totale Zerstörung, sondern, sozusagen, als die erste Stufe des erfolgreichen Wiederaufbaus” (“The terrible destruction does not seem to be the horrible end of a collective aberration, but rather the first step towards a successful re-building,” 1999: 14). Hermann Hipp, monument conservator in Hamburg until 1984, confirms this in the Hamburger Abendblatt:


Bei den Planern in Hamburg gab es die zynische Haltung, den Krieg als Chance zu verstehen. Nach den Zerstörungen konnte man manches, was man ohnehin längst geplant hatte, endlich umsetzen. [...] sie hatten endlich die Chance eine moderne Stadt zu bauen. (29 July 2003)


The planners in Hamburg had the cynical attitude of seeing the war as an opportunity. After the destruction many things that had already been planned could finally be carried out. They finally had the opportunity to build a modern city.


1.2 The Research in Germany in 2002 and England 2003


A small research project was carried out by me in October 2002, amongst the students of Hamburg University, and in the summer of 2003 amongst the students of universities in London and Manchester, focusing mainly on the bombings of Hamburg (for the German research) and the bombings of London (for the English research). What was surveyed was knowledge about the bombings, the awareness of sources of information and memorials within the cities, the interest in the subject, and the respondents’ opinion about a few statements taken from Sebald’s work.

In 2003, it was the sixtieth anniversary of the bombings of Hamburg, and in this year, for the first time in decades, it was publicly commemorated in that city. Before we come to the results of the survey, however, it must first be listed what memorials and sources of information were to be found at the time of the survey, 2002, in Hamburg, and 2003, in London.

In 2002, the website of the Hamburg Tourist Information listed the date of the bombings in July 1943 as a special memorial day. From this site visitors are linked to the website of the City Monument Department (Denkmalschutzamt) and the informative website about the concentration camp Neuengamme, which used to be located at the edge of the city and is now open to visitors. Upon enquiry about public memorials, the Memorial Service gave out the following information:


Ein Denkmal/Mahnmal speziell für die Bombardierung Hamburgs Juli/August 1943 gibt es nicht. Auf dem Ohlsdorfer Friedhof findet sich über einem Massengrab der Bombenopfer von 1943 und 1944 ein Denkmal von Gerhard Marcks von 1952. Außerdem gibt es ein kleineres Monument verbunden mit Einzelgräbern von Bombenopfern von Egon Lissow von 1952.  Als zentrale ‘Gedenkstätte’  findet sich in der Altstadt die Ruine der neogotischen Nikolaikirche, die nach dem Krieg nicht wieder aufgebaut sondern gesichert wurde. Dort gibt es aucheine Ausstellung. (Dr. Rüttgerodt-Reichman, email to the author, 16 October 2002)


There is no special memorial for the bombings of July 1943. However, a memorial by Gerhard Marcks was placed over the mass grave at the Ohlsdorfer Cemetery in 1952. Furthermore, a smaller monument by Edon Lissow was connected to individual graves, also in 1952. The ruins of the neogothical church of Saint Nicholas in the old city centre, which were not restored after the war but conserved, serve as a central memorial point. Inside the church there is an exhibition about the bombings.


It is a noticeable fact that both memorials at the cemetery are from 1952. Apparently, before that time there was no (call for a) memorial. Further research on the website of the Tourist Information shows, that there is in fact a small memorial of the bombings of July 1943. It is placed at the fully destroyed former Karstad building in the Hamburger Straße, underneath which was an air raid shelter. The memorial was erected in 2001. Its inscription reads:


In der Nacht zum 30. Juli 1943 starben im Luftschutzbunker
in der Hamburger Straße bei einem Bombenangriff
370 Menschen.

Diese Toten mahnen


In the night of the 30th of July 1943 370 people died in the air raid shelter at the Hamburger Strasse. These dead remind us: No more fascism. No more War.


The State Service for Political Education of Hamburg (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung Hamburg) offers information about the bombings on their website as well as in writing. The Museum of Hamburg History has a permanent exhibition about the 20th century, called “Hamburg im 20. Jahrhundert; Hamburgs Stadtgeschichte von Kaiserreich bis die Gegenwart.” Two rooms are dedicated to World War Two and the Reconstruction. The information about World War Two is fairly elaborate. There are many photographs, information signs and “reading-corners” with reprints of Hamburg newspapers of the period. The section about the bombings of Hamburg, “Vernichtung im Feuersturm,” is very limited. Exhibited are one glass case with several photographs of ruins, victims and refugees, some collected bombshells and other found objects. Furthermore, a glass window with drops of molten glass, a model of the FLAK guns (Flugabwehrkanone, anti-air raid guns) and a replicated air raid shelter: a small room with two bunk beds, a table with four chairs, a cupboard, a ventilation system and a sign with air raid procedures. There is one information sign, with mostly facts and statistics (example: “61% of the housing accommodations in Hamburg was destroyed and a million people were left homeless”). This sort of information seems to match with what Sebald claims in Luftkrieg und Literatur. The statistics are known, but what it really meant is hard to imagine. The exhibition fails to give a clear impression of the destruction.

            In the summer of 2003, there were several ways of commemorating the air raids on London. The Museum of London had mounted an exhibition of photographs of the extensive bomb damage done to London at the start of World War II by the Nazi air campaign that ran from September 1940 to May 1941. A memorial entitled “BLITZ” became the National memorial to those firefighters who lost their lives during the second world war, whom Winston Churchill referred to as “the heroes with grimy faces” in 1991. The small bronze is housed in the Hall of Remembrance at the London Firebrigade Headquarters, Lambeth. There were also special tours around the city, visiting areas that were severely hit by the air raids, organised by the Tourist Information Center. The Tourist Information Centers of Manchester, Leeds and other bombed cities provide similar information and activities.

In 2002, my questionaire was given to approximately 150 students of the university of Hamburg, 100 on a handout on the 21st of October 2002, and 50 via email in the same week. 109 surveys were filled out completely. The age group was 18-30 and the students were randomly chosen from twenty different disciplines. Of the 109 subjects, 50 were born in Hamburg. 10 out of 109 lived in Hamburg during the time of the survey. Although these students hardly represent the entire 3rd generation, their answers give some insight into the opinions of their generation.

The research question of the survey was: How are the bombings of Hamburg remembered and/or commemorated by the third generation of Germans after the Second World War? Several sub-categories were distinguished:


1. Locality

Do students who grew up in Hamburg know more about the bombings on Hamburg than students who grew up elsewhere? And if so, where did they acquire this information?

2. Interest


Is there any interest in the bombings? Is there any interest in commemorating the bombings? Is there any interest in literature about the subject?

3. Opinion


What is the students’ opinion about/attitude towards the bombings? What is the students’ opinion about/attitude towards commemorating the bombings?

All surveyed students born in Hamburg know that Hamburg was bombed in the Second World War.  32% (see table) say they know a lot about the subject. Of the students not born in Hamburg, 16% know nothing about the bombings. The percentage that claims to know a lot about the subject is also lower. To find out how the students who were born in Hamburg have come to know more about the subject it needs to be researched where they got their information. The three most important sources of information are:


1. High school,

2. (Grand) parents, relatives

3. Television.


The three most important sources for students not born in Hamburg are:


1. Television

2. High school

3. (Grand) parents, relatives


Born in Hamburg (50)

Born outside Hamburg (59)

Question 1: What do you know about the subject?

32% claim to know a lot about the subject.

68% claim to know a little about the subject.

0% claim to know nothing about the subject.


Question 2: Where did you get this information (multiple answers possible)

62% a. (grand) parents, relatives.

12% b. Grammar school

66% c. High school

10% d. University

56% e. Television

48% f. Literature

30% g. Museum

10% h. elsewhere (several students mentioned finding rubble in their backyard)

Question 1: What do you know about the subject?

20% claim to know a lot about the subject.

64% claim to know a little about the subject.

16% claim to know nothing about the subject.


Question 2: Where did you get this information (multiple answers possible)

29% a. (grand) parents, relatives.

3% b. Grammar school

46% c. High school

8% d. University

54% e. Television

28% f. Literature

24% g. Museum

7% h. elsewhere (several students listed the internet as a new source of information)


It is clear that the students who were not born in Hamburg have fewer family members and acquaintances in Hamburg. It is remarkable that for the latter, television is the most important source of information. It was not researched what kind of programs the information came from (documentaries, films, interviews) or if it were local or national broadcasts. Schooling is also important in this overview. The students who were born in Hamburg have obviously received more information about the bombings at school. Many students also state that they have visited exhibitions in the museum with their classes. The difference in information from the schools might be because the schools in Hamburg concentrate more on the history of their own city, whereas schools in the rest of the country might provide more information about the bombings in general.

            60% of all students say they are interested in the subject. There is no difference in interest between those born in Hamburg and those born elsewhere. For a subject that this age group has no direct connection to, this percentage is rather high. Sebald’s statement that the Germans were “a remarkably history-blind and traditionless people” seems to be refuted with this. However, a few side remarks must be made. The survey questions were not set up by a professional, and the psychological aspects of this question were not considered. It is very likely that several students claimed to be interested in the subject because they felt socially pressured into it. Therefore, it is hard to say anything about the validity of this result with reference to Sebald’s statement.

            28% of 109 students say that they occasionally discuss the bombings. Of these 28%, 19% refers to them in order to commemorate them, 32% to make comparisons with current situations, 45% discusses them out of interest in history and 4% for other reasons that they did not specify. This means that 72% of the 109 students does not discuss the bombings. 29% does not discuss the subject because they do not know (enough) about it, 44% does not discuss it because they have no interest in or opinion about the subject and 26% does not discuss it for other reasons, that they did not need to specify, but often did by saying it was no longer topical. It is difficult to say whether a taboo on the subject prevents the students from talking about it. Most students who do not discuss it say they are simply not interested in discussing the topic. Combining these data with the high percentage that claims to be interested in the topic, one could say the taboo, if it ever existed, has been lifted.

The questions about public sources of information yielded the following data: 17% of the 109 students have visited the Museum of Hamburg History. Of these 17%, 33% found the exhibition informative and complete, 16% found it informative yet incomplete, 5.5% did not find the exhibition informative or interesting, and 45.5% cannot remember or have no opinion. The large percentage of students who cannot remember the quality of the exhibition can be caused by time lapse: many students claim to have visited the museum while they were in school. However, because no dates were given, this cannot be assumed. Remarkable, however, is the percentage of students who say the exhibition was complete, while the part about the bombings has only one glass case. Of the 83% who have not visited the museum, 52% say they would be interested in visiting it in the future. The City Service for Political Education of Hamburg offers an information service on the internet, as well as in writing. Of 109 students, 13% has used this service to obtain information about the bombings for school or university and 5% used it for personal interest. The service is not popular among the students. It is likely that there is not enough awareness about the existence of this service, or it is too time-consuming in comparison with the other source of information (television).

Only 7% of the 109 students claim to have visited the memorials for the victims of the bombings. 23% of the students know they exist, but have not visited them. Of this group, 44% are interested in visiting them. 70% of the students did not know these memorials existed, and of this group, 32% are interested in visiting them. 37% of the 109 students have visited the church of Saint Nicholas. 23% of the students know it exists, but have not visited it. Of this group, 60% claim to be interested in visiting it. 40% did not know about the church of Saint Nicholas, and 50% of this group are interested in visiting it. The church of Saint Nicholas is better known as a public memorial than the monuments at the cemetery. This is most likely because the church of Saint Nicholas is in the centre of Hamburg, and the cemetery is fairly isolated. As with the question about common interest in the subject, the percentage of students who claim they are interested in visiting the memorials might be distorted by social pressure.

            The knowledge about the public memorials is very limited. It is interesting to see if the students who were born in Hamburg know more about them than the students who were born elsewhere:


Born in Hamburg (50)

Born outside Hamburg (59)

The museum

44% did not know about the exhibition in the museum


The information of the Bundesamt

80% do not utilise this information


The memorials

58% had no knowledge of the memorials


The Nikolaikirche

34% had no knowledge of the church being a memorial

The museum

61% did not know about the exhibition in the museum


The information of the Bundesamt

85% do not utilise this information


The Memorials

78% had no knowledge of the memorials


The Nikolaikirche

46% had no knowledge of the church being a memorial


As can be expected, the students who were born in Hamburg know more about the sources of information and the memorials. The difference in knowledge about the church might be caused by visits made with the school. The difference in knowledge about the cemetery might be caused by the fact that students who were not born in Hamburg are less likely to visit the cemetery, because the chance that they have relatives there is smaller.

            49% of the students are interested in literature about the bombings on Hamburg. One out of 109 students knows Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur and has read it. 6.5% of the students has heard of it, but has not read it. 3% of the 109 students knows Vergeltung by Gert Ledig and has read it. 6% has heard of it, but has not read it. The students claim to be interested in novels, rather than historical works.

            At the end of the survey, the students were asked to give their opinion about several theses. 21% of the students refused to answer these questions.


  1. The Germans at the time of the Second World War had no right to call themselves victims. Based on Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur:


[ob die] Bombenkrieg strategisch oder moralisch zu rechtfertigen war, ist in den Jahrzehnten nach 1945 nie Gegenstand einer öffentlichen Debatte geworden, weil ein Volk, das Millionen von Menschen in Lagern ermordet und zu Tode geschunden hatte, unmöglich von den Siegermächten Auskunft verlangen konnte über die militärpolitische Logik, die die Zerstörung der deutschen Städte diktierte. (Sebald, 1999: 21)


If and how (the bombing offensive) was to be strategically and morally justified, never became the subject of a public debate in Germany in the decades after 1945, most of all because a nation that had killed millions of people in concentration camps and maltreated them until death followed, could hardly ask their victors for information about the military and political logic that dictated the destruction of the German cities.


42% agreed with this thesis, 52% disagreed and 6% had no opinion.

  1. The bombings were a justified punishment for the crimes of the fascists. (Based on Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur:


Die Luftangriffe werden angedeutet als eine gerechte Strafe, wo nicht gar als Vergeltungsakt einer höheren Instanz empfunden, mit der nicht zu rechten war. (Sebald, 1999: 21)


The air raids were referred to as a justified punishment, if not as a revenge-act thought up by a higher entity, with whom could not be argued.


22% agreed with this thesis, 72% disagreed and 6% had no opinion.

  1. A general memorial should be erected for all the victims of the bombings (also for those of Holland, Poland, England etc.)

65% agreed with this thesis, 30% disagreed and 5% had no opinion.

  1. The bombings do not need to be commemorated.

5% agreed with this thesis, 25% disagreed and 70% chose for the option of commemorating the victims together with the other victims of the Second World War.


These theses, and especially the first two, are rather highly emotionally charged. It is therefore hard to say how accurate the results are: the 42% who say the Germans did not have a right to call themselves victims, and the 22% who say the bombings were justified, might have answered so because they did not want to be labelled nazi-sympathisers.

            On the basis of these results, the research question concerning Sebald’s statement about the taboo on the subject can be answered as follows: these representatives of the third generation are reasonably interested in information about the bombings, despite having no direct connections to that part of history. This group has been informed about the bombings in various ways, including (grand) parents and relatives, so one cannot say there was a nationwide taboo on the subject. Very few students visit the memorials, but do say they are interested in commemorating the victims. In how far this can refute Sebald’s statements can be doubted.

            In 2003, the survey was put on an internetsite and sent to a large group of students from universities in Manchester and London via email. Unfortunately, only 30 people reacted, of whom 29 filled out the survey completely. The age-group was again 18-30, and the participants’ disciplines were varied: English and German Literature, Medicine and Computer and Science. The survey questions were almost the same as those which the German students filled out, with the important difference that they were about the air raids on England instead of Germany. The thesis-statements remained the same.

            All surveyed students from England know that England was bombed in the Second World War.  However, none of them say they know a lot about the subject. 80% say they know a little about the subject, and 20% say they know nothing apart from that England was bombed. The three most important sources of information are:


1. Television

2. Literature

3. Museum

(The percentages are given in the table)


Question 1: What do you know about the subject?

0% claim to know a lot about the subject.

80% claim to know a little about the subject.

20% claim to know nothing about the subject.


Question 2: Where did you get this information (multiple answers possible)

17.5% a. (grand) parents, relatives.

17.5% b. Grammar school

17.5% c. High school

14% d. University

42% e. Television

38.5% f. Literature

38.5% g. Museum

7% h. elsewhere (One student did not specify this answer, and one student claimed to have studied historical works out of personal interest outside of school)


77% of the students say that they are interested in the topic. This percentage may seem high, but bearing in mind that only 30 students wanted to participate in this survey, one could still say the interest-level in Britain is relatively low. About 30% of the students say they occasionally discuss the bombings. All but one of the students do not specify why they discussed the topic. One student says that she discusses the topic with her mother, who believes she had died in the air raids in a previous life. Out of the 70% who do not discuss the bombings, 84% say they do not have enough knowledge to discuss the topic, and the remaining 16% claim to have no interest in discussing the topic. Because the number of students who claim they do not have enough knowledge to discuss the topic is so high, it does not seem to be a taboo-subject, but merely one about which there is a lack of discussion- “material”.

            None of the students have visited the exhibition in the Museum of London, but 77% claims to be interested in visiting it some day. None of the students have used the services of memorial services or information centers, and none of them have visited the “Blitz” monument. Again, 77% claim to be interested in visiting the monument. One question in the survey asked the students about their knowledge of other cities, besides Manchester and London, that were bombed in World War Two. One student mentioned Sheffield. None of the other students listed other cities. There appears to be very limited general knowledge about the bombings amongst the students. Because they say most of their information comes from television and literature, it seems education plays only a small role in providing a historical background.

            Five students say they have read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). The other novels mentioned in the survey, Gert Ledig’s Vergeltung (1956) and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5 (1969), are unfamilar to the students. One student claims to be familiar with Der Brand (2002) and one student mentions the children’s novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1951) by Lewis Carroll. This novel is set during the air raids on London.

The thesis-statements were filled out by 29 out of 30 students. The one student who did not fill out the questions to the thesis-statements said he did not know enough about the topic to voice his opinion about the statements. The first thesis-statement (“The Germans at the time of the Second World War had no right to call themselves victims”) met with a full 100% disagreement. 42% of the students agreed with the second thesis-statement (“The bombings were a justified punishment for the crimes of the fascists and the bombings of the UK”) . Again, 42% of the students agreed with the third thesis-statement and say they would be interested in a general memorial that commemorates all the victims of bombings in World War Two, on both sides. 80.5% disagree with the last statement (“The bombings do not need to be commemorated”).

The differences and similarities between the answers of the German students and those of the British students are very interesting. Although a group of 109 and a group of 29 cannot be compared on an equal level, a few things could be said about the results. In Germany, relatives and education are the main source of information, television and literature are a more important source of information to the British students. This could be because they have less relatives or know less survivors who want to talk about it. However, because the group is so small, it cannot be researched if there is a taboo among the elder generation (survivors) to discuss it with the younger generation (the students). Both the German and the British students know little about the memorials and museums in their area, but many of them claim to be interested in visiting the memorials in the future. With neither group a clear lack of interest can be found – although the group interested in taking the survey at all was very small in England.

The “third generation” is not as apathetic as Sebald wants to make it seem. Although his statement was about Germans, and not German students specifically, it cannot be said that German students have no interest in their history. British students seem to be less interested in their own history, although Sebald mentions the British as more interested in comparison to the “traditionless Germans” (Sebald, 1999: 6).



1.3 The German Media and the Bombings, 2003


2003 was the sixtieth anniversary of the bombings of Hamburg, and the month of July saw many different ways of commemorating this. Several magazines, such as Der Spiegel, ran special issues with information and rare photographs. Der Spiegel printed a series of excerpts from Friedrich’s Der Brand. The Hamburger Abendblatt ran a ten-day series from 20th to the 30th July 2003, describing the day-to-day occurrences of 1943. They also printed interviews with eyewitnesses, as well as many photographs from private collections and reprints of excerpts from the Hamburg newspapers of that day in 1943. Several memorial services were also held: a memorial mass in three different churches on the 27th of July, extra-long opening hours of the air raid shelter museum and the fire brigade museum, a tour past the affected parts of the city, specials on the local TV and radio stations, a photo-exhibition in the City Hall with photographs of Hamburg but also of London and Coventry, a special exhibition in the Deichtorhalle called “Operation Gomorrah: Hamburg im Feuersturm” and several book publications.

            The magazines and newspapers got most of their information from Friedrich’s Der Brand, and from interviews with their readers. The articles remained mostly factual, although their headlines were often sensational (“Tote, überall Tote!”, “Als die Hölle vom Himmel fiel”, “der schrecklichste Tag”, “Nächte von Grauens” – “Dead, dead everywhere!”, “When Hell fell from the sky”, “The most horrific day”, “Nights of horror”) and the articles themselves were written in a slightly emotional tone, often quoting Friedrich’s more subjective chapters. The photo-exhibition in the City Hall of Hamburg gave only factual information, and very little of it, letting the photographs speak for themselves. The exhibition in the Deichtorhalle, which also consisted mostly out of photographs, had more information as well as quotes from several new books on the topic, a short film that showed the ruins and refugees, and several official documents and newspapers issued before and after the bombings. Because taking photographs of the ruins was illegal for anyone but state officials, there is not much photographic evidence of the destruction. Most of it comes from private collections, and has remained unpublished until recently. Most of the exhibitions were free or had a lowered entrance fee.

2003 has also seen a true “explosion” of new books and reprints published on the topic. Most of them were historical works, such as Feuersturm über Hamburg: Die Luftangriffe auf Hamburg im 2. Weltkrieg und ihre Folgen, by Hans Brunswig (June 2003), Hamburg im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945: Das Schicksal einer Stadt, by Christian Hanke (e.a, first edition 2001), and Feuersturm: der Bombenkrieg gegen Deutschland by Christoph Kucklick (June 2003). Many eyewitness reports, diaries and novels have also been published: Hilflos in Gomorrah, by Erwin Burmeister (July 2003), Wege aus der Dunkelheit, by Günter Kaack (2003), and Ausgebombt by Werner Grassmann (July 2003). Lothar Kettenacker has also published a collection of essays, reactions to Friedrich’s Der Brand, by German and English critics and authors in the book Ein Volk von Opfern? Die neue Debatte um den Bombenkrieg 1940-1945 (March 2003).

So has Friedrich really broken a taboo? His was the first in a series of newly published books, and Der Brand did get worldwide attention. However, it is not the very first time a book about the bombings was published. In 1956, Gert Ledig published Vergeltung, translated to English as Payback only in 2003, which describes one hour of heavy bombings and its effect on an unidentified German city. In 1962, Joseph Heller published Catch-22, describing the other side of the coin: the story of the bomber crews. Both books are ruthlessly uncensored and spare no detail, be it in different ways. If there were a taboo on the subject, would these books not have been censored or banned? Sebald initially failed to mention Ledig’s work in his essay Luftkrieg und Literatur, but rectified this in the epilogue, where he mentions Vergeltung and another of Ledig’s works, Die Stalinorgel. However, he says: „ich bezweifle nicht, daß es Erinnerungen an die Nächte der Zerstörung gab und gibt, ich traue nur nicht der Form, in der sie sich, auch literarisch, artikulierten” (Sebald, 1999: 87. “I am not doubting that there were and are memories of the nights of destruction, I only mistrust the (literary) form in which they articulated themselves”).

            It is also interesting to see how it was only in 2001, when Der Brand came out, that the debate in Germany really started: Sebald had only dealt with the literary vacuum, and in 2001, Friedrich’s work started a debate about bombings and morality, bringing up a new social discussion. Der Brand might not have been the first literary work about the bombings, but it was announced as such, bringing it into the public eye and thereby stirring up the debate.


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[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from German sources into English are mine. Several sources that were English by origin have been quoted in German translation because the original source could not be located.