Commentary Magazine


The Bombing of Germany, by Hans Rumpf

Modern War

The Bombing of Germany.
by Hans Rumpf.
Translated from the German by Edward Fitzgerald. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 256 pp. $4.50.

A bothersome book: I have scribbled all over its margins. Bothersome in small ways, which prejudice the reader both against and in favor of its author. It is so full of minor factual errors, misprints, garbled statistics, and naïve assertions that one cannot trust Herr Rumpf s larger insights. On the other hand, he is so ingenuous that one acquits him of being disingenuous: this is no pupil of Dr. Goebbels, no sophistical ex-Nazi. Herr Rumpf s book is disturbing in more important respects. The issues he raises are painful, complex, and ambiguous. To discuss them emotionally is to refuse him a fair hearing. To categorize them dispassionately is to risk peculiar falsifications, since these categories all impinge on one another. Let us begin dispassionately.

There are two arguments, military and moral, against the waging of “total” warfare. The military argument is that total warfare does not work. In the long run, unless the combatants are markedly unequal, total war tends toward total deadlock. The impulse and the capacity to retaliate, to devise antidotes and counter-terrors, will lead to stalemate. In the short run, also, total war is usually ineffective. Wars are still won—where wars can still be said to be “won”—by orthodox methods: that is, by confronting and defeating the enemy’s armed forces, and by occupying enemy territory. Resources diverted to other purposes are wasted, and may even produce a contrary effect. Thus, the attempt to destroy civilian morale by means of indiscriminate destruction may instead stiffen resistance, in making the attacker seem as odious and implacable as propaganda alleges him to be.

The moral argument, too familiar to require more than brief restatement, is that war ought to be conducted according to certain rules and confined to actual combatants. It is permissible to kill a soldier, until he has been taken prisoner, but not a woman or child. It is wrong to engage in forms of warfare that are certain or likely to cause suffering to the unarmed and innocent.

Hans Rumpf uses both arguments in his analysis of the Anglo-American bombing of Germany in 1939—1945. The dust jacket tells us that he was once inspector general of fire prevention in Germany. References in the text and bibliography disclose that he was intimately involved in the Allied bombing offensive. He has accumulated a lot of material and ruminated about it. He has had plenty to think about. Whatever the rights and wrongs, the military and moral nuances, the fact remains that some six hundred thousand German civilians were killed in the raids, and another eight hundred thousand seriously injured—ten times as many as in the German raids on Britain. No sizable city or town escaped intact. Large portions of some of them—Hamburg, Cologne, Essen, Berlin—were obliterated. The endeavor to pound Germany into rubble, and into submission, engrossed a considerable part of the Allied war effort. Losses in men and aircraft were heavy, as many a home in the British Commonwealth or in the United States can bear witness. Was the endeavor justifiable?

On military grounds, Herr Rumpf can present a strong case that it was not. Most of the evidence for this contention has already been assembled by British and American strategists, and he has not much to add, except to underline the woe of Germany and the surprising resilience of the civilian population. As P.M.S. Blackett, Liddell Hart, and others have pointed out, the British committed themselves early in the war to the development of a strategic air arm; and, with some differences of opinion, the Americans followed suit. The Germans led the way, as Herr Rumpf rather casually acknowledges, by demonstrating the techniques of sudden terror on Guernica, Warsaw, and Rotterdam, and then on Coventry and London. But their military emphasis was for various reasons on tactical bombing, in quite close support of their ground forces. Unlike the British with their Lancasters and Halifaxes, or the Americans with their Flying Fortresses, the Luftwaffe was never equipped with a satisfactory four-engined bomber.

“Bomber” Harris of the RAF was given a free hand at sundry times to engage in what amounted to an indiscriminate onslaught on the Reich. The immense raids on Hamburg or Berlin were directed only incidentally against industrial areas. They were intended to smash workers’ homes, administrative centers, water-mains, power lines, sewers—everything that enables a city to function. The damage was colossal, the military effect minimal. With astonishing rapidity the cities were patched together again. Their inhabitants became inured to the intolerable. They worked on in the belief that surrender would entail even worse conditions, or in the hope that Germany would strike back. Despite the mounting intensity of Allied attacks—the RAF flying by night, the Fortresses by day—German war production actually increased. It went on increasing until the autumn of 1944. What then brought about collapse, the author suggests, was mainly the advance of the Anglo-American and Russian armies, with their overwhelming superiority in manpower and armament, plus the success of the American air armadas in destroying Luftwaffe fighter squadrons through aerial combat, and in knocking out key industries through precision bombing. Clear-witted strategists already perceived that the saturation raids were a failure. Yet the doctrine of destruction for destruction’s (or retribution’s) sake persisted. In the final months, weeks, days, Allied bombers pounded away at the Reich, Herr Rumpf remarks, with a kind of apocalyptic fury. It was, he says, as if the sorcerer’s apprentice, having pronounced the magic spell, could not then call a halt.

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The graver aspects of this argument shade into problems of morality and may be left there for the moment. As for technical aspects, expert testimony is on the author’s side; and in general I accept the experts’ analysis. However, some qualifications ought to be noted. Herr Rumpf appears himself to be an expert in a limited and blinkered way. He seems under the impression, for example, that the RAF consisted of Bomber Command and little else: hence the inaccurate assertion (p. 36) that Britain had no tactical air force. Apart from an admiring account of the famous hedgehopping raid on the Ruhr dams, he says almost nothing about the RAF’s constant minor attacks on “legitimate” targets such as docks, marshaling yards, and V-bomb installations. Indeed, the German use of indiscriminate V.1 and V.2 missiles in 1944—1945 is barely mentioned, and then (p. 122) only to muddle the order of their employment.

Nor is the military verdict on mass-bombing as clear-cut as it might look. Let us concede that the British were proved wrong in their belief that Germany might be crushed by bombing (and that they were slow to react to the growing weight of contrary evidence). This was not the view of the experts in the late 1930’s, who regarded mass-bombing as an inevitable and dire feature of a future war. No one could guess how city populations would react, or what the breaking point might be. Herr Rumpf admits this uncertainty when he refers to the panic of Italian workers under bombing. Who could be sure that the same thing might not happen in the Reich—where, incidentally, there were millions of presumably disaffected foreign slave-workers?

And what else could the British do, after Dunkirk and before the Second Front? With no major land operations in prospect, needing to convince themselves and their Allies—especially the hard-pressed Russians—that they were still in the fight, they turned to the only mode of warfare open to them: war in the air. Militarily, the decision was as obvious as was the decision of the Germans, lacking a large orthodox navy, to try and starve Britain out by unrestricted submarine warfare. Even if no bigger results were achieved, at least the bombers would oblige the Germans to commit aircraft, men, and other resources that they could have used elsewhere. If this was a brutal and despairing strategy, the times themselves were brutal, and desperate.

Now the argument becomes more darkly difficult. Crime does not pay, Herr Rumpf implies. One should not bomb the innocent because that is bad strategy and bad morality: the connection seems inseparable in his reasoning. But if all war is evil, as I believed in my pacifist days before 1940, is one kind of crime different in kind from another, or merely in degree? “Who are the innocent?” I began to ask in 1940. And what if crime does pay? What if the Hamburgers and Berliners had lost their nerve as well as their homes in 1943, and mutinied against a Hitler who never even paid them the compliment of touring the devastated areas? Or what if the A-bomb had been ready a couple of years earlier? Would it not have had a most decisive effect upon both Japan and Germany?

Perhaps my sensibility was permanently impaired by the experience of being a soldier in the 1939—1945 war. In those years I witnessed a great deal of destruction, and hated it. But moral distinctions became less and less clear to me. I could not and still cannot see why civilians should not, in the nature of the abomination, suffer equally with soldiers. I do not think the carnage on the Western Front in 1914—1918 was morally or in other ways preferable to the more widely diffused slaughter of World War II. I am suspicious of the popular current distinction between nice old-fashioned limited wars and the nasty unlimited conflicts of our day. I see only a difference in degree. “Beauty and booty”—rape and plunder—are ancient concomitants of warfare. How many civilizations before our own have not perished in flames? There is a plaintive undercurrent in Herr Rumpf’s well-meaning pages which one also detects among certain generals and admirals of our day. He, like them, is a specialist in, a man at home with, particular patterns of destructive activity. Then things get out of hand. The rules they have learned, the methods they have mastered, become ludicrously inadequate. It is then that they discover ethics, not before. Or they dwell nostalgically upon the good old times when the rules and methods worked, and were confined to the proper people. (They have a special fondness for the “chivalrous” battles of North Africa, fought between soldiers in an ideally abstracted military terrain, as bare of civilian irrelevances as an illustration in a training manual.)

Herr Rumpf is understandably glum, and perplexed, when he turns to the hazards of future, thermonuclear war. The hot winds of bygone firestorms have already blown his notes away. He can do little but offer marginal rebukes to architects for rebuilding bombed cities on conventional lines; or, fixated on his own war, maintain that World War III would really be the same thing, only more so; or hint obliquely that when the scores are added up, the Anglo-Americans were as ruthless as their adversaries. My own reactions are as confused as his. We were ruthless, and I think stupidly ruthless. We borrowed and improved on an idiom of violence. In admitting this, we need not wallow in guilt but should instead consider what all of us as belligerents have bequeathed to the world. Despite its incoherence, this book has useful lessons for mankind. They are not new, for little new remains to be said; but nor are texts for sermons new. One lesson is that war is hell, and has always been so. World War II extended the dimensions of nightmare. That might be taken as a pessimistic lesson; it means that even a war which stops short of nuclear missiles would be nightmarish enough. Sophistication in large-scale murder had come a long way by 1945. Nuclear disarmament would not in itself produce an idyllic situation. The optimistic lesson rests on the assumption that the sorcerer’s apprentice was given a second chance, and was able to profit from his previous folly. Herr Rumpf considers why gas was not employed in World War II. He concludes, rightly one supposes, that the belligerents feared it would be as unpredictably dangerous as Hannibal’s elephants: the terror would be mutual. This is our hope: that universal dread may operate more realistically and more effectively than conferences of international lawyers or moralists seeking to draw up rules of military metaphysics which will specify which kinds of slaughter are O.K. and which are to be reprobated after the event.

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