In the summer of 1943, British and American bombers launched an attack on the German city of Hamburg that was unlike anything the world had ever seen. For ten days they pounded the city with over 9, 000 tons of bombs, with the intention of erasing it entirely from the map. The fires they created were so huge they burned for a month and were visible for 200 miles.The people of Hamburg had no time to understand what had hit them. As they emerged from their ruined cellars and air raid shelters, they were confronted with a unique vision of hell: a sea of flame that stretched to the horizon, the burned-out husks of fire engines that had tried to rescue them, roads that had become flaming rivers of melted tarmac. Even the canals were on fire.Worse still, they had to battle hurricane-force winds to escape the blaze. The only safe places were the city's parks, but to reach them survivors had to stumble through temperatures of up to 800șC and a blizzard of sparks strong enough to lift grown men off their feet.Inferno is the culmination of several years of research and the first comprehensive account of the Hamburg firestorm to be published in almost thirty years. Keith Lowe has interviewed eyewitnesses in Britain, Germany, and America, and gathered together hundreds of letters, diaries, firsthand accounts, and documents. His book gives the human side of an inhuman story: the long, tense buildup to the Allied attack; the unparalleled horror of the firestorm itself; and the terrible aftermath. The result is an epic story of devastation and survival, and a much-needed reminder of the human face of war. Includes nineteen maps and thirty-one photographs, many never seen before
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Keith Lowe is an editor in the United Kingdom and the author of Tunnel Vision. He lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.-- Friedrich Nietzsche
In his eyewitness account of the Hamburg firestorm and its aftermath, Hans Erich Nossack admitted to feeling a mixture of awe and elation whenever he saw the fleets of British bombers flying over the city. Despite his natural fear during an air raid, he often found himself willing the bombers on, almost hoping for the opportunity to witness a truly catastrophic event. Rather than going to the shelter he would stand spellbound on his balcony watching the explosions rising above the city. He did not blame the British and American airmen for the havoc they were wreaking, but saw it rather as the inevitable expression of man's urge to destroy -- an urge that was mirrored in his own morbid fascination. The fact that this fascination was accompanied by a simultaneous revulsion, both at what was happening before him and at his own emotions, did not lessen the power of his darkest cravings.
There is a sense in which the whole of the Second World War can be seen as a battle between these dark cravings -- the human urge to destroy and the desire to keep such instincts in check. From the victors' point of view the war has often been portrayed as an almost mythical struggle by the "free" world to rein in the destructive urges of Hitler's regime. And yet the Allies were just as destructive toward their enemies as the Axis powers ever were -- necessarily so, since destruction is the very business of war. The tragedy of this particular conflict was that both sides should so completely abandon all restraint, until there was no way out of the war but by the total devastation of one side or the other.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the bomber war. Each side began bombing with relative caution -- especially the British, who promised early on that all bombing would be confined to strictly military objectives. Each side gradually descended into varying degrees of what the Germans called Schrecklichkeit ("frightfulness") -- the deliberate terrorizing of civilian populations. And each side accompanied its bomber raids not only with increasingly bloodthirsty calls for the utter destruction of its enemy, but with jubilation whenever that destruction was partially achieved. The uncomfortable elation experienced by Nossack at the bombing of his own city was merely a token of what was happening across the whole of Europe.
At the end of the war, when things had returned to "normality," both sides tried to distance themselves from these events. This denial of the past has been most pronounced in Germany, where it seemed that the only way the population could cope with the horrors they had witnessed was to pretend they had never happened. In 1946, the Swedish journalist Stig Dagerman described traveling through the moonscape of Hamburg on a train: Despite the massive expanse of ruins not a single other passenger looked out of the window. Dagerman was immediately identified as a foreigner precisely because he looked out. The story is an apt metaphor for the way Germans have collectively avoided looking at the ordeal they experienced. Until recently, there have been very few German authors willing to engage emotionally with the subject, because to do so would open too many wounds. The peculiar mix of collective guilt for being a part of a nation that unleashed war upon the world, and anger at the heartlessness of their own treatment -- so that they were simultaneously both perpetrators and victims of atrocity -- has made it much easier simply to turn away and pretend that life continued as normal.
In Britain and America there has been a corresponding avoidance of the consequences of our bombing war. We know all about what it was like for our airmen, and the bravery they displayed in the face of formidable German flak and fighter defenses is a strong part of our collective folklore. Triumphant films have been made about it, such as The Dambusters, or Hollywood's Memphis Belle. There are countless books about the airmen's experience -- about the stress of waiting at dispersal, the nerves of the long flight into battle, the terror of flying through flak, or even of being shot down by fighters. This is as it should be -- these are the things we did, and it is important that we remember them. But after the bombs have been dropped, and the surviving bombers have returned home, that's where the story tends to end. What happened on the ground, to the cities full of people beneath those falling bombs, is rarely talked about; even when it is discussed, it is usually only in terms of the buildings and factories destroyed, with only a cursory mention of civilian casualties. We, too, like to pretend that nothing terrible actually came of those bombs. (I am talking here about our collective consciousness. The airmen themselves are among the few of us who actually do seem to have thought about it, understood what it was they were doing, and either come to terms with it or made a conscious decision not to try to square the impossible -- there was a war on, and they know what we don't, that war is a terrible thing out of which no one comes out looking good.)
The one exception to this rule is, of course, Dresden. The disproportional amount of attention Dresden gets is our one act of contrition for the destruction we rained down on the cities of Germany. There are various reasons why this particular city has become the emblem for our guilt -- it was a truly beautiful city, the scale of its destruction within just a few days was awe-inspiring, and since it occurred toward the end of the war many people have wondered with hindsight whether it was not an unnecessary tragedy. All this is worthy of discussion, but it does not excuse our forgetfulness about other cities in Germany. What about Wuppertal, Düsseldorf, and Berlin? Berlin suffered more bombing destruction in terms of area than any other city in the war: almost four times as much as Dresden.4 And what about Hamburg? Just as many people died in Hamburg as in Dresden, if not more, and in ways that were every bit as horrific.
In Continental Europe the destruction of Hamburg is regarded as a defining moment in the Second World War. It happened eighteen months before Dresden, at a time when much of Germany was still confident of final victory. It was a far greater shock to the system than Dresden was, unleashing almost a million refugees across a nation that had still not quite accepted the consequences of bombing. These refugees brought with them tales of unimaginable horror: fires hot enough to melt glass, a firestorm strong enough to uproot trees and hurl them into the flames, and rumors of 200,000 people killed within the space of just a few days and nights (although in fact the total was more like 45,000).
I have been consistently surprised by the general ignorance of these facts among my own countrymen. In the course of the two years of writing this book I have come across very few people outside the world of military historians who knew that Hamburg was ever bombed at all, let alone the sheer scale of the destruction that took place. On the Continent the bombing of Hamburg is a byword for horror, and yet in Britain few people know it even happened. In North America, too, there is widespread ignorance of the basic facts, although to some extent America's geographical and emotional distance from Hamburg excuses this. Even those who have heard of the Hamburg firestorm are generally unaware of its ghastly human consequences.
The main purpose of this book is to put this right. My intention is to convey the events as they appeared at the time, not only to the British and American airmen who fought their way across the skies of Europe, but to the people of Hamburg who became the victims of their bombs. Hamburg was a handsome and prosperous city before it was destroyed, and I will explain some of the city's history in Part I, and try to re-create the atmosphere in this Hansestadt in the years leading up to 1943. The logic is that it is only by knowing what was there before the bombing that we can truly appreciate what was lost -- both physically and psychologically. I have devoted several chapters to the immediate and long-term aftermath of the firestorm because this has never adequately been described before, in Germany or abroad. The effect of the catastrophe on the German people, and on Germany itself, was extremely far-reaching, and continues to cause controversy today.
The second purpose of this book is to try to correct the erroneous belief that war is somehow a glorious or heroic undertaking. During the course of my research I have interviewed dozens of bomber veterans, and they are unanimous on this point: There is nothing glorious about sitting in a Lancaster or a B-17 bomber for upward of five hours, in the freezing temperatures of the upper atmosphere, waiting to see if you will live to return home safely. At best it is dull, at its worst it can be utterly terrifying: The rare moments of exhilaration are insignificant compared to this.
There is nothing glorious about being bombed, either, as the British learned during the Blitz when over 40,000 British civilians were killed. The most infamous German raid was on the city of Coventry, where local industries, civilian houses, and historic buildings in the center of the city were completely devastated. In their collective imagination this is what British people believe it must have been like for the Germans -- a little like Coventry, or perhaps slightly worse. This is a false impression. What happened in Essen, Bochum, Düsseldorf, and the other cities around the river Ruhr was like two years of Coventrys, night after night after night. Coventry suffered only a single major bombing raid -- Essen was bombed on a much larger scale, twenty-eight times. Hamburg is on another level altogether. What happened in Hamburg is more accurately compared to Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Until recently America did not really know what it...
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