Strategic Bombing of Germans

WILLIAM PFAFF

January 23, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.-- Personal moral responsibility was starkly affirmed Monday with the conviction in Berlin of two former East German border guards for killing fugitives at the Berlin Wall. Moral responsibility is also an issue in quite another affair today, in London, where it is much less comfortably confronted.

The two young guards were acknowledged to be mere agents of a policy far beyond their power to change. However, the Berlin Superior Court told them their duty had been to disobey their superiors.

To shoot to kill people trying to flee East Germany, as they did, was ''against the essence of human rights,'' the Berlin court said. ''The legal maxim, 'whoever flees will be shot to death,' deserves no obedience.'' This to young men for whom disobedience to their commanders could have been lethal.

The second case concerns the top, not the bottom, of a chain of command. In war-time London a policeman reprimanded a Royal Air Force officer for speeding and endangering life. The officer replied, ''I kill thousands every night.''

He did. He was Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, known as ''Bomber'' Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command. He was the architect of the Allied air offensive whose incendiary attacks on German cities culminated, in the closing weeks of the war, in the deliberately created fire storm murdering some 35,000 to 135,000 people (nobody knows) in Dresden -- most of them civilian refugees.

Veterans of Bomber Command have commissioned a statue of Harris to be dedicated in London in May by the Queen Mother. Mayors of German cities devastated by Allied bombers have protested, causing political embarrassment in London. The statue is privately funded and has no official character, other than the participation of the Queen Mother as patron of the RAF.

Harris, of course, was only one of many enthusiasts of ''strategic'' aerial bombardment during the 1920s and 1930s. Others were the Italian military theorist, Gen. Guilio Douhet, and the American Gen. ''Billy'' Mitchell. (Curiously, Germany never developed a serious heavy-bomber doctrine. The Luftwaffe remained fundamentally a tactical air force.)

Killing civilians was not the original aim. It became so when war came and the RAF discovered it could not strike military targets with precision. Large urban areas were the best it could hit. This subsequently was made avowed policy, and Harris was the man who did it.

He bombed cities and killed civilians to break the German public's morale -- which did not happen. He said that his mission was to turn Germany into a desert.

The Churchill government acquiesced, as did the American when the American bombings began. Bomber Command eventually took some 50,000 fatal casualties in the course of a strategic bombing campaign which post-war assessments say used up more Allied resources than it destroyed of Germany's.

U.S. heavy bombers bombed German cities by day while the RAF bombed by night. In the Pacific, the United States launched fire-raids on Japanese cities that eventually proved more destructive of civilian society than the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with which the Pacific war ended.

Americans (and Britons and French) thereafter lived with a deterrent nuclear strategy that rested on the renewed threat to destroy entire cities. Moralists, and conscience-stricken airmen, justified this as a threat which was not meant to be carried out, although of course it was.

The argument made in the 1940s by those who admitted the evil of bombing cities held that the justified aim of defeating Nazi Germany warranted immoral methods. In any case, they said, Germany had started it with the blitz (but historians today say the matter is more complicated than that).

Yet what about the airmen of Bomber Command who found themselves repelled by what they were doing, but went on doing What about Winston Churchill and the Allied commanders who knew well before the war was over that the bombings were not only wrong but wasting resources, yet did not halt them and turn the strategic bombers toward military targets?

Analysts today are all but unanimous in saying that by doing that they could have significantly shortened German Army resistance. The bombing of cities went on to the end.

Revisionist historians have argued that bombing Dresden was a deliberate Western Allied ''signal'' to the Soviet Union that the Western powers would resist a Soviet advance that went too far into Europe, that it was the start of the Cold War.

There is no convincing evidence of this. The strategic bombing campaign went on because vast resources, together with powerful men and their reputations, were committed to it, and no one dared call a halt.

Afterward, Harris and Bomber Command -- alone among the major wartime British commanders and commands -- were given no post-war honors. The omission was unspoken acknowledgment of the British government's moral uneasiness with what had been done.

They had accepted the argument that the end justifies the means. That they were wrong on a practical level should not obscure the fact that they were wrong in principle as well. It is exactly the same principle by which the Berlin Superior Court has justified its condemnation of two hapless East German frontier guards. They should have refused to do evil.

The guards go to prison. Bomber Harris gets a statue paid for by the men who were his victims, and of his theory of war, as surely as were the refugees of Dresden. A German court demands of border policemen a standard of moral conduct the wartime Allied high command failed to meet. It is a curious outcome, 50 years on.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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