the fire

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‘Are we beasts?’ asked Winston Churchill one night in 1943 after watching a film of the bomb damage done to Germany. The question was probably rhetorical: Churchill had authorised the bombing campaign from its puny beginnings in 1940 to the massive Combined Offensive launched with the American air forces in the last two years of war. His language was always intemperate and flowery – ‘extermination’, ‘annihilation’ and so on. Did he mean it? Did the British military machine set out deliberately in the Second World War on a path to the genocide of the German people?

This issue lies at the heart of Jörg Friedrich’s searing account of the bombing of around 150 German cities between 1940 and 1945. In Germany his book sold half-a-million copies. He is the first German historian to expose in remorseless, almost unreadable detail just what the millions of tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs did to Germany’s people and its cultural heritage. Most British readers will be familiar with Dresden, which has come to symbolise the awful horror of a ruthless total war. What they will not know is the fate of a host of other small cities – Kassel, Paderborn, Aachen, Swinemünde, and many more – which were all but obliterated by the bombing, or of the many large cities such as Cologne or Essen which experienced more than 250 raids each, so many that at the end the bombers were simply turning ruins into ruins.

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