Death From The Skies
How the British and Germans Survived Bombing in World War II
By Dietmar Suss
Oxford University Press – £30.00
”[…] the air war was part of the ‘comprehensive Last Judgement’ in which no one was free from ‘guilt.”’
‘The Politics of Reconciliation’
Trying to come to terms with the mere fact that entire industries have, over last one hundred years or so, devised the intellectual, mechanical and economical means to murder thousands of people from the air, is almost impossible.
Perhaps this is because of the pristine era we now live in? Wherein precision bombing has become the norm. Wherein infrastructure and buildings are of far more validity than people. Wherein the application of health and (wretched) safety, shouts far louder than the desperate need to stop killing people. We’ve all seen the black and white footage of countless bombs being dropped on countless cities during the Second World War; which, to a certain degree, has perhaps anaesthetized our collective conscience unto that of a warped form of (wretched) acceptance.
At the end of the day, I personally can’t think of anything more harrowing, more frightening, than being indiscriminately bombed from thousands of feet up in the air. Yet Death From The Skies – How the British and Germans Survived Bombing in World War II is a truly remarkable study by the German scholar Dietmar Suss, that oddly enough, places the whole undeniably barbaric psychosis into some sort of clarified perspective – if such a thing be remotely possible.
Each of the book’s ten, in-depth chapters, resonate with a confidence that is simply sublime in its translucent investigation: ”This study is in a sense a plea to see the history of British society at war and of National Socialism in international and in comparative terms. At the heart of this book are the differing ways in which Britain and Germany coped with the crisis, gave the war meaning and instituted forms of cultural commemoration after 1945. In other words, it deals with the social practice of power, with mechanisms of political and social inclusion and exclusion, with death, the process of dying, and with the contest surrounding the memory of bombing that began even during the war in both societies and went on after it.”
This brief synopsis of the book by the author himself, who, by way of writing in the Introduction, already casts an all considered net of equal deliberation that is commendable in its non-biased negotiation: ”Even though Britain did not suffer a wave of attacks comparable to what Germany suffered from the summer of 1944 onwards in raids far more intense than the British experiences of destruction, the worry that Hitler might have a final trump card never abated. This fear shows how up to the last the bombing war played an important role not only as an actual danger but also as an imagined one.”
Rather than dwell on facts, figures and statistics – which, given the subject matter, would have been very easy to do – Suss quite often delves into the varying trajectory of the air war; whether it’s from that of a moral, a religious or reconciliatory perspective. For instance, in the chapter ‘The War of the Future 1900–1939’ (sub-heading ‘Air Defence and the Nation’), he writes: ”When morale and the civilian population were being discussed there was frequent talk of ‘nerve centres,’ main arteries that had to be severed, attacks on the enemy’s ‘heart’ and ‘brain.’ Since the inter-war years the vocabulary of destruction had featured terms such as insects, gnats, or mosquitoes, which depersonalised the civilian realm and turned the enemy into a biological object which could be eliminated without any scruples. At most it was an anonymous body or an organ necessary to the whole that was being destroyed, not human beings. There was no mention of pain and even the calculation of the number of victims appeared at best as a statistic, a piece of mathematics designed to demonstrate military strength.”
Such explanation allows for morality itself, to be stretched beyond the very realm of plausibility. Indeed, by way of an almost tic for tac, political persuasion;which in turn, allowed for an overtly violent dismissal of the other. Psychology was/is as a result, brought to bear, is if some kind of remedy or get out clause: If morality was ever discussed, then it was not in order to legitimize this kind of warfare. For to large sections of the British public and military such a legitimization seemed to have low priority simply because the Germans as the future enemy had after all already shown their true nature. This perception made it possible to claim moral superiority over the enemy, while at the same time thinking him capable of anything and preparing one’s own response as a preventative measure.”
From justice to repression, wartime morale to the church, psychological damage to the impact of death, mourning and faith; Dietmar Suss leaves no stone unturned in what is clearly a ground-breaking analysis of the air campaign during The Second World War. The literary bar has once again been raised to that of a far more acceptable understanding of a subject, fraught with shame, guilt and discrepancy.