Vera’s vain protest

Posted by T on July 27, 2007
Ethics, History

Today is the 64th anniversary of the Allied fire-bombing of Hamburg known as Operation Gomorrah. The British part, which deliberately targeted civilians, actually involved four night-time attacks beginning the nights of 7/24, 7/25, 7/27, and 8/2 of 1943. (There were supplemental American attacks by day that aimed at military targets.) Thus, this night is actually the anniversary of the third night of bombing; but that was the one that created the fire-storm that killed tens of thousands in horror-movie manner that I described in an earlier remembrance of the annihiliation of Dresden.

A memorial museum in the basement of the Nickolai church in Hamburg departs from the usual grim silence of Germans that has predominated in the face of the relentless western propaganda demonizing them (which continues to this day) in that it protests the burning of the city and its inhabitants, especially since Hamburg was a stronghold of anti-fascist sentiment in Germany.

I wish to commemorate this anniversary by presenting a brief summary of a book by Vera Brittain published after Gomorrah but still in the midst of the Anglo-American bombing rampage against Germany. Following the summary, I will give a brief mention of the Anglo-American response to the book and discuss the relevance of all this for us today.

The Book

Miss Brittain’s book, titled Seed of Chaos: What Mass Bombing Really Means, was published in the spring of 1944. I rely on Grayling’s summary (see biblio note below). Brittain pointed out that probably the British public simply did not comprehend what was being done to the cities of Germany. This was due in part to the government’s use of euphemisms in press releases, such as “softening-up an area,” and “neutralizing the target.” If the public only knew what was really happening, it would “rise and demand a change of policy on the part of our rulers.” (Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case.)

In the remainder, Brittain rebutted the two main arguments that were proffered to justify the ruthless and exterminative manner of British bombing. These two justifications were (A) waging such a campaign will hasten the end of the war and thus save lives, and (B) the attacks are just revenge for obliteration bombing attacks that the Germans had launched against England.

In response to (A), Brittain made the following points. (1) There is no guarantee that this technique would hasten the end of the war. She had Churchill nailed here, with a direct quote in which he had referred to the mass bombings as an “experiment.” (2) With particular insight, she observed that the term “shortening” the war is ambiguous. More people might be killed in a few hours of a bombing raid than die in several weeks of a major battle engagement. And this is not to mention the extra and needless loss of libraries, art galleries, ancient churches and priceless landmarks. (3) The idea that the war will be shortened because the dehoused and demoralized masses will demand an end to it is dubious at best. Just as likely, it will create a sense of revenge that will further fuel the flame now and set the stage for WW3 later. (4) The destruction of Germany will hurt England later on, in that there will not be the basis for future peaceful trade to England’s benefit.

In response to (B), she (1) quoted Shaw to the effect that the magnitude of retaliation had become completely disproportionate, to the point that Germany would have at least as much to accuse Brittain of in a future world tribunal as England Germany. (2) The question of “who started it” can be more ambiguous than appears at first blush. (3) As one who had herself lived through the London Blitz, she did not see how anyone would want to inflict that kind of terror on women and babies, “any more than our soldiers would go into action using ’enemy’ mothers and children as a screen.” (4) Retaliation “in kind” reduces one to the level of one’s enemies.

It is interesting that the last two points are supported by the sentiments of people involved as reflected in polls that were taken. In areas that had not suffered any bombing in England, 76% approved of retaliatory raids, while only 45% did in areas that had actually suffered such kinds of attacks.

By an accident of circumstance, the book was published in the USA first, under the title “Massacre by Bombing,” along with the statement “Christian people should be moved to examine themselves concerning their participation in this carnival of death, even though they be thousands of miles away” undersigned by 28, including E. Stanley Jones, Henry Emerson Fosdick and Kenneth Latourette. (It would be interesting to know if Machen would have signed, but alas, he had already passed.)

Unfortunately, the American response was in the main a “firestorm” of protest.

Attacks on Miss Brittain occurred from coast to coast by the hundreds in every imaginable medium of communication; the printed condemnations alone would have filled a number of volumes. The New York Times reported its mail running fifty to one against it, and notables entered the arena repeatedly. Because so many of the signers of the preface of “Massacre by Bombing” were renowned Protestant clergy, it appeared as though there were a compulsion on the part of those clergy of similar faith supporting the obliteration bombing to come out immediately in rejection of Miss Brittain and her small company of supporters. (James Martin in article cited by Grayling op. cit.)

When the book was finally published in England, there was much less of a response, though it did draw an interaction from George Orwell.

Concluding reflection

Several elements in this sad story can be highlighted as having pressing relevance for us today.

(1) The temptation of government to cover its atrocities with euphemisms seems to be irresistible. Thus our own Republicans do not often mention torture; instead, it is persuasive interrogation techniques. It is not conquering a sovereign nation, but resisting insurgents. And so forth.

(2) A people once engaged in war seem to get their brains saturated in blood. This was bad enough in the British public, which at least had the excuse of their country having come under attack. But the American response to Vera Brittain is simply unconscionable. America had no reason whatsoever to be at war with Germany, let alone to adopt such a blood-thirsty attitude.

We see the same thing today. While the American public has at last turned against our invasion of Iraq, that was by no means the case when the war was first agitated by our beloved Führer.

(3) It is shameful that the voices of Christian reason were mostly those (at least among the names I recognize) of the liberal type of persuasion. Conservatives need to examine themselves here. This is a plague that (seemingly) beset our leaders in 1940, and still does today. Some deep self-examination is called for. The good news is that there does seem, finally, to be signs that this is happening here and there.

(4) Clearly, the historiography of the 20th century is due for a massive revision, at least, the history as it has been assimilated by the mainstream American (perhaps more often than not by osmosis rather than reading and reflection). For example, the very existence of Miss Brittain’s book in early 1944, and the response to it, shows that ignorance cannot be appealed to as extenuating the complaisance of the American and British public toward the murderous bombings of Germany and Japan (which point is the reason for Grayling including the material). We will not be able to set our feet on a valid path forward as long as the past is willfully distorted.

Much of the information for this reflection was obtained from A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan (Walker 2006), chapter 5.

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2 Comments to Vera’s vain protest

  • Thx for mentioning these books which are highly worth reading. However, it doesn’t help that Brittain was a pacifist. Her points would be more palatable if she believed in just war as opposed to no war.

  • Eliza — Grayling (p. 180) agrees with your pegging Brittain as a pacifist, but it’s interesting that Orwell in his interaction says Brittain was “not, however, taking the pacifist standpoint. She is willing and anxious to win the war, apparently” (Grayling, p. 203).

    I take it that these assessments can be reconciled in that the specific arguments Brittain brings to bear against the obliteration bombing did not hinge on pacifist premises.

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