The Allied Air War and Urban Memory: The Legacy of Strategic Bombing in Germany

  • Published

The Allied Air War and Urban Memory: The Legacy of Strategic Bombing in Germany by Jörg Arnold. Cambridge University Press, 2011, 400 pp.

Ultimately, The Allied Air War and Urban Memory is not about the conduct of that war except as an inflection point. As the subtitle indicates, it is about the legacy of that war. Although it provides little in the way of insight to the Second World War itself, it does offer a superlative description, explanation, and analysis of the aftermath in postwar Germany, especially in terms of the “human terrain.” The book examines not only how the citizens of Kassel and Magdeburg chose to remember their respective nights of destruction but also why their observances differed during the Cold War—and how those observances largely converged in content and form following the end of that conflict.

I must admit, however, that this book can be bit of a slog. It just isn’t for everyone because it is so dense. The exhaustive research rests on a foundation of original German texts, including personal accounts and correspondence. Author Jörg Arnold’s presentation is well organized and logical, and he does a superb job of remaining apolitical. He presents the facts, interprets them dispassionately, and allows conclusions to emerge from the interpretive analysis.

Someone interested in the formulation or execution of a campaign, operational art, or tactics will not find much here. The text offers no analysis of the extent of destruction caused by tons of ordnance, the accuracy or efficiency of its delivery, or tactics employed by offensive bombers in the air and defenders on the ground. It does, however, provide lessons to be learned about the very long term effects of warfare that results in genuine devastation—the modern equivalent of razing a city and leaving it without one stone on top of another in smoking ruins. Arnold mentions the direct effects of a bombing-induced firestorm only to set the context for the human experience. For example, he does not dwell upon the fact that many victims died as a result of asphyxiation in otherwise “safe” bomb shelters due to the depletion of oxygen in the environment caused by the firestorm. He does, however, reveal that a window of opportunity for escape existed between arrival of the “pathfinder” target markers and the heavy bombers that delivered their deadly mix of explosives and incendiaries. The resentment expressed by those who lost loved ones toward air raid wardens who escaped during that window rather than staying with the victims or leading them safely away from the city is this author’s grist for the mill. It is exactly this perspective that makes his book unique.

Arnold masterfully compares the “trajectories” of Kassel and Magdeburg—two cities devastated by Allied bombing. His choice is anything but random because their experiences were significantly different. Destroyed roughly in the middle of the war, Kassel became part of the Federal Republic of Germany during the Cold War. Destroyed only a few weeks before Dresden and less than four months before VE Day, Magdeburg became part of the German Democratic Republic. The common link between the two cities was overnight destruction from the air. The differences began with the changing context of the war—at a tipping point when Kassel was devastated and in the waning days when Magdeburg was destroyed—and continued to diverge during the Cold War. These differing contexts shaped the way the cities remembered their losses, the meanings attached to those losses, and the way they framed a context to help understand their respective nights of destruction.

Readers who wish to understand issues and attitudes of the Cold War, especially from a Central European perspective, should read this book.

Thomas E. Ward II, PhD

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."