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British moral considerations

LAURENCE REES: To what extent were moral considerations influencing the British decision makers in the context of the area bombing campaign?

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: I don’t think moral considerations played much of a role at all. Again I think that while its tempting to say, well, they should have had foresight, they should have realised that this was going to be seen as a stain on their honour for the rest of the century, that is to misunderstand the nature of strategic decision making at a moment of intense crisis which the Second World War was. I’m not trying to justify the decision to bomb over 70 German cities and to turn them into absolute cinders; I’m just trying to remain as a historian somewhat detached from the passions of this argument and trying to explain how a man like Bomber Harris could have been given a green light again and again and again to bring further intense bombing all the way across Britain and the argument that this was the only way to fundamentally win the war.

If somebody comes to you and says 'I’ve got the war winning weapon, I’ve got the answer, I know how we’re going to do it,' and you’re fighting for your very survival against one of the greatest military threats of history, you’re going to probably take your chance. And truthfully, the American and the British and Allied publics were not particularly exercised about the prospect of German people suffering in the Second World War. There were a few outspoken critics of Britain, but only a few, and they were generally speaking pilloried for their thoughts and their interventions on this subject. So where would the arguments have come from to show restraint? Who would have made them and would they have been taken seriously? I don’t think so.

I think one of the most surprising unintended consequences of the bombing was to create in Germany the sense that the Germans were victims too, and this may have done more to hurt the long term allied cause than anything. Because as soon as the Americans, British, French and Russians came into occupation and the United States strategic bombing survey of people went out into the cities of Germany and started interviewing people about their experiences during the war, what they found was that universally Germans said what you did to us through aerial bombing was worse than what the SS did to the Jews.

And you can read these exact quotations in the transcripts of those interviews, this was in the summer of 1945. Mind you, 5 or 10 years later Germans would not have spoken that way, but in the heat of the moment they felt they had suffered unduly; they felt they were victims, and this meant that they want to essentially call it a day, so nobody was worse or better than anybody else in the Second World War. That set up a dialogue of the deaf over who really had the moral high ground in a fascinating way and it meant that many Germans looked upon the Nuremburg process as somehow illegitimate and as a show trial. So the great opportunity of educating the German people early on was lost. And in a way it took another 50 years to penetrate into the German conciousness their  responsibility for the Second World War.

LAURENCE REES: Yes, and it's very dangerous. I was shocked to read that Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, wrote in his memoirs just before he was executed that he considered himself the moral equivalent of a bomber pilot flying a mission over Germany.

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: Well I think that’s a horrifical, manipulative and deeply sinister argument because I think it’s the moral equivalence of saying everybody was evil and therefore nobody’s particularly evil. It’s a very slippery slope and a dangerous one. The Germans sought to wipe out an entire people in an act of genocide. That was one of their principal war aims, to destroy the Jewish people. The principle war aim of the Allies of bombing Western Germany was to win the Second World War. If they could have done it a different way and they had those tools available to them in 1943 and 1944 they would gladly have used those tools, their objective was not to incinerate every single German civilian in the entire country. These are two very different things and they have to be kept separate and very clear in our minds. These are not equatable and they require very careful analysis by themselves, separate from one another, they have an internal logic and internal dynamic of their own.