Face to Face With Destruction


Seeing these church bells in Lübeck wasn’t easy for me. They melted and fell to the ground after an air raid in 1942, and have been left exactly as they fell.

I wasn’t alive in 1942, and even my parents hadn’t yet been born. My grandfather was relocated by the American government because he refused to fight in the military for religious reasons.

And yet, I still felt a sense of embarrassment, being an American standing there in Germany next to those bells. My country* did things like this. Why? Even if there’s a war on, and whatever the other side may be doing, do we really have to bomb all their churches?

Then, we went to the Dom (cathedral). It has a small gallery of photos of the destruction in 1942, and how it took 40 years to restore (though some original works are simply irreplaceable.)

Burning Lübeck Cathedral after an air raid in 1942

I had just been walking through the beautiful Dom, and then saw pictures like that. It was very sad. I imagined the people in 1942, seeing the smoking remains of so many buildings that had been important to the town for centuries. Places where, no doubt, some of them worshiped, and their parents and grandparents had too. I imagined my sadness if a country bombed one of the churches that my ancestors helped start or build. I felt ashamed of what the democracy in which I live (and its allies) did to the Dom, to Marienkirche, and to the other churches and civilians there.

Then, a few days ago, Wikileaks posted a video from an American helicopter in which our soldiers begged “Come on, let us shoot!” at people, most or all of which were completely unarmed. They killed a bunch of people. Then a van came to try to get the wounded to the hospital. Then the soldiers in helicopter killed those people, and wounded some children. Even if they thought their lives were in danger, I’d expect to hear some quiet sadness at what they thought was a regrettable need to use force. Instead, you’d hear them cheering whenever they killed someone, as if they had just won a round on some video game. They killed civilians, and considered it a fun experience and a mission accomplished. There was no sadness for knocking a man to the ground, leaving him writhing. Just jokes. There was no more care for human life here than there was 60 years ago.

It saddens me that every year we celebrate our military on independence day — celebrating its ability to kill, not its ability to feed. I wish that we could rather celebrate the times Americans have saved lives, whether in Berlin or in Port-au-Prince, or helped to topple dictatorships. Military power shouldn’t be our first choice so often.

Lübeck wasn’t attacked for any strategic purpose; the British did it to destroy the “morale of the enemy civil population”, as the Americans did in Dresden or the Germans in London. In other words, those bells fell to the ground for no reason other than that they were German. People lost their lives for the same reason — in Germany and in London. The British had no reason to believe that those civilians meant them any harm, that they were anything but caught between two strong powers. And the same held true in Iraq.

When we went to Berlin, we walked through the replica of Checkpoint Charlie, with the big sign announcing that “you are leaving the American sector.” There is little positive to be said about the Cold War, but there is something the British and American military did of which I am not the least ashamed: the Berlin Airlift. Although I didn’t see it, I feel a sense of the USA having been a force for good when I read about the Berlin Airlift Monument at Tempelhof, which has the names of the 70 British and American men that lost their lives in the airlift (due to accidents), above the inscription “They gave their lives for the freedom of Berlin.” That’s the spirit I wish we’d see more often in the world today: people giving their lives not just for their own security, but for strangers in need on a different continent.

We Americans have been, compared to many countries in Europe, relatively sheltered from the ravages of war in our own midst. I wish that more of us would have the opportunity to gaze at fallen church bells, to wonder through a magnificent old church and then to see photos of it on fire, or to see a monument to our soldiers in a far away land. Perhaps then we could better learn from history, and see firsthand that some of our most positive contributions to the world have come in the form of coal and candy bars instead of incendiary devices.

A small post script

Many historic buildings or locations we saw in Germany had plaques on their exterior with a brief history, often in German and in English. I was interested to note that some (though not all) of these plaques had language such as “destroyed by fire in 1942”, with no mention that the cause of the fire was a bombing. I was even more interested to note that same sort of description at several sites in Prague Castle, mentioning that the original building was lost in the fire of 1142. It was only on the third or fourth building in the Castle that we learned that the fire of 1142 was caused by a military siege of Prague Castle.

* I know it was the British at Lübeck, but the Americans did similar things elsewhere.

I also acknowledge that, at a macro level at least, the Berlin Airlift wasn’t purely an altruistic act, as there were geopolitical factors in play. But I am speaking of the actions of the airmen here, who took on considerable risk to help others.

28 thoughts on “Face to Face With Destruction

  1. I’m sure had I been to Germany with you, I’d probably feel the same about the architectural damages. Only I’ve never been to Europe, although I almost got to visit Geneva once.. I felt sad that there was no mention of the camps and all those people whom lost there lives because of genocide. Did that really happen? My grandparents left Germany (luckily) just as the Nazi’s took power, or I’d probably not even be here now, as my grandfather was half Jewish. — I was following your route on the map as you described your trip. I was childishly hoping you would go just a bit farther south and describe some of the scenery along the way…I did so very much enjoy reading your stories…

  2. Interesting that the Nazis decapitated a bunch of German priests who dared hint it was an ordeal, seeing that as an attack on the reich. As it was the UK who did the bombing maybe it should be taken in the context of the approx 43,000 killed during the Blitz that occurred a bit earlier?

  3. John – It is worth seeing this in the context of the Baedeker raids. My family were in Coventry at the time, and I’ve since been to Exeter. Another relative helped command the Berlin Airlift and it’s worth thinking that the RAF flew some of the same Lancasters into Tempelhof, dropping sweets rather than bombs en route.

  4. Another thing that is quite annoying even today is that when you live in a city that was bombed during WW2, like Cologne, and then visit cities of similar age, like Vienna, and see how it could have looked like had it NOT been blown to pieces, you get quite sad at the lack of wonderful old architecture.

  5. @vvill: Yes, the genocide did happen. Even if some Neonazis still claim it’s all a made-up story by some left-wing people. And to make it perfectly clear from my POV: that was one of the most horrible things men did ever to other men. And even though I wasn’t born while the Nazis ruled, I’m ashamed that Germans did that (though I don’t feel guilty as I wasn’t around, I hope the difference is obvious and not disturbing).

    @zog: I’m not sure you want to count one life against another. Every life lost in/to a war is one to many. And as far as church is concerned: most of them kept silent. In return the NSDAP (not entirely true as the Weimarer Republic had something similar, but not to that extent) gave them something we’ve till today: the church tax.

    Now to the Wikileaks video: that is what one gets, when he is going to war. It’s horrible, but I didn’t expect anything else. Another reason why I’m of the opinion Germany never should have went to Afghanistan. No war is ever just. The only reason I can see for having a military is to defend your own country. Or maybe to assist humanitarian missions like drilling for water or delivering food.

  6. Re the Blitz: one instance of mass civilian murder doesn’t, and shouldn’t, condone another. (It’s awfully easy to take a different view of this at 70 years’ remove, of course, but still.)

    While it’s well-known that the Nazi regime viewed certain classes of people as subhuman, there was a regrettable tendency during WWII to view Germans as somewhat subhuman too, and echoes of that survive to this day. One side of my wife’s family is German, and they suffered quite a bit of racism well after the war at the hands of English people, despite the fact that one of her uncles cut his way out of a convoy on the way to a concentration camp while another of her family was *commended* by a war crimes tribunal for covertly aiding prisoners. But, to some people, a German was a Nazi and that was it. It’s all very sad.

  7. Drizzt and Colin, very well put. I certainly don’t deny the horrific things the Nazis did. I also didn’t forget that the Nazis were a repressive regime. Many (though certainly not all) of their victims were Germans, especially German Jews.

    But does one atrocity justify another, even a much smaller one? Life is life. Maybe the Americans killed 20,000 in Dresden and the Nazis killed millions. That doesn’t justify the killing of 20,000 in Dresden for no real strategic benefit. (It doesn’t even justify it in my mind even if there WAS a strategic benefit.) It doesn’t justify bombing what churches or synagogues the Nazis hadn’t yet gotten around to destroying themselves either.

    My ultimate point is: war is horrible, and I wish that the USA would be quicker to use non-military methods rather than jumping for the bombs and helicopters so soon whenever something annoying happens.

  8. Nice Post John.

    First of all: As already said by Colin: One mass-murder should not be used as a justification for another. Same is true for the destruction of purely civilian structures (such as churches).

    Regarding that video mentioned: I shudder at the mere thought about it, I don’t really dare watching it. Especially the description as “just as if they just won a video game” touched a nerve, as I am a defender of first person shooters as well as other so called violent games. I do enjoy that sort of game from time to time, but the mere thought of actually hurting a real person causes a really strong bad feeling in me.

    Anyhow, back to the topic of revenge (and the destruction of german churches was in my opinion nothing but revenge): Revenge never turns out to be good for anyone. Justice is what needs to be applied instead. Especially if you can’t make your revenge effect those (and only those) who caused you to want revenge. During WWII, on both sides, thousands of people were killed even though they never wanted the war (or any of the “causes” the war supposedly had).

    As Drizzt, I am ashamed that WWII was mostly caused by Germans and certainly the worst crimes of the war were done by Germans (though the allied forces also did some bad things), but I can’t feel guilty about it as I wasn’t there at the time (even my father was just about to turn 7 by the time the war ended, my mother wasn’t born yet).

    Looking at todays areas of war, I am not thinking the same way as Drizzt does. I think there are reasons to have a military besides defending the own country and humanitarian missions. However, I don’t think that the current mission in Afghanistan is the right thing. Either it should not be done at all, or at least quite differently. It doesn’t seem to me that the mission currently helps stabilizing the government there or fighting any terrorists.

    Speaking of terrorism: There is in my opinion far too much fear about terrorists. The inconvenience caused by the so called security precautions introduced by the various governments post 9/11 are far worse than even a dozen additional terrorist acts. That’s not to say 9/11 wasn’t bad. All people responsible for that act (and subsequent acts) should be found, arrested and convicted.

    Ooops, that reply got far longer than I planned and I got sidetracked a lot, but still I think it was worth posting.
    Not necessarily worth reading though ;-)

    1. I’m defending computer games of all sorts too, especially in the face of some very wrong claims from the conservative/right wing of our political spectrum here in Germany. As an adult I like to play what I want. And still I watched the video and found it plain horrible. I said to some friends with whom I discussed the video, that I’d probably could bear those scenes in a film or video game (basically it’s not that different from the scene in “Full Metal Jacket” in the helicopter where the gunner is shooting down civilians on the rice fields). The important difference is: one is real the other is not and I can distinguish that.

      The Afghanistan mission is basically about protecting the construction/operations of a pipeline (called TAP or TAPI) the USA need/want (that’s also easily deductible from the stationing of the US military forces – they’re stationed precisely along the (planned) route of the pipeline). The US military wouldn’t stay there if it’d be all about revenge because of 9/11. So, no I don’t even want the Bundeswehr to stay there, if it was handled differently by the German government (and this is totally apart from the fact, that I don’t want to see German military forces anywhere on this planet where they weren’t invited by the populace to help).

  9. Two things, and I think it is better to say up front that I believe we greatly differ in our views on the purpose of an army. With that said…

    If I recall correctly, a lot of these church bombings happened because they were being used to shelter support for the German army (supplies, soldiers, etc.). One of the first ways you fight a war is to cut off your adversary’s supply chain. It is sad what happened to the churches — I love old architecture and cringe when I see footage of Ancient Roman bridges being blown up. But… wars are not fought by rules of preserving the pretty things.

    As for celebrating the military on Independence day — just remember you live in a country that is free to object to that notion because the military has been employed to support that freedom. Look at history — countries are not free because they are pacifistic, they are free because they actively defend themselves from tyrants and other conquerors. IMO, the ultimate blame resides with human nature. The need for a military is a symptom of the notion of “survival of the fittest”.

    1. As far as I know, the churches in Lübeck were not being used for that purpose. The quote in the story was from the British, who admitted there was no strategic purpose to the attack.

      I don’t think that bombing Lübeck, Dresden, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Iraq, or fighting in El Salvador made my country any more free that it would have been otherwise. The American military has often been used to attack other places for little if any benefit at home.

      There are plenty of countries that are free but don’t go around attacking all over the globe or maintaining a global military presence. I wish we could act similarly.

      1. “There are plenty of countries that are free but don’t go around attacking all over the globe or maintaining a global military presence. I wish we could act similarly.”
        That’s the sad thing about this all. You can’t. It would be the end of your country. No access to natural ressources, no US.

        1. A quote from Volker Pispers comes to mind „jetzt verteidigen wir nicht mehr nur, was uns gehört, sonder das, was wir gerne hätten“, which translates into “now we don’t just defend what’s ours but also what we’d like to posess”.

  10. Speaking of bombing for non-strategic purposes, I see you mentioned Hiroshima, but don’t forget Nagasaki – a city bombed, specifically for its reputation of being a center of Christianity in Asia.

    We can’t even see that architecture anymore.

  11. Many churches during WWII acted as a stores for ammo.
    Don’t be surprised that Allies ruined them.


    1. I doubt that many churches acted as stores for ammo. There might have been some, but IMHO few.
      And don’t think bombings where nearly as precise as today. Some bombs dropped hundreds of meters off. Some where dropped even more off, especially at night.

      Not the churches where targets, but the city in whole. And sometimes cities where destroyed because there was industry producing war-goods nearby.

      Just thought that, without rating.

  12. “I wish that we could rather celebrate the times Americans have saved lives, whether in Berlin or in Port-au-Prince, or helped to topple dictatorships. Military power shouldn’t be our first choice so often.”
    Haiti is not a good example. Really. Military power should be the last resort, when all else fails, not even close to being first.

    “I also acknowledge that, at a macro level at least, the Berlin Airlift wasn’t purely an altruistic act, as there were geopolitical factors in play. But I am speaking of the actions of the airmen here, who took on considerable risk to help others.”
    Of course it was risky, but do not let yourself be blinded by romanticism. There was no altruism. West-Germany was critcal as a “Bollwerk” against communism. The support of the german population was needed. The pilots just did their job. Had they been ordered to stop and leave West-Berlin to the sovjets, they would have done so. The people who ordered the Airlift were not taking any personal risks. They just sat in their offices and plotted strategies. No heroes, just masters and servants.

    If you want to stop these crimes, you have to first learn that your countries _elite_ isn’t doing anything whitout it’s own interests in mind. There is no altruism at work here. Never was. Not even in WWII, although I agree the US intervention was good. Its purpose was to stop the fascists from politically “uniting” europe (a nazi EU so to speak). If you look at the policy of your country towards the whole of eurasia, you’ll see that it’s all designed to stop a political union of this continent and the subsequent loss of access to the natural ressources for the US. I call it “Divide because you can’t conquer” The US doesn’t care if it supports right wing military dictatorships (grandpa bush pushing the nazis) or communist china (widen the rift between china and ussr) or radical muslim saudi-arabia (oil). I’m not saying that this is wrong. There is no right and wrong here. It’s just in your best interests, but please stop believing the romanticist propaganda. That’s what got you into the Iraq-War (and the people in this video killed) and it’s going to get you into the Iran-War.

    Right now your president is doing a Propaganda-Tour in Prague. He claims he wants to see a nuclear weapon free world, which, ironically would benefit the country with the best conventional army. Of course this is never going to happen. No sane elite of any country would get rid of its nuclear arsenal. So why is he proposing this “great vision” that will never come to pass? He wants Irans leadership to look insane. “Look, everyone is reducing their nuclear weapons and they are arming themselves. They must be up to something!!!11!!” And up to something they are. They are trying to protect their country (and their own wellbeing, of course, being just another greedy bunch) from something as disastrous as the Irak-Iran war from ever happening again.

    There is _nothing_ heroic about war. It’s all a big lie by elites to mask their true intentions, which of course is first and foremost staying in power, then gaining more power and reaping the benefits. (which is why the US should really stop to threaten Irans population. There is a democracy that wants to get out, but you are forcing them to close rank behind the mullahs, which they don’t even like.)

    The people _never_ profit from war, that’s why they have to be fed propaganda to accept it. Elites on the other hand do, very much so. So to stop these wars, you have to take the incentives away or introduce disincentives that outweigh those incentives (it’s all just game theory). And major parts of your country being destroyed by your enemy is a pretty strong disincentive, one that is going to get an elite toppled and unable to reap the benefits of war, the plundering of the conquered territory.

    (sorry about this rant, but the wikileaks video and now the us propaganda show is just too much to take)

  13. There are many examples of excessive bombing of Germany cities – not often necessary. I’m currently live in Paderborn – at the end of the war, in 1945 it was almost completely destroyed – ~85% of city was ruined. Although in city was no military objects – it always was a city of Church & education

    1. Just a short question: did you actually watch the video? And if so: didn’t the major parts of it strike you as at least “odd”?
      You might want to read the Geneva Convention(s) before watching the video.

      Apart from that I don’t think a website with “Good people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” at the head is an unbiased source.

    2. And if you want to read was soldiers can tell after they’ve returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, you might also want to read http://www.truthout.org/iraq-war-vet-we-were-told-just-shoot-people-and-officers-would-take-care-us58378
      Quotes like “The difference between an insurgent and an Iraqi civilian is whether they are dead or alive.” or “[…] Something else we were encouraged to do, almost with a wink and nudge, was to carry ‘drop weapons’, or by my third tour, ‘drop shovels’. We would carry these weapons or shovels with us because if we accidentally shot a civilian, we could just toss the weapon on the body, and make them look like an insurgent.” are really disturbing, aren’t they?

      To make it perfectly clear (and as has been expressed here several times): I’m not surprised, this is what war is, but it’s horrible nonetheless.

  14. John,
    Atrocities like this are never justified. However, many of the men involved watched their friends and fellow soldiers die countless times, or witnessed the aftermath of a German attack on British or French civilians. That doesn’t justify what they did, but it does explain how their sense of right and wrong could get skewed and how they would stop seeing the enemy civilians as human beings.

    I would like to think I would have done better in their shoes. But I can’t be sure.

    1. That is a good and nuanced point. On the other hand, the people that ordered those attacks may not have seen all of that, and in the case of Iraq were less likely to have seen it still.

      I am even more impressed by the British and American airmen that lost family in the war, only to participate in the Berlin Airlift later. That, in my book, shows character.

  15. Well another reason to keep the armies as small as possible…. and to get rid of the governements as much as possible….

    However the Germans did similiar things in other countries to “demoralize” the citizens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.