Oliver Lubrich, the literary historian at the Freie Universitaet in Berlin, sent me his newest project: Berichte aus der Abwurfzone: Ausländer erleben den Bombenkrieg in Deutschland 1939 bis 1945 (Eichborn Verlag) (Reports from the Drop Zone: Foreigners Experience the Bombing Campaign in Germany 1939 to 1945), a collection of pieces written by non-Germans who lived through the firebombing by the British and American forces. This is to some extent a continuation of Lubrich's 2005 book Reisen ins Reich. Anyone who has read Jörg Friedrich's comprehensive history of the firebombing - Der Brand - will also want to read Briefe aus der Abwurfzone.
It is an eclectic group of observers represented in the book, ranging from foreign journalists to prisoners of war. Some were in Germany by choice, as sympathizers with the Nazi regime. Others were held in prison or concentration camps. Lubrich has grouped the pieces by year, so we follow the aerial bombing from the early days of the "phony war", when the American reporter William Shirer writes about the blackouts and false alarms in Berlin, to the final days of total destruction. The intensity - and the horror - grows as the reader progresses through the book.
The book encompasses different narrative genres - from the straightforward radio broadcasts of Shirer and Edward R. Murrow, to semi-fictional accounts by Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Kurt Vonnegut. The physician Céline was tending to members of the Vichy regime who had fled to Sigmaringen when it was bombed by the RAF, and he recounts this in a hallucinatory style in his novel Castle to Castle. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was demolished in February of 1945. This experience was at the core of his best-selling novel Slaughterhouse Five.
All of the accounts are gripping - shocking in a way, but for me two pieces stand out. The Swiss businessman Paul Stämpfli was arrested by the Gestapo during a business trip to Germany in 1942 and sentenced to die. He was on death row at the notorious prison at Plötzensee when it was bombed in September 1943. Despite the terror of bombing, Stämpfli and his fellow death row inmates are elated when they see that the gallows have been destroyed in the attack - they think that the executions will have to stop. Stämpfli describes how this hope soon turns to despair, as the Nazi's bring in replacement guillotines and step up the pace of executions (Stämpfli himself escaped execution through a prisoner exchange.) The other moving account is by the Dutch Jew Mirjam Bolle who describes a hellish transport to the death camp at Bergen-Belsen. The train traveled through the bombed-out city of Bremen and Mirjam Bolle is able to peer out through the slats of the freight car. The sight of the smoking ruins cheers her up.
There are accounts of great suffering: the hours spent in cellars or in the public Bunker, the lack of food, water, the terror of being suffocated underground, or incinerated out in the open. These foreigner observers share the fate of the Germans in the bombing, but to some extent are also impartial observers. What is clear from these accounts is that the Allied tactic of killing German civilians did not have the desired effect of demoralizing the population, and turning them against the Nazi regime. Rather, the writers here chronicle a traumatized population trying to survive from day to day, grateful for any support offered by the regime.
One writer's account spans the entire time period of the book: Marie "Missie" Vassiltchikov kept a diary from 1939 on and she experienced the worst of the bombings in Berlin and Vienna. Vassiltchikov was an aristocratic White Russian, and her diary documents her transformation from a party girl, who watches the bombs fall while eating peaches and cream with her friends, to a peripheral player in the July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler, to a committed nurse, starving and wretched, stumbling over corpses in the streets of Vienna.
Throughout the book, Oliver Lubrich provides helpful biographical and bibilographical information on each of the contributors. His introduction is also quite valuable, since he gives the reader the historical and literary context of what follows. In the introduction, Lubrich discusses W. G. Sebald's important essay Luftkrieg und Literatur (English: On the Natural History of Destruction), where Sebald notes the almost complete absence of a literary response to the firebombing of Germany. Berichte aus der Abwurfzone provides a much-needed correction to Sebalds lament.