Advance to Barbarism: The Development of Total Warfare From Serajevo to Hiroshima
a book by F.J.P Veale
1968, pp. 13-23.
Tardily professional historians have at last begun to realise that the events of the first half of the 20th century have presented them with a problem of unique difficulty.
From the first it was apparent that 1914 was certain to be a memorable date in history because in that year began a war in which a vast number would be doomed to die violent deaths and which would certainly lead to sweeping changes to the map of Europe if only for the worse. For a decade historians limited themselves to investigating the origins of the struggle which they explained to their own satisfaction by attributing it to the chance that Germany was ruled by an emperor who was obsessed by an insane ambition to conquer the world. From patriotic motives, at first to assist the war effort and later to justify the dictated terms of peace, professional historians, many of them men of great eminence and learning, laboured to confirm and endorse the Wicked Kaiser Myth. Once however this had been exposed as an impudent propaganda fiction, they failed to find any generally acceptable explanation for the blind homicidal frenzy which seized the nations of Europe during the period, 1914-1918, and ultimately they became resigned to leaving the problem for solution to the psychologists and psychiatrists. Thus the First World War came to be regarded as a bizarre episode of history, mainly of significance as a grim warning to posterity of the consequences of allowing greed and pugnacity to overcome reason.
The conclusion that the great struggle which broke out in Europe in 1914 resulted from a pathological wave of hysteria which afflicted the most advanced nations of mankind in that year is now held up for admiration as the most remarkable achievement of modem historical research. But this diagnosis was first put forward over thirty years ago by Field-Marshal Lord Allenby who bluntly declared, "The Great War was a lengthy period of general insanity."1 The view that the beginning of this struggle in 1914 and still more that its continuation after 1916 were essentially the result of an irrational and compulsive urge was accepted as self-evident and undeniable throughout the thirty-nine weekly televised programmes entitled 'The Great War' broadcast by the B.B.C. in 1965.
Not until after 1939 when another world war broke out, rendered inevitable by the terms of peace imposed on the vanquished after the First World War, was it realised how profound were the effects which the latter struggle had had on the character, outlooks and ethics of the average Western civilized man. Since the times when the Dark Ages had gradually evolved into the Middle Ages, the story of civilization in Europe had been one of slow but steady upward progress. The advance of civilization apart from occasional fluctuations remained continuous until the beginning of the 20th century, by which time it had come to be regarded as an established law of nature that progress was an automatic process of unending duration. As the late Dean Inge observed, belief in Progress became a kind of religion with most educated men. Apart from the steady accumulation of scientific knowledge, arbitrary violence had gradually become controlled by the rule of law, manners had become milder and in warfare primitive savagery had become modified by the tacit adoption at the end of the 17th century of an unwritten code of restrictions and restraints which later codified at the conventions of Geneva and the Hague, became known as the Rules of Civilized Warfare. The fundamental principle of this code was that hostilities should be restricted to the armed and uniformed forces of the combatants, from which followed the corollary that civilians must be left entirely outside the scope of military operations. It was widely believed that war, being an essentially barbarous method of settling international disputes, was bound ultimately to die out. With seemingly full justification the outlook at the beginning of the 20th century was one of unclouded optimism.
As early as 1770, by which time the horrors of the Thirty Years War had become generally forgotten, the Comte de Guibert could express the already prevailing complacency by writing:-
'Today the whole of Europe is civilized. We have become less cruel. Save in combat no blood is shed; prisoners are respected; towns are no more destroyed; the countryside is no more ravaged; conquered peoples are only obliged to pay some sort of contributions which are often less than the taxes they pay to their own sovereign.'
In the 19th century this happy state of affairs was taken for granted: no one dreamed that it would shortly come to an abrupt end. To us it seems fantastically unreal, now that prisoners of war are faced with the prospect of being subjected to war-crimes trials at the pleasure of their captors, or of being sent to work indefinitely as slave labour; towns with their inhabitants are obliterated by terror bombing; conquered peoples are uprooted from their homelands and mass-deported abroad; and the property of the vanquished is either appropriated as a matter of course by the victors or systematically destroyed.
The war which broke out in Europe in 1914 seemed at first indistinguishable from the civil wars which previously had periodically devastated that continent. During the struggle, however, quite unforeseen by any one, civilization began a retrograde movement without a parallel in history. While the struggle lasted this retrograde movement was not generally perceived but after the wave of optimism generated by the creation of the League of Nations had faded, the realization dawned that somehow the times had become out of joint. Working below the surface a profound psychological change had been taking place. Many of the men then living in obscurity who in the next decade were to rise to power and fame – for example Yagoda, Stalin's chief of the G.P.U. during the Great Purge, Heinrich Himmler, the S.S. leader, and Adolf Eichmann, the organiser of systematic genocide – might have been reincarnations of men who had flourished the times of the Merovingian Kings. Even the outlook of so irreproachable a character as Air Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard with his then novel recipe for victory – "bomb the enemy civilian population until they surrender" – was nearer akin to that of an Iroquois war chief than to that of a professional European soldier of the 19th century.2
Hardly perceptible for twenty-one years, when hostilities were resumed in 1939 the reversion to primitive practices in warfare soon became headlong until at last all pretence of complying with the Rules of Civilized Warfare was abandoned and both sides tacitly adopted the principle that any act was justifiable if it held out even a remote hope that it might stave off the frightful consequences of defeat.
An explanation is clearly needed to account for the fact that governments composed of educated men, reared in the 19th century and brought up to accept as a matter of course the standards of conduct then accepted by everyone, should have so quickly and easily overcome their natural repugnance and adopted and carried out such enormities as the systematic extermination of a defenceless minority on account of its racial origin, the mass-deportation of enemy populations numbering millions, and the deliberate slaughter of enemy civilians by terror bombing in order to generate among the survivors a disposition to surrender unconditionally.
It was many years after hostilities had ceased in 1945 before historians realized that this problem existed. In Germany the thinking powers of historians were for long paralysed by the ruthless brainwashing to which they with the rest of their countrymen were subjected in 1945 to force them to accept the propaganda fictions of the victors. In Britain and the United States historians were so preoccupied investigating the crimes against humanity committed by the vanquished that they overlooked the background of concentrated terror bombing against which these crimes had been committed. They failed to realize that genocide and terror bombing were not isolated phenomena but symptoms of the same retrograde movement which had mysteriously overtaken Western civilization.
It is commonly assumed that genocide and terror bombing were accepted respectively by the governments of Germany and Britain without protest or opposition from those they ruled who, it is assumed, were as completely subject to the spirit of the times as their rulers. The facts as now disclosed do not support either assumption but the subject remains uninvestigated.
Taking first the case of Germany, a strict censorship enforced by drastic penalties controlled the publication of news and the expression of opinion. It is impossible to determine the number of those who expressed opposition to the regime as any who so ventured came to an untimely end. One cannot protest effectively in secret and to protest publicly was equivalent to suicide. It is doubtful also whether any specific information was available consuming what was taking place behind barbed wire in the concentration camps, most of which were in remote occupied territory, inaccessible to civilians. It has been contended that it would have been impossible to put to death millions of persons without some facts about it becoming generally known. Estimates of the number of victims vary from ten millions to less than a quarter of a million, and the larger the estimate accepted the stronger this contention becomes. It will always be a subject for regret that the victorious Allies did not put the question beyond dispute by appointing in 1945 a commission composed of impartial judges selected, from neutral countries to investigate the facts. The findings of such a body would have been accepted by posterity as final. The Allies however deliberately rejected this obvious course. The findings of the Nuremberg Tribunal are of course worthless: a court which convicted Admiral Dönitz against whom the prosecution had failed to produce even the shadow of a prima facie case was clearly incapable of deposing even of the simplest problem. After the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 another opportunity arose to dispose of this question by an enquiry by an impartial tribunal. Once again this course was emphatically rejected, a fact which in itself is highly significant. It remains therefore impossible to say with confidence whether the German people consented without protest to the departures from civilized standards by its rulers during the Second World War.
Recently indeed several books have appeared disclosing that throughout the war there was an active underground resistance movement in Germany. Those who participated however seem to have been mainly political rivals of Hitler, jealous of his rise to power and intent on bringing about the downfall of his regime so as to be able to replace it by a regime of their own. His crimes against humanity do not seem behave greatly concerned them.
The situation in Britain was very different. There was no official prohibition on expressions of opinion as such, but persons who ventured to express opinions which the authorities deemed might hamper the war effort were put in prison without a trial or even without a specific complaint against them. With regard to the bombing of the enemy civilian population, everyone knew that civilians in Germany were being slaughtered wholesale but it was believed that this was an unavoidable by-product of an air offensive against military objectives. The comforting reflection was accepted that the German civilian population could at any moment bring its sufferings to an end by surrendering unconditionally.
It would not indeed be correct to say that what was officially termed "the strategic bombing offensive" was carried out to the last day of the war without opposition, protest or misgivings. Questions were asked in Parliament as to the character of this air offensive which were fully reported in the Press with the answers given. Certainly it cannot be said that the Ministers of the Crown upon whom fell the duty of answering these questions, resorted to evasion or equivocation. In accordance with the British tradition they kept a stiff upper lip and gave clear and emphatic replies, without any signs of embarrassment such as might have been expected from them having regard to the fact that as recently as March 1942 Mr. Churchill's War Cabinet had accepted the plan laid before it by Professor Lindemann by which 'top priority' as an objective for air attack was in future to be given to "working-class houses in densely populated residential areas."
This decision of the War Cabinet was kept a closely guarded secret from the British public for nearly twenty years until it was unobtrusively revealed in 1961 in a little book entitled Science and Government by the physicist and novelist, Sir Charles Snow, in which occurred the following oft-quoted passage which was immediately translated and published in every language in the world:
'Early in 1942 Professor Lindemann, by this time Lord Cherwell and a member of the Cabinet, laid a cabinet paper before the Cabinet on the strategic bombing of Germany. It described in quantitative terms the effect on Germany of a British bombing offensive in the next eighteen months (approximately March 1942 – September 1943). The paper laid down a strategic policy. The bombing must be directed essentially against German working-class houses. Middle-class houses have too much space round them and so are bound to waste bombs; factories and "military objectives" had long since been forgotten, except in official bulletins, since they were much too difficult to find and hit. The paper claimed that – given a total concentration of effort on the production and use of aircraft – it would be possible, in all the larger towns of Germany (that is, those with more than 50,000 inhabitants), to destroy 50 per cent of all houses.' (pp. 47-48.)
Terror bombing as proposed in the Lindemann Plan was a novelty in warfare rendered possible by the conquest of the air during the first two decades of the 20th century. Genocide, on the other hand, was only the revival of an ancient practice, once probably worldwide, which had long been abandoned in Europe and which barely survived, in company with cannibalism, among the savages of Africa. It has never seriously been contended by anyone that either genocide or terror bombing were in accordance with the moral standards accepted at the time by all civilized peoples.
We do not know what were the thoughts in private of Hitler's colleagues concerning his "final solution of the Jewish Problem." Some of them surely must have found it at least disturbing that the Führer should have recourse to a practice which had only recently been stamped out in Africa by European Colonialism as the first step towards introducing civilization into that continent.
We know however that the members of the British War Cabinet who accepted the Lindemann Plan fully realized its enormity because concurrently with its acceptance it was decided that on no account must any inkling of its terms reach the public. The following extracts from the parliamentary reports of Hansard are set out verbatim here immediately after the passage quoted above, not to suggest that British politicians are exceptionally mendacious – politicians whatever their nationality have never been renowned for veracity – but to establish that those responsible for the acceptance of the Lindemann Plan were conscious of a feeling of guilt. They instructed those entrusted with the task of answering questions on the subject to give emphatic and unambiguous denials designed to stifle all further enquiries, as the following passages from Hansard show. Some or indeed most of them may have replied in the innocence of their hearts without personal knowledge of the truth but credulously believing what they were told by their departments.
On the 11th March, 1943 (a year after the acceptance of the Lindemann Plan) in the House of Commons, Mr. Montague, a Labour Member, having expressed the hope that our air raids on Germany were still being concentrated, as he believed they were, on military and industrial objectives, Captain Harold Balfour, Under-Secretary for Air, replied that he could give the House "an assurance that our objectives in bombing the enemy were industries, transport and war potential. There is no change in our policy. We were not bombing women and children wantonly for the sake of so doing. It is not for us to turn back. If innocent people, women and children suffer in the execution of our policy in Germany the remedy lies with the German men and women themselves."3
On the 30th March, 1943, in reply to the Labour Member, Richard Stokes, the Secretary for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, replied blandly that, "The targets of Bomber Command are always military but night-bombing of military objectives necessarily involves bombing the area in which these are situated."4
On the 9th February, 1944, in the House of Lords, Dr. Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, in a memorable speech demanded a statement of the Government's policy "in regard to the bombing of enemy towns with special reference to the effect of such bombing on civilian life." Viscount Cranbourne, Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, replied for the Government that he was "very ready to give an assurance that the aim of our intensive attacks on German cities was to hamper and, if possible, to bring to a standstill enemy war production and not aimlessly to sprinkle bombs with the object of spreading damage among the enemy population. The R.A.F. had never indulged in purely terror raids."5
The last and most illuminating debate on the subject of terror bombing took place in the House of Commons on the 6th March, 1945, only three weeks after the ghastly mass air raid on Dresden on the 13th February, 1945.
This debate was initiated by the irrepressible Richard Stokes who demanded to be told the truth concerning an authorised report, issued regarding this raid by the Associated Press Correspondent from Supreme Allied Headquarters in Paris which gloatingly described "this unprecedented assault in daylight on the refugee-crowded capital, fleeing from the Russian tide in the East," and declared it showed that "the long-awaited decision had been taken to adopt deliberate terror-bombing of German populated centres as a ruthless expedient to hasten Hitler's doom."
Mr. Stokes began by reading this report which he reminded the House had been widely published in America and had been broadcast by Paris Radio. In Britain on the morning of the 17th February it had been released by the Censor but in the evening of that day it had been suppressed from publication, presumably as a result of the indignant protests which it had aroused.
Mr. Stokes insisted on being told, "Is terror bombing now part of our policy? Why is it that the people of this country who are supposed to be responsible for what is going on, the only people who may not know what is being done in their name? On the other hand, if terror bombing be not part of our policy, why was this statement put out at all? I think we shall live to rue the day we did this, and that it (the air raid on Dresden) will stand for all time as a blot on our escutcheon."
Here a private member, Rear-Admiral Sir Murray Sueter, interposed with the fatuous observation that "all targets are very carefully planned by the Bombing Committee. The Committee go into each target which is of military importance, necessitating the carrying out of this bombing."
Commander Brabner, Joint Under-Secretary for Air, then spoke on behalf of the Government. "May I conclude on a note of denial," he observed apologetically. "The report which has just been read stated that the Allied Commanders had adopted a policy of terror bombing. This is absolutely not so. This has now been denied by Supreme Allied Headquarters and I should like to have an opportunity of denying it here. We are not wasting our bombers or time on purely terror tactics. Our job is to destroy the enemy. It does not do the Hon. Member justice to come to this House and try to suggest that there are a lot of Air Marshals or pilots or anyone else sitting in a room trying to think of how many German women and children they can kill. We are concentrating on war targets, and we intend to remain concentrated on them until Germany gives up."
Quite unabashed by this expression of official disapproval, Mr. Stokes asked two supplementary questions, "If the report issued with the authority of Allied Headquarters in Paris was untrue, why when protest was made against it was this not stated at once, and why was it said at first that it was impossible to suppress a report approved by Allied Headquarters stating its official policy, although in fact it was immediately afterwards suppressed?"
Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Secretary for Air, had pointedly left the House when Mr. Stokes began to read this report so imprudently approved by Supreme Headquarters in Paris. No doubt by this time he knew the contents of this compromising production by heart. Realising that Commander Brabner's rambling evasions of the questions put to him, instead of disposing of them, would be more likely to arouse curiosity as to the truth and so lead to further enquiries, he decided to dispose of the subject finally himself. "This report," he declared, "is certainly not true. The Hon. Member can take that from me. How it was handled, what newspapers published it, and whether publication was authorised, are matters which the Hon. Member had better discuss with the Ministry of Information."6
In passing it may be noted that this denial was in a sense true. No decision, long-awaited, had just been reached to adopt deliberate terror bombing of German main centres of population. The decision to do this had been reached three years before when in March 1942 the Lindemann Plan was accepted by the British War Cabinet. Ever since then it had been ruthlessly carried into effect: the Dresden massacre was merely the culmination of this policy.
Referring to the above quoted report issued from Allied headquarters, the subject of the above debate, David Irving in his book, The Destruction of Dresden, published in 1963, observes complacently, "What might be termed the 'mask' of the Allied Bomber commands for one extraordinary moment appears to have slipped." It was however only a brief moment.7 "The debate on the 6th March, 1945," he writes proudly, "was the last wartime debate on Bomber Command's policy: the British Government was able to preserve its secret from the day when the first area raid had been launched on Mannheim, the 16th December, 1940, right up to the end of the war."
The apparent indifference of the British public to the adoption of terror bombing as a method of waging war may be explained by the fact that the emphatic denials of the Ministers of the Crown were almost universally accepted as true. Officially this problem did not exist, hence the public apathy which certainly contrasts strangely with the frenzied moral indignation professed in Britain and elsewhere in 1966 when the Americans began to bomb communist troop concentrations, oil depots and ammunition dumps in Vietnam on the ground that bombs which missed their mark might endanger civilian life. The distinction between these cases is that the outcry in 1966 was perhaps more an expression of anti-American feeling than of a humanitarian regard for human life. In 1945 the death of German civilians troubled few people in Britain simply because the victims were Germans.
Be this as it may, the worldwide outcry of 1966 certainly tends to support the view that Winston Churchill and his colleagues were justified in fearing in 1942 that if the terms of the Lindemann Plan were made known to the public, an outcry, similar to that which arose in 1966, was to be expected.
Long afterwards in 1961 H.M. Stationery Office described in four volumes with a wealth of horrifying details the terror bombing offensive against Germany carried out from March 1942 to May 1945 in accordance with the Lindemann Plan.8
Immediately after hostilities had ceased in 1945, various aspects of the Second World War began to be subjected in print to unqualified condemnation. With regard to terror bombing, the eminent military critic, Captain Liddell Hart, in a little book entitled The Evolution of Warfare, published in 1946, declared that victory had been achieved "through practising the most uncivilized means of warfare that the world had known since the Mongol devastations."9 Adverse criticism was at first mainly directed to the adoption of the novel system of 'war-crimes trials' as a method of disposing of enemy prisoners of war. Widely reported with gusto in the Press these so-called trials were soon in progress all over Europe and in the Far East. With regard to them therefore no question arises, as in the cases of genocide and terror bombing, whether an innocent public was kept in ignorance of what was happening. It cannot be denied that this particular reversion to barbarism was accepted by the public with astonishingly few misgivings.
Nevertheless there were occasional faint and disregarded protests. A booklet written by the present author twenty years ago provides the core of this book.