Fallen Angels in Hell: John Martin, c. 1841 (Tate Britain)
Curzio Malaparte's disturbing depiction, in The Skin, of the firebombed city of Hamburg, is, like all his semi-fictional wartime writings, a fantasia upon history. It draws for rhetorical and metaphorical effect upon the description of Hell in the Inferno of Dante, bringing to mind especially the perpetually flaming city of Dis, the City of the Dead, in the Fifth Circle. In Dante the burning city of Dis (La città infuocata di Dite) is the most torrid of infernal regions.
But if Malaparte's horrifying narrative is not purely factual, it is also far from purely literary. It represents the descent of the overwhelmed historical imagination into another, perhaps truer dimension. It constitutes an expansion of the examination of irrational events into historical poetry, not a poetic misrepresentation of history.
(Rational reconstruction of irrational events is in any case always doomed to failure, alas.)
"Sir, if a butcher tells you his heart bleeds for his country," Samuel Johnson once remarked, "you may be sure he feels no uneasy sensation."
"For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind," declared the architect of the destruction of Hamburg, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Baronet, on his setting fire to German cities, and their inhabitants, with incendiary explosives.
The calculus of retributive equivalences of course always remains to be determined by the victors in any conflict.
It was Harris who devised and "sold" to Churchill the "area bombing" strategy -- a strategy of War as Total Terror.
History informs that as more specifically directed targeting was made possible by the development of Pathfinder and H2S guidance systems, Harris continued, despite the reservations of Churchill, to motivate successfully for the broad targeting of civilian population areas.
Harris was nicknamed "Bomber," for the thing he loved to do best. To RAF crews, however, he was known as "Butcher," for his apparent disregard of mortality rates among those tasked with delivering death and destruction to Germany.
His chef d'oeuvre was Hamburg, where his Operation Gomorrah, in the last week of July, 1943, created a firestorm that killed some 55,000 civilians. The nights were hot, the bombing unusually concentrated, the explosives incendiary; the results of the carpet-bombing attacks exceeded even Harris's expectations: a vortex and swirling updraft of intensely heated air, forging a cyclone of fire that spiraled a third of a mile into the night sky over the city and port. For every unfortunate living creature beneath, there was nothing left to breathe but carbon monoxide and fire.
Harris remained unapologetic in the aftermath, openly maintaining that restricting the attacks to military targets had never been his intention:
- "...the aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive...should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany.... It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories."
In a 1997 series of lectures published in English in 2003 as On the Natural History of Destruction, the late German writer W.G. Sebald wrote of the willful attempt to "forget," or erase, what had happened at Hamburg.
Sebald's clinical history of the firestorm corroborates with fact much of Malaparte's poetic projection. He reproduces autopsy records that offer grotesque images of disembodied heads, reminiscent of the hallucinatory images of Malaparte: "Heads and extremities could frequently be broken off without difficulty..."
From Sebald we gather a vivid, and hideous, picture of the decisive raid, launched in the early morning hours of 27 July 1943. Among lingering and haunting images he captures is that of a half-demented mother, in shock, treading through the ruins, clutching her mummified child.
"But nowhere in Sebald's reflections," Robert Leventhal has commented in reviewing The Natural History of Destruction, "do we find references to human intentionality or forethought, planning or the desire to inflict horrible suffering on a population. The title itself implies and proposes a different way of considering such acts, and the facts regarding such decisions are of course well known. A natural history of destruction implies an inevitable process, a violent mechanism devoid of any volition or conscious program. But can we altogether abrogate intention and function, politics and ideology, the role of the human desire for retribution and the specific aggression inscribed within the destructive forces unleashed upon Germany? "
L.-F. Céline, who wandered as in a dream through the destroyed cities of northern Germany in flight in 1945, was reminded in Hamburg of Pompeii. Céline's delirious account can be found in his final novel, Rigodon: incendiary fires from the latest raids continue to burn; the tar of the pavement still boils, searing shoe leather; like phantasms out of the ruins rise enormous bell-like domes, created by chemical reactions of liquid sulfur; inside these great tar bubbles, preserved in clay, appear storehouses of goods, and mummified grocers frozen in time like still-life studies, and apothecaries who have been turned into figures in a lifelike diorama, hunched over their measuring flasks on their way to Eternity.
Céline, accused at one point or another of every human vice save optimism, obliquely summed up his understanding of the reasons for this redundant bombing, conducted long after the war had been lost by Germany, when speaking of the desire for revenge as the deepest -- and blindest -- of human motives:
"Aim low, aim true."
Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Baronet, who continued drawing fresh breath to the ripe old age of 91, never ceased to insist that his strategy had been "humane".
One recalls, out of the blue, the recollection of President Harry S. Truman that, after giving the order for the dropping of the atomic bomb upon Hiroshima, he had enjoyed a night of sound and untroubled sleep.
It would be good but probably not realistic to think that when he got over to that other shore and discharged his lamentable cargo of wailing heads, Charon the Boatman of the Underworld at least paused for a moment of quiet thought, before turning back to gather up his next load.