In midsummer of 1943, during a heat spell of long duration, the Royal Air Force, supported by the 8th American Air Fleet, flew a series of attacks on Hamburg. The object of the mission, called “Operation Gomorrah,” was the most complete possible destruction and burn-out of the city. During the attack during the night of July 28, which began at 1 o’clock in the morning, ten thousand tons of explosive and fire-bombs were unloaded over the densely populated residential area east of the Elbe, a region that included the districts of Hammerbrook, Hamm-North and South, Eilbek, Barmbek and Wandsbek. Following an already proven method, four-thousand-pound explosive bombs were deployed by means of which all windows and doors were broken and ripped from their frames; then lighter igniters fell and set the roofs ablaze even as fire-bombs, with a weight up to 15 kilos, broke through into the lower storeys. Within a few minutes gigantic fires burned everywhere over the roughly twenty square kilometer attack terrain; the fires joined their edges so rapidly that a quarter-hour after the descent of the first bombs the entire airspace, as far as one could see, became a single ocean of fire. And after another five minutes, around 1:20, a firestorm of such intensity arose that no human, until that time, could have imagined it possible. The fire, exploding now two thousand meters into the sky, devoured oxygen with such violence that the air currents reached hurricane strength and roared like mighty organs on which all registered had been pulled. It burned like that for three hours. At its peak the storm lifted up gables and roofs and whirled beams and plaster walls through the air, twisted trees out of the ground and drove people before it like living torches. Behind crumbling facades flames shot house-high into the air, rolled like a flood wave with a speed of more than 150 kilometers an hour through the streets, whirled like fireballs in odd rhythms over open squares. In some canals the water burned. Glass panes melted in streetcar wagons; sugar stores cooked in the cellars of bakeries. Those fleeing from their underground shelters sank in grotesque twisting forms into the liquefied asphalt that formed thick blisters. Nobody really knows how many lost their lives that night or how many went mad before death overcame them.
The horrors of modern war, mirrored on the other side by the 57 nights of German bombing of London, called The Blitz, by the twin nuclear descents of atomic bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, echoed by words like Dresden, and marked more modestly on childish memories—mine were those of a child who lived through such things but managed to escape unharmed, Brigitte’s those of a young girl who had to help clear rubble—should be, if at all possible, kept vividly in mind as we contemplate yet more mayhem, endlessly, and the decades keep rolling on.
W.G. Sebald, I think, has a very legitimate point to make. It is that our memory is rather selective. We remember the Holocaust and keep its memory alive, forgetting that it was a part of a much greater display of collective inhumanity in that weirdest of all times that Brigitte and I have lived through. We remember what flatters and not that which instructs. And, indeed, reading such posts as this one does not exactly make one’s day.