Easy Chair — From the February 2015 issue

The War of the World

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On a single day in July of 1943, more than 500 Allied planes bombed Rome, killing 1,500 people. The city got off lightly compared with Naples, which was attacked 200 times during the war and destroyed to the point that its citizens, in the words of one reporter, “camp[ed] out like Bedouins in deserts of brick.” Still, Italy suffered less than other parts of Europe: by war’s end, 50 percent of Warsaw’s citizens had been killed, many of the rest deported, and most of the city’s buildings damaged or destroyed. (The German Verbrennungs- und Vernichtungskommando — Burning and Destruction Detachment — destroyed libraries, palaces, and architectural monuments.) In the inhospitable sea of bricks that had once been a 600-year-old city of more than a million, only 150,000 remained.

The war killed, by some counts, 60 million people in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific — 2.6 percent of the earth’s population at the time. The Soviet Union lost 1,700 towns and 70,000 villages and an almost unfathomable 24 million citizens. Homelessness, displacement, poverty, and disease ravaged those the bombs neglected. Many died in combat, or were shot or gassed, but millions starved to death too.

Whereas human beings died by various means, the built environment was done in mostly by aerial bombardment. Not only buildings but essential systems of production were destroyed. The Blitz targeted cities throughout Great Britain. The munitions-manufacturing town of Coventry was nearly annihilated; in Hull nine tenths of the homes were damaged or destroyed; Birmingham and Liverpool were shattered. More bombs were dropped on London than on any other British city, beginning with the huge raids that damaged or destroyed more than a million homes, burned out the Surrey Docks, and killed nearly 30,000 between September 1940 and May 1941. The East End alone was targeted by a thousand German aircraft on a single night.

Britain and the United States bombed Berlin, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Mainz, Nuremberg, Worms, Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden, and a host of other cities into rubble; firestorms left behind charred bodies and melted glass. “We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burned to death, burning people running to and fro,” said a survivor who, unlike so many others in Dresden, was not roasted or asphyxiated in the underground shelter where he had waited out the attack.

W. G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction describes the sequence of bombs that struck Hamburg on July 27, 1943 — first the huge explosives that smashed up the city, then the lighter incendiaries that ignited the upper stories while firebombs torched the lower levels of the wreckage: “Within a few minutes, huge fires were burning all over the target area, which covered some twenty square kilometers, and they merged so rapidly that only a quarter of an hour after the first bombs had dropped the whole airspace was a sea of flames as far as the eye could see.” Some 80 percent of the historic buildings of Germany were destroyed; the rubble was said to amount to 14 billion cubic feet, a number that, like the weight and number of bombs, is so large as to be incomprehensible.

Though Germany was ravaged like this over and over again, the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945, is considered the most destructive act of the war; it resulted in the death of more than a hundred thousand people, the evisceration of a vast city, and what was likely the largest man-made firestorm in history. Four more Japanese cities were similarly firebombed before the atomic bombs were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August. For the moment, the world returned to the enviable condition of having no nuclear weapons. (The only other bomb built by that point had been exploded before dawn a month earlier in New Mexico.) Japan was left in the unenviable condition of having little left for anyone to bomb. Nineteen forty-five is sometimes designated Year Zero.

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