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Germany, the war, and why we like life in Benicia

by Steve McKee on May 24, 2009

The movie “Valkyrie” got me thinking about what might have been.  That’s the true story about the German officers who tried to kill Adolph Hitler in early 1944 in order to stop the war before their entire country was destroyed. Their plan required Hitler’s death because only then would the nation be freed from the oath of allegiance they had all individually sworn to that total whack job. A few days later I watched a related movie, a documentary on the carpet-bombing of Germany, and the two movies combined to stir me up pretty good.

It’s maddening to realize how close the coup attempt came to success and then to ponder what might have been if we hadn’t had that extra year of complete violence and destruction. All those cities not bombed into rubble. Millions of lives saved, soldier and civilian alike, including little Anne Frank (to put a face on just one of these lives.) If only Tom Cruise – I mean von Stauffenberg – had added more explosive to that damn briefcase!

Approaching the cathedral at Koln

Two years ago, during more flush economic times, Melody and I got to drive around Germany during our “Amsterdam to Prague and everything in between” trip of July 2007. I found Germany to be a surprisingly comfortable country, despite the language gulf. The people there seemed to be operating on a wavelength that felt somehow familiar. Just a subliminal thing for me, I suppose.

Even the autobahn felt strangely comfortable and easy to use, very much in the scale of the freeways back home, right down to the sensible offramps and interchanges (far easier to understand and use than the Italian ones.) Just make sure you don’t hangout in the fast lane unless you’re willing to drive like a bat out of hell, especially if you’re in a low-performance Dutch rental car, because you’re sure to receive high beam flashes from fast moving Audis coming up behind you.

We saw castles and churches and all sorts of cool old things, but we also noticed that German cities hundreds of years old had lots of run-of-the-mill twentieth century architecture. Of course it was the damn war that wiped out centuries worth of cultural assets. There were historic buildings remaining here and there among the city fabric, but mostly it was all pretty much like downtown Hayward, as if the guy that designed all those two-story Woolworth drugstores from the 1950’s got to do a whole country. What helped soften this modern influx was that the historic pattern of winding streets and city squares still existed.

It was on Netflix that I recently sought out the documentary “Firestorm” about the aerial bombing campaign that Britain and the US waged against German cities. The film showed fly-over views of vast cities completely in ruin, mile after mile of rubble with jagged wall fragments protruding upwards like shards in some sort of hellish urban badlands. The amount of work that must have been required to recover from this destruction staggered me. I remembered all those fixer-upper houses in Vallejo that my brother and I personally labored to restore during the 1990’s and all the work we put into each. I can tell you that a significant amount of toil goes into transforming even one fairly intact but dumpy house into something worth occupying. In those images of Germany in 1945 I saw that toil magnified a million times over. Block after block after block of devastation.

At the start of the war the concept of “carpet bombing” didn’t even exist, but by the war’s final year it had been honed into a favorite tactic by the guys who get to decide such things. However wide of a path of destruction they wanted to achieve, they just made sure the planes flew in a formation that was the width of that path. Apparently if a German city had a factory worth destroying, then it was worth it to destroy the city. The demoralization of the enemy was a stated goal. One pilot described the bombing of Berlin like dragging a “giant rake” through the center of the city and it pleased him. Who can blame him for feeling this way, given that Berlin was Hitler’s headquarters and Hitler had so happily started it all by bombing London? If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

The city of Dresden had some factories, but those factories didn’t seem to be targeted when the city center was firebombed in February of 1945. Despite its very limited strategic value, the “Paris of the East” was somehow deemed necessary for destruction at a time when the outcome of the war had already been decided. A second raid was timed for three hours after the first because doing so would maximize the disruption of the firefighters trying to save the city. The result: the elimination of one of the cultural jewels of the world and about 30,000 dead, give or take.

As bad as it must have been to be living in Germany and having your city bombed into ruin, it had to have been worse to just-so-happen to live on the east side of Germany and have your city bombed into ruin and then watch your once culturally vital city get filled up over the years with Soviet style apartment blocks. The examples of this that Melody and I saw while driving by the city of Chemnitz were pretty dystopian. (I’ve been waiting years to use that word.)

In Benicia we get to live in a time and place where we can spend our energy caring about such things as whether or not to restore some piece of building trim the size of a ruler, or what kind of window finishes are best in the historic district. And that’s a good thing, because at the other extreme is watching entire cities destroyed overnight. A good thing indeed.

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