It is not easy to imagine what an entire city on fire must look like. It would be easier to imagine what Hell itself looks like: more than two millennia of referential material survive to aid in painting that mental portrait. Perusing Dante, or staring wide-eyed at a tableau of Hieronymus Bosch, even turning one’s ear to the apocalyptic blare and bleating of any dime-a-dozen Evangelical can give one at least an inkling of this. The word itself has been cheapened almost beyond practical use: “go to Hell,” “to Hell with it,” “what the Hell.” It is as if, as the preacher in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man explains it, the eternal punishment of brimstone were a mild discomfort. Not so: Hell is stench, Hell is immobility, Hell is an eternity of directionless torture, and by eternity is meant the elapsed time it takes for a sparrow to light upon a mountain of a million-billion grains of sand and, carrying one away in his beak, to make it flat.
I began this series of articles with the preconceived notion that Fimbulwinter, the mighty winter before the cataclysmic battle Ragnarok as depicted in the Poetic Edda, was the prelude to a sort of Golden Age, as nearly every apocalypse is in Christo-Indo-European narrative. The fire-raked ground puts out new shoots, a man and a woman survive in the viscera of an ark, or drinking the morning dew enclosed safely in a tree-trunk, as the world around them vanishes. Therein lies the significance of the repeated title I have attributed to this series: the prelude to apocalypse, and apocalypse itself, contain the seeds of a future purpose to be sown. Whether that be repopulation, or rebuilding, I thought there would be always a blissfully ignorant restorative element involved, ignorant because the purpose of the post-diluvian world would be understood in and of itself. The past, grimly grinning and sate with catastrophe, would fade out of the frame with a calmly acquiescent bow of the head.
That is naïve.
The past does not suffer itself to be halted from clawing its bewitched runes over us, like voces magicae; the past only shuts up when it is bombed out of existence. An entire city on fire is Hell; Hell is real, and we can build it for ourselves if we want. We can drop it from bomb bays. This was Hamburg in July 1943, when British and American bombers attempted to deliver a coup-de-grace to the German war effort.
Wolf Biermann, then six-and-a-half years old, and his mother first greeted the RAF bombers with jubilation; Biermann’s father, being doubly a Communist and a Jew, had been murdered in Auschwitz mere months before. The roar of their engines was reassuring to the young boy; “Die allierten Bomber waren unsere Freunde,” or, “The Allied bombers were our friends,” he said in an interview published in Der Spiegel in 2003, exactly 60 years and one day after the fact. Some of these bombers carried the 4,000-lb. “cookie” bombs, while others were carrying the 8,000-lb. “blockbusters.” On the night of the first bombing (the raids cumulatively lasted over a week), the British bomber pilots also dropped small propaganda leaflets over the erstwhile Hanseatic countryside. These leaflets, soaked in the crews’ own urine, proclaimed in austere black typeface “Die Festung Europa hat kein Dach,” or, “Fortress Europe has no roof.” You are ours, it said, to pick off, like at a duck-hunt.
The unseasonably dry weather and the expert precision of the British bombing led, once the British began discharging their incendiary ordnance, to a fire that burned at a temperature close to 3,000 ºF. For every square kilometer of the city, the RAF dropped 96,429 stick incendiaries and 2,733 incendiary bombs. The resulting conflagration choked the air around it, putrefying it like St. George’s dragon, until it was unbreathable, displaced by a cloud of smoke and carbon monoxide that blew nearly 10,000 feet over the city, and which, according to eyewitnesses in the RAF bombers above, smelled like burning human flesh. On the ground, rationed coal stockpiles erupted in white-burning fires so hot they melted windows. It would be as if the metal belly of a glass furnace had cracked open, and vomited up its molten entrails until the whole world was drowned, up to its neck and naphtha-reeking. Hell hath enlarged its soul and opened its mouth without limits.
The testimony of Wolf Biermann reads:
“Wo Asphalt war, da brannte und kochte der. Ich sah zwei Frauen, eine jüngere und eine ältere, die rannten quer über den Asphalt und blieben mit ihren Schuhen stecken, im kochenden Asphalt, sie zogen ihre Füße aus den Schuhen raus – was aber irgendwie unpraktisch war, weil sie dann mit den Füßen in den kochenden Asphalt treten mussten. Und die sanken um und blieben liegen. Wie Fliegen im heißen Wachs einer Kerze.”
“Where there was asphalt, it burned, and it boiled. I saw two women, one younger and one older, who were running across the asphalt and who got their shoes stuck in the boiling asphalt: they pulled their feet out of their shoes, but that was a bad idea, since they then needed to walk on the boiling asphalt with their feet. They sank down and did not get up. Like flies in the hot wax of a candle.”
Wanda Chantler, a Polish woman interned as a forced laborer at a barracks in Hamburg, recalled digging through the ruins of her erstwhile dormitory after the July 24 raid, looking for traces of the more than 100 other girls who had shared bunkbeds with her there. Forcing through debris, she found, crumpled among the jagged edges of the collapsed masonry and molten metal, bits of charred human flesh – a hand there, a limb there – as the wounded cried helplessly about her. Digging further, she pulled a wooden board out of the mess, on which five human eyes stood lined perfectly straight, lidless, blankly, coldly open. Chantler suffered a complete nervous breakdown a few days later.
Hurricane force winds tore babies from their mothers’ arms and into the cavernous maw of the firestorm. Biermann called the cacophony of bombs the “Geräuschkulisse” of the “Weltuntergang,” the soundscape of the apocalypse. The bombs, he said, exploded and sucked the sound out of the air around their impact radius, being perceived as soundless, ear-splitting vibrations, as if great, invisible bubbles of thunder were pricked with pins, and popped. Those who sought shelter in wine-cellars and basements either perished in the intense heat of the flames licking at their concrete cages, or else suffocated from the poisonous fumes. Hans Erich Nossack was told nonchalantly by a survivor cleaning up the mess of the bombings that 30 corpses now lay in what had been his basement; in some of these doomed subterranean refuges, the piles of corpses were so high that doors could not be opened by would-be rescuers. More than 40,000 people died. An equivalent number were wounded. Nearly all of the city’s approximately 1,000,000 inhabitants were rendered homeless.
In the following days and nights, the signs of the times grew only stranger. The night’s uncanny and incendiary brightness was smothered in the smoke-cloud blackening the vault of heaven, so that day was like night, and night day. Those who ventured out brought back unimaginably strange reports, and these spread across the Hamburg-wasteland like a heaving carpet of maggots. A one-eyed stallion was seen friskily playing with a mare from the bombed-out zoo, and an escaped Siberian tiger was shot out of necessity in the streets. Hans Erich Nossack, a dramatist, author and man of letters, reported a pair of uncommonly large seagull-like birds, one pure black, the other pure white, flying in alternating circles over the ruins. The bundles of wire and chaff that littered the streets, dropped by the British bombers to confuse the German flak radar, were rumored to be poisoned. RAF bombers, petrified in the glacial chill of the North Sea aether, reported illusions of blue flames shooting off every ice-coated surface of their airplanes.
The apocalypse is the only reference point as such; I do not call doing so hyperbole. When observing the first night of the bombing, as the target-marker flares fell like fallen angels, Hans Erich Nossack observed with horror in his recollection of the events, entitled Der Untergang, two uprooted pine trees behind him:
“Ich wandte mich erschrocken um, und da sah ich, daß selbst die Natur im Haß gegen sich selbst aufgestanden war. Zwei stammlose Kiefern hatten den friedlichen Bann ihres Daseins durchbrochen und sich in schwarze Wölfe verwandelt, die gierig nach der blutenden Mondsichel sprangen, die vor ihnen aufging. Die Augen leuchteten weiß und Geifer troff ihnen aus den gefletschten Mäulern.”
“I turned around horrified, and I saw there, that even Nature itself had risen up in hate against itself. Two rootless pine trees had broken through the peaceable spell of their beings and transformed into black wolves that greedily leapt up at the bleeding moon sickle which was rising before them. Their eyes shined white, and slobber struck them from their bared jaws.”
The sky is falling, night is day, the wolf Fenrir is consuming the moon whole.
I have no idea how to approach apocalypse from such a safe distance. Nossack, a firsthand witness, had even less to go off by his own admission: the prevailing mood in Hamburg, contrary to what the Nazi brass might have desired, was scarcely one of vengeance against the “Luftpiraten” or “Mordbrenner,” the air-pirates and murder-burners. He spoke of a dark, hidden yearning, to watch his home city burn, to get everything over with, to see “the worst” come and go, to rid the fire-bound atmosphere of its awful, dense pregnancy. Maybe Nossack meant a longing for the absolution of absolute punishment, to be wrenched to the edge of the abyss and pulled back at the last moment. Man and machine became indistinguishable when one looked up to heights of 20,000 feet from the ground.
“Eine viel tiefere Einsicht in die Dinge verbot uns, an einen Feind zu denken, der dies alles verursacht haben sollte; auch er war uns höchstens ein Werkzeug unkennbarer Mächte, die uns zu vernichten wüsnchten.”
“A much deeper insight into the matters forbade us from thinking of an Enemy who was to have caused all this; at most even he was a tool of unknowable powers that wanted to destroy us.”
In the same vein, Sir Arthur Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, could not help evoking the Old Testament:
“The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”
The RAF Bomber Command named the attacks on Hamburg “Operation Gomorrah,” after the infamous incident in the Bible of the city annihilated by the Hand of God. Thus man hides himself in the steel belly of a four-engined monster and equates himself with God, so much so that the Germans he is coating in the evil, boiling phosphorous can scarcely conceive of him in any other way. Somehow a British pilot is blotting out the names in the Book of Life; he is the one casting the unrighteous haphazardly into an urban lake of fire, not God.
Apocalypse does not belong to God anymore. Hell can be manmade; but even this Fimbulwinter in high summer breaks. The clouds open up, the smoke dissipates, rain falls. When Hans Erich Nossack returned to the site of his home from a summer cottage, finding it vanished, having burnt to cinders in the first five minutes of the first bombing raid, he still found a battered, dark red rose, growing defiantly in the ashes.