Devastation of the Reich by total warfare was alone enough to cast serious doubt on Germany’s postwar ability to survive.

Never before in history have the life-sustaining resources of a nation been so thoroughly demolished. Returning from victory in Europe, General Bradley declared, “I can tell you that Germany has been destroyed utterly and completely.”[1]

The demand for unconditional surrender had forced the desperate Germans to fight to the bitter end, until their cities had been pulverized into death-ridden rubble and their factories, railroads, canals, dams, power installations, communications, buildings, homes – all their exposed facilities – had been converted into heaps of twisted, smouldering ruins.

Allied fervor to destroy everything German had been expressed by General Eisenhower with the opening of the Ruhr drive. “Our primary purpose,” he declared, “is destruction of as many Germans as possible. I expect to destroy every German west of the Rhine and within that area in which we are attacking.”[2]

Allied capacity to destroy became overwhelming after the American industrial colossus had been converted from peace-time to war production. American output soon surpassed that of all other belligerents in the war combined and became twice as great as the capacity of the doomed Axis.[3]

Stunned by American power, Hermann Göring confessed to his Nuremberg prison guards: “The industrial genius of America is something of which no one dreamed.”

A glimpse of America’s smashing force when devoted to the grim business of mass production of death and destruction is provided by the following description written by a front line war correspondent: “A cataclysmic blast of exploding, splintering steel rent the earth before us and it seemed like the world was coming to an end.

“The Americans were blasting out a path for a forward drive.

“Man and beast shuddered in their tracks. Whole towns were disintegrating. Life seemed to disappear from the scene. It was the most terrifying destructive force of warfare Germany has ever seen. And it was a symbol of what was to come as the U.S. 1st Army unloosed this shattering blow within the borders of Germany. “For an hour and a half more than 2,000 bombers and hundreds of guns pounded the German countryside, making the earth dance before this mighty man-made force. When the heavies and mediums were not making the earth quake for miles around, our massed artillery was giving them hell out there. They were firing at an average rate of one round every 15 seconds, blasting every conceivable obstacle in our path. Minefields went up as though touched off by an electric switch… “In the center of that frightful scene, the Germans were entrenched as a ‘human wall.’ They were dug in foxholes and inside houses of ‘fortified towns.’ Many died without knowing what had hit them.

“Having seen brave men and wild beasts crack as they do sometimes in the grip of a terrible earthquake, I could have sworn there would be no opposition when the zero hour came.

“Yet, when our tanks and doughboys went over the top after the barrage, as in the battle of Verdun, there were Germans still alive and they fought us with violence.”[4]

Great though it was, the destruction resulting from ground fighting pales in comparison with that caused by our gigantic air raids. The two atom bombs dropped on Japan may have been more dramatic, but they could hardly have been more destructive than the millions of phosphorous, fire, and “blockbuster” bombs dropped on Germany. Near the end we were using 11-tonners which crews said caused their planes to bounce up over 500 feet when the huge 25-foot missiles were released, sending up “a tremendous pall of black smoke and a fountain of debris” which “dwarfed the terrific explosions of the six-ton ‘earthquake’ bombs.”

During the war, more bombs by weight were dropped on Berlin alone than were released over the whole of England. So great was the ruin that General Eisenhower was constrained to say: “I have seen many great engineering jobs during the war – such as the clearing of the port of Cherbourg – but I just wouldn’t know where to begin to rebuild Berlin.”[5]

An American writer, among the first group of correspondents allowed to spend more than 24 hours in the smashed metropolis, wrote:
“The capital of the Third Reich is a heap of gaunt, burned-out, flame-seared buildings. It is a desert of a hundred thousand dunes made up of brick and powdered masonry. Over this hangs the pungent stench of death . . . It is impossible to exaggerate in describing the destruction . . . Downtown Berlin looks like no thing man could have contrived. Riding down the famous Frankfurter Allee, I did not see a single building where you could have set up a business of even selling apples.”[6]

All German cities above 50,000 population and many smaller ones were from 50 to 80 percent destroyed. Dresden, as large as Pittsburgh, was wiped out and nearly all of its 620,000 inhabitants buried under the ruins.[7] Cologne, with a population of 750,000, was turned into a gigantic wasteland. Hamburg, with its 1,150,000 people, was blasted by huge attacks, in one of which the flames rolled a mile into the sky and roasted alive hundreds of thousands of civilians in street temperatures of a thousand degrees. Frankfurt-on-Main, a city of 500,000, was reduced to a mass of rubble. All cities and industrial areas, such as the Ruhr and Saar regions, were laid waste.[8]

The story of Kassel typifies the tragedy which befell the others: “Three hundred times the people of Kassel ran terrified to their air-raid shelters as giant British and American planes dropped their bombs. Nearly 10,000 were killed in the first terrible bombing, the night of October 22, 1943. That was largely an incendiary attack, which set the whole center of the city afire. Thousands were killed in their air-shelters by the gas fumes from great piles of burning coal, never knowing why they felt sleepy, never awakening.

“From that night on they never knew when; they just knew they were doomed. Sometimes they got only a few bombs; often raiding parties which couldn’t reach objectives farther east around Berlin picked Kassel on the way home. “Occasionally swarms of planes went directly overhead and nothing happened; other times they went overhead, and when the people of Kassel thought they were going on eastward, they wheeled around and came back to drop their powerful tons of TNT.

“They got so they knew all the tricks, those that remained in Kassel. Steadily their town was beaten down upon their heads . . . Less than 15,000 of their 65,000 homes remained livable. They learned how to dig in, to escape the coal fumes, the fires. Somehow, I thought it was with just a touch of pride that the Burgomeister said, ‘And then our latest raid, March 8 and 9, 1945. It was by far the biggest. Perhaps a thousand big bombers, one of the biggest raids in all Germany; and we lost very few killed – less than 100.’ “‘And then, just before Easter, we heard the American armies were coming and wanted to make Kassel an open city,’ said Helga Aspen, a pretty blond girl who stayed through it all. ‘But,’ she added bitterly, ‘the Fuehrerhauptquartier (Himmler) gave orders to defend to the last man.’ “And so Kassel, beaten by 300 air-raids, must know the crashing of American artillery fire. They gathered about 6,000 civilians in a deep bunker in the center of town and waited – as the rather inept German defense units gradually were driven back.

“So, on April 4, 1945, Kassel surrendered, not more than 15,000 of its 250,000 still in the the city and living. Thousands lay buried under the countless tons of brick and mortar and twisted steel that had been dwellings and stores and factories. “That was a year ago and it’s no exaggeration to say that they are still dazed. Only a few have snapped out of their stupor to become real leaders. It is not uncommon to see a person burst into helpless tears, if the conversation turns to recounting the war terror.”[9]

This wholesale destruction of the cities and production facilities of the most highly industrialized nation in Europe was successful from a strictly military point of view; however, it was also an attack against the livelihood of millions of workers, for the wrecking of factories and machines is also destruction of jobs, the basic means of life. Some of Germany’s jobless millions have found temporary employment in clearing rubble and similar work. But genuine reconstruction is impossible without production of vast amounts of building materials and new equipment, neither of which can be produced in Germany today, because the necessary facilities no longer exist. It takes factories and machines Germany lacks to build the factories and machines Germany needs.

To get the German economy off this dead center demands external assistance. And meanwhile the people, unable to produce the necessities of life for themselves, must either be allowed to die in masses or be given outside help until recovery has gone far enough to enable them once more to take care of themselves.

Reference Notes:

[1] Associated Press, New York, June 3, 1945
[2] J. Kingsbury Smith, Paris, Feb. 24, 1945, [INS]
[3] Cf. address by Donald M. Nelson, Chr. U.S. Production Board, Toronto, Canada. July 8, 1943;
James D. White, Chicago Daily News [AP], May 7, 1945; and Chicago Sunday Tribune, Sept. 22,
1946, reporting statement by Troyer S. Anderson, War Dept. Historian.
[4] Henry T. Gorrell [UP], Chicago Daily News, Nov. 17, 1944
[5] Associated Press, London, June 11, 1945
[6] Eddie Gilmore [AP], Berlin, June 9, 1945
[7] United Press, London, Feb. 14, 1945 and Associated Press, London, March 5, 1945
[8] Associated Press, London, March 24, 1945
[9] Jack Bell, Chicago Daily News Foreign Service, Kassel, Germany, May 15, 1946.

Back to Devastation of Reich

Back to section