As a child I thought things were much more black or white. I was taught to believe that the Allies in WWII were in the right, so much so that I don't recall there being any discussion about alternative points of view. So when I went on an exchange to Austria as an immature 14 year old, probably the first time I'd ever been away from home alone, I was taken aback when the father of the family said to me "Of course you think everything you did during the war was a little bit right, but we think the things we did were a little bit right". I was so startled I couldn't reply. I assume, now, we were talking about bomb damage to Vienna but the lasting memory is the shock of what he said. I hadn't heard about Dresden in those days. I didn't for a long time.
Most of you know that I travel frequently between the UK and France, so I'm very familiar with the channel ports. Many towns and cities along the south coast of England suffered heavy bombing during the war, and as a result they have little left by way of historic buildings and have been rebuilt often without much thought for architectural merit.
The other side of the Channel, in France, is much the same. Le Havre is not a pretty place, either while approaching by road or by sea. It is a very industrial area, but if you go into the centre you find it has been completely rebuilt in a modernist style. It was declared one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites in 2005 for being an exceptional example of post-war town planning.
So why was Le Havre rebuilt? Because it was heavily bombed, by the Allied Forces. What I hadn't realised was that 85% of the city was destroyed between the 5 and 11 September 1944. According to some research done by the University of Reading, there was "a willingness by the British to ignore previously agreed principles about not targeting civilians in circumstances when military necessity appeared to require it." Apparently Churchill thought that killing a maximum of 10,000 French civilians might be acceptable leading up to D-Day, and sent out memos asking how many so that he could keep a running total. "How many Frenchmen did you kill?" was the question he asked Air Chief Marshall Tedder on 10 July 1944.
The city hall pictured on a stamp issued six months ago.
If the blurring between right and wrong seems bad enough there, we also need to consider that the French population being bombed had to have help from the German occupying forces. One of the organisations that helped was funded by the confiscation of Jewish goods.
We may often think things are worse today than they have ever been, but remember: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
University of Reading
London Review of Books