Research on Operation Gomorrha 1943The Bombs, Their Meaning, and the Consequences Today
24 July 2023, by Newsroom editorial office
Photo: Erinnerungswerk Hamburger Feuersturm / private Eduard Engel
Many contemporary witnesses documented Hamburg’s destruction in private photo albums.
In World War II, National Socialist Germany brought death and destruction to the world. The Allies also bombed German cities. Eighty years ago, large swaths of Hamburg were destroyed between 24 July and 3 August. Hendrik Althoff is a research associate in the German History research area who has done research on how we commemorate and still remember Operation Gomorrha.
Operation Gomorrha took play 80 years ago. The people who can still tell about the events were very young at the time. What do their memories add to academic research?
In fact, many of the contemporary witnesses have astonishingly detailed memories of the war. Yet the researchers’ goal, for example as part of the interview project Erinnerungswerk Hamburger Feuersturm (“Remembering the Hamburg Firestorm”), was less about gaining further insight into the events of the period, which of course have been extensively studied; for them, the most interesting issue is how contemporary witnesses recall World War II and how they now interpret it.
What findings are especially notable?
Most of those interviewed see themselves as contemporary witnesses to the war, but not to National Socialism. Instead, they remember their childhood and youth as a politics-free arena; they noted little to nothing of the National Socialist regime and the persecution of Jews. This may be because their parents successfully shielded them but feelings of guilt and repression may also be important factors. Only a few reflected critically in their later lives upon their socialization under dictatorship, or their activities in Nazi youth organizations.
It is precisely this way of dealing with their own biographies that make the interviews, from an historical perspective, so informative—not with a view to National Socialism but rather to its “second history:” the critical response to the dictatorship in the years afterwards.
This goes beyond the historical perspective, right?
Because the interviews also focus on the family situations at the time and the later biographies, they are, from a psychological perspective, extremely interesting. How did people with these disruptive, frequently traumatic war experiences deal with them later? What determines whether someone can successfully process these experiences or whether they still cause psychological distress today? We can study these questions broadly in detailed conversations. In the future, other research questions may arise. This makes it even more important to archive the recorded memories at the Research Center for Contemporary History in Hamburg (FZH) and to make them accessible.
In many of the conversations, the need to speak was palpable.
How do you, as a researcher, approach interviews with people who continue to struggle with the events?
The conversations are based on guidelines but should not be too rigid. The goal was always to let the contemporary witnesses speak freely. In most cases, that worked really well because in many families they had not really spoken about their war-time experiences. The parents did not want to burden their children while the children did not ask because they did not want to trigger painful memories. Now there was the possibility of telling someone who was interested about the past in detail—and in many of the conversations, the need to speak was palpable.
Because that was, of course, the biggest hurdle for people, all of the interviews were conducted by psychotherapists especially sensitive to the topic of distressing memories.
What details of the destruction have been established by research?
Between 24 July and 3 August 1943, Hamburg was the target of major bomb attacks by the Allies. The British Royal Air Force bombarded primarily residential areas over 5 nights and the US air forces bombarded the harbor and armaments industry located there in 2 day-time operations.
A total of 8,500 tons of explosives and firebombs were dropped onto Hamburg. The loss of infrastructure is by now well-established: 277,330 apartments, 580 industrial operations, 24 hospitals, and 58 schools were destroyed. The most destructive attack was launched by the British Air Force in the night of 27 July, when more than 700 bombers attacked the districts east of the city’s center. Here, the so-called “firestorm” killed roughly 30,000 people. The exact number of fatalities in Operation Gomorrha can no longer be determined but it is somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000.
How has the remembrance of Operation Gomorrha changed since the end of the war?
In contrast to the frequent silence within families, the bombing was always very present in Hamburg’s public sphere, commemorated extensively by politicians and journalists. Interpretations have changed dramatically, however, over the years.
Even during the war itself, National Socialist propaganda painted the bombing as a unifying test of strength of the NS “Volk.” Remembrance took on a kind of heroic narrative until well into the post-war years: Hamburg was the “unflinching city” arising from the ashes of the “terror attacks” and had thus proven its perseverance. In the peace movement of the 1980s, the bombing was seen as terrifying symbol of modern war and its devastating consequences, especially for civilians.
Both interpretations usually ignored the historical and political context of the attacks. It was only in the 1990s that the view that Operation Gomorrha was a direct result of National Socialist dictatorship and the German war of destruction prevailed. This awareness is also crucial to the way we remember the attacks today—and give voice to the previously unheard voices of marginalized groups, for example, forced laborers and concentration camp inmates who had to recover the dead and deactivate blind shells after the attacks.
Where in Hamburg today—also beyond the well-known memorials—can you find the traces of those days?
Many of the bunkers built in Hamburg after 1940 are preserved throughout all of Hamburg. Many buildings have plaques that commemorate the rebuilding after the bombings. To a certain extent, however, the entire Hamburg landscape can be seen as a decentralized memorial—from the rebuilding of entire districts such as Hammerbrook and the newly built through-street through the city center to the green areas of the new Altona. Precisely because the bomb destruction in Hamburg was and still is so omnipresent, Operation Gomorrha has always played a special role in the city’s historical conscious.
Hendrik Althoff is a research associate in German History at the Faculty of Humanities. He is doing research in the project Überlebende Orte? Das Grundeigentum jüdischer Gemeinden zwischen Raub und Restitution (1930–1960), which is being funded by the German Research Association. From 2019 to 2022, he coordinated the interview project Erinnerungswerk Hamburger Feuersturm at the Adolf-Ernst-Meyer-Institut für Psychotherapie and is co-editor, with Ulrich Lamparter and Christa Holstein, of the book Hamburg im Feuersturm. Die Bombenangriffe vom Juli 1943 in der Erinnerung von Überlebenden und im Gedächtnis der Stadt, published by Junius-Verlag in 2023. In 2022, he received the Hamburg Teaching Prize for his course on reading and understanding textual sources, Keine Angst vor dem Archiv—Textquellen lesen und verstehen in the Department of History.