Cajus Bekker: The Luftwaffe War Diaries

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This is a great read from several perspectives. First, it's an easy way to get acquainted with World War II as fought by the Germans against Russia, Britain, and the United States. Bekker gives you just enough of the land and sea war for the air war to make sense; the result is a narrative of WWII in Europe in less than 400 pages.

Second, there's no official or semi-official history of the German military in WWII. (The Japanese aren't nearly so modest. Their semi-official histories are extremely detailed and would fill a fairly large bookcase. Because the Japanese language is so inaccessible, however, the existence of these studies goes mostly unremarked in the west.) Herr Bekker was a popular historian, along the lines of Cornelius Ryan, and he filled this historical gap as it pertains to the German air force with the publication of Angriffshoehe 4000 in 1964. The book was translated and published by Doubleday in 1968 as The Luftwaffe War Diaries: The German Air Force in World War II. There's a foreword by General Paul Deichmann of the wartime Luftwaffe, so I reckon that Bekker's version of the air war met with the approval of the Germans who fought it.

Finally, Bekker is immensely proud of the Luftwaffe, and he doesn't try to disguise the German war effort as something confined to "the Nazis," as is too often done by the heirs of those who won the war. Those were German tankers who crashed into Russia, and those were German pilots who fought the Battle of Britain, not some nasty aliens who took over the government and armed forces of Germany for the period 1939-1945. Our politically correct newspapers have a comical habit of attributing that whole unfortunate episode as the work of "the Nazi army." It wasn't so, and Bekker would be puzzled by our insistence upon this point.

Okay, that's the good stuff. Buy the book--read the book. But take note of some weaknesses:

It's neutral--oh, so neutral! Sometimes indeed you find yourself wondering why the Russian and the western Allies devoted so much effort to destroying this splendid war machine, the German Luftwaffe. I mean, what harm did it ever do? Bekker portrays the invasion of Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, and Holland as the most natural events imaginable, rather like an April shower.

German war crimes are waved away as inconsequential. Bekker devotes several pages to refuting the notion that the bombing of Rotterdam was a "terror raid," in the language of that comparatively innocent time. After all, he argues, the Dutch were actually defending Rotterdam, thereby disqualifying it as an "open city" (another quaint term from long ago). In any event, the bombing was entirely accidentally, and only 97 tons of bombs were dropped, and they were high explosives, not incendiaries. Any self-respecting German city would have had a professional fire department, but the Dutch still depended on volunteers, so, well, what did the Dutch expect? Rotterdam burned to the ground, and 900 people died. You can't possibly blame that on the German air force, can you?

And so it goes. When British fighter pilots overclaim, their optimism is portrayed as laughable; but when German fighter pilots overclaim, Bekker wonders whether the British are telling the truth about their losses. Luftwaffe victories are the result of wonderful machines, courageous aircrews, and brilliant planning; its defeats are the fault of Hitler and Goering. After a while this adolescent self-justification seems a bit tedious (and irritating, too, since many of Bekker's readers lack the background that would enable them to put it into perspective).

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