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King Charles’s visit to Hamburg, which has been devastated by allied bombing, is much more than a photo opportunity

Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

When you take the long view at UK-German relations, this part of the king’s trip is at least as important and meaningful as his appointments in the German capital. Those who criticise royal visits as constituting little more than expensive photo-ops fail to understand that not all symbolism is empty.

On Friday, the king will visit St Nikolai church in the centre of Hamburg and lay a wreath there with the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The symbolic importance of this ceremony can hardly be overstated. The church is a landmark of the city dating back to the middle ages. After a fire in 1842, it was rebuilt by the English architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, who also built the Albert Memorial and the Foreign Office in London. In the otherwise very close, historic relationship between Hamburg and Great Britain, St Nikolai is a reminder of their darkest moment. During the devastating bombing of Hamburg in July 1943 by allied forces, the church was damaged beyond repair.

This attack, code-named Operation Gomorrah in reference to the biblical story of Genesis, when God decided to punish the sinners of Gomorrah by making it rain fire from the sky, is to this day etched into Hamburg’s collective memory under a different name: “the fire storm”.

Between 25 July and 3 August 1943, the Royal Air Force flew a series of four night raids against Hamburg as part of its wider strategy of “area bombing” German cities. The aim was to demoralise the working-class part of the population, to cripple the armaments industry that was central to the German war effort, and to bring civilian life to a halt. The US air force joined the attack with two daylight air raids mainly against targets in the harbour. The greatest damage was not done by the bombs themselves, but the conflagration they caused on the ground.

According to conservative estimates, at least 34,000 people died during this short series of attacks. Hamburg was largely reduced to rubble and nearly a million people fled the city. Among the victims of the attacks were thousands of forced labourers from central and eastern Europe who had been deported by the Nazis to Hamburg for work and who, like the remaining Jews in the city, were not allowed to take cover in the air raid shelters. After the attack, entire districts of Hamburg were walled off and declared as “death zones”. The Nazis then forced inmates of the nearby Neuengamme concentration camp to find and defuse unexploded bombs, clear the rubble, and remove and bury the dead bodies. Hundreds of them died during this extremely dangerous and traumatic mission.

It is impossible to study the eyewitness reports from the summer of 1943 without feeling a sense of horror. But it would be deeply irresponsible to forget the context in which the attacks took place. This is why the ruin of St Nikolai is today a memorial not only to those who suffered in Hamburg in 1943, but to all victims of the war Germany started and fought with brutal disregard for civilian life, exterminating vast parts of the Jewish population in Europe and bombing cities such as Warsaw, London or Coventry without mercy.

The exhibition situated in the vault of St Nikolai explains this context, as well as the strategy of the Royal Air Force leadership under Air Marshal Arthur Harris, who hoped that area bombing would make a decisive difference towards winning the war – a victory that was anything but certain in 1943. It also includes testimonies from some of the British airmen on duty, many of whom feared for their own lives during the mission. The pilots and aircrew bombing German cities ran an extremely high risk of being shot down or crashing. More than 55,000 of them died during the war.

King Charles has been involved in furthering UK-German reconciliation for decades, as was his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth II. During his last visit to Hamburg, as Prince of Wales in 1995, he visited the mass grave at Ohlsdorf cemetery, where thousands of the victims of Operation Gomorrah are buried.

This time, the King will come in his new role as head of state, in a year that marks the 80th anniversary of a specific allied attack against Hamburg. The visit shows that the war is now so firmly in the past, and the relationship between Britain and Germany so close, that the King and the German president can afford to rise above the political controversies that have complicated the remembrance of the bombing campaigns in both countries for decades.

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In the UK, the strategy of area bombing has been criticised from its inception, especially in church circles, while its supporters argued that it was necessary to weaken an exceedingly dangerous enemy. In Germany, the political far right has repeatedly tried to capture and weaponise the memory of the air war in a transparent and revolting attempt to weigh the suffering of civilians against Nazi Germany’s guilt for the war and the Holocaust.

It takes courage to remember. Facing up to historic reality in all its painful complexity is not the same as attributing blame or seeking absolution. To explain and understand is not to excuse or condemn. When you enter St Nikolai today, the first thing you see is a Cross of Nails, a gift from Coventry Cathedral, together with a plaque from the citizens of Hamburg, remembering the dead and emphasising that they “do not forget the harm caused by their own madness”. For the king to join in this remembrance is a very significant, and much appreciated thing to do. At a time when many politicians all over the world like to pick and choose from history with the sole aim of suiting their narratives, it matters.

Helene von Bismarck is a historian specialised in UK-German relations. She lives in Hamburg.

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