Whether you Win or Lose, Bombing Civilians is Complicated: Strategies of Explanation in the Canadian and German Documentaries ‘Death by Moonlight’ (1992) and ‘Feuersturm’ (2003)

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The depiction of the Second World War in historical documentaries tends to be relatively uncomplicated. For many, this is the only uncomplicated war. Taking American history as an illustrative example: the Revolutionary War was full of traitors and local populations who had to make deeply complicated decisions about whom they would support and when; ask any young man named Jefferson Davis today whether or not the American Civil War has a complicated place in American history; in the First World War, Americans attempted to trade with the Germans right up to their late decision to fight them; Korea was a stalemate, and Vietnam, two Iraqs and Afghanistan, have left few with the impression of a straightforward victory. The Second World War, by contrast, actually gave us good versus evil, with cartoonish villains.[1] The Allies were the good guys, the Axis were the bad guys. Documentaries about the Second World War usually get to bypass the handwringing one finds in films about other modern conflicts. But what happens when a World War Two documentary calls out the good guys and focuses on something no one is comfortable with, namely, Allied Bomber Command’s deliberate targeting of German civilians? For several years during the Second World War, combatants (Allied bomber crews) specifically targeted non-combatants (German civilians) and killed hundreds of thousands of them. That the unassailable heroes did something wrong makes for a complicated historical story, and therefore a difficult documentary. This paper sets up and analyzes an extreme comparison, exploring how two documentaries, from national perspectives on each side, tell this story: on the one hand we have the nation that perceives itself as one of the Whitest Hats of all time, Canada, depicting its bombing of civilians in the Second World War, and on the other hand we have the nation that self-identifies as the Blackest Hat of all time, Germany, dealing with the fact that its civilians were the victims of a war crime. After first laying out ‘what happened’ with regard to bombing in the Second World War, I will describe the Canadian attempt to depict the bombing in a 1992 documentary, and then a German documentary of 2003 which attempts the same. I will end by comparing and contrasting the two, and tease out what these documentaries might tell us about unmentionable history on film.