The First and the Last

first and last adolf gallandThe First and the Last: The Rise and Fall of the German Fighter Forces, 1938-1945 by Adolf Galland, translated by Mervyn Savill, 3/5

This memoir by Adolf Galland, a German fighter pilot and Luftwaffe General of Fighters during WWII, is undoubtedly an invaluable resource for the student of history, but I did not find it to be written in a particularly engaging manner.  The parts I found most interesting were those describing Galland’s personal encounters and conflicts with Hermann Göring and Hitler, with whom Galland had major disagreements over policies that focused on bombers to the detriment of the fighter wing, handicapped fighters by forcing them to operate defensively instead of offensively, and spread the air force’s assets too thinly.  Of course, Galland comes off rather well in the memoir, so it is difficult to tell what is accurate and what is embellished in retrospect (whether purposefully or not).

Like many others, I presume, my exposure to WWII was mostly of the sanitized, black and white version found in history textbooks.  It was thought-provoking to see the war from a different, more morally-ambiguous point of view.  Galland did not seem to experience any moral conflicts regarding Hitler’s actions; he may have doubted his führer’s method of conducting the war, but he didn’t raise any concerns about Hitler’s ideology.  Except in the case of his under-trained fighters being sent out on what amounted to suicide missions, his mindset was very much that of a faithful cog in the war machine, as was the case, I suspect, with the vast majority of people who fought and died for the Axis.

When I think of civilian casualties during WWII, the first thing that comes to mind is the London Blitz.  That chapter of England’s history is not unduly disturbing to me because 1) I [incorrectly] picture everyone hiding in bomb shelters while empty buildings take the brunt of the violence and 2) the Germans were the baddies and thus could be expected to target the civilian population.  This naive point of view was shattered when I read Galland’s account of the Allied bombing of German cities, in which hundreds of thousands of German civilians were killed (including thousands of children).  I always pictured collateral damage occurring only in the course of bombings of war factories and industries vital to sustaining the war effort.  I never pictured the “Good Guys” taking off to purposefully destroy cities and centers of culture, filled with normal people.  It’s always been my unthinking opinion that if a country is at war, it’s civilians are at war too, but this first-hand account was hard to stomach.

[Why I read it: my sister enjoyed it first.]


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