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Darmstadt's 9/11

Americans traveling to the German city of Darmstadt on September 11th are sometimes surprised to hear all the bells of the city being rung.  While they may at first assume this is a kind gesture of solidarity with the United States, remembering the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, in fact the bells commemoriate something altogether different.

On September 11, 1944, the RAF unleashed a devastating firebomb attack on Darmstadt.  Out of a population of 110,000, 12,300 were killed and 66,000 were rendered homeless.  The attack on Darmstadt was an experimental run for the even more horrific firebombing of Dresden that followed.

Darmstadt was not supposed to be the target that night.  The RAF's original plan was to firebomb Mannheim, which had a larger number of war-related industries.  Heavy cloud cover over Mannheim, however, would have prevented the reconnaissance pilots from seeing and reporting on the damage from the bombing, so the decision was made to divert the mission to Darmstadt, which had clearer skies, even though it offered few targets of military significance.

The people of Darmstadt were not wholly innocent, by any means.  Their city had enthusiastically embraced Nazism.  Theirs had been the first city in Germany to ban Jewish-owned shops.  Very early in the war, they rounded up their city's small Jewish population and sent them to the death camps.  Yet, the bombing did little to damage the Nazi war effort. Darmstadt's 9/11 ordeal - which was far more horrific than New York's, in terms of lives lost and property destroyed - was in fact for no other purpose than to help the Allies learn how to coordinate the placement of incendiary and conventional bombs, so as to create a firestorm on the ground that destroyed all before it.

The Darmstadt story helps put the 9/11/01 story in perspective.