BERLIN - When the morning of March 12, 1945, dawned on the German resort city of Swinemuende, Leon Kolberg climbed out of his bunker and found himself in a city of the dead.
''A woman was walking down the street with one hand missing, the other holding a baby,'' said Kolberg, then a 14-year-old refugee. ''People were stacked on the foot paths, bodies everywhere. The buildings were gone. I got lost.''
The American bombers' diaries show that their targets that day were ships and rail lines in the city on the Baltic Sea. The Russians, only 12 miles away, had asked their American and British allies to aid their advance. Some 1,500 German soldiers were identified and buried after the raid, but most of the 23,000 people who were killed in 45 minutes of bombing were German refugees trying to flee the advancing Red Army.
Jorg Friedrich said German civilians were unjustly targeted. (KRT Photo)
''It is one of the great slaughters of the Second World War,'' said German historian Jorg Friedrich. ''Did children deserve to die? Or women?''
The country that slaughtered millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and Slavs has been hesitant to raise questions about its own people's suffering in a war that its Nazi leaders started. But Friedrich, whose earlier work focused on Nazi atrocities, has ignited a raucous debate with a new book that questions the morality of the Allied bombing of German cities in World War II.
The serialization of Friedrich's book, ''The Fire: Germany Under Bombardment, 1940-1945,'' in Bild, Germany's largest tabloid, has released a torrent of wartime reminiscences in German newspapers and television programs.
It also has unleashed protests elsewhere. Journalists in Britain, whose cities were pounded by Hitler's Luftwaffe and later by German V-1 ''buzz bombs'' and V-2 missiles, have taken particular umbrage at Friedrich's account of the deaths of 635,000 German civilians.
''I am not interested in blaming anyone,'' Friedrich said. ''I am interested in clearing up the facts.'' Yet his use of words such as ''massacre'' and ''crematorium'' were bound to raise hackles because they suggest that there is some moral equivalence between the Nazis' genocide and the Allies' military tactics.
Born in 1944, ''I am the generation of sons who questioned their parents,'' said Friedrich, whose schoolteacher father raised him in the Austrian mountains after their German city of Essen was bombed. ''We asked: `What happened in the war? Where were you in 1941 when the first Jews were deported? Who wrote for the Nazi papers?'''
Friedrich spent most of his career writing about the Nuremberg war crimes trials, Nazi guards, Nazi justice. For years he thought of the Allied bombs ''as something that came from the sky that punished the rotten and criminal kingdom of evil.''
Then he read the testimony at Nuremberg of a German general who defended shooting Belarus villagers who were suspected of helping the partisans, saying that was better than bombing indiscriminately.
Although the Nazis also bombed indiscriminately and their efforts to slaughter and starve Russian civilians are well-documented, Friedrich spent a decade pondering the German general's defense of his conduct as he researched the Allied firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg and the leveling of cities such as Cologne, Kassel, and Wurzburg.
''How can we deal with the fact that those massacres took place?'' he asked. ''Because it was a just cause? But are those just means?''
Friedrich argues that Allied air raids such as the one at Swinemuende, now part of Poland, were unnecessary, and reflect Allied rage at the Germans' refusal to capitulate.
There again he runs into criticism. Tami Davis Biddle, a historian at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said the Allies were desperate to knock out Hitler before he could develop new weapons, including an atomic bomb.
For years, historians have debated whether bombing German cities, particularly as the British did, was an effort to choke the Nazi war machine or to destroy German morale.
Biddle said a series of documents show that when the Allies targeted eastern German cities, they knew their bombs would fall on refugees as well as massing troops.
''Who is going to be in that population? It is going to be women and children. It is a statement of the desperation and the level of fear among the Allies that no one stops and says, `Wait a minute, maybe we should rethink this.'''
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