Dispatches from the Tail End of the European Civil War
In the London Telegraph, an article on the letters of Kurt Vonnegut begins, understandably enough, with the touchstone moment of Vonnegut's life, which the author would of course turn into the title subject of his book Slaughterhouse Five, and the subsequent big budget Hollywood movie version in the early-1970s. But this description of the Allies' bombing of Dresden in 1945 simply doesn't ring true:
The night before St Valentine’s Day 1945, Allied bombers flattened Dresden, once the capital of Saxony, where two centuries earlier Augustus the Strong’s porcelain menagerie had hooted and honked in his exquisitely inept impression of a Japanese palace on the Elbe, but where little of great importance was going on now.
The raid had no obvious strategic goals beyond the infliction of human and cultural hurt – when the Germans did similar things, it showed up on the indictment sheet at Nuremberg. Only one person benefited, he would later say with a rueful grin: Private First Class Kurt Vonnegut, interned in Dresden at the time. His novel about the raid, Slaughterhouse 5 (even the title was a gift from the Nazis, who could have locked their prisoners of war up just as easily in a tram depot as a slaughterhouse), didn’t appear until nearly a quarter of a century after the raid; but when it did, it transformed Vonnegut’s life, and did a fair job of transforming the war novel.
The notion that "The raid had no obvious strategic goals beyond the infliction of human and cultural hurt," isn't correct. In 2004, British historian Frederick Taylor wrote Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945, which did a tremendous job of placing the city in historical context; not just in WWII, but in the scope of the last several centuries of European history. When I blogged about the book back in 2005, I also quoted large swatches of British journalist George Rosie's review in the Scottish Sunday Herald:
The bombing of Dresden in February 1945 has passed into popular history as one of the atrocities of the second world war. It is one of those events that seemed to shift the moral ground. The “fire storm” that laid waste Dresden allowed the Nazis to claim the status of victims. Like Hiroshima, it became a symbol of the misuse of military power. And it trailed some chilling questions. Why Dresden? Was it an attempt to eradicate the best of German culture? How many died? Was it 100,000? Was it 200,000? Is it true that the British and the Amer-icans targeted refugees fleeing the city? Did low-flying Mustang fighters really strafe helpless civilians trying to shelter in parks?
Almost certainly not. As Taylor points out, we owe most of our ideas of the raids on Dresden to a handful of books, one of them by the “revisionist” historian David Irving. His account, The Destruction Of Dresden, was first published in 1963, long before he was discredited. Reasonably accurate accounts by German historians were largely ignored and most of the official information about the raids was buried by the communist regime which inherited Dresden in 1945 and was quite happy with western breast-beating over the “atrocity”.
But with the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989, information has been seeping out of that beautiful city on the Elbe and much of it has been scooped up by Taylor. He also talked with many survivors and some British and American flyers who manned the bombers as well as scouring the official archive in London and Washington. Taylor is an assiduous researcher. He paints a picture which, while still terrible, is not quite the apocalyptic one of popular history. And in the process he deflates a number of myths.
One of them is that Dresden was an “innocent” city, a wonderland of art and architecture devoid of any strategic significance. Nothing more than Florence on the Elbe. This is nonsense. Dresden was home to any number of high-tech engineering firms all working flat out to supply Hitler’s war machine. One was Carl Zeiss-Jena, the lens-making company which was churning out optics for bomb sights, artillery sights and U-boat periscopes. Many of these factories relied on slave labour from concentration camps. In fact, the Dresden Yearbook for 1942 boasts that the city was “one of the foremost industrial locations of the Reich.”
Dresden was also the site of one of the most important railway marshalling yards in eastern Germany. It was a nodal point on the network with hundreds of thousands of troops, guns and tanks being shunted through Dresden on their way to the eastern front. Politically, the city was solidly Nazi. Hitler’s visits were met with wild enthusiasm. There was an SS barracks in the suburbs. Hundreds of Hitler’s enemies had died on the blade of Dresden’s electric-powered guillotine. One way or another, Dresden was a “legitimate” target for the allied bombers (if bombing of any city can be regarded as legitimate).
It certainly was by all sides in WWII; precision aiming of targets simply wasn't yet possible from the technology of the day. Beyond its target as a military interest, Dresden also had value to the Soviet Union; as they advanced into Germany from the east, they requested that the Allies support them via long-range bombing of Dresden from the west, as Taylor wrote in his book:
Hugh Lunghi, the young army officer who was one of the interpreters accompanying the British delegation (and who translated from Russian into English for both the prime minister and the chiefs of staff), firmly maintained that the idea of bombing Dresden was brought up by the Russians and discussed on two separate occasions:I was very much involved in the talks about the bombing of Dresden, which the Russians had asked for, both at the plenary session, the opening plenary session, where General Antonov…laid out the military position and mentioned this; because Dresden was an important junction, they didn’t want reinforcements coming over from the Western front and from Norway, from Italy and so on; and similarly on the following day, when there was a meeting of chiefs of staff in Stalin’s quarters in the Kareis Palace, where Antonov very clearly said, “Well, we want Dresden…the Dresden railway junction bombed because we are afraid the Germans are putting up a resistance, a last-stand, as it were.” And we agreed to this, we agreed to pretty well everything…
In a sentence that foreshadows the opening of the Telegraph article on Vonnegut quoted above, in Dresden, Taylor wrote, "It became fashionable among writers in the postwar period to dismiss city bombing, not only as immoral but also as essentially useless:"
There seems, however, little doubt that the strategic bombing campaign played a major role in the defeat of Germany (if not perhaps the “knockout” one that Sir Arthur Harris and his supporters dreamed of), and growing evidence that it may even have proved decisive. Early postwar surveys made the mistake of confining cost-benefit analysis to a kind of simple accounting of notionally lost German production. Especially when Speer took over the government’s war, industries portfolio and introduced long-overdue efficiency measures (aided by the growing political trend toward a “total war” ideology among more radical Nazi leaders such as Goebbels and Ley), German armaments production continued to increase. This trend continued until the end of 1944, and it was therefore assumed that Allied bombing had been almost entirely ineffective.
More recent studies, especially those of Professor Richard Overy, have taken a broader view and also included the massive financial and material costs involved for the Reich in creating a complex and sophisticated aircraft tracking and air defense system, in rebuilding and relocating industrial and military installations, and in feeding, housing, amid caring for victims of the escalating Allied bombing. This not only took weapons and equipment from the frontline land troops, but also vastly reduced the number of offensive aircraft available on all fronts, especially in Russia. Moreover, while the ever-aggressive Hitler demanded more bombers, the constant need for night and day fighters to keep the Anglo-American bomber fleets away from German cities and factories meant that fighters were always given priority over a new generation of long-distance bombers, which might have enabled the Luftwaffe to take the fight to the enemy. From 1943 Germany was always, as the sporting metaphor goes, “on the back foot” as a result of the strategic bombing campaign.
At the beginning of January 1945 Albert Speer and other leading officials met and summarized the effect of relentless Allied bombing on production during 1944. Germany, they calculated, had produced 35 percent fewer tanks, 31 percent fewer aircraft, and 42 percent fewer trucks than planned. All this was due to intensive Allied bombing of the Reich’s industrial centers-which even in cases defined as “precision” would have caused “spillage” (the World War II American euphemism equivalent to the modern “collateral damage”) and in others would have been a by-product of area bombing, where civilian casualties were ruthlessly factored in.
On the last day of January 1945 (coincidentally the twelfth anniversary of the Führer’s accession to power), Speer sat down and wrote a memorandum to Hitler in which the armaments minister frankly admitted defeat in the struggle to continue supplying German armed forces. “Realistically,” he wrote later, “I declared that the war was over in this area of heavy industry and armaments…”
A few years ago, Canadian journalist and blogger Damon Penny noted that the death toll in Dresden has been significantly revised downward in recent years -- if only because first the Nazis (the National Socialists) and their successors in eastern Germany, the Soviet Union (the international Socialists) dramatically inflated them for propaganda purposes:
For more than 60 years Britain’s Bomber Command led by Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris has been vilified for causing up to 500,000 deaths in the carpet bombing of Dresden during World War II.
But now, after a four-year investigation, a panel of German historians has said that the true number of dead from the Allied air raids in January 1945 was between 18,000 and 25,000.
They reached the figure after combing through death certificates, hitherto sealed eyewitness reports, registration cards for people made homeless and hospital records.
It now emerges that the high number of deaths from ‘Operation Thunderclap’ was a myth invented by the Nazis, perpetuated by Communists and re-born in the past decade to serve the aims of ultra-nationalists.
It suited the Nazi propaganda machine to claim that half-a-million women and children had been incinerated in the firestorm. It helped persuade a struggling population that this was awaited them all unless they fought for Nazism with their last breath.
Then the Communist East Germans perpetuated the myth, mindful that it served their purposes by showing the destructiveness of capitalism and fascism combined.
In the last decade neo-Nazis have sought to keep the lie alive as they praise many of the policies of the Third Reich.
There's no doubt, the firestorm created by the bombing of Dresden resulted in tens of thousands of German casualties, both Nazis and civilians. However, the notion that the British and Americans simply picked the target out of thin air and mounted an enormous combined aerial raid on the city just for sadistic kicks and grins is an utterly false one, particularly given what the Allies had known by then about the Holocaust.
Or as Kathy Shaidle writes today, linking to the Telegraph piece on Vonnegut, "To this day, some people are more put out by Dresden than by Dachau -- Such people annoy me."
The cliche about the Allies' bombing of Dresden having "no obvious strategic goals beyond the infliction of human and cultural hurt," at the beginning of the Telegraph article may simply be a trite remark on the way to the meat of the article, a look back at Vonnegut's literary career. But there's an ongoing effort by the politically correct left to make the Allies appear morally equivalent to the Axis in WWII. Recall the infamous attempt by the feminist left last year to redefine the iconic photo of a sailor kissing a girl in Times Square on V-J Day as a "sexual assault," and the reports, hopefully exaggerated, that the EU is considering renaming WWII "The European Civil War." (!!!)
I truly wonder what students will be learning about World War II in a decade. If they're learning history at all, of course.