Speaking of Dresden… today is the 62nd year anniversary of its destruction by the Allies.
When I studied at the Goethe Institute in Lüneburg years ago, I remember the teacher saying, he was okay with just about everything, except he couldn’t understand the bombing of Dresden. It was nothing but museums and hospitals. Why Dresden?
Even though I was a college graduate, I had never heard of Dresden, let alone its bombing. By the principle of non-uniqueness, it is a safe assumption that there are at least some others out there who are in the same place. So, let me share what I have learned.
Paul Johnson writes,
Dresden was not an industrial but a communications center. Its population of 630,000 had been doubled by German refugees, 80 per cent of them peasants from Silesia. Stalin wanted them destroyed to facilitate his plan to ‘move’ Poland westwards…
The attack was carried out in two waves (with a third, by the USAF, to follow) in accordance with Bomber Command’s tactic of the “double blow,” the second falling when relief forces had concentrated on the city. Over 650,000 incendiaries were dropped, the firestorm engulfing eight square miles, totally destroying 4,200 acres and killing 135,000 men, women and children. As it was the night of Shrove Tuesday, many of the children were still in carnival costumes. For the first time in the war a target had been hit so hard that not enough able-bodied survivors were left to bury the dead. Troops moved in and collected huge piles of corpses. The center round the Altmarkt was cordoned off. Steel grills, twenty-five feet across, were set up, fuelled with wood and straw, and batches of five hundred corpses were piled up on each and burned. The funeral pyres were still flaming a fortnight after the raid. Goebbels claimed, “It is the work of lunatics.”
Modern Times, pp. 404-405
A firestorm in this context is achieved by dropping incendiary bombs, filled with highly combustible chemicals such as magnesium, phosphorus or petroleum jelly (napalm).
In other words, the Allies intentionally napalmed civilian population centers.
I don’t think very many Americans know this. We need to let it sink in.
Dresden was not the first to go this way. Creating firestorms over civilian areas was the British policy all along, but especially from July 1943. The American bombing in Europe at least putatively aimed at industrial and war production facilities. The British goal, on the other hand, was explicitly and self-consciously the inflicting of terror.
Starting in Feb 1942, Bomber Command was headed by Arthur Harris, who became known as “Bomber Harris.”
Harris was not utterly without moral sensibilities. At one time he wrote a scathing memo complaining about the American fondness for eating hot dogs. Cutting a portly figure himself, Harris was quite the gourmand. Each evening, while no doubt his own duck and quail were roasting to perfection, his bombers set in process scenes like this one in 1943, from Hamburg:
On the second major attack by the RAF during Operation Gomorrah, during the night of 27 -8 July, Hamburg’s fire-fighters were overwhelmed by the torrents of incendiaries that fell on to the city, so many and in such concentration that they initiated a terrifying phenomenon: a fire-storm. Fires in different streets progressively joined together, forming into vast pyres of flame that grew rapidly hotter and eventually roared upwards to a height of 7,000 feet, sucking in air from the outlying suburbs at over a hundred miles an hour to fuel their oxygen hunger, creating artificial hurricanes ‘resonating like mighty organs’ as W. G. Sebald put it, which intensified the fires further. It was the first ever firestorm created by bombing and it caused terrible destruction and loss of life. Its greatest intensity lasted for three hours, snatching up roofs, trees and burning human bodies and sending them whirling into the air. The fires leaped up behind collapsing facades of buildings, roared through the streets, and rolled across squares and open areas “in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders.” The glass windows of tramcars melted, bags of sugar boiled, people trying to flee the oven-like heat of air-raid shelters sank, petrified into grotesque gestures, into the boiling asphalt of the streets.
The bomber crews reported that they could feel the heat of the city’s fires in their aircraft as they made their bombing runs. The next day smoke from the destroyed city rose 25,000 feet into the sky. Little bluish flames still flickered around some of the disfigured corpses. The victims of the first attack were either blown up, suffocated in their air-raid shelters from which the air had been sucked away, or cremated instantly in the raging fires outside. Many bodies were found so shriveled by the heat that adult corpses had shrunk to the size of infants.
A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: the History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan (NY: Walker 2006) p. 18
Bomber Harris liked Dresden as a target because it had no anti-aircraft defenses. It was well-publicized as an art and hospital town. Undoubtedly, this is why the terrified Silesian peasants fleeing the Red Army had gone there rather than to Cottbus, Chemnitz, or other eastern towns.
The touch that is particularly impressive is that the second wave of bombers was timed to arrive at just the moment that rescue personnel would be fully deployed to try to help the burned survivors from the first wave.
I don’t think very many Americans know this. We need to let it sink in.
Churchill, perhaps already thinking ahead to his “legacy” wrote on 28 March 1945, “It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing” (ibid., p. 73).
This memo indicates that the British bombing of German civilians had sheer terror as its goal.
Arguably, the British invented terrorism in the twentieth century. Fifty years earlier, they had invented the concentration camp for civilians.
In Dresden, the Americans get off the hook a bit. They were only the third wave, and as usual, purportedly after militarily-relevant targets that might still be standing.
But is it that easy, ethically? Which is worse, to attack and pummel a woman to near death with a sledge hammer; or to come along later and kick the twitching body in the teeth?
At the very least, there is the complicity of silence: of failing to register a protest.
Nor is it clear that destroying the industrial basis of an enemy nation is justifiable in any case.
Finally, the American treatment of Japan — not just Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Tokyo as well — has exactly the same criminal character as the British treatment of Germany.
I wish we could say we were off the hook. We cannot.
My teacher in Lüneburg was far too generous to concede everything but Dresden. (Actually, he also wondered why the Americans held back and let the Soviets take Berlin. But that was it.)
Dresden brings the issue into focus without any remaining ambiguities. But Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt, and many others stand as partially-rebuilt witnesses to the Anglo-American crimes of that war.
My government school never mentioned any of this. Did yours?
It’s not time to rediscover or revise history. It’s time to discover it for the first time.
When fire rains down from the sky on our cities, will we have any right to expect heaven to hear our plea for mercy?