Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Heartless War

Today is the 63rd anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II:

The bombing of Dresden by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Army Air Force (USAAF) between February 13 and February 15, 1945, 12 weeks before the surrender of the German Wehrmacht, remains one of the most controversial Allied actions of the Second World War. The raids saw 1,300 heavy bombers drop over 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices in under 15 hours, destroying 13 square miles (34 km²) of the city, the baroque capital of the German state of Saxony, and causing a firestorm that consumed the city centre. Estimates of civilian casualties vary greatly, but recent publications place the figure between 24,000 and 40,000.

The Allies described the operation as the justified bombing of a military and industrial target, which was a major rail transportation and communication centre, housing 110 factories and 50,000 workers in support of the German war effort. Against this, several researchers have argued that Dresden was a cultural landmark of little or no military significance, a "Florence on the Elbe," as it was known, and the attacks were not proportional for the commensurate military gains.

In the first few decades after the war, some estimates of the number killed were as high as 300,000, in part because of misinformation spread just after the bombing by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda. As a result, many charged that it was a callous slaughter of civilians comparable to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with some historians arguing that it was a war crime. Later assessments lowered the casualty figures by a factor of ten or more, yet the raids continue to be included among the worst examples of civilian suffering caused by strategic bombing, and have become one of the moral causes célèbres of the Second World War.

I've discussed the aerial bombardment of civilian population centres before, and Dresden is a particularly noteworthy part of the controversy. It has been immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut's most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, which drew upon his experiences as a POW in Dresden during the attack, and how he and his fellow prisoners were drafted by the Germans to assist in the mass burials. Infamously, the chief authority of the devastation of the attack (even quoted by Vonnegut in his novel), was David Irving's The Destruction of Dresden. Irving's casualty figures cleaved closely to Goebbel's and for decades were considered authoritative. With Irving now largely seen as a Nazi sympathizer, much of his work is considered discredited by most historians.

This has spurred me to finish reading Frederick Taylor's Dresden: Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945, which presents evidence that counters much of the conventional understanding about the bombing, notably:

  • The casualty figures were probably between 25,000 and 40,000, not 130,000 and 500,000

  • Contrary to the conventional understanding, Dresden was home to several industries vital to the German war effort

  • Far from being an "innocent" city, Dresden enthusiastically supported National Socialism and anti-Semitism before Hitler even came to power. The handful of Jews left in Dresden were scheduled for a likely death march a few days after the bombing

  • Dresden was an important rail hub and supply trains to the Eastern Front went through it almost exclusively.

  • There is no doubt spreading terror among the civilian populace was among the goals of RAF Bomber Command. However, as my earlier post noted, this was hardly a discredited tactic among bombing strategists--London and Paris were still targets of German V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks, so even among the many pilots who took issue with the bombing of a civilian population centre, most would have found a good reason to get past it

Taylor doesn't deny that the question of whether it was worth stooping to such tactics remains a painful one. His quarrel is with the notion that Dresden was exceptional, or at least intentionally so. He points out that previous and subsequent raids on other cities aimed to be just as destructive, but didn't succeed because weather or human error or some other unforeseen factor interfered. Hamburg, a larger city than Dresden, took more casualties when it was bombed in 1943, and the towns of Pforzheim and Darmstadt lost a greater percentage of their population when their turn came. Conditions in Dresden combined to create the firebombing equivalent of a perfect storm. That the same thing did not happen elsewhere wasn't because the Allies didn't try.

I will post my own review of Taylor once I finish. Until then, let's all hope we are never the victims of such mass destruction like the citizens of Dresden, nor will we have to make a choice concerning a city full of the enemy's civilians.