Thursday, February 12, 2015

Dresden: 70th Anniversary of World War II Air Raids

On the night of February 13 and 14, 1945, allied forces bombed the historic German city of Dresden in what became the most destructive air raid in World War II.  Britain and other allies have sent their representatives to attend the 70th anniversary ceremonies in Dresden this week.  But there will be no official commemoration of  the bombings outside Germany.  Even there, the focus on human tragedy resulting from the raids is relatively recent and coming from a new generation of Germans.

Dresden after February 1945 bombing campaign
The February 1945 firestorm in Dresden killed some 25,000 people, mostly civilians, and destroyed about 75,000 homes. American novelist Kurt Vonnegut witnessed the bombing as a prisoner of war in Germany. His anti-war novel Slaughterhouse Five is based on that experience, which he described to me in a telephone call in 2005, just two years before he died. 

"It was an art treasure. It was a wedding cake. It was a beautiful thing," he said about Dresden before the air raid.

Together with about a hundred other captured Americans, Kurt Vonnegut was working in a Dresden food plant when the raids took place. "It turned out we had a swell air-raid shelter because we were quartered in a slaughterhouse. And there was this wonderful, very deep cellar under there, where they hung meat, where it was cool, and so that's why we survived," said Vonnegut.

Thousands of others were not so lucky in a city that was not prepared for air raids. Among those killed were not only Dresden residents but also many refugees. The fires reduced the city, known as Florence on the Elbe, to rubble.

During World War II the allies dropped about 1,5 million tons of bombs on Germany, killing more than 600,000 civilians, including about 80,000 children and turning hundreds of cities to rubble.

"It was a war of masses, a war in which mass numbers, mass vehicles, mass civilian participation in the factories was vital," said Dennis Showalter, a historian at Colorado College. He said large-scale bombings had a dual purpose.

"I think World War Two was unique because it developed a strategy of attritional-conventional bombing that was designed to destroy or cripple the industry supporting a high-tech modern war and by extension the civilian morale, the civilian effectiveness, that in an environment of total war was considered as important as the fighting men."

The early failures of the British Royal Air Force led to the development of a tactic called area bombing, said Showalter. Instead of trying to hit a strategic target and risk losing a bomber to the German air defense, planes would fly at a higher altitude and drop heavy loads of bombs to destroy the entire area around targets, including railway stations, factories and mines. The British also developed incendiary bombs, which continued their destruction long after their initial explosion.

But for decades after the war, Germans did not dwell on their losses. Jackson Janes, director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, said the most obvious reason was the enormous pain Nazi Germany caused other people. So, Germans focused on reconstruction and establishing their country as a western democracy.

"That required an enormous distancing from what the Nazis had done. So I think that there was just simply no real national interest in digging this up except for the pockets of activity and the groups that did."

But in recent years, the media, books and public forums have focused more attention on the human tragedy of the massive air raids. Janes said one reason for the current interest in the allied bombing of Germany is the curiosity of the new generation of Germans, free of the guilt their grandparents might have felt.

"And maybe some German people who do have this sense of, 'We didn't really talk about that dimension ever openly because it was not politically correct.' And now they are beginning to say, 'Is it not politically correct to talk about 50-, 60-, 70-thousand people who were killed in the bombing raids?'"

The problem is that such talk encourages new German nationalists. On the 60th anniversary of Dresden bombing, members of the far-right National Democratic Party denied German guilt and described the allied attack as mass murder and Dresden's Holocaust of bombs.

Showalter said that German losses must be studied in the context of Nazi aggression, which resulted in the allied bombing of German cities. He said that Germans are right to re-examine their history, as long as they do it objectively.

But new voices in other World War II allied countries also ask that the raids be re-examined more objectively.  Britain's daily The Guardian said in an editorial this week:

"New generations have a responsibility to ask how the Dresden raids or events like them can be justified and to reflect on what they tell us about today. None of this is easy. What is not right is to quietly write a difficult episode out of the heroic wartime narrative that we prefer to pass on to future generations."

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