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Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945
The legend of Dresden
By John W. Nelson
At the dawn of the twentieth-century the mention of Dresden would conjure up images common to many world cities of the time: splendid art and architecture, beautiful palaces with well-tended gardens and elaborate fountains, opera houses, theaters, and the myriad other institutions that have come to characterize the modern Kulturstadt. Now, at the beginning of a new century, the city that Herder had affectionately dubbed the "Florence on the Elbe" has become a kind of historical shorthand connoting man-made devastation on a cataclysmic scale -- an unenviable distinction shared only with the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If there's another commonality among these three cities, it's the fact that the manner of their destruction remains a subject of controversy to this day. In the case of Dresden, however, the controversy is fueled by a number of deeply engrained popular myths, chief among them the belief that the city was of neither strategic nor military importance. As Frederick Taylor documents in Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945, this was decidedly not the case.
As the seventh largest city in Germany, Dresden possessed a substantial industrial center with a number of precision engineering companies (the Zeiss-Ikon optical factory being perhaps the most well-known.) The city's reputation may have been built on its luxury industries, but Taylor reveals how the same factories that produced the typewriters, sewing machines, lingerie, cigarettes, and waffle irons easily made the wartime transition to produce searchlights, directional guidance equipment, aircraft and torpedo parts, machine guns, cartridge cases, and various other armaments. Cultural city or not, the Dresdeners' contribution to the German war effort was not insignificant. As Taylor notes, the 1942 Dresden Yearbook trumpeted the city's stature as "one of the foremost industrial locations of the Reich."
Equally important as the contribution of matériel was Dresden's strategic role as a major transportation hub, particularly toward the end of the war. With the situation growing increasingly dire on the Eastern Front, the city's railways were busy carrying reinforcements and supplies to the beleaguered German Army (in addition to evacuating the growing number of refugees fleeing the steady and brutal advance of the Soviets.) Add to this the fact that the Wehrmacht still enjoyed a well-functioning communications system in the city, and it's difficult to see how Dresden could have appeared to the war-weary leaders of Bomber Command as anything but a legitimate -- and increasingly desirable -- military target.
The confluence of events that assured Dresden's total destruction makes for compelling reading in its own right, but Taylor's success at weaving the history of the bomber war into his narration makes Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 more than just the tale of a firestorm that consumed one of Germany's treasures; Taylor's book is an absorbing and thought-provoking study of the way that the air war was being waged by both sides in the conflict.
Without diminishing the horror that befell the title city, Taylor's work situates the bombing of Dresden against the background of the destruction that had been visited upon numerous cities in Britain. The aerial raid on Coventry, for example, destroyed almost 60,000 buildings. The bombing had been so severe in fact that the Luftwaffe pilots would soon coin a new term to characterize enemy cities that had been similarly annihilated: coventriert (Coventried). Just three weeks after the Blitz began on September 7, 1940, some 7,000 British civilians had lost their lives. The survivors who continued to suffer under the nightly raids of the Luftwaffe found their voice in a poem from the same year by John Betjeman:
The gallows humor is evident, but so is the inescapable recognition of the limitations of the strategic bomber: high-explosives and incendiary bombs were designed to maximize destruction not discriminate civilian targets from military ones.
Taylor's lively history of the bomber war is necessarily restricted in scope, but it's long enough for the reader to draw an important conclusion when it comes to the widely-held belief that the attack on Dresden was unique in either planning or execution: if the Allies had not destroyed other German cities like they had Dresden, it certainly wasn't for lack of trying. (In an attempt to increase the lethality of the incendiary devices, the Americans had even gone so far as to recreate an entire German apartment block at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.) Like many of the bombing campaigns in the European theater, however, the ultimate effectiveness of the raids frequently came down to weather conditions, targeting accuracy, defensive capabilities, and a fair amount of luck. "Most German cities died a death of a thousand cuts," writes Taylor. "Only a handful suffered swift execution."
Taylor is equally adept at dispelling the other half-truths and misconceptions surrounding Dresden's role at the end of the war and the results of the bombing, particularly the notion that the casualty figures numbered in the hundreds of thousands. In fact, the accepted death toll is now somewhere between twenty-five and forty thousand -- the latter figure equaling the number who perished in the 1943 raid on Hamburg but far smaller than the ninety thousand who died in the March 1945 bombing of Tokyo. (The stubbornness of this large casualty figure for Dresden is due in no small part to Kurt Vonnegut's well-known novel Slaughterhouse-Five in which we read that Dresden was worse than Hiroshima and "the greatest massacre in European history." So it goes.)
While talk of such things as casualty figures and counter-offensives might satisfy our inner historian, that which continues to attract us to events such as Dresden and invite re-examination is the moral dimension of the bombing (and the air war in general.) In the Preface to his book, Taylor -- who describes himself as a "pacifistically inclined baby-boomer" -- wisely states that the final moral judgment will ultimately be left to reader, but offers this observation:
Those partial to Heraclitus's dictum that war is the father of us all might choose to characterize that as wishful thinking rather than an ultimate lesson, particularly as we find ourselves engaged in another global conflict with a different band of fascists. If there are lessons to be learned from Dresden -- and surely there are -- they'll have less to do with an unwarranted optimism regarding the nature of man and more to do with the nature of warfare itself. However, the reader will have to look elsewhere for that discussion.
Those considerations aside, Taylor has written a welcome and engaging contribution to the history of the Allied air offensive against Nazi Germany. Long viewed as an atrocity committed by the Allies, the attack on Dresden was not uniquely terrible in comparison with other cities targeted in the Second World War. Its destruction was a consequence of war, and the responsibility for that lies squarely on the shoulders of the men who brought the nation to that point. Five years before the start of the war, Hitler had expressed his hope for Dresden: "Dresden is a pearl and National Socialism will give it a new setting." It did indeed.
John W. Nelson holds a Ph.D. in German Studies from Rice University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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