This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Is There Nothing Intelligent to Say About a Massacre?
Conflicting Contemporary Perceptions of the Bombing of Dresden
A thesis submitted to the Distinguished Majors Program, Corcoran Department of History.
Professor G. Finder
Professor H.C.E. Midelfort
Alexis K. Ohanian
Charlottesville, Virginia 15 April 2005
To my mother and father
Anke & Chris Ohanian
To all the faculty and friends who continue to motivate and inspire me
Professor Bateman Professor Confino Professor Finder Professor Midelfort Professor McDonald Professor Stewart Professor White ———— Faith Alejandro Connor Dolan Melissa Goldstein Robyn Headley Steve Huffman Julia Jeffrey Huu Nguyen Jack Thorman
To all those who were affected by the bombing of Dresden and all those who continue to be affected by the inhumanity of humanity.
On my honor as a student, this work is entirely my own. I have acknowledged all sources and fully disclosed any help that I have received.
Alexis K. Ohanian
Table of Contents
I. II. III.
13 February 1945:
4 15 41 49
Bombs over Dresden, Revisiting Ash Wednesday
German Survivors of Dresden:
Looking Up From the Ashes
Allied POWs in Dresden:
Beneath the Fearsome Feet of Friendly Giants
IV. Allied Perceptions of the Perfect Firestorm:
Evaluating Operation Thunderclap from Cockpit to Cabinet
Jews of Dresden:
Witnessing Over 4,500 Tons of Fiery Deliverance
"[T]here is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre."
One of the most melancholy sights […] the destroyed and desolate condition of so many streets of Dresden through which I took my way. The Mohrenstraße in ruins, as well as the Church of the Cross with its shattered tower, impressed themselves deeply on me, and stand still as a gloomy spot in my imagination. From the cupola of the Church of our Lady I saw these pitiable ruins scattered about amid the beautiful order of the city; here the sexton commended to me the art of the architect who had already fitted up church and cupola for so undesirable an event, and had built them bomb-proof. The good sacristan then pointed out to me the ruins on all sides, and said ominously and laconically: The enemy has done this.1
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe From My Life: Poetry and Truth Eight years after the Prussian siege, a young Goethe surveyed the destruction that the Seven Years’ War had ravaged Dresden in the summer of 1760. Most people are familiar with the bombing of Dresden that occurred during the Second World War, but few know that this was not the first time the city had been razed to the ground. Thirtypound cannon balls reduced much of the city’s architecture to rubble, but particularly insidious—and eerily prophetic—were the oil-filled incendiary bombs that complemented the attack. Miraculously, the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) survived this siege, but the “bomb-proof” reinforcements lauded by the sexton would inevitably succumb to twentieth-century ordinance. Appalled by the devastation, Goethe’s guide bluntly stated who was to blame for the wanton destruction: “The enemy has done this!” Already a mandatory destination on the European grand tour, this fount of western culture and civilization was ironically sacked not by the “barbaric” Turks or Cossacks, but by an
“Einen der traurigsten Anblicke [...] den zerstörten und verödeten Zustand so mancher Straße Dresdens, durch die ich meinen Weg nahm. Die Mohrenstraße im Schutt, so wie die Kreuzkirche mit ihrem geborstenen Thurm drückten sich mir tief ein und stehen noch wie ein dunkler Fleck in meiner Einbildungskraft. Von der Kuppel der Frauenkirche sah ich diese leidigen Trümmern zwischen die schöne städtische Ordnung hineingesät; da rühmte mir der Künster die Kunst des Baumeisters, welcher Kirche und Kuppel auf einen so unerwünschten Fall schon eingerichtet und bombenfest erbaut hatte. Der gute Sakristan deutete mir alsdann auf Ruinen nach allen Seiten und sagte bedenklich lakonisch: Das hat der Feind gethan!” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (Berlin: AkademieVerlag, 1970), 270-271 (my translation).
enlightened Prussian king named Frederick the Great. Almost two centuries later, the grandiose ambitions of men would yet again be shattered and the fires would rage yet again in Dresden. Long before the thought of bombs over Dresden entered the minds of Germans “in the last free elections before the Nazis took power, Hitler’s party had received its highest proportions of Dresden’s vote” coincidentally in the districts that were also “the areas most thoroughly destroyed in Allied air raids.”2 These strategic bombing raids were nothing new to the entire German population after the tide of the war turned in February of 1943. One common misconception is that Dresden had been completely spared until two years later on the night of 13-14 February 1945. In fact, the city had already been the target of a few moderately successful daytime raids, none of which targeted the city center. This fallacy echoes the conviction held not only by German inhabitants of Dresden, but by much of the world: Dresden would never be subjected to such an attack. For the city’s population in particular, the arguments in support of this belief were numerous and various, from the deep and long-held British respect for the city’s cultural legacy to the grandmother/aunt (one finds accounts of both) Churchill supposedly had living in Dresden. As Allied and Soviet soldiers converged on Germany, talk of bombed cities began to enter dinner table conversation in homes throughout the Reich. On the night of 12 February, the father of young Willy Schauss assuaged his son’s concerns about the possibility that Dresden would join the list of razed German cities: “If they are going to bomb Dresden, they have no defense; Dresden has nothing.”3 Such certainty reflected the
Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 397. Willy Schauss, My Side of the War: How Meatballs Saved My Life—Dresden, Germany (Kalispell: Scott, 1994), 47.
confidence of Dresden’s ever-growing population. Furthermore, Schauss himself was certain that “the prisoner of war camps for Russians or British and American pilots” provided enough of a disincentive to “make Dresden an unlikely target for an air raid. Bombing this city would be plain murder, not only killing enemy civilians, but also some of their own people.”4 As if to eliminate any and all lingering doubts in his son’s, if not his own, mind, Schauss’s father commented on the wastefulness of such a strike, despite having just commented on the defenselessness of his beloved city: “Why would they waste pilots and aircraft, the war is just about over.”5 That following night, not a single pilot or plane was lost over Dresden and despite the hopes of Herr Schauss and the Allies, VE-Day wouldn’t come for nearly another three months.
Ibid. Ibid., 48.
13 February 1945:
Bombs over Dresden, Revisiting Ash Wednesday
Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris. Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return. – Ash Wednesday Liturgy, Genesis 3:19
Although the blaring wail of the Dresden air raid warning resounded throughout the city—it was largely disregarded by the population as one of the many false alarms that annoyed more citizens than they ever saved. By now, the population of the Florence on the Elbe (Elbflorenz) had swelled with tens of thousands of war-weary refugees fleeing from the East and seeking refuge in the purportedly “open city.” Periodic interruptions in radio programming reported the latest course of a particularly large sortie of between 250 and 300 Lancaster bombers (the actual number was 235), which first passed over Hannover, then Magdeburg, and then Leipzig—leaving Dresden as the only plausible target left and providing the unsuspecting population with a hurried warning of an imminent air attack. Operation Thunderclap, as it was named, was about to commence. A recent addition to the historical literature about the bombing, Frederick Taylor’s Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945, illustrates the collective mentality of a population that—even on the day of the bombing—“continued in the illusion that their city still enjoyed ‘special’ status because of its cultural distinction.”6 In reality, the only “special status” conferred on the city was not only for its detriment, but also issued by its own government. On New Year’s Day of that year, Colonel General Heinz Guderian had ordered that Dresden be classified as a Verteidigungsbereich (defensive area), a distinction that the inhabitants were never informed of. The designation meant that Dresden was not to be surrendered at any costs to the advancing Soviets. With the Red Army only seventy miles away on the eve of 13 February, Dresden was therefore a
Taylor, Dresden, 225.
candidate for another protracted siege, echoing the Prussian siege it endured nearly two hundred years earlier. But this was not to be. The first wave of the raid approached the wintry skyline of Dresden with little opposition. Absent were the familiar sounds of anti-aircraft fire and the exposing glow of searchlights—they had been dismantled and shipped away to supplement the defenses of the oft-targeted Ruhr and the rapidly shrinking Eastern Front. Totally undefended, bomber crews even enjoyed the absence of enemy night fighters en route to Dresden. In response to reports of Allied aircraft, a group of ten Messerschmitt BF 110s had been scrambled to intercept, but this paltry squad was little more than the futile gesture of a crippled German Luftwaffe. In fact, even the weather—clear skies with low humidity and minimal wind—was perfect for the operation. Just after 10 P.M. the sky over Dresden’s Altstadt (old city center), the central bombing sector, was illuminated with the RAF (Royal Air Force) marker flares innocently known to German civilians as “Christbäume” (Christmas trees) due to their resemblance to the yuletide conifer. Some even braved a momentary journey outside to witness this fanciful aerial display that—unbeknownst to many of them—presaged a fiery cataclysm. With no resistance or interference, the bombers patiently and methodically released their payloads with remarkable accuracy and efficiency. Flying in a flak-free sky, the entire squadron cruised at a relatively low 12,000-13,500 feet.7 Combining a deliberate and strategic combination of explosives and incendiaries using lessons learned from Hamburg in July 1943, the RAF delivered a strike that all but annihilated the Altstadt and even ignited the Neustadt district across the Elbe.8 Only fifteen minutes had
Taylor, Dresden, 249. “Through the Lancasters’ bomb doors tumbled 172 four-thousand-pound air mines (“cookies”), 26 twothousand-pound air mines, 72 one-thousand-pound high explosive bombs, and 648 five-hundred-pound high-explosive bombs. In addition, the aircraft dropped, usually in the same loads, 128,550 four-pound stick
passed. The streets remained desolate, as a majority of the passive (and inexperienced) Dresden population trusted the safety of their shelters and had no directive to leave them —a decision which, for many, proved fatal. With local leadership in disarray, communications virtually severed, and electricity sporadic, the city was rendered totally helpless after this first strike. There was no reliable or comprehensive means of informing the public that the air raid had ended— or more importantly, that another was approaching. This late in the decline of the Third Reich, a population hindered by its own inexperience in war and consisting chiefly of women, children, and the elderly was hardly capable of saving itself. The response of many Dresdeners was undoubtedly misguided, since their concern was primarily directed toward preserving their homes and belongings as opposed to their lives. Nora Lang, a survivor interviewed by Taylor, exclaimed that as she and her neighbors emerged from their shelters after the first strike, “I don’t think a single one thought there would be more bombs.”9 Within an hour, the raging fires in the Altstadt had overwhelmed the city firefighting force. Reinforcements were being summoned from as far as Berlin— ultimately, like the dispatch of Messerschmitt BF 110s, another empty gesture. By midnight the fires had already consumed far too much to be extinguished and their insatiable flames would only continue to be fueled. Major General Rumpf, the Reich chief of fire-fighting services, diagnosed the elements of the Dresden firestorm in Götz Bergander’s Dresden im Luftkrieg (Dresden in the Air War):
The individual fire centers combine, the heated atmosphere shoots up like a huge chimney, sucking the rushing air up from the ground to incendiary bombs (individually released), 8,250 four-pound stick incendiary bombs fitted with explosive charges, and 68,628 four-pound stick incendiary bombs packed into cluster containers.” Ibid., 256-257. 9 Ibid., 266.
create a hurricane, which in turn fans the smaller fires and draws them into itself. The effect of the pillar of hot air produced by such a huge blaze over a burning city would be felt by those in aircraft up to 4000 meters above ground level.10
As the second wave approached, citizens busied themselves with the recovery process, oblivious to the incoming heavy bomber formations. Just outside of the city, eighteen-year-old Günter Jäckel left his hospital bed after a warning siren forewarned a second attack. This wave, even more destructive than the first, was even more difficult to comprehend in the glow of the blazing city as young Jäckel thought: “This is impossible. This cannot be.”11 Instructed to maximize chaos and motivated by the success of the first wave, Squadron Leader De Wesselow and Wing Commander Le Good redirected the second bombing wave of 525 aircraft away from the designated target of the Altmarkt (old market square) and toward the surrounding unscathed cityscape. The raid had now turned into a byword for slaughter.12 This ad hoc decision significantly spread the devastation throughout the yet unharmed regions of the city and undoubtedly contributed to the bombing’s distinction of having been the greatest area destroyed in a single night.13 This redirection was particularly—although coincidentally—brutal because it targeted residential suburbs and high concentrations of the homeless, reducing these presumed sanctuaries (Hauptbahnhoff [main train station], Grosser Garten [an open-air park], and the banks of the Elbe) to the infernos these Dresdeners had just fled. For roughly a half10
“Die einzelnen Feuerherde schließen sich zusammen, die erhitzte Atmosphäre schießt wie in einem Riesenkamin nach oben, die längs des Erdbodens angesaugte und nachstürzende Frischluft erzeugt einen Orkan, der wiederum auf weithin die kleineren Brände anfacht und in seinen Bann zieht. Die Wirkung der heißen Luftsäule einer solchen riesigen Fackel über einer brennenden Stadt wurde von den Fliegern bis 4000m Höhe als stürmisch und unangenehm empfunden.” Götz Bergander, Dresden im Luftkrieg: Vorgeschichte, Zerstörung, Folgen (Vienna: Böhlau, 1994), 166 (my translation). 11 Taylor, Dresden, 273. 12 Ibid., 284. 13 Ibid., 273.
hour, this second wave performed a coup de grâce on the heart of Dresden, the success of which was best described by De Wesselow’s final order—given the shortage of undamaged targets—to bomb “the middle of the fires”14 and create the perfect firestorm. The most catastrophic characteristic of the Feuersturm (firestorm) described by Major General Rumpf was not the fires it filled the city streets with, but the oxygen it sucked out.15 Asphyxiation was the most common cause of death in Dresden, particularly for those who remained in the “safety” of their shelters.16 On account of its faulty design, the city’s air raid defense system contributed to the massive casualties. Designed with conventional bombing in mind, the collapsible emergency exits (Durchbrüche) were intended to serve as connections between buildings in the event that one was trapped. Under the firestorm, this network only expedited the oxygen loss by drawing air from the entire network instead of each building individually. The combustion process replaced the oxygen with colorless, odorless carbon monoxide, which lulled victims into a painless death—a conceivably more enticing proposition than the realities of the falling bombs and blazing fires outside. Wednesday, 14 February 1945, was Ash Wednesday. Although the timing of this fiery operation appears to have been the handiwork of a writer, the assaults of the previous night were simply components of another successful Allied operation—albeit a particularly successful one. That morning, as rain mockingly fell on the still burning city, USAAF (United States Army Air Force) planes were taking off for Dresden. Throughout
Ibid., 278. As alluded to earlier, the term was coined to describe a phenomenon created by the Allied bombing of Hamburg in July 1943 which combined traditional explosives with incendiaries to produce a tornado of fire that combined high winds (measured to be roughly 33 mph at street level) and extremely hot temperatures for a particularly devastating effect. 16 “Seventy percent of the deaths in the fire storm came as a result of carbon-monoxide poisoning.” Richard G. Davis, Carl A. Spaatz and the Air War in Europe, (Washington D.C.: Center for Air Force History, 1993), 557.
much of the city, the sunlight of a new dawn had not penetrated the dense haze of smoke and windswept ash. As the city’s population struggled to rise and assess the damage, resentment manifested itself in discarded memorabilia of the Nazi leadership whose ambitions had started the war that brought this to Dresden. In the words of one Dresdener, Hannelore Kuhn, “I saw this bucket of rubbish out there and right in the middle, a bust of Hitler! Someone had chucked it out from sheer anger!”17 Shortly after noon, the bombs started falling yet again—this time from the fuselages of 311 American B-17 Flying Fortresses. Given the ignorance already displayed by a majority of Dresden’s population regarding the earlier bombing runs, it is unsurprising that few civilians could discern that this daylight attack was being conducted by American planes. This operation appeared to be far less fated than the two previous RAF raids. Inopportune cloud cover obscured most of the bombing targets and a significant number of bombs went astray—three American bomber groups were so disoriented by cloud cover that they mistakenly bombed Prague. In a subsequent intelligence report, enough bombers were off target for the raid to be described as having “unobserved to fair results.”18 Reports from RAF observation aircraft concluded that the American attack had most damaged the marshaling yards and industrial area of Friedrichstadt. This attack was significantly less destructive than either British one, largely because of just how destructive the first two were—leaving little of the city to destroy and therefore rendering incendiaries particularly ineffective. Oddly enough, despite the fine flying conditions experienced by the RAF pilots, the USAAF was originally supposed to send the first wave at noon on the 13 February but was postponed because of weather until the next day.
Quoted in Taylor, Dresden, 324. Ibid., 326.
Although the different raids encountered different conditions that produced different results, a common thread ran through the experiences of all survivors:
The fierce, concentrated quality of the fight for survival; a fight first against suffocation, and then against the tornadoes of burning sparks and debris that threatened to blind and disfigure them as they struggled to find their way out of the maze of the Altstadt – usually, by some almost animal instinct, heading for the river.19
Another overarching phenomenon specifically in the stories of German denizens of Dresden is the sense that they were deliberately and personally hunted down—a result of the chillingly efficient bombing patterns: first the heart of Dresden (Altstadt), then the densest gathering of survivors (Grosser Garten), and finally the yet untouched suburbs. Maria Ritter, a child during the bombing, recorded her mother’s belief that the Grosser Garten was “particularly targeted, because there were so many people there, satanical!”20 Bergander illustrated the paranoia well in Dresden im Luftkrieg: “The people who had been made homeless during the night and who had fled into the western part of the city, really felt as if they [the Americans] were coming in for special persecution in the 14 February noon raid.”21 Three devastating aerial assaults in the span of just twelve hours, coupled with the perceived sadism of an enemy that seemed to anticipate how to maximize causalities (and finally lived up to the warnings of Nazi propaganda), facilitated the rampant spread of stories in the days following the offensive. Helmut Schnatz, a professor at the Universities of Bonn and Marburg, produced a thorough and rather conclusive study debunking the legend of the low-altitude attacks over Dresden. Schnatz cites two major reasons behind this reaction of German inhabitants of Dresden to the bombing:
Ibid., 289. Maria Ritter, Return to Dresden (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004), 84. 21 “Die in der Nacht obdachlos gewordenen Menschen, die in die westlichen Stadtviertel geflüchtet waren, fühlten sich durch die Bombardierung am Mittag des 14. Februar regelrecht verfolgt.” Bergander, Dresden im Luftkrieg, 151 (my translation).
The bulk of the population in Dresden had no personal experience with different types of air strikes; the three attacks crashed unexpectedly over them like a sudden unworldly catastrophe […] The population of Dresden suffered a severe, psychologically-traumatizing collective shock from the first attack and experienced the subsequent events in a state of deep unsettlement. This state of affections shows through in nearly all eye-witness accounts.22
Overnight, thirteen square miles of the city’s historic center were obliterated. The cultural loss of all the artwork, architecture, and treasure left smoldering in ruins is immeasurable. More calculable were the bodies of the dead, many of whom shared the fate of their city: blown apart or incinerated.23 Others succumbed to suffocation, but they all were equally mortal and prominently displayed in the center of Dresden’s ruined Altmarkt before being burnt to curb the spread of disease. In his memoirs, My Side of the War: How Meatballs Saved My Life, Schauss vividly described the appalling smell from the SS-ordered pyres and detailed a conversation with a Sergeant in charge of them. The boy questioned how a man could bring himself to do this job (incinerating the bodies of dead Germans), to which the SS officer replied, “[i]t has to be done…We do have a remedy to make this job a little bit easier.” The remedy—a bottle of vodka, a particularly revealing gesture given the findings of historians like Christopher Browning in his book,
“Die Masse der Bevölkerung in Dresden hatte mit Luftangriffen der verschiedensten Art keine persönliche Erfahrung, die drei Angriffe brachen unerwartet wie eine plötzliche unweltliche Katastrophe über sie herein […] Die Bevölkerung von Dresden erlitt bereits bei dem ersten Angriff einen schweren, psychischtraumatisierenden kollektiven Schock und erlebte die weiteren Ereignisse in einem Zustand tiefster Verstörung. Dieser Gemütszustand scheint in fast allen Zeugendarstellungen durch.” Helmut Schnatz, Tiefflieger über Dresden? Legenden und Wirklichkeit (Cologne: Böhlau, 2000), 148 (my translation). 23 The dead not quite as calculable as one would imagine—given the difficulty identifying and recovering bodies and demonstrated by the controversy surrounding the death toll that has developed over the decades. Estimates range from 25,000 to as high as 400,000, although most reputable historians agree that the number was somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000. David Irving generated a great deal of the post-war controversy with the publishing of and subsequent defense of his book, The Destruction of Dresden. Most recently, historian Richard Evans concluded that “Irving’s manipulations and exaggerations merely got in the way of a proper discussion of these events [the bombing of Dresden], rather than assisting it, since dealing with his falsifications took up time and effort that would have been better spent on researching other aspects of the bombings.” Indeed, the casualties of the bombing of Dresden were twice victims, once during the Second World War and again during and after the Cold War. Richard Evans, Lying about Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 184.
Ordinary Men—makes one wonder if this was not the first time he eased his conscience with this treatment. Schauss recalled the eight intoxicated German guards directing the thirty Russian prisoners in charge of moving and sorting bodies with detachment. Unbeknownst to him, these corpses illustrated the difficult reconciliation of the Dresden bombing for Germans—since these particular SS assigned to cremate these victims of a particularly effective Allied air strike had gained their expertise at Treblinka.24 This particular scene illustrates the dynamic nature of this single seemingly straightforward historical event. Frederick Taylor’s earlier-cited work, Dresden, has been heralded in many circles as the definitive text on the Dresden bombing, an event which he posits “represented to most Germans, and many other neutrals, an outrage, the apogee of terror.”25 This perception, enshrined most notably in Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional work, SlaughterhouseFive; or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, has been maintained by a majority of scholars and laypeople alike for sixty years now. But to assert that there is only one way to perceive the bombing of Dresden would be foolhardy. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma juxtaposes multiple perspectives of all the victims who suffered during the Second World War in an introduction that concludes with the simple yet insightful statement: “Same events, different perspectives.”26 Buruma’s approach inspired the methodological basis for my thesis, which aims not to merely show the horrors of this assault—they are known and they were abominable. Instead, I am demonstrating how this defining event from the Second World War—the bombing of Dresden—was seen from so many various
Taylor, Dresden, 351. Taylor, Dresden, 366. 26 Ian Buruma, “The Destruction of Germany,” The New York Review of Books 51, no. 16 (2004), 3.
perspectives. This event is not wholly “the apogee of terror” it is so often simplified into being; furthermore, such loaded language misrepresents the diverse perceptions of the bombing. To my knowledge, no one else has provided such a comprehensive investigation into the conflicting contemporary perspectives of all those involved in the fiery February assault on Dresden. Thus I begin my essay with the Germans on whom these bombs were dropped, move to the Allies who were responsible for the dropping, and conclude with the few remaining Jews in Dresden who saw in these bombs their own salvation. Even sixty years after the fires in Dresden have been extinguished, the controversy surrounding the bombing rages on. The headline of a BBC article from 12 February 2005, “Dresden raid still a raw nerve” captures the resonance of a sixty-year-old wound. National Democratic Party27 member Holger Apfel, who recently drew criticism for walking out of a minute’s silence for Holocaust victims, rebuts that the attack on Dresden was a Bombenholocaust (bombing holocaust) and defends the analogy with a flimsy etymology lesson: “The term ‘Holocaust’ comes from Greek and it means ‘victim of fire’. I’m not trying to draw parallels but to point to the unique quality of this Anglo-American horror.”28 Such revisionism is not to be entirely dismissed, despite its vapidity, because it represents a minority—but nevertheless significant—perception of the bombing. While it is clear that such a perception of this horrific attack has resonated throughout the decades, it is necessary to return to the contemporary perceptions of the bombing after the last American planes had faded into the midday horizon on 14 February 1945. It was Ash Wednesday, a day held by many Christians as a time for remembering
Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, (NPD). Nearly banned in 2003, the NPD is an extreme rightwing political party in Germany. 28 Ray Furlong, “Dresden raid still a raw nerve,” BBC News, 12 February 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/europe/4257827.stm.
one’s mortality. For the surviving citizens in Dresden on this particular Ash Wednesday, the task had never been easier.
German Survivors of Dresden:
Looking Up From the Ashes
Architecture…is time expressed in stone. The thing about Dresden is that the stones remind its citizens of times they would like to forget.29 – Matthias Griebel, curator of Municipal Museum in Dresden, quoted in Wages of Guilt
A graphic artist named Wilhelm Rudolph described the setting as having “[s]uch a frightening stillness in the middle of a large city. No sound,” but what struck him most was what he did not witness: “Also, not a bird. Not one bird.”30 Another Dresdener, Franz Kurowski came upon Dresden in the early morning and witnessed an apparition that would continue to haunt Germany for sixty years: “this was no longer a city, but only the ghost of a city.”31 As the sun set on the charred ruins of Dresden, the faithful ought to have washed off the black ashes from the day’s mass, but the ashes of Dresden were indelible. Germans living in Dresden perceived and reacted to the bombing in various ways—ranging from repentance and acceptance to outrage and contempt—but they never forgot. Unable to secure an interview with a living survivor of the bombing, I had to settle for an apology written on her behalf turning down my request because this was an event “that she could not revisit.”32 For many survivors, the roar of the Lancasters and B-17s still rings in their ears. In fact, the Journal of Traumatic Stress recently published an investigation by Johannes Herrle and Andreas Maercker entitled, “Long-Term Effects of the Dresden Bombing: Relationships to Control Beliefs, Religious Belief, and Personal Growth.” The investigation “showed that the events of February 13th, 1945, were still very vivid in the memories of our study participants,” the forty-seven of whom, “reported
Ian Buruma, Wages of Guilt (London: Phoenix, 2002), 302. “So eine beängstigende Stille mitten in einer großen Stadt. Kein Laut. Auch kein Vogel. Kein Vogel.” Olaf Meyer, Vom Leiden und Hoffen der Städte (Hamburg: E.B.-Verlag Hamburg, 1996), 73 (my translation). 31 “dies war keine Stadt mehr, sondern nur noch das Gespenst einer Stadt.” Kurowski, Massaker, 123 (my translation). 32 Kenneth Shermock, “Fw: Honors Thesis on the Dresden Bombing,” personal e-mail to author (12 January 2005).
on the dramatic events with much emotional involvement and in great detail.”33 Despite this lucidity, the experiment revealed, “a relatively low rate of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] symptomatology,” which the report admittedly ascribed to both the longtime interval (over fifty years) and the refusal of some survivors to participate (whose avoidance behavior reflects PTSD characteristics the data would have likely revealed).34 Clearly the survivors of Dresden experienced a traumatic event, but virtually no research, psychological or otherwise, has been done on this population, largely for the implicit moral reservations surrounding—and subsequent silences in—postwar German literature that W.G. Sebald identifies in and attempts to correct through the publication of On the Natural History of Destruction.35 The suffering of this population was not totally stifled, but their mouthpiece had long been German revanchists and Holocaust-deniers who clamored for retribution on their behalf—certainly not the torchbearers one would want. All those who had endured the bombing were victims of a flawlessly executed air strike and although psychologists confirmed the oft-assumed correlation “that those who witnessed the bombing at closest range are those most strongly affected by unbidden memories,” the memories of the bombed were never scrutinized for how they perceived their victimhood.36 The role of the historian is to interpret these irregularities in order to illustrate the fact that historical events are not just one-dimensional textbook entries, but rather a complex collection of perceptions that are far too often distilled into basic events or repressed altogether in historical texts.
Johannes Herrle et al., “Long-Term Effects of the Dresden Bombing: Relationships to Control Beliefs, Religious Belief and Personal Growth,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 16, no. 6 (2003): 584. 34 Ibid., 579. 35 Ibid. 36 Ibid., 585.
Elizabeth Corwin has done extensive research in the post-war portrayal of the Dresden bombing in German periodical sources and literature, which isolated the event as a symbol for both sides of the Cold War to manipulate and reinterpret. This particular assault is in her words “a perfect vehicle for propaganda…It has all the necessary characteristics: a high level of emotion, death tolls of all sizes for every purpose, opportunity for fingerpointing in all directions – at the Nazis, the Soviets, or the British and/or Americans, or at war in general.”37 Any study of the perceptions of the bombing must take into account the ideological divisions that were erected shortly after the bombing when Dresden fell into Soviet hands. The interpretation of any historical event is a dynamic process, and even more so when compounded with the influences of a controlled state: published media must be scrutinized for the bias that undoubtedly exists. Similarly, as Corwin’s work attests, even the West had an interest in shaping the accounts of Dresden survivors and altering the country’s collective memory. In light of this and given that since several collections of letters and memoirs cited in this thesis were published in East Germany, the diligent historian must consider the degree of bias reflected in each individual work and alert the reader accordingly. Despite this, my research is neither affected by nor concerned with these political agendas affecting the German perception. Inculcated from these isolated instances of partiality with a diverse spectrum of sources, I am not concerned with the specific influences of governments on memory, but rather the perception of the bombing—with or without political motivations —by the Germans beneath the bombs.
Elizabeth C. Corwin, “The Dresden Bombing as Portrayed in German Accounts, East and West,” UCLA Historical Journal 8 (1987): 88-89.
Even more so than governments, time shapes memory. Of the recollections of the bombed, Taylor admonishes, “[t]he scale and the horror of the work to be done after the firestorm of 13-14 February 1945, was, like the experiences of those who survived the destruction of central Dresden, almost impossible to describe with any hope of authenticity.”38 Taylor echoes the earlier sentiments of Sebald in On the Natural History of Destruction, in which the latter posits that these eye-witness accounts suffer from “their inherent inadequacy, notorious unreliability, and curious vacuity,” going on to argue that, “I do not doubt that there were and are memories of those nights of destruction; I simply do not trust the form—including the literary form—in which they are expressed.”39 Taylor’s disclaimer suits the analytical aim of his objective history of the Dresden bombing well, while Sebald’s analysis adequately dismisses these recollections in his discussion of shaping post-war German public consciousness; however, for the purposes of my research, the bias of perspective is crucial to understanding Germans’ perception of the Dresden bombing. While most perceptions of the bombing were recorded in letters and memoirs, several German inhabitants sought to preserve the spirit of Dresden in images (and there is a plethora of photographs as a result), which is not surprising given the National Socialist propagandistic lust for documenting its short-lived legacy in film and photography. Verbrannt bis zur Unkenntlichkeit: Die Zerstörung Dresdens 1945 (Burned Beyond Recognition: The Destruction of Dresden 1945) is a revealing collection of many images taken during the months following the bombing. They gain particular significance when interpreted through the discerning lens that Susan Sontag posits one should analyze
Taylor, Dresden, 349-350. Sebald, On the Natural History, 81.
a photograph with—much in the same way a historian analyzes a written or quoted source. A photograph is deliberately sought, framed and captured by an individual with a specific perception of the subject in mind. However, the observer is also affected by the photographers, who “are always imposing standards on their subjects.”40 This collection of images from Dresden, published in 1994, is comprised of pictures selected from over thirty amateur and professional photographers, which were preserved in Dresden’s city archives and the photo archives of the city museum. In particular, Heinz Kröbel’s photographs are prominently displayed throughout the collection and had initially arrived through a post-war delivery to the former Oberbürgermeister (mayor) on 13 February 1959, which included a letter that exclaimed “[t]he act of photography was indeed without exaggeration here [in Dresden].”41 Despite his confidence in his objectivity, his images of the destruction demonstrate his own biases. As Sontag points out in Regarding the Pain of Others, “[i]t is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame; and to frame is to exclude.”42 Indeed, Kröbel’s photographs are marked by curious trends depicting disorienting ruins patrolled by military units and strewn with bombed-out vehicles and charred corpses. Here he lies: a prostrate Martin Luther statue and a lone observer pondering the ruins of the Frauenkirche were captured in a photograph by Kröbel (See Illustration 1). The man who purportedly proclaimed “Hier stehe ich” clearly could do other—toppled by the bombing of British and American bombers, he epitomizes the dejection of the photographer and his fellow German inhabitants of Dresden. A particularly curious image
Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 6. “Fotografieren war ja ohne Übertreibung hier [Dresden].” Friedrich Reichert, ed., Verbrannt bis zur Unkenntlichkeit: Die Zerstörung Dresdens, 1945 (Dresden: DZA Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 1994), 63. 42 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 46.
is that of the undamaged iconography of the Reich leadership in the foyer of the devastated Semper Opera House (See Illustration 2). Here, busts of Hitler and Goebbels remain undisturbed by the bombing—perhaps a commentary on the resilience of the Reich or a commentary on the men who led the total war that had at last arrived in Dresden and their figurative and literal distance from it. All too close to the bombing, German denizens of Dresden are pictured in one of two distinct ways, either as corpses or as survivors. They struggled over debris (See Illustration 3) or returned to the normalcy of life on foot or on the bicycles that their Soviet occupiers would soon be clumsily riding (See Illustration 4). In a particular image of Prager Straße, the contrast of these sharply-dressed German denizens of Dresden who never lost their dignity with their derelict surroundings is profound (See Illustration 5). Kröbel hardly discriminated between images of civilians and soldiers, the corpses of the latter only visibly distinguished by the steel helmet (See Illustrations 6-9). Living patrols of the Wehrmacht are always characterized in these images as assisting the cleanup process (See Illustration 10) or identifying bodies (See Illustration 11), but never retrieving them, which is understandable, because they did not. “Corpse mining,” as Kurt Vonnegut would call it, was performed by POWs and slave laborers—none of whom appear in these images.43 Despite the obvious significance of what was photographed, what was cropped out of the memory is no less significant. The recollection of the aforementioned Willy Schauss in his memoirs provides the historian with a rich and diverse ensemble of anecdotes as vivid as any photograph collection, but also requires careful scrutiny. Young Schauss, just thirteen years old on
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (New York: Dell, 1991), 19.
the night of 13-14 February, survived this devastating assault and in the process collected an extraordinary narrative that he finally put in writing in 1994. Schauss’s recollection, like all the memories of that horrific night, must be read critically. Perception is reality. For this young German boy, now an old man, looking back on the most traumatic experience of his life, what he has remembered—or perhaps more importantly, what he has forgotten—has changed over time to form the recollection he assembled for publication almost fifty years later. Himself a Hitler Youth, Schauss had only recently been appointed a position as cook’s apprentice in the kitchen of the Hotel Stadt Weimar, a duty which likely saved his life. Working in the kitchen on the night of the bombing, Schauss fled to the hotel’s bomb shelter before stealing a glance outside at the incoming bombers. Upon reaching the cramped shelter, the first bombs fell. One of the many SS officers stationed in the hotel reassured the noticeably frightened crowd: “Do not be scared. There’s [sic] only a few planes who [sic] got off course. They must have seen some light and dropped the bombs.”44 Only 235 planes. Schauss had the prescience to flee the bunker, taking his friend Walter with him. His motivation was not self-preservation, it was the meatballs they had left upstairs in the kitchen—a fine meal going to waste. With a deft lie, he talked his way out of the shelter and up to the kitchen. A few bombs later, everyone who had stayed was dead. Such was the fate of many of Dresden’s inhabitants, but for those who survived, the experience was nearly unbelievable, ergo the necessity of rationalizing the irrational. Erich Kästner, a Dresdener living in Berlin at the time of the bombing, captured the essence of the “Dresden legend” that viewed Dresden as “a special gem of
Schauss, My Side, 52.
quintessential harmony. One sensed that the destruction of this particular city without military significance and full of refugees was especially senseless.”45 Kästner perceived this bombing as more than simply a tragic event. It became a challenge to the German people, himself included:
Today even we must, like never before and like no other people, be able to distinguish the truth and the lies, the worth and the mischief. The two fires of guilt and sorrow should have burned to ash everything in us that was insignificant. Then what happened would not have been without sense. He, who possesses nothing more in the world, knows best, what he really needs. He, whose view is not clouded anymore, looks further than the others, all the way to the main things. So it is. Is it so?46
The language alludes to Christian notions in an attempt to make sense of what most German inhabitants perceived to be the senseless destruction of Dresden. Kästner was far less subtle in another quote about Dresden expressed with biblical analogy: “What one formerly understood in Dresden, does not exist any longer. One passes through, as if one were running in a dream through Sodom and Gomorrah…that which otherwise needs entire geological ages, namely to transform stone—has been achieved here in only one night.”47 Franz Kurowski quoted bombing survivor Gerhart Hauptmann in Das Massaker von Dresden (The Massacre of Dresden), in which the playwright dramatically testified, “I personally experienced the fall of Dresden under the Sodom and Gomorrah hells of the English and American airplanes.”48 Prince Ernst Heinrich of Saxony, before retiring to
“Dresden ein besonderes Kleinod vollkommener Harmonie war. Als besonders sinnlos empfand man die Zerstörung gerade dieser Stadt ohne militärische Bedeutung und voll von Flüchtlignen.” Meyer, Vom Leiden und Hoffen (Hamburg: E.B.-Verlag Hamburg, 1996), 74 (my translation). 46 “Gerade wir müßten heute wie nie vorher und wie kein anderes Volk die Wahrheit und die Lüge, den Wert und den Unfug unterscheiden können. Die zwei Feuer der Schuld und des Leids sollten alles, was unwesentlich in uns ist, zu Asche verbrannt haben. Dann wäre, was geschah, nicht ohne Sinn gewesen. Wer nichts mehr auf der Welt besitzt, weiß am ehesten, was er wirklich braucht. Wem nichts mehr den Blick verstellt, der blickt weiter als die anderen. Bis hinüber zu den Hauptsachen. So ist es. Ist es so?” Quoted in Ibid., 75 (my translation). 47 “Das, was man früher unter Dresden verstand, existiert nicht mehr. Man geht hindurch, als liefe man im Traum durch Sodom und Gomorrha…Was sonst ganze geologische Zeitalter braucht, nämlich Gestein zu verwandeln—das hat hier eine einzige Nacht zuwege gebracht.” Quoted in Reiner Pommerin, Dresden unterm Hakenkreuz (Cologne: Böhlau, 1998), 227 (my translation). 48 “ich habe den Untergang Dresdens unter den Sodom-und-Gomorrha-Höllen der englischen und amerikanischen Flugzeuge persönlich erlebt.” Kurowski, Massaker, 75 (my translation).
the safety of his unharmed royal hunting lodge, described the paralyzing awe as if he met the fate of Lot’s wife: “The entire city was a sea of flame…I stood as if turned to stone.”49 There was no shortage of biblical allusions in the memories of those who witnessed the modern day Sodom and Gomorrah; even young Jäckel is no exception: “[n]ever before have humans seen apocalyptic areas to such an extent.”50 Given the language, a number of German inhabitants of Dresden appear to have interpreted the destruction of their city as a retribution akin to that which was imposed for the sins of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, this was a population that largely believed Dresden was untainted and innocent of wrongdoing. Divine or not, the bombing rained down indiscriminately upon them and “[m]any, perhaps the majority of Dresdeners who lived through the firestorm, believe that the attack on their city was somehow special in its malevolence, cunning, and destructive intent.”51 For most, the simple notion of Dresden’s destruction was incomprehensible. Witnessing and surviving it was, as one woman attested in a letter dated 14 March 1945, even more unfathomable: “I believe, I have not yet understood it completely, or one is still so paralyzed from all the terrible horrors, that one cannot think at all.”52 Indeed, “[a]ccording to several accounts,” Dresdeners internalized the event “with silent fascination” and slowly grew resigned to the reality of their city’s destruction.53 Even the salutations in letters from Dresden’s German inhabitants noticeably changed after the
“Die ganze stadt war ein einziges Feuermeer…Ich stand wie versteinert.” Prince Ernst Heinrich von Sachsen, Mein Lebensweg vom Königsschloss zum Bauernhof (Munich: List, 1968), 272 (my translation). 50 “Nie zuvor wohl haben Menschen apokalyptische Räume von solchem Ausmaß gesehen.” “Dresden— Das Jahr 1945,” Dresdener Hefte 41 (Dresden: Dresdener Geschichtsverein,1994), 62. 51 Taylor, Dresden, 405. 52 “Ich glaube, ich habe es noch nicht ganz begriffen, oder man ist noch so erstarrt von all dem Entsetzlichen, daß man überhaupt nicht denken kann.” “Dresden—Das Jahr 1945,” Dresdener Hefte 41, 9 (my translation). 53 Sebald, On the Natural History, 14.
bombing because, in the words of Dora B. to her child, “[o]ne cannot wish luck anymore, I wish you calm, inner calm and peace.”54 After the fires abated and the shock subsided, the German inhabitants began to contemplate the bombers over Dresden’s formerly picturesque skyline. Shortly thereafter, the word Terror entered the German discourse surrounding the bombing. Surprisingly, it originated not from Goebbels’s propaganda machine, but rather from the “Anglo-American bombing terrorists” themselves. Terror bombing: the emergence of such inflammatory language can be attributed to AP correspondent Howard Cowan, who reported on a 15 February press conference given in Paris by RAF Air Commodore C.M. Grierson regarding the Dresden raids. With some careless words, this British military officer ignited the controversy. After detailing the impact of the attacks and describing the committee that identified and recommended strategic targets, a transcript of a press briefing revealed that Grierson affirmed that the principle aim of the bombing was “[p]rimarily communications…to prevent them [the Germans] moving [sic] military supplies. To stop movement in all directions if possible —movement is everything,” but then offhandedly commented about trying to destroy “what was left of German morale.”55 With this, Cowan drafted and submitted an article for the censors’ approval stating that “[t]he Allied Air Commanders have made the long awaited decision to adopt deliberate terror bombing of great German population centers as ruthless expedient to hasten Hitler’s doom [my italics].”56 Initially, the piece was vetoed, but after some deliberation and minor revisions (which did not omit to the use of
“Glück wünschen kann man nicht mehr, ich wünsche Dir Ruhe, innere Ruhe und Frieden.” Dora B. to Tölchen, Dresden, 16 March 1945, in Matthias Neutzner, ed., Martha Heinrich Acht – Dresden 1944/45 (Dresden: Verlag der Kunst Dresden, 2003), 126 (my translation). 55 Taylor, Dresden, 361. 56 Ibid.
“terror bombing”) the story was passed and became what Taylor deems “one of the great propaganda mistakes of the war.”57 Once the precedent was set—despite Allied authorities’ attempts to correct it—this taboo vocabulary began to surface everywhere and to this day still adheres to the memory of the bombing. An old woman from Dresden described the consequences of the Terror and the subsequent paranoia in a letter from 29 March: “You know, life has become so completely different since the cruel terror. Apart from the lots of work it gave afterwards and other nuisances, such that ever since, one is an eternally agitated person, living in continued fear from morning to night, from night to morning. And each day and each night is once again a gift from God.”58 Not surprisingly, the population directed a great deal of animosity toward British Air Marshall “Bomber” Harris, also known—particularly within the RAF—as “Butcher” Harris. A man who never publicly regretted the bombing of Dresden, he endured a lifetime of sharp criticism for his unwavering defense of the decision. Schauss sardonically supposed that “[m]aybe he got another medal for killing all the thousands of women and children,” noting that “[i]t is not fair. The Germans responsible for this war and committing war crimes should have and are punished. But what happened in Dresden is a war crime also, and the one responsible for killing those people in Dresden, should also be on trial.”59 In Harris’s defense, not a single member of the personnel on trial in Nuremberg was ever charged for involvement in aerial bombardment on a defended
Ibid., 362. “Weißt Du, das Leben ist so ganz anders geworden seit dem grausamen Terror. Abgesehen von der vielen Arbeit, die es anschließend gab, und was sonst an Mißständen, so ist man seitdem ein ewig aufgeregter Mensch, lebend in fortgesetzter Angst von morgens bis abends, von abends bis morgens. Und jeder Tag und jede Nacht ist wieder ein Geschenk Gottes.” “Dresden—Das Jahr 1945,” Dresdener Hefte 41, 17 (my translation). 59 Schauss, My Side, 64.
enemy territory, an accurate description of the bombing of Dresden. Nevertheless, Schauss’s voice is one of many the sixty-year-old chorus of those seeking retribution for Dresden. There has been much literature written about victimization and victimhood in post Second World War Germany. Dresdeners’ perceptions of the bombing only enrich this collection. One such text is Return to Dresden by Maria Ritter, who quite literally bore the scars of her victimization, caused by second- and third-degree burns she suffered on her legs. On her first homecoming to Dresden, Ritter exchanged tear-inducing memories with an art gallery attendant and in her memoirs comments on how “[t]his horrible history of the death of a city connected the two of us.”60 This type of personification of Dresden is common in the memories of survivors. Interestingly, Ritter described a German population that looked to East Asia for victims in the years following the war’s conclusion instead of to themselves, perhaps to alleviate their own suffering: “The adults said the bombings of our cities were nothing compared to what happened in Japan.”61 Obviously referring to the atomic bombings that effectively ended the Second World War and arguably began the Cold War, Ritter encountered a sample of the population that clearly shared her apprehension of German victimization, but remained the exception rather than the rule for a majority of the survivors. A more representative depiction of the overarching German perception of the bombing is captured in the vivid words of Hauptmann: “He who forgot how to cry, learns it again with the fall of Dresden.”62 Such a quote encapsulates the lamentations of the many people who mourned for the loss of
Ritter, Return to Dresden, 61. Ibid., 93. 62 “Wer das Weinen verlernt hat, der lernt es wieder beim Untergang Dresden.” Franz Kurowski, Bomben über Dresden (Vienna: Tosa, 2001), 74 (my translation).
Dresden, including Ritter’s mother who, recited it often and grieved until the day she died.63 With a finger pointed squarely at the Anglo-Americans, Franz Kurowski insisted that “[w]e [Germans] are not making a sympathy campaign, we are judging the war leadership of the enemy only in the light of a fire, which he himself ignited [my italics].”64 If, in Kurowski’s words, the British and Americans started the fire, then who would put it out? According to W.G. Sebald, post-Second World War German history is fraught with silences, which are explored in his extraordinary investigation entitled On the Natural History of Destruction, in which he posits:
[T]he question of whether and how it [an all-out bombing campaign] could be strategically or morally justified was never the subject of open debate in Germany after 1945, no doubt mainly because a nation which had murdered and worked to death millions of people in its camps could hardly call on the victorious powers to explain the military and political logic that dictated the destruction of German cities. It is also quite possible…that quite a number of those affected by the air raids, despite their grim but impotent fury in the face of such obvious madness, regarded the great firestorms as a just punishment, even an act of retribution on the part of a higher power with which there could be no dispute.65
While the overarching resentment was directed toward the “Anglo-American bombing terrorists,” labeled as such in the German media, a number of Dresdeners actually looked internally, albeit secretly, for accountability, either from the Third Reich or specifically from the Führer himself. Mourning relatives and searching for a reason to live, Hans Schröter dramatically chastised “Hitler’s delusional idea” in a letter to a friend from 5 August 1945, just three days before VE-Day, in which he described the events of the February bombing raid with a vivid recollection that he claimed would never fade.66 In an interview with Taylor, Karl-Ludwig Hoch bitterly described how, before the end of
Ritter, Return to Dresden, 62. “Wir machen keine Mitleidskampagne, wir richten die Kriegsführung des Feindes nur in das Licht eines Feuers, das er selbst entzündet hat.” Kurowski, Massaker, 116 (my translation). 65 Sebald, On the Natural History, 13-14. 66 “die Wahnidee Hitlers.” Hans Schröter to Frau Ganze, Dresden, 5 August 1945, in Reichert, ed., Verbrannt bis zur Unkenntlichkeit, 50 (my translation).
February, he had grudgingly reported for duty at the local barracks (which, to his dismay, withstood the bombing) with his fellow fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, “so young they had not yet entered puberty. And it was their job to give Hitler a few more nights with Fräulein Braun.”67 While hindsight afforded Hoch the opportunity to comment on the wasteful and callous final gestures of the disintegrating Reich’s impotent leader, others attacked the Führer for political reasons. Liberated from the confines of a jail in Dresden, Herbert Gute graphically described the destruction he witnessed the morning after in a piece entitled “Erinnerung und frohe Gewißheit” (“Memory and Cheery Certainty”). This title depicted how Gute interpreted the mood surrounding post-war reconstruction of Dresden, but his article described the bombing as so horrifying (and likely also so smoky) that “we had to tear apart [the eyelids] with our fingers to be able to see.”68 Published in 1960, with a discernably anti-Western Cold War message, Gute’s piece strategically rebuked not only the Nazis, but imperialistic ambition, claiming that Dresden “had had to pay for the crimes of the German imperialists with the life of its citizens and the cultural possessions of a century-long development.”69 This sentiment was undoubtedly influenced by the “Bolshevik ideology” that Nazi Germany fought a war to eliminate and at the time of the bombing, whose Red Army was rapidly seizing and redistributing the Reich’s precious Lebensraum (living space). Although the bombers over Dresden bore the RAF and USAAF insignias, the surviving German inhabitants quickly shifted their resentment (and fear) away from the
Taylor, Dresden, 357. “wir mußten [die Lider] mit den Fingern auseinanderreißen, um sehen zu können.” Herbert Gute, “Erinnerung und frohe Gewißheit,” in Beginn eines neuen Lebens... (Dresden: Museum für Geschichte der Dresdner Arbeiterbewegung, 1960), 39 (my translation). 69 “hatte die Verbrechen der deutschen Imperialisten mit dem Leben ihrer Bürger und dem Kulturgut einer jahrhundertelangen Entwicklung bezahlen müssen.” Gute, “Erinnerung und frohe Gewißheit,” 40 (my translation).
men who had obliterated their city and toward the men who were coming to occupy it. Not surprisingly, immediately following the bombing, letters out of Dresden often commented that the “[h]atred towards the British and Americans […] was at the boiling point.”70 Nevertheless, the greatest animosity and dread were ultimately reserved for the approaching Red Army. The closing remarks of the same letter dated 27 February 1945 reflected this Russenangst (fear of Russians): “For what do we still live? In order to wait for the Russians to come?” 71 No secret was made about the atrocious occupation habits of the advancing Soviets, which had circulated throughout this largely female population and made surrender to the English or Americans so preferable. Not all Dresdeners buckled under these bleak circumstances, as Dora B. demonstrated in a letter of reassurance to her child from 31 March:
When finally there was the fear of the Russians in Dresden, I also thought it was the end. And it always continued again. Think also in such a way – my child…whether it can really be so bad? Hitler believes, Goebbels gives speeches, the broadcast repudiates enemy messages. Do not have so much fear, I greatly regret that I saved you in such a way from fate. Be courageous, my little one.72
As late as 24 April 1945, Dora B. stayed loyal to the Third Reich and remained confident in its Führer, whom she believed “shall also be in Berlin to defend it,” which he “defended” for eight more days before committing suicide.73 For all but the most stalwart (or deluded) of Dresden’s survivors, the only recourse was to flee west toward the very enemies who drove them out. Jutta Süß dryly pointed out in an April entry of her diary
“Haß gegen die Engländer und Amerikaner…auf den Siedepunkt [war].” “Dresden—Das Jahr 1945,” Dresdener Hefte 41, 9 (my translation). 71 “Wozu leben wir nun noch? Um zu warten, bis die Russen kommen?” Ibid. 72 “Als jetzt zuletzt in Dresden die Russenangst war, dachte ich auch, es sei das Letzte. Und immer ging es wieder weiter. Denk auch so – mein Kind…Ob es da so schlimm stehen kann? Hitler glaubt, Goebbels hält Reden, der Rundfunk dementiert Feindmeldungen. Hab’ nicht so viel Angst, ich bereue es sehr, daß ich Dich so vorm Schicksal gerettet habe. Sei tapfer, mein Kleines.” Dora B. to Tölchen, Dresden, 31 March 1945, in Neutzner, ed., Martha Heinrich Acht, 132 (my translation). 73 “soll in Berlin sein, es mit zu verteidigen.” Dora B. to Tölchen, Dresden, 24 April 1945, in Neutzner, ed., Martha Heinrich Acht, 138 (my translation).
the irony of fleeing with her fellow Dresdeners toward the zones occupied by the “‘humane Americans.’”74 She commented on the apprehension that most felt toward the Red Army with humor that was typical in the waning months of the Third Reich, morbidly telling children to “enjoy the war, the peace will be terrible.”75 By 8 April 1945 even the dogged Dora B. grudgingly confessed to her child a notion of defeat, citing the Wehrmacht report that “[e]verywhere victories of the Germans but strangely enough the enemy always approaches.”76 Despite the hopes of many Dresdeners that the U.S. Army would arrive first, the Red Army “liberated” the city on 8 May and gained control of not only the city, but the memory of its destruction. Dresden surrendered from one totalitarian government to another. As Taylor points out, the myth of the Red Army as Dresden’s savior was an element of much obfuscation that arose as a result of the silence enforced by Soviet authorities regarding atrocities committed by their soldiers.77 Similarly, nothing was discussed about the bombing in the early months of occupation—but this would change, under the auspices and control of the regime. A collection of essays entitled Beginn eines neuen Lebens... (Beginning of a New Life…) was printed locally in 1960 to capture memories of Dresden’s reconstruction. It reveals not only the contemporary perceptions of the bombing, but also how they were presented under the authority of a Soviet government. This thinly-veiled communist propaganda clearly has a larger anti-Western agenda beyond the description of the
“«humaneren Amerikaner».” “Dresden—Das Jahr 1945,” Dresdener Hefte 41, 56 (my translation). “So feierten wir noch etliche Male, aber es war richtiger Galgenhumor unter dem Motto: Kinder, genießt den Krieg, der Frieden wird schrecklich.” Ibid. 76 “Eben der Wehrmachtsbericht: Überall Siege der Deutschen, aber merkwürdigerweise kommt der Feind immer näher.” Dora B. to Tölchen, Dresden, 8 April 1945, in Neutzner, ed., Martha Heinrich Acht, 136 (my translation). 77 Taylor, Dresden, 386.
beginning of a new life for Dresden and its inhabitants, especially given that it was published only a year before the battle lines of the Cold War would become a tangible wall in Berlin. Some recollections, like Hermann Matern’s, entirely omitted the British presence, citing the audacity of only “the American bombers,” before reiterating the thousands this attack buried alive within minutes and, in the process, “senselessly destroyed the main part of Dresden shortly before the end [of the war].”78 News of the bombing reached Otto Buchwitz during his imprisonment (presumably for anti-fascist activity) in Brandenburg where he immediately feared for the safety of his family back in Dresden as well as all the other “victims of the criminal American attacks.”79 Buchwitz also neglected to mention the British involvement in the bombing when he rhetorically asked, “why have the Americans, at a time when the defeat of fascism was clearly certain, so pitilessly smashed this beautiful city and in doing so caused such a sudden, frightful, and agonizing death for more than a hundred thousand innocent humans?”80 It has already been shown that the American participation was rather scant in comparison to the British involvement, but at the time of its publication, the latter’s empire had already waned, whereas the former’s was waxing and the true threat to the Soviet Union. Perhaps what is most telling about these perceptions of the bombing is that neither Matern’s nor Buchwitz’s is in an article specifically about the bombing. Published under authority of the state in 1960, the preceding essays are respectively entitled “So fing die
“die amerikanischen Bomber [...] Den Hauptteil Dresdens hatten die amerikanischen Bomber noch kurz vor dem Ende sinnlos zerstört.” Herman Matern, “So fing die neue demokratische Verwaltung an,” in Beginn eines neuen Lebens..., 5 (my translation). 79 “Opfer des verbrecherischen amerikanischen Angriffs.” Otto Buchwitz, “Nur die Arbeiter besaß die Kraft,” in Beginn eines neuen Lebens..., 17-18 (my translation). 80 “warum haben die Amerikaner zu einer Zeit, als die Niederlage des Faschismus eindeutig feststand, diese schöne Stadt so erbarmungslos zerschlagen und dabei mehr als hunderttausend unschuldigen Menschen einen so jähen und furchtbaren, qualvollen Tod bereitet?” Buchwitz, “Nur die Arbeiter,” 17 (my translation).
neue demokratische Verwaltung an” (“Thus commenced the new democratic administration”) and “Nur die Arbeiterklasse besaß die Kraft,” (“Only the working class possessed the strength”). Neither topic seems to warrant reiteration of American atrocities from fifteen years earlier, but the permanence and propagandistic value of the event are evidenced in the fact that they both address the bombing of Dresden and selectively chastise its American perpetrators. In fact, nowhere in this entire collection can one find a reference to the British for their participation in—let alone ordering of—the bombing of Dresden. Instead, nearly every recollection in this assortment condemned the “[m]ajor offensive of the American bomb squadron”81 and more bluntly stated, “American bombers had destroyed the city,” before asking, “[h]ow should life go on?”82 Despite this pessimism, life did go on for Dresden’s German survivors—although the circumstances were far from ideal. The life that went on was one under Communist rule. Evidenced in the research of Corwin and my own collection of documents from Soviet-controlled Dresden, the statedominated perspective of the bombing was largely unaltered—like the ruins of the Frauenkirche (See Illustration 12)—until after that fateful night of 9 November 1989 in Berlin. This perception of the bombing was not always as subtle as in the aforementioned assortment, as during a speech by Gerhard Eisler, East Germany’s propaganda chief:
The Anglo-American airplanes dropped their bomb loads on Dresden because Wall Street wished that it would make it impossible for the Soviet Union and the confederates to help the German population after the war’s end […] We hate the fascist blackguards from the bottom of our hearts […] However, we hate the imperialistic war-fire-profiteers from yesterday and today just as hotly.83
“Großangriff der amerikanischen Bombengeschwader.” Max Opitz, “Die ersten Schritte im Aufbau der Deutschen Volkspolizei in Dresden,” in Beginn eines neuen Lebens..., 57 (my translation). 82 “Amerikanische Bomber hatten die Stadt zerstört [...] Wie sollte das Leben weitergehen?” Alfred Werner, “Wie wir mit dem Neuaufbau begannen,” in Beginn eines neuen Lebens..., 71 (my translation). 83 “Die angloamerikanischen Flugzeuge warfen ihre Bombenlasten auf Dresden, weil die Wallstreet wünschte, daß es der Sowjetunion, dem Verbündeten, unmöglich gemacht würde, der deutschen
Over time, the East German government’s portrayal of the bombing became increasingly more politicized and discussion of the war that surrounded it diminished correspondingly to the point where a speech in 1984 by Hans Modrow, Secreatry of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) succinctly depicted the bombing “as an imperialistic demonstration of force, as a spawn of the politics of power.”84 Long before East Germany had been drawn onto maps, the imperial power that dominated the European continent was Nazi Germany. 13 February 1945 was well into the swan song of the Third Reich, something that the war-weary refugees packed into Dresden knew all too well. Following the bombing, what was already obvious became dreadfully tangible. The war had finally come to Dresden. It was prominently displayed in the corpses of fellow Germans burning in pyres on disassembled railroad ties in the Altmarkt. For most of Dresden’s surviving Germans, like young Schauss, the sight and smell of this appalling scene suffocated any form of critical analysis. In another letter to her child, Frau B. described the hundreds of German corpses unearthed and burned in the Altmarkt, exclaiming that “[s]uch a catastrophe never existed before…”85 However, when a graphic artist named Wilhelm Rudolph perceived these makeshift crematoriums, he noted the presence of SS and military police supervising the operation—as well as the consequences of their demands for “total war”:
I wanted the sign; it was not given; I was not allowed to approach. Those were Sonderkommandos and military police. One saw faces! Bevölkerung nach Kriegsende zu helfen [...] Wir hassen aus vollem Herzen die faschistischen Unholde [...] Wir hassen aber genau so heiß die imperialistischen Kriegsbrandstifter von gestern und heute.” Quoted in Meyer, Vom Leiden und Hoffen (Hamburg: E.B.-Verlag Hamburg, 1996), 77 (my translation). 84 “als eine imperialistische Machtdemonstration, als eine Ausgeburt der Politik der Stärke.” Quoted in Ibid., 78 (my translation). 85 “Solch Katastrophe gab es noch nie...” Dora B. to Tölchen, Dresden, 28 March 1945, in Neutzner, ed., Martha Heinrich Acht, 130.
Dead seriousness in the faces; that was the war at its essence. The total war! We want the total war, they had roared; one had not expected that.86
Total war is an obvious reference to the Goebbels’s Sportpalastrede (Speech given in the Sportpalast of Berlin) given on 18 February 1943. With this speech, the Nazi administration announced a total mobilization of the German people in a united struggle of total war against the Fatherland’s enemies and more obliquely—given the surrender of General Friedrich Paulus at Stalingrad sixteen days earlier—its first admission of failure. This was neither the first nor the last time Nazi leadership would sacrifice the best interests of Germany in order to “save” two-thousand years of Western history. This Nazi distortion of events is equally visible in their perception of the Dresden bombing, which is very different than that of the Germans in Dresden who experienced it. To the former, “the bombing of Dresden represented not just the destruction of a beautiful city but a final humiliation.”87 In 1933, Nazi leadership hijacked a German cultural legacy that they first abused and then victimized. Gauleiter (district head) Martin Mutschmann’s treatment of his capital, Dresden, epitomizes the regime. Captured and interrogated by Soviets after the war, Mutschmann defended himself with a mélange of excuses and feigned ignorance typical of his ilk. The functionary took refuge in the artistic heritage of his city, lamenting “[i]t’s terrible, the quantity of valuables that were destroyed in one night.”88 When asked if he was concerned about the human victims, he countered, “[o]f course, a very great number of human beings also died. But I just meant that the artistic
“Ich wollte das zeichen; wurde nicht gestattet; ich wurde nicht herangelassen. Das waren Sonderkommandos und Militärpolizei. Da sah man Gesichter! Ein Totenernst in den Gesichtern; das war der Krieg bis auf die Knochen. Der totale Krieg! Wir wollen den totalen Krieg, hatten sie gebrüllt; das hatte man nicht erwartet.” Olaf Meyer, Vom Leiden und Hoffen der Städte (Hamburg: E.B.-Verlag Hamburg, 1996), 73. 87 Taylor, Dresden, 366. 88 Transcript of Mutschmann interrogation as quoted in Taylor, Dresden, 410.
treasures can’t be replaced.”89 The interrogator pressed on about the circumstances that allowed such a large loss of life, which Mutschmann could only rebut with a convoluted string of justifications and complaints about his superiors, before admitting that “[p]eople criticised me because I had shelters built at my house in the city and on my estate… But these were purely private projects, whose construction I was able to finance from my private means.”90 So where was this stalwart defender of the German Volk on that February night in Dresden? Gauleiter Mutschmann braved the first attack in the bunker beneath his office—impervious to the carnage that befell his fellow citizens—before fleeing to the safer bunker at his estate outside of the city. Prior to his flight, Mutschmann had served as the province’s governor and defense commissioner—ostensibly fulfilling his duties as the latter by commandeering engineers to construct those aforementioned reinforced shelters. What belief in the local Nazi leadership that remained in Dresden before the bombing was destroyed along with the city. Loyalty gave way to disillusionment as rumors spread about the Gauleiter, despite accounts to the contrary in the Nazi press. Stories of his cowardice and corruption circulated rampantly. Perhaps most telling was an observation made by Willie Schauss: “After the air raid on Dresden, there was no sight of our big chief Mutschmann. Some of them said he was here telling the people how brave they were, but no one could say that they saw him in person.”91 Such cynicism accurately reflected the popular sentiment of a war-weary German population that had just witnessed the unfathomable martyrdom of their beloved city on the altar of the collapsing Third Reich.
Ibid. Ibid. 91 Schauss, My Side, 70.
Impossible to convey, the emotional shock and palpable devastation extant throughout Dresden reached Berlin as only collection of grim statistics and communiqués. At the time of this writing, new evidence from a newspaper article posted on the George Mason University History News Network posits that Nazi leadership may have known about the scheduled bombing as early as two weeks in advance.92 It would not be hard to fathom that the frustrated Führer would forfeit countless German civilian lives for having failed him. Hitler’s self-serving callousness, paranoia, and disappointment in the German people in these final months of the Third Reich have already been confirmed, regardless of this particular document’s validity and the ramifications thereof. The official reaction to the bombing was simple and pragmatic, Dresden was to be treated no differently than any other city in Germany: “This was war—total war—and Berlin was concerned to restore as much of Dresden’s usefulness to the war effort as soon and as completely as was humanly possible.”93 Despite the volume with which Goebbels publicly trumpeted and inspired the Third Reich, there is a curious silence in his diary from 13 February until 28 February 1945. Even more interesting is the absence of any mention of the Dresden bombing until an entry dated 4 March 1945. The destruction of Dresden presented a unique dilemma to Goebbels. The bombing could undoubtedly be construed as an act of “Anglo-American terror” and become a rallying cry for the remaining German Volk to band together—but at the same time could demonstrate the futility of the cause, given the massive destruction and high causalities, which would further weaken morale. As a result, Goebbels’s first instinct was
Obtained from a letter written by a German anti-aircraft gunner to his parents in Dresden. At the time of this writing, this document’s authenticity is presently still under investigation. Murdo MacLeod, “Did Nazis get tip-off about Dresden blitz?,” The Scotsman, Scotsman.com, 27 February 2005, <http://news.scotsman.com/archive.cfm?id=219962005> (2 March 2005). 93 Taylor, Dresden, 355.
to avoid raising the issue publicly. Privately in his diary, he described the event with language similar to that of Dresdener Dora B., before concluding that the bombing of Dresden “was a real tragedy such has seldom been seen in the history of mankind and certainly not in the course of this war.”94 Given his knowledge of the extensiveness and heinousness of the Nazi atrocities, Goebbels’s interpretation of the bombing of Dresden is exceptionally perverse. The entries of Goebbels’s diary following the bombing showcased new tones of loss and mourning when Dresden was discussed. Yet, despite his visit to the city on 8 March, Goebbels granted Dresden a one-sentence acknowledgement and little more in his diary entry.95 In contrast to the stoic face of National Socialism that Goebbels presented to the public, brief reiterations of Dresden’s fate reoccur every so often in the remaining entries along with a private hope “that there will not be a catastrophe here [Berlin] like the recent one in Dresden.”96 Even Goebbels noted Hauptmann’s aforementioned statements about the bombing, which undoubtedly affected all those in Berlin and remaining German territory who feared that their city would share Dresden’s fate and they would learn how to cry again.97 Regarding the latter, Goebbels made sure they would. Once the Allied propaganda blunder imbued the perception of Dresden with the words “terror bombing,” the Nazi propaganda machine—which for years had characterized all British and American attacks as such and subsequently diminished the effect of the phrase—could finally gain resonance. Goebbels summoned all the available resources to embark on a massive sympathy campaign featuring graphic photographs,
Joseph Goebbels, Final Entries, 1945: The Diaries of Joseph Goebbels, ed. Hugh Trevor-Roper, trans. Richard Barry (New York: Putnam, 1978), 64. 95 Ibid., 79. 96 Ibid., 53. 97 Ibid., 288-289.
disturbing eye-witness testimonials, and exorbitant body counts from the bombing. Even Goebbels himself, according to testimony from Hans Fritzsche, the chief of the Propaganda Ministry’s press division, acknowledged that a realistic estimate for Dresden’s dead was about forty thousand.98 The inflated publicized death toll, subsequent numbers game, and the extent of international outrage that permeated the decades following the Dresden bombing represents, in Taylor’s opinion, “Goebbels’s final, dark masterpiece.”99 Despite the effectiveness of Goebbels’s efforts to trumpet the tragedy of Dresden, another perception—albeit an uncommon assessment—of the bombing took a strikingly different approach, one that was decidedly more attuned to both Nazi cultural ambitions and ideological lunacy. An article entitled “Without Baggage,” in which Dr. Robert Ley, Reichsleiter of the Nazi German Labor Front, wrote “that the destruction of Dresden has been greeted with a sigh of relief by the German people since we have now lost our last city of culture” caught Goebbels’s attention.100 Even he considered this perception “simply intolerable,” not for its irrationality, but for its defeatist attitude that he believed suggested, “that we had best abandon the entire Reich to the enemy since we should then have no baggage at all to drag around with us.” 101 This devotee of the Fatherland seemed to have been oblivious not only to the precipitously waning strength of the Third Reich, but also the argument of Ley’s article regarding the empire’s aspirations for a cultural purification at the expense of Germany’s rich Christian-humanist heritage. Adolf Hitler’s response, according to Ian Kershaw’s definitive biography, Hitler, 1936-45: Nemesis, reflected the frustration and powerlessness of a Führer who was
Quoted in Taylor, Dresden, 372. Taylor, Dresden, 372. 100 Goebbels, Final Entries, 90. 101 Ibid.
watching his thousand-year empire reduced to ash and rubble. Haggard and weak, Hitler received the news of Dresden’s destruction stony-faced and with clenched fists.102 Also present, Goebbels was reportedly shaking with rage and intent on executing Allied POWs for every German civilian killed in Dresden.103 The proposal was entertained by Hitler, who believed the response would result in Allied retaliation and curb the flow of Germans surrendering to the West. Ultimately thwarted by the dissuasion of a staff including Field Marshals Jodl and Keitel, Admiral Dönitz, and Ribbentrop, which considered such a directive counterproductive, Hitler lamented the Geneva Convention that assured fleeing Germans safe refuge and humane treatment under the Allies—making surrender to the perpetrators of this devastating attack so paradoxically enticing.104 Rumors of Nazi intentions to execute Allied POWs in reprisal have surfaced repeatedly over the years, but none have been wholly substantiated. An interned Hermann Goering contributed to the speculation when he told American interrogators in Nuremberg of Hitler’s desire to “exterminate” all Allied POWs in retaliation—a threat supposedly never fulfilled because of the war’s premature conclusion.105 The former Luftwaffe commander who had once promised that not a single enemy bomber would reach the Ruhr is hardly a reliable source, particularly given the figurative noose that was tightening around his neck (and the literal one he avoided with a cyanide capsule on the eve of his execution) and his falling-out with Hitler near the war’s end. As for Goebbels, his verbose personal diary described no ambitions of reprisal for the “real tragedy” of Dresden, which he reportedly suggested;
Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1936-45: Nemesis (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 779. Ibid. 104 John Nichol and Tony Rennell, The Last Escape: The Untold Story of Allied Prisoners of War in Europe, 1944-45 (New York: Viking, 2003), 356. 105 Ibid., 355.
furthermore, when he did comment on Allied POWs, in an entry fewer than three weeks after the bombing on 4 March 1945, he took a strikingly different perspective:
There are some 78,000 of them [Anglo-American POWs] and they can no longer be properly fed; they are riddled with lice and many of them are suffering from dysentery. Under present circumstances, there is little one can do for them. Perhaps it would be possible to call in the Red Cross to help in producing a semi-human existence for them.106
Notwithstanding this private inconsistency, the proposal for retaliatory extermination of Allied POWs as retribution for Dresden—regardless of who generated it —apparently reached the barracks of the POW camps. Indeed, after having long been the recipients of preferential treatment relative to their Soviet counterparts, the American and British POWs began to express concern about the rumors that circulated after 14 February.
Goebbels, Final Entries, 43.
III. Allied POWs in Dresden:
Beneath the Fearsome Feet of Friendly Giants
There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. The meat locker was a very safe shelter…So it goes.107 – Kurt Vonnegut, American POW in Dresden during the bombing
Not all British and Americans soldiers on the night of the bombing were crammed into the fuselages of planes over Dresden. Whether confined beneath Schlachthof-fünf (Slaughterhouse-five) or interned in a Lager (prison camp) at Niedersedlitz on the periphery of the city, Allied prisoners of war saw the same flares that Germans saw illuminate the sky and watched the same bombs that Germans watched obliterate Dresden, but they did not perceive them the same way.108 Following the bombing, the POWs found themselves on a surreal “moonscape.” Heavily cratered, the obliterated city was an alien territory the likes of which they had never seen before.109 Other POWs did not even witness the bombing, but still felt the repercussions as rumors spread throughout the camps about a radical maneuver designed for the Niederlagstag (day of defeat). The reflections of these POWs are unique because they felt the reverberations of an unseen bombing. For those who endured the bombing in Dresden, they dirtied their hands laboring in the so called “corpse mines”—that is to say, unearthing the bodies of Germans whom this assault was intended to harm.110 Since the surviving POWs in Dresden were necessary for the reconstruction and “corpse mining” efforts, their usefulness secured their lives for the time being. Elsewhere, the fate of Allied POWs was less certain, since they
Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 177. The phrase ‘Allied prisoners of war’ refers to those captured soldiers fighting on behalf of the British and Americans. A careful reader will have noticed the exclusion of Soviet prisoners of war, whom despite their limited presence in Dresden during the bombing, are virtually undocumented. The result of both limited resources (many of those interned in Germany were sent away for reeducation upon their return to the Soviet Union) and the obstacle of language, these victims are only mentioned in the perceptions of others. 109 Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 213. 110 Ibid., 214.
only had hearsay and hope to guide them. A newspaper in Stockholm disclosed a plan allegedly concocted by Himmler, should the necessity present itself:
[F]or the liquidation of all prisoners in Nazi hands, including political prisoners and the inmates of concentration camps, those under arrest, and, worst of all, all prisoners of war and foreign workers in Germany. The larger prison camps are to be liquidated by bombing and machinegunning, or, where there are sufficient SS guards, by shooting.111
According to Nichol and Rennel in The Last Escape, it was Hitler who “had been incensed by the carpet-bombing of Dresden in the middle of February and had wanted to take reprisals against POWs then. Himmler, apparently, had restrained him.”112 Although impossible to say for sure what transpired in that bunker when the Führer was informed of Dresden, the presence and prevalence of the rumors indicated “that the destruction of Dresden had indeed added considerably to the danger the prisoners of war were in.”113 Or at least, this is how they perceived it. Despite declarations from POWs asserting the existence of a pending reprisal for Dresden and multiple attempts to link the threat and the bombing, these men were hardly in a position to be apprised of facts. There is no hard evidence to substantiate these claims and this alleged reprisal came too late after the bombing to correspond.114 In Dresden, most of the Allied POWs present during the bombing were sheltered in their prisoner of war camps outside the city center, but Schauss happened upon some unfortunate exceptions. Having fled the conflagration that had quickly consumed the hotel, Schauss and his friend stumbled upon a bizarre scene beneath a statue of Bismarck. Trudging over corpses with burned soles, the two encountered a group of five American and British POWs who had taken refuge behind piles of bodies the statue. One of them, a
Nichol and Rennell, The Last Escape, 192. Ibid., 193. 113 Ibid. 114 Ibid., 354.
British officer and pilot, spoke enough German to assist the two boys over to the impromptu shelter. The absurdity of the situations was not lost to Schauss who reports that at this moment he thought: “What a screwed up world we are living in. Here is a prisoner of war who dropped bombs to kill, then risks his life to save two boys who should be his enemy. I think 20,000 feet up in the air, killing people is not the same as seeing somebody dying.”115 This crisis-forged relationship between a German Hitler Youth and a British POW was certainly one of unbalanced convenience, since the British officer relied on Schauss’s knowledge of the city to spirit him and his fellow POWs out of the city alive. Nevertheless, Schauss insisted in his memoirs on the genuineness of the camaraderie and recounted the remorse of the British officer when they reached the carnage of the Grosser Garten:
The British officer had tears in his eyes. ‘My God,’ he said, ‘those are women and children.’ ‘Willy,’ he said, ‘I will never forget this scene for as long as I am alive. My God, this is not war. This is plain mass murder. We were taught that the Germans are barbaric, but I cannot see the difference between the Germans and us. I can’t believe that our government ordered an airstrike [sic] on a city like Dresden. There is no industry and nothing worthwhile to bomb. Ordering an airstrike [sic], just to kill women and children!’116
The sentiments of this nameless officer were echoed by other Allies on the receiving end of this air strike, most notably Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, drew from his presence in Dresden during and after the bombing as an American POW. Inspired by this experience, Vonnegut felt compelled to write Slaughterhouse-Five because, prior to its release and subsequent popularity, the bombing remained a relatively unknown historical event in the United States. Despite inflated casualty figures (from revisionist David Irving’s widely-criticized The Destruction of
Schauss, My Side, 56. Ibid., 57.
Dresden), Vonnegut himself commented that “[i]t wasn’t a famous air raid back then in America. Not many Americans knew how much worse it had been than Hiroshima, for instance. I didn’t know that, either. There hadn’t been much publicity.”117 Publication of Vonnegut’s book in 1969 propelled the bombing into infamy and complemented a great deal of existing anti-war literature and sentiment inspired by the war in Vietnam. The novel’s alternative title elucidates Vonnegut’s perception of war as a crusade fought by “foolish virgins…right at the end of childhood.”118 He aims to deglamorize the traditional depiction of soldiers as “men instead of babies…played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men.”119 The evacuation of the one hundred American POWs (including Vonnegut) beneath Slaughterhouse-five during the bombing, an abandoned slaughterhouse built “as a shelter for pigs about to be butchered,”120 bolstered his perception of himself and his fellow soldiers as victims only to be slaughtered. In the novel, one American soldier, Paul Lazzaro, recounted a story about the revenge he literally served in the form of steak filled with sharp bits of a clock spring to a dog that had bit him. As the dog suffered excruciatingly, Lazzaro rejoiced. A character who gloated about the torturous murder of a dog has a surprisingly different tone after the destruction of Dresden, “Lazzaro did not exult. He didn’t have anything against the Germans, he said. Also, he said he liked to take his enemies one at a time.”121 Admittedly, Lazzaro is a character in a novel that may or may not have been based on one of Vonnegut’s fellow soldiers. Regardless, he still serves as a mouthpiece for the author,
Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 10. Ibid., 14. 119 Ibid. 120 Ibid., 152. 121 Ibid., 141.
an eye-witness to the bombing of Dresden and the alleged strafing of civilians by American fighter planes. About this, Vonnegut sardonically remarked, “[t]he idea was to hasten the end of the war,” a commonly repeated justification for the strategic bombing campaign that brought about the annihilation of Dresden.122 A recurring phrase in the novel, “so it goes,”123 is a device Vonnegut uses to downplay mortality and is evoked whenever death or dying is discussed. The effect of the habituation is similar to the brutalization of men at war and serves as a commentary on how routine and mundane mortality can become. War is not easily marginalized. The quasi-autobiographical journey of protagonist Billy Pilgrim is interlaced with timetraveling expeditions analogous to the post-traumatic stress disorder that psychologists Johannes Herrle and Andreas Maercker researched in survivors of the bombing. Such symptoms are often associated with the psychological consequences of exposure to war trauma. Undoubtedly affected by what he witnessed while incarcerated in Dresden, Vonnegut—like the German inhabitants of Dresden—sought to explain to the inexplicable, an effort which even the author himself decided was “a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.”124 Perhaps a reflection of the impact the bombing had on Vonnegut, although he survived the assault, 13 February 1976 was the day that Billy Pilgrim, his fictional incarnation, died.125 Vonnegut explains the silence following such an event and the futility of speaking about it:
Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a
Ibid., 180. Ibid., 6. 124 Ibid., 22. 125 Ibid., 141.
massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’126
This perception is a stark contrast to the deathly silence that surrounded German Wilhelm Rudolph’s perception of the aftermath, in which the artist explicitly commented on the absence of birds and their familiar chirping. Vonnegut also remembered the same silence—except he distinctly remembered the commentary of the birds, which he believes is the only intelligent thing to say about a massacre. His book concluded with Billy Pilgrim wandering through the derelict streets of Dresden: “Birds were talking. One bird said to Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”127 The far more stylistic interpretation of Vonnegut is the result of his medium—fiction—but makes his perception no less significant than Rudolph’s. The contrast between the fanciful story of Billy Pilgrim and the restrained recollection of survivor Dick Sheehy, finds a British POW who “stripped [his account] as far as possible of all heroics and horrors quite deliberately.”128 Sheehy recounted his experiences in an article published in History Today entitled “Dresden plus 93 days.” It was the first time he had put his memories into words on paper and his sixth rewrite. By February 1945, Sheehy had already become quite acclimated to the life of a POW, having been one for almost four-and-a-half years. Lulled into the same false security of Dresden’s population, he and his fellow POWs disregarded the deafening drone of his fellow countrymen’s bombers overhead. Thankful for the distance between his prisoner camp and the raging inferno, he struggled back to sleep and was awoken in the early morning to an announcement declaring that there would be no work on this Wednesday. An approaching sortie of American B-17s caught the attention of Sheehy and several of
Ibid., 19. Ibid., 215. 128 Dick Sheehy, “Dresden plus 93 days,” History Today 45, no. 5 (1995): 5.
his cohorts, which sent them into a haphazardly constructed trench that saved their lives. Unbeknownst to the pilots in the sky, the bombs they dropped on the camp, “killed seventy-one men; Russians, French, Poles and British. No Germans.”129 Friendly fire. Sheehy’s initial reaction was understandable, but following further examination, his subsequent reversal is telling: “[A]nger [rose] up in me towards the nameless B[-]17, its crew, and the whole stupid enemy. And then, even then, I realized the ‘enemy’ were [sic] our friends.”130 As those bombs struck, the line between friend and foe blurred; the bombing was no longer a fiery cityscape on the distant horizon—it was a smoldering and bloodied crater full of charred rubble and bodies. Some days later, after receiving permission from a German officer to seek medical attention for a fellow Briton wounded in the attack, he described the bonding effect that the crisis had: “I think that was the only time I ever spoke in a friendly way to a German soldier.”131 Other exchanges with Germans, military or civilian, were typically far less cordial, with the natives frequently asking, “what did [the British POWs] think about this,” as if these men had an answer for: “why had the Allies bombed Dresden?”132 After fleeing his captors, Sheehy encountered a particularly hospitable German family that offered him food and coffee, with the pretext that Sheehy’s British uniform would dissuade any rowdy Russian patrols. Commenting on what he witnessed in the house and the stories he heard later from the women and girls unsexed by short haircuts, restrained breasts and male clothing, he described the Russian actions as “the first time I had met total and merciless hatred”—a harsh judgment from a man who had witnessed not only the conditions of German POW camp for four years, but
Ibid., 6-7. Ibid. 131 Ibid., 8. 132 Ibid.
also the destruction of Dresden.133 Perceptions like Sheehy’s give credence to the fears of most Germans in Dresden who, after the bombing fled toward the “refuge” of the Allies who had bombed, burned, and smoked them out.
IV. Allied Perceptions of the Perfect Firestorm:
Evaluating Operation Thunderclap from Cockpit to Cabinet
From our point of view, it was only a fluke. – Freeman Dyson, civilian scientist for Bomber Command
Peering down from the relative comfort of their Lancaster bombers after having unleashed such devastation on the city of Dresden, the British airmen hardly emulated the indiscriminate barbarism of their payloads. Indeed, survival was paramount for the airmen in Bomber Command—sixty percent of whom never made it home.134 Their greatest satisfaction came not from the explosions of bombs or the incineration of cities, but from a safe landing on a friendly runway. Doug Hicks, a nineteen-year-old Canadian interviewed by Taylor, encapsulated the feeling of his entire crew following their operation over Dresden, which happened to be their first ever: “As quickly as it started, we have dropped the bomb load and turned to head for home…There is no jubilation from the crew, not even a slight hurrah.”135 For these men who flew over Dresden, most of whom knew rather little about the city’s amenities, the metropolis below was simply another target of another mission that needed to be bombed in order to bring them one sortie closer to fulfilling their quota and earning a trip back home.136 One of the few who was familiar with Dresden’s cultural relevance, bomber gunner Derek Jackson, admitted his cursory knowledge of the city, but justified the bombing with the demands of war: “As a youngster, I had heard of Dresden in connection with China pottery, but of course all large German cities had factories working on war production, so we had no qualms about the raid. We certainly didn’t think the war was over at this time.”137 Indeed, for the
Sebald, On the Natural History, 18. Taylor, Dresden, 282. 136 Ibid., 278. 137 Ibid., 275.
aircrews over Dresden, “the evidence is that it just looked like an area that needed to be bombed.”138 Miles Tripp recounted his flying duties for Bomber Command in his memoirs, Eight Passenger and echoed the thoughts of most of his fellow pilots, Dresden was simply another target—albeit a virtually untouched one. Flying in the second wave, Tripp knew only that the city was teeming with refugees and general confusion and that their orders were to further disrupt an already chaotic situation with a “panic raid,”139 designed to exacerbate conditions in the city. In the middle of the briefing, he recalled footage from earlier in the war of German bombing runs targeting French refugees that left him “feeling disturbed,” the memory of which, “is itself so vivid that it has never left [him].”140 On the approach to the city, the damage of the first strike was already apparent in the flaming latticework of the city grid. In light of the fiery destruction, compelled by guilt, and without orders from the master bomber, Tripp ordered the aircraft away from the heart of the city and released the payload into what he presumed (and hoped) would be open land: “I couldn’t forget what we had been told at the briefing, or the old newsreels of German dive-bombing atrocities.”141 After a successful landing without any losses, the crew struggled to describe the inferno they had witnessed even though “[t]here simply weren’t the adjectives or comparisons available. It was like trying to describe a phenomenon never before witnessed by human eyes.”142 Although twelve thousand feet on the “giving” end of this conflagration, the bombers described—or more accurately, failed to
Ibid., 278. Miles Tripp, The Eighth Passenger (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2002), 80. 140 Ibid. 141 Ibid., 83. 142 Ibid., 85.
describe—the “enormous bowl of rosy light which reached to altitudes unattainable by aircraft,” with the same incomprehensibility of those who endured it.143 Not all of those below were citizens of the Reich, but this was something these bomber crews obviously could not distinguish. Oblivious to the Jews who composed a minority of the population below, an unnamed Jewish pilot of 5 Group, Bomber Command reported as he approached the blazing city:
The fantastic glow from 320 kilometers distance became ever brighter as we neared the objective. Even at a height of 6,700 meters, we could recognize details in the ghastly glow of the flames, which we had never seen before; for the first time since many deployments, I felt compassion with the population down below.144
Undoubtedly aware of the Nazi ethnic cleansing operations, the liberation of extermination camps by Red Army forces advancing through Poland had occurred in 1944, such sympathy is astonishing, although not unbelievable. Unbeknownst to him, the oppressed population below was neither unanimous in its perception of his mission, nor fully aware of the consequences. Furthermore, not even the men dropping the bombs agreed on how to interpret this fateful operation. In hindsight, the bombing of Dresden was a turning point for Tripp when, in his words, he “became something like a mercenary or professional soldier.”145 He described his reaction during the briefing and subsequent mercy bombing as “a last gesture to an ideal of common humanity,” which Tripp struggled with given his position in the crew of a Lancaster bomber: “To be honest I am not sure which I found more distasteful—the idea of actually bombing refugees, or the idea that when the Allies were bombing refugees it
Ibid. “Der phantastische Schein aus 320 Kilometer Entfernung wurde immer heller, als wir uns dem Ziel nähern. Selbst in einer Höhe von sechstausendsiebenhundert Metern konnten wir bei dem gespenstischen Schein der Flammen Einzelheiten erkennen, die wir nie zuvor gesehen hatten; zum ersten Mal seit vielen Einsätzen fühlte ich Mitleid mit der Bevölkerung dort unten.” Quoted in Adolf Diamant, Chronik der Juden in Dresden (Darmstadt: Agora, 1973), 455. 145 Ibid., 87.
was all right but when the Germans bombed refugees it was all wrong.”146 Miles defended the policy of “Bomber” Harris that created Dresden, but following that night in February, he stopped counting the missions left before home. “So far as I could see, we should go on flying until we were killed and there wasn’t any point in teasing oneself with the prospect of ultimate safety.”147 For a member of a bomber crew that zealously tallied each Benzedrine-fueled mission, this indifference is a remarkable manifestation of the effect of one particular flight over Dresden. For their American counterparts, Operation Thunderclap was no less routine. “The only thing that might have been known […] was that the RAF had hit Dresden hard.”148 Following the pair of successful British runs, a sortie of American bombers took off from East Anglia in the morning with a quaint city on the Elbe as their target. Alden Rigby, a P51-D Mustang pilot flying escort from Chievres, was most concerned about the flight time: “I don’t recall it was any big thing at all […] my main emphasis was that it was such a long haul.”149 Similar to their British counterparts, these men were almost without exception hoping to enjoy another breakfast. Most soldiers’ thoughts echoed those of ball turret gunner Sergeant William Stewart of the U.S. First Air Division who saw Dresden as “just another city in Germany.”150 Such indifference was often the status quo for these men, but others were motivated by the anticipation of a war nearing its conclusion and the destruction of an enemy guilty of heinous crimes that the world had never before seen. Obedience quelled any reservations some may have had, but Top
Ibid. Ibid. 148 Taylor, Dresden, 316. 149 Ibid., 320-321. 150 Alexander McKee, Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox (New York: Dutton, 1984), 316.
Sergeant Harold W. Hall distinctly remembered the morning of the 14th because of the weight of his conscience:
The reason I remember that mission is that during our briefing the officer pointed to a small building locate on the map as in the center of Dresden… I felt it was indiscriminate bombing of all the refugees fleeing the Russians. I have to say that I felt ashamed we had leveled ourselves to the Krauts. During the briefing, no mention of the refugees in the city was made, but it wasn’t needed.151
Men like Hall were the certainly the exception rather than the rule, but there undoubtedly were men flying over Dresden already loaded with guilt, some primed for vengeance, and others concerned with only self-preservation before the first bomb had even been dropped. Far removed from the discomfort and danger of a seat in the fuselage of the bombers he assisted, Freeman Dyson worked as a civilian scientist at the headquarters of Bomber Command, an institution which he later described as “an early example of the new evil that science and technology have added to the old evils of soldiering. Technology has made evil anonymous.”152 In subsequent years, Dyson gained accolades as a distinguished physicist, humanitarian, pure mathematician, government adviser, futurologist, and author. Shedding the anonymity that protected his desk job in Bomber Command, Dyson identified in his book, Disturbing the Universe, the “all too perfect” circumstances surrounding the Dresden bombing, similar to the macabre fortune manifested in the ideal flying conditions of his cohorts in the sky:
The Dresden firestorm was the worst. But from our point of view it was only a fluke. We attacked Berlin sixteen times with the same kind of force that attacked Dresden once. We were trying every time to raise a firestorm. There was nothing special about Dresden except that for once everything worked as we intended. It was like a hole in one in a game of golf. Unfortunately Dresden had little military importance, and anyway
McKee, Tinderbox, 213. Freeman Dyson, Disturbing Universe (New York: Harper & Row: 1979), 30.
the slaughter came too late to have any serious effect on the war.153
Despite having never dropped a bomb, Dyson’s recollections of his time served in the Operational Research Section are laced with such remorse, particularly regarding the decision to bomb Dresden, which he saw as a Rubicon that had been nearing ever since 1939. Once crossed, Dyson traced the repercussions of that February night “to Hiroshima, to the nuclear terror in which the whole world now lives. We had dirtied a good cause, and the dirt stuck to us.”154 Even years after the war, Dyson’s remorse was so deep that he elicited some sympathy for the doomed Nazis on trial for “writing memoranda and calculating how to murder people efficiently, just like me. The main difference was that they were sent to jail or hanged as war criminals, while I was set free.”155 “At first it was just another news item,” claims Taylor.156 Indeed, this late into the war, bombings like Dresden had achieved a certain banality in the eyes of a British public that regarded such events as “[a]nother routine story breaking on a war-weary world where thousands of human beings still died violently every day.”157 But Dresden was unique. Historian Max Hastings asserts that before 13 February, Dresden was just another target on the map, that “[g]reat horrors in war are not always, or even often, the product of commensurate reflection by those who unleash them.”158 After the bombing, it was not long before the consequences of this “fluke” reached 10 Downing Street. As the news spread, a rift emerged between Winston Churchill and Arthur Harris regarding their perspectives of the bombing of Dresden and strategic bombing in general. The bombing
Ibid., 28. Ibid., 34. 155 Freeman Dyson, Weapons and Hope (New York: Harper & Row: 1984), 120. 156 Taylor, Dresden, 332. 157 Ibid. 158 Max Hastings, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 (New York: Knopf, 2004), 336.
policy was the result of a British directive formally issued three years earlier to the day (14 February). Whether referred to as “strategic bombing,” “area bombing,” or more pointedly, “morale bombing”—the tactic meant to destroy entire cities along with civilian morale in an effort to, in the words of historian Ian Buruma, “win the war through terror and wholesale destruction.”159 Regarding the effectiveness of such tactics, Ian Buruma admits, “[i]t is impossible to know for sure,” but presents the widely-held position that, “there is little evidence that morale bombing, at least in Germany, made the war any shorter.”160 Many historians have presented studies that challenge this belief. Neil Gregor’s study of Nuremberg from 1942-1945 argues that Allied bombing campaigns were not only “responsible for a serious decline in the morale of the German civilian population,” but also generated “a corresponding self crisis of self-confidence in the Nazi party.”161 However, such studies have had little impact on the dominant perception that the strategic bombing campaign failed to do what it was ultimately designed to do: expedite the conclusion of the war in Europe.162 Even during the war—despite proof of its ineffectiveness in lowering morale and impairing industrial production—the bomber offensive continued largely for propagandistic and economic purposes. The former was necessary for British morale which bolstered with every RAF “Blitz” unleashed in retribution on a German city and the latter was justified with efficient business thinking: the use of matériel that would otherwise go to waste. All of these factors compounded
Buruma, “The Destruction of Germany,” 5. Ibid., 6. 161 Neil Gregor, “A Schicksalsgemeinschaft? Allied Bombing, Civilian Morale, and Social Dissolution in Nuremberg, 1942-1945,” The Historical Journal Volume 43, 4 (2000): 1070. 162 This is not to say this strategy of citywide bombing was totally unsuccessful in ending conflict. Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki undoubtedly brought a swift end to the Pacific war in August 1945, although the motivations behind the decision are still hotly debated today.
with the simple fact that once this policy was put into motion—as in many bureaucratic organizations—routine continued it forward. For Churchill, the bombing of Dresden was a brief turning point. Despite having supported strategic bombing campaigns for the past four years, the Prime Minister began to privately confess doubts after the Dresden raid. Taylor cites these misgivings with a memorandum from Churchill dated 28 March 1945 to General Ismay, his chief of staff:
‘It seems to me the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed…The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing’ which he believed demanded ‘more precise concentration upon military objectives…rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.’163
Such alarming language, even under the aegis of confidentiality, clearly demonstrated the Prime Minister’s distress over the strategic bombing campaign that had culminated over Dresden. While Dresden does not stand as the sole impetus for this contradictory policy reversal, its ramifications only two months later on the very man who ordered the bombing are palpable. The bombing of Dresden, as Taylor attests to, “was no longer seen as an uncommonly effective operation, but had instead come to signify something uncommon of an entirely different and less desirable sort.” In only six weeks “Dresden had already come to symbolize something.”164 Having learned about contents of the memorandum—which were diplomatically paraphrased by the Deputy Chief of Air Staff (omitting, in particular, the use of the word terror)—Harris adamantly defended the decision and scoffed at the allegations. The head of Bomber Command truly believed that it was “a higher poetic justice at work,” and argued “that those who have loosed these horrors upon mankind will now in their homes
Taylor, Dresden, 375-376. Ibid., 376.
and persons feel the shattering strokes of just retribution.”165 John Colville, a staff member in Whitehall who compiled his memories during and after the war in The Fringes of War: 10 Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955, had asked Harris on 23 February about the effect of the raid on Dresden. “‘Dresden?’ he said. ‘There is no such place as Dresden.’”166 Colville also remarked how routine the entire mission was, adding that “[a] principal reason for the Dresden raid was the intelligence report,” which had identified possible troop movement into the city. Further, the attack “was in accord with the general policy of bombing German towns massively, so as to shatter civilian morale.”167 It must be noted, however, that despite Colville’s position, he was not privy to all the happenings in Whitehall, which is evidenced by his mistaken belief that “I do not think he [Churchill] was consulted about the raid…I am reasonably sure he would have [mentioned it in my presence] if it had been regarded as anything at all special.”168 As it has been shown, Churchill ordered the raid, but despite misinterpreting what the Prime Minister did not say, Colville probably correctly recorded what Harris did say about the bombing of Dresden. Regarding Churchill’s memo, Harris’s reply was succinct and characteristically blunt:
The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden could be easily explained by a psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government center, and a key transportation centre. It is now none of those things.169
This callous tone resounded throughout Whitehall, whose members echoed the opinion, if not the sentiment. By the next morning, Churchill withdrew his bombing
Sebald, On the Natural History, 19. John Colville, The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955 (New York: Norton, 1985), 562. 167 Ibid., 562-563. 168 Ibid., 563. 169 Henry Probert, Bomber Harris: His Life and Times (London: Greenhill, 2001), 322.
policy reform. Perhaps this memorandum and its subsequent reversal reflected the Prime Minister taking his own advice about leaders who keep their ears to the ground170 after having momentarily buckled to the mood of his nation, which indeed began to question the consequences of their zeal for an end to this war. Regardless of the motivations, be them moral or political, this point of contention marked the beginning of a gradual distancing from Bomber Command, which went so far as to remove any mention of the unit from his VE-Day speech. Arthur Harris would still get the final word. In 1946, he published his memoirs, Bomber Offensive. Not surprisingly, Harris only briefly commented on the bombing of Dresden, acknowledging “that the destruction of so large and splendid a city at this late stage of the war was considered unncessary [sic] even by a good many people who admit that our earlier attacks were as fully justified as any other operation of war.” He also denied responsibility for the attack, which was “at the time considered a military necessity by much more important people than myself.”171 Far from repentant, Harris dodged accountability for the decision to bomb Dresden with typical military deftness: he was, after all, only following orders. As commander of RAF Bomber Command, few men— but one cigar-smoking statesman in particular—had the authority to order such an assault. Only days after Dresden, Harris prophesized the waning age of bombers in a conversation with Churchill that emulated Dyson’s sentiments about Dresden at the junction of the merging of new technology and age-old warfare: “The bomber is a passing phase…and it has nearly passed.”172 Rockets were the weapons of the future. There was certainly no need to train rockets and feed them, or keep up morale, or prevent them from
“The nation will find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are keeping their ears to the ground,” Winston Churchill. 171 Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (London: Greenhill, 1990), 242. 172 Colville, Fringes, 564.
asking questions about what they were doing.173 In August the prophecy was fulfilled in the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the U.S. demonstrated the destruction that could be delivered with only one bomber and atomic payload in the nuclear age. Undeniably correct about the future of (cold) warfare, Harris perceived Dresden as a watershed in military operations that shifted entire nations toward nuclear proliferation and spawned a new military strategy that—instead of unilateral destruction like Dresden —assured mutual destruction. Long before mushroom clouds were on front pages, early reports of the bombing caught the attention of American civilian officials and military chiefs alike. Yet it was the aforementioned Cowan article that particularly alarmed them. The response was swift: two days later, General Henry H. Arnold demanded an explanation from Lt. Gen. Carl A. Spaatz, who responded the next day. He charged that “Cowan’s article was an exaggeration of Grierson’s statements, which had slipped past the censors,” and insisted that “[o]ur attacks have been in all cases against Military objectives.”174 The response from the White House was equally heated, although not from the ailing President himself. Roosevelt, abroad at the time, did not comment on the bombing of Dresden in any of his published personal letters, wartime correspondences with Churchill, press conferences, or public addresses. In fact, there is no indication in the secondary literature about Roosevelt’s perception of the bombing save one remark about his fondness for German history and the historical cost of Dresden’s destruction. It was Secretary of War Henry Stimson who demanded a full investigation and report of the raid from Army Chief of Staff George Marshall. One of his diary entries bemoaned the “terrible and probably
Taylor, Dresden, 389. Mark A. Clodfelter, “Culmination Dresden: 1945,” Aerospace Historian 26 (Fall 1979): 137.
unnecessary” destruction of Dresden, a city he envisaged as the “center” of a new, “less Prussianized” Germany that would be “dedicated to freedom.”175 In response to his inquiry, Stimson received a questionable analysis that not only justified the suitability of Dresden, but also reported that “[v]isual results appeared excellent.” The “unobserved to fair results” that had initially been recorded were evidently upgraded. Stimson responded appropriately, skeptically remarking on the bottom of the memorandum, “I doubt this makes the case any better…While our bombing was said to be aimed at military objectives the results were practically unobserved. I think the city should be photographed carefully and the actual facts made known.”176 The Secretary of War pursued the issue until Spaatz’s headquarters in Europe responded directly. He made no further inquiries thereafter. For the inquiring British and American publics not cognizant of the official perceptions, the bombing of Dresden was perceived quite differently on each side of the Atlantic. In many ways, Churchill’s aforementioned actions regarding the treatment of Bomber Command and Bomber Harris after the Dresden bombing reflected a greater mood in Britain—although this public response was not immediate. Throughout the war, Churchill—himself a former war correspondent—ironically limited the freedom of journalists to report on potentially volatile topics (like the bombing of Dresden) which could jeopardize state efforts to preserve national unity, morale, and security. Once the squabbles in Whitehall spilled over into the House of Lords, the British public learned the full extent of the destruction in Dresden; as a result, overall support for Bomber Command, and Bomber Harris in particular, quickly diminished. Nevertheless, the
Michael Beschloss, The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 190-191. 176 Ibid., 138.
suppression of discussion in the media is reflected in the pages of The (London) Times, which for the entire remainder of the war stifled reports on the bombing of Dresden almost entirely. Following the bombing, a 15 February report in The Times entitled “Smashing blows at Dresden” not only described the success of the bombing, but emphasized, with curious repetition, the significance of Dresden as “a place of vital importance to the enemy,” and as “a vital centre for controlling the German defence.”177 This was the first and only instance of Dresden coverage in The Times in the context of the bombing of 13-14 February. The few remaining references to Dresden only depicted the city as another stop for the Red Army on their march toward Berlin; absolutely nothing is written about the destruction. While the British publicly anticipated the end of a war but privately debated the appropriate means for bringing it about, the Americans shifted focus on a second war that had been raging since 1941 against the Japanese. Still concerned with a war in the Pacific, the American population back home generated little public outcry about the bombing of Dresden, let alone controversy surrounding strategic bombing, which unlike in Britain, had never been an overt policy against Germany (although it curiously was against Japan). This sentiment is reflected in the sparse references to Dresden throughout the New York Times and Washington Post from February to VE-Day. Whenever the bombing is evoked, as in a Washington Post editorial from 22 March entitled “Schrecklichkeit” (“Frightfulness”), the charges of terror bombing are rebuked and the German misconception is explained:
The wail of the aggrieved Nazis was particularly great after the recent assault on Dresden where, the world was told, the entire inner heart of the city was laid waste. Strong believers in Schrecklichkeit (frightfulness) as an instrument of warfare, the Nazis automatically
The Times (London), “Smashing blows at Dresden,” February 15 1945
assume that every attack upon Germany is motivated by the same insensate love of frightfulness.178
More typically, Dresden is referred to as just another in a list of German cities obliterated thanks to the efforts of the brave American men serving in the skies over Europe. Public opinion categorized Dresden as the exemplification and success of aerial bombardments in bringing about an end to the war. “From the Ruhr, from Dresden, from industrial cities to the south, the story is the same… [Strategic bombing] alone made possible the success of the war of movement which brought about the collapse of Germany and contributed immeasurably to holding down the casualties of our infantry and armor.”179 Far from sympathetic to Dresdeners, an editorial in the 16 February edition of the New York Times entitled, “Doom over Germany,” identified the attack on Dresden as not only deserved, but also necessary: “If in that resistance more landmarks of European culture and Germany’s own better past must be wiped out, the Germans may, as they were drilled to do, thank their Fuehrer for the result.”180 Vera Brittain offered an explanation for this indifference in Massacre by Bombing:
The distinction between obliteration and precision bombing by 1944 had been lost in the minds of most Americans. Whatever bombing was militarily necessary to win the war must be done. To call into question obliteration bombing was to call into question all bombing and the whole war effort itself.181
Indeed, the Americans, who had for so long prided themselves on precision bombing strikes, now tolerated more imprecise attacks, particularly in Japan, where raids like the firebombing of Tokyo on 9 March 1945 recreated and exceeded the destruction of Dresden without noticeable protest. Such tolerance culminated on 6 August, when an entirely new bombing debate muted what little discussion there was about Dresden. This
The Washington Post, “Schrecklichkeit,” 22 March 1945. The New York Times, “Profits of Airpower,” 11 May 1945. 180 The New York Times, “Doom over Germany,” 16 February 1945. 181 Quoted in Clodfelter, “Culmination Dresden: 1945,” 139.
outcry has certainly amplified in the years after the war’s conclusion, but at the time was restricted to a minority of the American population. In fact, the only consternation expressed in the American press seems to come from those who foresaw the potential problems of occupation and reconstruction. In “Realities of War,” an article published shortly after the bombing (19 February 1945), Marquis Childs warned of the ramifications of such vast—albeit warranted—destruction as he had witnessed in Aachen and expected in Dresden. His concern with the impact that the war would have on the global economy, particularly in light of the defeat of Germany, a major financial player, prompted him to wonder ”whether you can wall the Germans off in the ashes of their defeat and at the same time have any semblance of a working economic system on the continent.”182 Despite the consequences of the “hard peace” imposed on Germany after the First World War, the argument over occupation strategies at the end of this war seemed particularly irrelevant to Childs only a month following Dresden when he proclaimed, “Germany is finished as a modern industrial nation for at least 30 years. I am convinced of that after seeing the destruction.”183 Far sooner than thirty years, the reemergence of West Germany as a modern industrial nation (and to a lesser degree East Germany) makes this declaration seem senseless. As devastating and unparalleled as the destruction of Dresden was, it was neglected by the American press, blurred into a greater montage of annihilated German cities. For the American public during the war, Dresden was seen as merely the culmination of a bombing strategy that would not only end the conflict, but (perhaps more importantly) also threaten to end the economic viability of the post-war German state.
Marquis Childs, “Realities of War,” The Washington Post, 19 February 1945. Marquis Childs, “Reconstruction Job Overwhelming,” The Washington Post, 21 March 1945.
For both the British and American publics, the success at Dresden was at the very least considered with regard to the future implications for warfare and geopolitical stability. Even Noble Frankland, who praised the effectiveness and contribution of strategic bombing in his book Bomber Offensive: The Devastation of Europe, admitted that, “[a]t the end of the war public opinion turned away from bombing which, especially in Britain, it had once so strongly supported. It was not just a question of people being tired of war and disgusted by its horrors. There seemed to be a special feeling of outrage.”184 Nowhere in the arguments praising strategic bombing or defending the attack on Dresden did I find a reference to the peoples of the Second World War who had already suffered so much under the blind watch of the Allied powers and had an entirely different perspective of that same February night.
Noble Frankland, Bomber Offensive: The Devastation of Europe (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970), 152.
Jews of Dresden:
Witnessing Over 4,500 Tons of Fiery Deliverance
The air raid was our salvation, and that was exactly how we understood it.185 – Henny (Wolf) Brenner, a Dresdener Mischling
For the Allied bomber crews at twelve thousand feet, the only stars visible were in the heavens; neither the pilots nor their payloads could distinguish between those wearing swastikas and those wearing yellow Stars of David. One of the most remarkable aspects of the collective memory of the few Jews and Mischlingen186 who witnessed and survived this bombing is that, despite the efforts of an entire nation to alienate, terrorize, and obliterate them, the Jews of Dresden felt a true kinship to their city. Approximately 40 of the remaining 170 Jews still residing in Dresden paradoxically died “at the hands of their liberators, and so close to the end.” As Henny (Wolf) Brenner, one of the surviving Jews, recounted, “[f]or us, however, macabre as it may sound, the air raid was our salvation, and that was exactly how we understood it.”187 For these surviving Jews, the terrible blessing of this intervention of explosives and fire is best illustrated in a passage from Brenner’s »Das Lied ist aus«: Ein jüdisches Schicksal in Dresden (“The Song is Over”: A Jewish Fate in Dresden) as her family sought shelter on the morning of 14 February and stumbled upon a quirk of fate, “the Jewish community house was in flames. We had been due to report there two days later for ‘transportation.’ What an irony that we were now standing in front of the blazing building with that deportation order in our knapsack!”188 Brenner’s father had been delivered this order addressed to his daughter only the day
Quoted in Frederick Taylor, Dresden (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 306. A term coined during the Third Reich and defined by the Nuremberg Laws in 1935: a person having either one Jewish parent or two Jewish grandparents was labeled as a Mischling of the first degree. A person having one Jewish grandparent was labeled a Mischling of the second degree. 187 Quoted in Frederick Taylor, Dresden (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 306. 188 “das Haus der jüdischen Gemeinde in Flammen [war]. Zwei Tage später hätten wir uns dort treffen sollen zum Abtransport. Welche Ironie, daß wir mit dem Deportationsbescheid im Rucksack nun vor dem brennenden Gebäude standen!” Henny (Wolf) Brenner, »Das Lied ist aus«: Ein jüdisches Schicksal in Dresden (Zurich: Pendo, 2001), 92.
before (See Illustration 13). A reprimand for remaining married to a Jew, it was one of the few things he retrieved from their building once the bombs started falling. This deportation was to render Dresden “judenrein” (cleansed of Jews) and to take place on 16 February. That directive was never fulfilled. Instead, Brenner and her family fled Dresden amidst the chaos and confusion. For them, the bombing came just in time. Although the damage was minimal, a raid on 7 October 1944—one of the aforementioned raids on Dresden that preceded 13-14 February—had heralded the possibility of defeat for Dresden’s German population and encouraged the few remaining Jews of the city. Dresden could be a target for obliteration. While the carnage caused by the Allied bombers could potentially be as deadly as the Gestapo, most Jews unquestionably “prefer[ed] the bombers.”189 Understandably, when the bombs began to fall, the Jews of Dresden were just as fearful as their German counterparts; despite the beneficial consequences of the 13-14 February assault, reaping the benefits required survival. Victor Klemperer, a former professor at the Technical University in Dresden, chronicled his life as a Jew living under Nazi rule in his published diary, I Will Bear Witness. Married to a non-Jewish German woman, he managed to avoid expulsion along with the roughly 170 other Jews still residing in Dresden. Nevertheless, Klemperer and his wife were fully aware of the deportation order: they, too, had received it. In a letter written to Berthold Meyerhof on 20 June 1946, Klemperer recounted the bombing that had liberated him and his wife from their insufferable life in Dresden: “When I went out of the house in the morning or at night, it was always a farewell to my life.”190 Insults,
Klemperer’s neighbor as quoted in Taylor, Dresden, 198. “Wenn ich morgens oder abends aus dem Haus ging, war es immer ein Abschied fürs Leben.” Quoted in Diamant, Chronik, 456.
abuse, beatings, and gratuitous search and seizures had become commonplace for Klemperer and his wife. This was the Dresden they saw obliterated. This was the Dresden they mourned. After to the citywide devastation, being a Jew in Dresden was no longer an issue after the bombing. Klemperer’s caretaker, Waldmann, boasted, “all lists have been destroyed, the Gestapo have better things to do, and in two weeks everything will be over anyway!”191 Despite the optimism that the bombing foreshadowed an imminent end to the war (which Waldmann was not alone in believing), the raid had indeed destroyed both the Gestapo headquarters in the Hotel Continental and Nazi Party offices in the Altstadt.192 In a remarkably dramatic moment, Klemperer’s wife ripped the yellow Star of David off of his coat; it was at this moment that he shed the mark of Nazi oppression and from that point onward was no longer identifiable as a Jew. As of 14 February 1945, he was just another German fleeing westward. During his exodus, Klemperer complained about the “shameless” lack of coverage on Dresden in editions of the Kamenzer Tageblatt (Kamenz Journal), which contained “not a word about the 200,000 dead.”193 In the abovementioned letter, Klemperer described the “obliteration attack” as having produced “a quarter-million dead,” a number which had increased by fifty thousand in the year since his diary entry.194 Despite the hyperbolic estimated death tolls (not surprising given the rumor and chaos already cited in the wake of the bombing), Klemperer showed genuine concern for the fate of the Germans in Dresden who had—for the nearly twelve years since the Nuremberg Laws— dehumanized and marginalized him. As Klemperer’s concern for the Dresden dead
Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness (New York: Random House, 1998), 411. Taylor, Dresden, 263. 193 Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, 422. 194 “Vernichtungsangriff […] eine Viertelmillion Toter.” Quoted in Diamant, Chronik, 457.
indicates, the obliteration of Dresden created a common ground for him and his German oppressors. Displaying a similar account, Anneliese (Staub) Thorson recalled her personal experience of the bombing, the effectiveness of which she even reinforced with the earlier-mentioned (and discredited) work of David Irving, with candidness and incredible empathy. Admittedly jaded from six years of war, Thorson and her family “didn’t take the air raid sirens very seriously,” because they—like the German inhabitants—were convinced Dresden could and would never be attacked.195 Even within Jewish population this conviction was reinforced by similar rumors that ranged from reasonable (“too many British have fond memories of Dresden and its art treasures”) to absurd (“Winston Churchill’s grandmother lives in Dresden.”)196 Once the assault began, self-preservation was not always paramount for this naïve population, a reality demonstrated by a woman lamenting, “[i]t hit our house, it hit our house, oh, my carpets!”197 In fact, some stories of escape are far from harrowing, with one family visiting the home of the mother’s bridge partner and enjoying some coffee, before trying to return home at 4:00 A.M.. In telling her own story, Thorson recounted the bombing with nonchalance—time and nostalgia had obviously tempered the words of a woman who had admittedly been saved by the total destruction of the city she loved. The most salient element of her memoirs is a passage entitled, simply, “I Love Dresden.” It began, “[i]f it is possible to love a city, then I love Dresden, my home town,” and expounded on the virtues and qualities of the city going so far as to say that “I love Dresden for its friendly and gregarious people.”198 This
Anneliese (Staub) Thorson, Erika Ruth (Staub) Niemi and Henry P. Staub, The Staub Stories (USHMM unpublished family memoir, 2000), 12. 196 Ibid. 197 Ibid., 13. 198 Ibid., 36.
unconditional tenderness and affection came from a Jew who had been living in Dresden throughout the rise and fall of the Third Reich and wistfully recalled the city whose obliteration prevented her own. Thorson walked out from the ruins of her beloved Dresden a free woman and did not return until 1971—when she found the skyline distorted by Communist oppression and familiar streets lined with unfamiliar buildings. The endearment with which she described Dresden juxtaposed with the horror of the firestorm she survived is remarkable, particular given the consequences of its preservation. She was fully aware of this dichotomy: “The most horrible experience of our lives was behind us. We had lost our home and all of our belongings, but we gained temporary freedom from persecution because all the records of Dresden had been destroyed.”199 While a vast number of Germans questioned a God who had apparently forsaken them, Erika Ruth (Staub) Niema, a Jewish teenager at the time of the bombing, attributed her survival to “God in His mercy,” and in the process found a spiritual connection. Crying into her mother’s lap, she pleaded, “[d]ear God, I am much too young to die. I haven’t even lived yet.”200 At her moment of greatest despair, “[i]n the immense vastness of the universe, there was a God and He heard me—an experience I never forgot.”201 Although her interpretation of a merciful Lord correlates with the typical Jewish interpretation of the providence surrounding the assault, Niema described the bombing with pious language conspicuously similar to the Gentiles of Dresden. Well after the war’s conclusion, she “learned that the British Air Force was trying to surround the city with a ‘ring of fire’ to prevent the escape of the civilian population from the burning city,”
Ibid., 14-15. Ibid., 51. 201 Ibid.
a particularly sadistic—but ultimately false—interpretation of the bombing of that night.202 Unlike every other Jewish account that perceived the bombing as a terrible godsend, Niema made no indication in her recollection of the assault’s positive effect on her life (aside from her spiritual connection) and instead depicted it with language anomalistic to the typical Jewish perspective, “[t]he attack was designed to terrorize the civilian population, and it achieved its purpose [my italics].”203 Despite this incongruity, Niema, like all the surviving Jews of Dresden, saw the bombing of Dresden as 4,500 tons of fiery deliverance. Even among the surviving Jews in Dresden dissimilarities emerged in their experiences and subsequently their perceptions of the bombing. Sophie Machtinger, a Polish Jew, recorded her memoirs with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She described her exaltation at the prospect of leaving the biting cold of the Stutthof concentration camp with her 499 fellow Jews:
The news came that the Russians were approaching and that the Americans and British were gradually bombing the Germans into submission, but we would see no salvation in this. We knew that at the last moment the SS would finish us off or shoot us; in any case were certain that we would not survive. And then a miracle occurred.204
All five hundred were ordered to depart to stay ahead of the advancing Soviets. The miraculous destination was Dresden. Upon reaching the city, Machtinger described an immaculate and lovely city with a bustling population that “looked us over and acted as if the sight of us was nothing new to them. They viewed our group of skeletons with indifference—we who were barely able to drag our legs along, men, women and a few
Ibid., 52. Ibid. 204 Sophie Machtinger and Douglas Kouril, Recollections from my life’s experiences, transcript, oral history interview, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 73.
young children whom we were able to keep in our group only with difficulty after so many rearrangements.”205 These five hundred Jews that had arrived in Dresden on a death march ahead of the advancing Russians were stowed beneath the Bernsdorf & Co. factory where they produced armaments for the German war effort. Even Dresden’s enslaved Jewish population treated the air raid warning with the same nonchalance as the city’s inhabitants. As Sophie Machtinger testified in her memoirs, when the first warning at 9:39 P.M. sounded: “We did not pay attention to it since we were tired of constantly running down to the cellar, sometimes twice a day. We were indifferent to it all and were in no hurry to get downstairs.”206 Located just northeast of the Grosser Garten, the factory survived the first raid with minimal damage. Ilana Turner, a seventeen-year-old who had worked as a slave laborer for four years, claimed her captors attributed it to “Jewish luck.” Just after midnight, “the Germans—the SS and all the others—came to us […] they said, we came to stay with you because we have heard that the Jews are lucky.”207 Notwithstanding the inanity of such a statement, their “luck” quickly vanished during the second raid, which set the roof ablaze and sent guards and prisoners to the river Elbe. Each of the five hundred Jews survived this night of bombing, but their liberation would have to wait. They were marched to a small concentration camp at Pirna before being returned within a few weeks to the repaired Bernsdorf & Co. factory to resume operations. This was total war. For these especially misfortunate Jews, the bombing of Dresden was hardly liberating, but provided them with at best a brief respite. Instead of freedom, “[t]he difference was, they now had to sleep on the floor of the machine shop.”208 There is no
Ibid., 80. Ibid., 90. 207 Quoted in Taylor, Dresden, 307. 208 Taylor, Dresden, 308.
evidence to suggest that these five hundred Jews would have been included in the final cleansing of Dresden. As long as they remained a necessary and viable component of the flagging Nazi war machine, the bombing of Dresden was more nuisance than blessing from their perspective. Although satisfying, Dresden’s destruction was hardly as fulfilling as freedom, which would have to come from the Red Army. With typical astuteness, Elie Wiesel best summarizes the post-war Jewish perception of Hitler’s defeat and Nazi Germany’s ultimate destruction that applies well to the bittersweet outcome of Dresden for its Jewish inhabitants: “For us, Jews, there was a slight nuance: Yes, Hitler lost the war, but we didn’t win it. We mourned too many dead to speak of victory.”209 Moreover, for five hundred Jews in Dresden, the bombing was hardly a victory, but rather a satisfying sign of their impending liberation. The destruction of Dresden only two days before its final cleansing was not a victory for the remaining Jewish inhabitants, whose legacy had helped create the revered visage of Dresden the Allied bombing destroyed. Rather, this event was a great boon to the Jewish inhabitants who survived it, all of whom would have likely met the same fate as the six million others found in the crematoriums of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Majdanek, and Treblinka. For them, their savior was the fires of Dresden.
Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea (New York: Knopf, 1995), 96.
"[T]here is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre."210
– Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
Contrary to what Kurt Vonnegut would lead us to believe, there is a great deal of intelligent things to say about a massacre, particularly the bombing of Dresden. Admittedly, Vonnegut’s role is that of a fiction writer, which offers him a medium through which he can present his own perception of the firebombing and war he survived. In fact, one could argue that his seminal work, Slaughterhouse-Five, from which this quotation is taken, is itself an intelligent commentary on the inhumanity and senselessness of war as rendered by the survivor of a particular massacre in February of 1945. Another survivor of that night, the mighty Frauenkirche, once again proved its resilience as it had almost two hundred years earlier: “Just as the Prussian cannonballs had bounced off of the copper dome in 1760, so now the British air ordinance was defeated by architecture.”211 Charred and damaged, the church triumphantly stood throughout Ash Wednesday. Inside however, the skeleton of girders that had been warped from the intense firestorm began to cool. On the morning of 15 February, the massive “bombproof” cupola, which the sacristan had boasted about to Goethe, brought the church crashing down beneath its weight. While St. Paul’s unwavering presence in London’s skyline throughout the Blitz symbolized British perseverance, the collapse of Dresden’s iconic church embodied the final gasp of the Elbflorenz. Disillusioned not by the raid, but by this final show of defeat, Götz Bergander finally conceded: “Now I thought, there is nothing.”212
Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 19. Taylor, Dresden, 339. 212 Quoted in Taylor, Dresden, 343.
From this nothingness, an entire legacy of the Dresden bombing was born. Everyone involved, from the bombed to the bombers, had a different perception of those two days. Even among seemingly homogeneous groups these perceptions varied and were distorted over the years. For decades, while the recollections of Jewish survivors remained for the most part neglected, those of Germans in East Germany were manipulated to advance Cold War ideology. The British and American aerial bombardment of Dresden on 13-14 February 1945 was an exceptionally devastating assault, but not an exceptional historical event. History does not occur inside a vacuum. Like every incident recorded in the annals of history, what in reality was a multifaceted event and perceived in multiple ways by various parties, is often reduced to one perception. I have tried to present this event from all the angles available to the historian in order to fully comprehend the whole. This cataclysmic firestorm was not only grasped differently by those involved, but these perceptions themselves changed over time. For the Germans of Dresden, this assault understandably provoked outrage. While some resigned themselves to viewing the bombing as just retribution, others rallied around the sentiments of the post-war Soviet regime. No one ever forgot and few forgave. Of those on the ground, the most conflicted were the Allied POWs who had the misfortune to witness the bombs falling out of friendly fuselages. Those bombers, however, did not act out of a malicious intent to pour hell on a principally civilian population so late in the war. Rather, for the aircrews, Dresden was simply another city between them and Berlin and, ultimately, an end to the war. Just as the passage of time shaped the German perception—thanks in large part to ideological influences—it allowed historians and laymen alike to view this assault
differently. For the Allies, the event became more than just an abnormally successful operation. As the fires of warfare cooled, morality entered the discourse. Perhaps the most peripheral voices in the post-war debates over Dresden have been those Jews who watched the bombs fall upon Dresden and witnessed the destruction not only of their city, but also of the institutions of their oppression. Although Allied bombs never fell on the Vernichtungslager (extermination camps), the fiery Vernichtung (obliteration) of Dresden offered reprieve, if not divine retribution, to Nazi Germany’s ultimate victims. Ultimately, one must synthesize the intersecting and diverging perceptions of the bombing of Dresden. This burden of judgment inevitably falls on the historian presenting these perspectives. My judgment of this event is reflected in the structure of this thesis. The bombing of Dresden cannot simply be perceived as the tragic obliteration of a civilian population, as is usually the case. Make no mistake, the bombing of Dresden was unquestionably horrific—from every perspective—but to reduce this complex, multifaceted historical event to a simplistic one would do an injustice to both the full gamut of all those who witnessed and suffered from it and to historical understanding itself. The enemy has done this, but who is the enemy? One man’s hero is another man’s enemy. Students of history should not seek a particular enemy to blame; rather, they should strive to confront the perceptions of all historical actors. I was inspired by Vonnegut’s novel to pursue this topic, and while I do not necessarily agree with the totality of his perception of the bombing, I am impressed by his searing critique of war. War may be senseless, but one can say many intelligent things about it.
So it goes.
1. Friedrich Reichert, Verbrannt bis zur Unkenntlichkeit: Die Zerstörung Dresdens 1945 (Dresden: DZA Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 1994), 137. 2. Ibid., 113. 3. Ibid., 81. 4. Ibid. 5. Ibid., 90. 6. Ibid., 79. 7. Ibid., 77. 8. Ibid., 82. 9. Ibid., 75. 10. Ibid., 88. 11. Ibid., 101. 12. Postcard, Sächs. Landesbibliothek, Deutsche Fotothek/Möbius. 13. Norbert Hasse, Stefi Kersch-Wenzel and Hermann Simon, Die Erinnerung hat ein Gesicht: Fotografien und Dokumente zur nationalsozialistischen Judenverfolgung in Dresden 1933-1945, ed. Marcus Gryglewski (Leipzig: Gustav Kiepenheuer, 1998), 180.
Man observing the ruined Frauenkirche beside toppled statue of Martin Luther
Undamaged busts of Hitler and Goebbels in the Semper Opera House
Man climbing over debris-covered Walpurgisstraße
Germans returning to everyday life after the bombing
Dresdeners walking and riding bicycles along Prager Straße
Corpses amidst the ruins
Recovered corpses lined up along Johann-Georgen-Allee
Corpse with helmet beside fountain in Moltkeplatz
Corpse with helmet amidst ruins of Ziegelstraße
German soldiers clearing the rubble covering Prager Straße
Germans and soldiers trying to identify corpses lining Moritzstraße
Frauenkirche in 1957
Deportation order dated 12 February, 1945 addressed to Henny Wolf
I. Primary Sources
Archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Machtinger, Sophie and Douglas Kouril. Recollections from my life’s experiences. Transcript, oral history interview. RG-02.012*01. Thorson (Staub), Anneliese, Erika Ruth (Staub) Niemi & Henry P. Staub. The Staub Stories. Unpublished family memoir. D811.5.T488 2000.
New York Times, 14 February to 31 December 1945. The (London) Times, 14 February to 31 December 1945. Washington Post, 14 February to 31 December 1945.
Brenner, Henny (Wolf). »Das Lied ist aus«: Ein jüdisches Schicksal in Dresden. Zurich: Pendo, 2001. Buchwitz, Otto. “Nur die Arbeiterklasse besaß die Kraft,” in Beginn eines neuen Lebens…Dresden: Museum für Geschichte der Dresdner Arbeiterbewegung, 1960. Colville, John. The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries 1939-1955. New York: Norton, 1985. “Dresden—Das Jahr 1945,” in Dresdener Hefte 41. Dresden: Dresdener Geschichtsverein, 1994. Dyson, Freeman J. Disturbing the Universe. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. ———. Weapons and Hope. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Goebbels, Joseph. Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels: Teil II, Diktate 1941-1945, Band 15, Januar-April 1945. Munich: K.G. Saur, 1995.
———. Final Entries, 1945: The Diaries of Joseph Goebbels. Edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper. Translated by Richard Barry. New York: Putnam, 1978. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1970. Gute, Herbert. “Erinnerung und frohe Gewißheit,” in Beginn eines neuen Lebens… Dresden: Museum für Geschichte der Dresdner Arbeiterbewegung, 1960. Harris, Arthur. Bomber Offensive. London: Greenhill, 1990. Heinrich von Sachsen, Prince Ernst. Mein Lebensweg vom Königsschloss zum Bauernhof. Munich: List, 1968. Klemperer, Victor. I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1942-1945. Translated by Martin Chalmers. New York: Random House, 1998. Matern, Hermann. “So fing die neue demokratische Verwaltung an,” in Beginn eines neuen Lebens… Dresden: Museum für Geschichte der Dresdner Arbeiterbewegung, 1960. Neutzner, Matthias. Martha Heinrich Ach – Dresden 1944/45. Dresden: Verlag der Kunst Dresden, 2003. Opitz, Max. “Die ersten Schritte im Aufbau der deutschen Volkspolizei in Dresden.” in Beginn eines neuen Lebens…Dresden: Museum für Geschichte der Dresdner Arbeiterbewegung, 1960. Reichert, Friedrich, ed. Verbrannt bis zur Unkenntlichkeit: Die Zerstörung Dresdens 1945. Dresden: DZA Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 1994. Ritter, Maria. Return to Dresden. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Schauss, Willy. My Side of the War: How Meatballs Saved My Life—Dresden, Germany. Kalispell: Scott Publishing, 1994. Schröter, Hans to Frau Ganze, 5 August 1945. In Verbrannt bis zur Unkenntlichkeit: Die Zerstörung Dresdens 1945, ed. Friedrich Reichert. Dresden: DZA Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 1994. Sheehy, Dick. “Dresden plus 93 days.” History Today, Vol. 45, no. 5 (May 1995): 5-12. Tripp, Miles. The Eighth Passenger. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2002. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death. New York: Dell Publishing, 1991.
Wiesel, Elie. All Rivers Run to the Sea. New York: Knopf, 1995. Werner, Alfred. “Wie wir mit dem Neufaufbau begannen,” in Beginn eines neuen Lebens…Dresden: Museum für Geschichte der Dresdner Arbeiterbewegung, 1960.
II. Secondary Printed Sources
Beevor, Anthony. The Fall of Berlin 1945. New York: Viking Penguin, 2002. Bergander, Götz. Dresden im Luftkrieg: Vorgeschichte, Zerstörung, Folgen. Vienna: Böhlau, 1994. Beschloss, Michael. The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1941-1945. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Buruma, Ian. “The Destruction of Germany.” The New York Review of Books 51, no. 16. (21 October, 2004): http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17473 (accessed 24 January 2005). ———. Wages of Guilt. London: Phoenix, 2002. Clodfelter, Mark A. “Culmination Dresden: 1945.” Aerospace Historian 26 (1979): 134147. Corwin, Elizabeth C. “The Dresden Bombing as Portrayed in German Accounts, East and West.” UCLA Historical Journal 8 (1987): 71-96. Davis, Richard G. Carl A. Spaatz and the Air War in Europe. Washington D.C.: Center for Air Force History, 1993. Diamant, Adolf. Chronik der Juden in Dresden. Darmstadt: Agora, 1973. Dyson, Freeman. “The Bitter End.” The New York Review of Books 52, no. 7. (28 April 2005): 4-6. Evans, Richard. Lying about Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Frankland, Noble. Bomber Offensive: The Devastation of Europe. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970. Furlong, Ray. “Dresden raid still a raw nerve.” BBC News, 12 February 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/europe/4257827.stm (accessed 12 February 2005). Gregor, Neil.“A Schicksalsgemeinschaft? Allied Bombing, Civilian Morale, and Social Dissolution in Nuremberg, 1942-1945.” The Historical Journal Volume 43, 4 (2000): 1051-1070. Hasse, Norbert, Stefi Kersch-Wenzel and Hermann Simon. Die Erinnerung hat ein Gesicht: Fotografien und Dokumente zur nationalsozialistischen Judenverfolgung in Dresden 1933-1945. Edited by Marcus Gryglewski. Leipzig: Gustav Kiepenheuer, 1998. Hastings, Max. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945. New York: Knopf, 2004. Herrle, Johannes and Andreas Maercker. “Long-Term Effects of the Dresden Bombing: Relationships to Control Beliefs, Religious Belief and Personal Growth.” Journal of Traumatic Stress 16, no. 6 (2003): 579-587. Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1936-45: Nemesis. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Kurowski, Franz. Bomben über Dresden. Vienna: Tosa, 2001. ———. Das Massaker von Dresden: und der Anglo-amerikanischeBombenterror 1944-1945. Berg: Druffel-Verlag, 1995. Lerm, Matthias. Spurensuche: Juden in Dresden: ein Begleiter durch die Stadt mit sechs Karten. Hamburg: Dölling und Galitz, 1995. MacLeod, Murdo. “Did Nazis get tip-off about Dresden blitz?” The Scotsman. Scotsman.com. 27 February 2005. <http://news.scotsman.com/ archive.cfm?id=219962005> (accessed 2 March 2005). McKee, Alexander. Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox. New York: Dutton, 1984. Meyer, Olaf. Vom Leiden und Hoffen der Städte. Hamburg: E.B.-Verlag Hamburg, 1996. Nichol, John and Tony Rennell. The Last Escape: The Untold Story of Allied Prisoners of War in Europe, 1944-45. New York: Viking, 2003. Pommerin, Reiner. Dresden unterm Hakenkreuz. Cologne: Böhlau, 1998.
Probert, Henry. Bomber Harris: His Life and Times. London: Greenhill Books, 2001. Schnatz, Helmut. Tiefflieger über Dresden? Legenden und Wirklichkeit. Cologne: Böhlau, 2000. Sebald, W. G. On the Natural History of Destruction. Translated by Anthea Bell. New York: Random House, 2003. Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Doubleday, 1990. ———. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Taylor, Frederick. Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.