By Yaël Ossowski
The immediate casualties of war and conflict are measured not only in blood and treasure, but also in historical truth.
And 69 years to the day since the Allied firebombing of Dresden, we are reminded that no particular event has been more neglected in the popular Western narrative of the Second World War than the event labeled by witness and American novelist Kurt Vonnegut as the “greatest massacre in European history.”
Many people in the Anglo-Saxon world are simply unaware that that the single largest causality event in WWII was carried out not by atomic bombs, but by 3,000 tons of British and American incendiary bombs unleashed on a defenseless German city of no clear industrial or military importance.
On February 13-15, 1945, in the waning days of the war, more people died as a result of the Allied firebombing of Dresden than either of the atomic bomb attacks in Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
“Dresden was like the moon now nothing but minerals,” wrote Vonnegut in his most celebrated Slaughterhouse Five, a semi-autobiographical narrative set in Dresden at the time of the bombing.
As an American prisoner of war brought to Dresden, Vonnegut survived the bombing by hiding in the slaughterhouse depicted in the story which made him famous. He was subsequently ordered to collect and burn the thousands of bodies rendered lifeless by Anglo-American firebombs, which he describes in vivd detail in several of his most classic works.
It is estimated that over 135,000 people lost their lives in the destruction of Dresden, including a incredibly high number of civilians escaping the Eastern Front who found refuge in the city just days before the bombing.
Once the decimation of the city had been made public, even Britain’s top war leaders questioned such a powerful blow to a city deemed so unimportant to the German industrial machine.
“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, should be reviewed,” wrote British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Royal Air Force Air Marshall Arthur Harris on March 29th 1945.
Even Harris, nicknamed ‘Bomber Harris’, later wrote that such an offensive was most likely not necessary to the British campaign, seeing that Germany was on her last ropes.
“I know that the destruction of so large and splendid a city at this late stage of the war was considered unnecessary even by a good many people who admit that our earlier attacks were as fully justified as any other operation of war,” later wrote Harris in his autobiography.
He was responsible for overseeing the execution of the Casablanca Directive, the 1943 draft document outlining the goals for all British and American air raids on Germany. It was this order which brought forth Operation Gomorrah, the large-scale bombings in Hamburg, which killed over 50,000 in just two days of July 1943.
“Your primary object will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial, and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened,” reads the directive.
As the bombings were regarded as military necessary, Harris and his equals in the American Air Force did not question the orders to come from above.
“Here I will only say that the attack on Dresden was at the time considered a military necessity by much more important people than myself,” reflected Harris after the war.
“The Allied Air Commanders have made the long awaited decision to adopt the deliberate terror bombing of great German population centers as a ruthless expedient to hasten Hitler’s doom,” wrote Associated Press reporter Howard Cowan in the Washington Star in the days following the bombing.
The figure of 135,000 dead has since fallen into the realm of great controversy in Britain and Germany.
The original death toll was produced by Hanns Voigt, a Dresden schoolteacher assigned to count the dead in the days following the strategic attack. He assembled up to 90,000 index cards filled with information on found bodies, and ascertained the figure of 135,000 deaths after considering the influx of refugees to the city, the number of trapped civilians incinerated in cellars and basements, and the 10,000-20,000 wedding rings recovered from destroyed homes and charred corpses.
Voigt’s initial reports, along with bulletins from the Dresden police and German military, are what make up the main evidence found in British historian David Irving’s The Destruction of Dresden, written in 1963, singled out as the most extensive study of the bombings.
Despite the sheer number of civilian casualties, the firebombing and tragic loss of human souls at Dresden has unfortunately fallen victim to the political agendas of radical parties and activist historians who wish to discredit Irving’s work.
In the years since, the total number of persons who perished in Dresden has indeed become a political issue, declared to be overestimated by modern historians who dare not deviate from state-sanctioned history and grossly underestimated by fascist political activists seeking to create some type of moral equivalence with the killings of the Nazi regime.
The modern-day National Democratic Party in Germany each year commemorates the anniversary of Dresden, labeling it their own “Bombenholocaust,” a purposefully provocative term which reignites political debate on the nature and scale of the bombings.
Apart from such provocation, a number of officially sanctioned historical committees have had the pretense of settling the issue, but have only served to limit the lessons learned from such a horrendous attack on German civilians.
What remains at issue is why the people of Dresden were targeted and how many perished as a result of the air attack, not to excuse or whitewash crimes of either side. It remains a human tragedy nonetheless.
A Nov.11, 1945 City Planning Authority survey in Dresden found that 75,358 homes and 11,116 residential buildings were “totally destroyed” by the bombings, meaning they were completely bombed out and could have housed few survivors.
This would seem to corroborate the claims of Voigt in the days and months after the bombing.
On the other hand, the Historical Commission on the Aerial Bombing of Dresden between 13th and 15th February 1945, sanctioned by the city of Dresden, came to the conclusion in March 2010 that “up to 25,000 citizens lost their lives” in the bombing raids.
Considering the earlier claims of Voigt and Irving, why would a historical body presumably made up of esteemed historians and archivists now severely undercut the numbers first floated by one of the authorities on the scene in 1945?
Any analysis of this death toll, whether 135,000 or 25,000, must be viewed independent of any of the documented revelations about the mass killing of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many other minorities within Germany at the time. Comparisons, justifications, or anachronistic moralizing only serve to politicize and further bury the truth surrounding such a tragic event.
That hasn’t stopped historians ready to enter the political fray.
German historians such as Joerg Friedrich have concentrated their academic efforts on dismantling the justification for the bombing of Dresden, which he did in the 591-page Der Brand.
Others, like American historian Deborah Lipstadt, have taken up the tragedy in order to accuse anyone who attaches significance to Dresden as taking part in “immoral equivalences,” somehow downplaying the atrocious crimes committed by the Nazi regime.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
The precise reason why Dresden should remain relevant is precisely because so many people perished and because it was perpetuated by the Allied powers, the same military and political rulers who months later would condemn half the upper echelons of Nazi power to death sentences for “crimes against humanity.”
It’s not about justification or moral equivalence, it’s about the truth.
It’s about the dangers of allowing the state to commit war, write its own history, and downplay indiscriminate killings which plagued all races, religions, and peoples of the European continent. Whether they happened in a death camp or in the east German city of Dresden.
Despite the wishes of politically correct historians or hate-hungry fascists, the purpose of history is to document accurately the many happenings of the past into a single narrative that will provide some type of lessons and enlightenment for future generations.
On the 69th anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden, let those lessons remain visible and transparent so people can get the truth and hope to make a better world.
At the very least, we owe that to the millions who have perished from this Earth by the hands of their fellow men.
Yaël Ossowski is a Canadian journalist living in Vienna, Austria.
Follow him @YaelOss.