All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist… It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5
In Dresden on 13 February, they commemorated the 70th anniversary of the RAF air raid that reduced the city to rubble. The RAF attack – carried out by 800 bombers on a cloudless night – was the most destructive raid of the second world war. In the firestorm that was unleashed around 25,000 people, mainly civilians, were killed in a few hours. It remains by far the most controversial British wartime act.
The horror of that night is almost over now. The ruined buildings and the mounds of roasted bodies and blackened skeletons exist in the memories of those who survived, but they become fewer in number each year. However, the moral questions posed by the Allied bombing raids – on Dresden as well as other German cities such as Hamburg and Cologne -remain. Area bombing (as opposed to the selective bombing of military targets) broke through a moral barrier against the mass killing of civilians, and set a precedent for the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These days we are almost immune to the horror of innocent people being deliberately targeted in war – whether in Ukraine, Syria or Gaza.
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.
– Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)
‘RAF Hammer Blows on Nazi Key Industries’ poster
Few historians or strategists now argue that the bombing made much difference to the outcome of the war, undermining the case that area bombing was the ‘lesser evil’, when balanced against the defeat of Nazism. What’s left is the ‘just war’ argument. But can the deliberate mass killing of civilians ever be justified, even when the overall war aim is accepted as just (by all except pacifists)? Particularly so, when the undeclared purpose of such raids is to terrorise a population into submission? At the time the recommendation of Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s adviser, was that bombs should be concentrated on working-class districts in order to maximize casualties and the number of homes destroyed – because middle-class houses had big gardens. Ironically, in the case of Hamburg, this resulted in ‘unutterable destruction and devastation’ in ‘the most democratic town in Germany, where the anti-Nazi opposition was strongest’.
Those are the words of the Bishop of Chichester, speaking in the House of Lords in 1944, one of the few to publicly contest the morality of area bombing at the time. His speech was a rejoinder to the viewpoint of Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris who believed strongly that bombing civilians was the right course of action: ‘We are going to scourge the Third Reich from end to end. We are bombing Germany city by city and ever more terribly in order to make it impossible for her to go on with the war. That is our object; we shall pursue it relentlessly.’
In his speech, the Bishop said:
The point I want to bring home, because I doubt whether it is sufficiently realized, is that it is no longer definite military and industrial objectives which are the aim of the bombers, but the whole town, area by area, is … singled out and plastered night after night, till, to use the language of the Chief of Bomber Command with regard to Berlin, the heart of Nazi Germany ceases to beat.
Noting that ‘when the Nazis bombed France and Britain in 1940 it was denounced as “indiscriminate bombing’, the Bishop continued:
It will be said that this area bombing – for it is this area bombing which is the issue to-day—is definitely designed to diminish the sacrifice of British lives and to shorten the war. We all wish with all our hearts that these two objects could be achieved, but to justify methods inhumane in themselves by arguments of expediency smacks of the Nazi philosophy that Might is Right.
Why is there this forgetfulness of the ideals by which our cause is inspired? How can the War Cabinet fail to see that this progressive devastation of cities is threatening the roots of civilization? … This is an extraordinarily solemn moment. What we do in war – which, after all, lasts a comparatively short time -affects the whole character of peace, which covers a much longer period. … The Allies stand for something greater than power.
For a historical perspective on the growing use of area bombing in the 20th century, it’s worth reading Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing, an expose of how bombing allows humans to commit atrocious violence at a distance, and so makes killing easier on the conscience and pocket. The moral questions are discussed in Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century.
Dresden after the firestorm seen from the tower of the town hall
Like many of my generation, I think I only became aware of the Dresden firestorm as a result of reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, published in 1969. I still have the paperback I read back then (30p, and bearing the teeth-grating statement on the back cover that its subject ‘Billy Pilgrim, billeted as a prisoner of war in a Dresden slaughterhouse, survives the worst holocaust of World War II‘ (my italics). Billy Pilgrim was, of course, Vonnegut, who, having enlisted in the US army, was captured by the Germans in December 1944, after the Battle of the Bulge. From the front he was transported to Dresden where he survived the British bombing raid and resulting firestorm only because his prison was a meat locker 60 feet underground. In his introduction to the 1976 edition, Vonnegut observed the irony:
The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.
In Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut described the ruined city into which he and his fellow prisoners of war emerged the morning after the raid as ‘like the surface of the moon’. The SS guards put them to work, breaking into basements and bomb shelters to gather the bodies of the burnt and suffocated for mass burial, while German civilians cursed and threw rocks at them: ‘There were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Germans sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes.’
He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. 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. All that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine. The Americans and four of their guards and a few dressed carcasses were down there, and nobody else. The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families.
So it goes.
A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the other guards. There was a firestorm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everyone in the neighbourhood was dead.
So it goes
Those three world-weary words echo repeatedly through Slaughterhouse-Five, summarizing Vonnegut’s view of life: ‘Shit happens, and it’s awful, but it’s also okay. We deal with it because we have to.’
Someone else who was dealing with it in Dresden that day was Victor Klemperer, a Christian of Jewish descent, who had been stripped of his university professorship and pretty much everything else when the the Nuremberg Laws of Citizenship and Race were introduced in 1935. Throughout the period from 1933 to 1945 Klemperer kept a diary, one of the most extraordinary documents of the Nazi period that reveals what day-to-day life was like for Jews in the Third Reich – the suffering and humiliations of those subject to the race laws and the steadily tightening encroachments on their freedom. Klemperer’s diaries are published in two volumes and are essential reading.
In an irony that Vonnegut would surely have appreciated, the firestorm saved Klemperer’s life. Just a few hours before the raid began, he and his non-Jewish wife were informed that all remaining Jewish spouses must report for deportation, an order which they both understood to be the end. The elderly couple escaped holocaust in one sense by passing through it in another. On the morning after the firestorm, taking advantage of the chaos in the city, Victor ripped off his yellow star, and they set off on foot out of the city toward survival and, ultimately, liberation.
Dresden after the firestorm
These are extracts from Victor Klemperer’s description of how he and his wife survived the destruction of Dresden on Tuesday 13 and Wednesday 14 February 1945, recorded in a diary entry made a week later:
We sat down for coffee at about half past nine on Tuesday evening, very weary and depressed because during the day, after all, I had been running around as the bringer of bad tidings, and in the evening Waldmann has assured me with very great certainty (from experience and remarks he had recently picked up) that those to be deported on Thursday were being sent to their deaths (“pushed on to a siding”), and that we who were left behind would be done away with in just the same way in a week’s time – then a full-scale warning sounded. […]
Had there only been this first attack, it would have impressed itself upon me as the most terrible one so far, whereas now, superseded by the later catastrophe, it is already blurring into a vague outline. We very soon heard the ever deeper and louder humming of approaching squadrons, the light went out, an explosion nearby … a pause in which we caught our breath, we knelt head down between the chairs, in some groups there was whimpering and weeping – approaching aircraft once again, deadly danger once again, explosion once again. I do not know how often it was repeated. Suddenly the cellar window on the back wall opposite the entrance burst open, and outside it was bright as day. Someone shouted: “Incendiary bomb, we have to put it out!” Two people even hauled over the stirrup pump and audibly operated it. There were further explosions, but nothing in the courtyard. And then it grew quieter, and then came the all-clear.
I had lost all sense of time. Outside it was bright as day. Fires were blazing at Piranaischer Platz, on Marschallstrasse, and somewhere on or over the Elbe. The ground was covered with broken glass. A terrible strong wind was blowing. Natural or a firestorm? Probably both. … Broken glass in our rooms upstairs. In the hallway and on the side facing the Elbe, windows blown in, in the bedroom only one; windows also broken in the kitchen, blackout torn in half. Light did not work, no water. We could see big fires on the other side of the Elbe and on Marschallstrasse.
Dresden after the firestorm
Klemperer and his wife, Eva, return to their flat a little after eleven, and try to sleep. Soon after one o’clock, there is another air raid warning:
We hurried downstairs. The street was as bright as day and almost empty, fires were burning, the storm was blowing as before. […] Eva was two steps ahead of me. We came to the entrance hall of no. 3. At that moment a big explosion nearby. I knelt, pressing myself up against the wall, close to the courtyard door. When I looked up, Eva had disappeared, I thought she was in our cellar. It was quiet, I ran across the yard to our Jews’ cellar. The door was wide open. A group of people cowered whimpering to the right of the door. I knelt on the left, close to the window. I called out several times to Eva. No reply.
Big explosions. Again the window in the wall opposite burst open, again it was bright as day, again water was pumped. Then an explosion at the window close to me. Something hard and glowing hot struck the right side of my face. I put my hand up, it was covered in blood. I felt for my eye, it was still there. […]
Bangs, as light as day, explosions. I had no thoughts, I was not even afraid, I was simply tremendously exhausted, I think I was expecting the end. After a moment, I scrambled over some vaulting or a step or a parapet into the open air, threw myself into the crater, lay flat on the ground for a while, then clambered up one side of the crater, over the edge into a telephone kiosk.
Someone called out: ‘This way, Herr Klemperer!’ In the demolished little lavatory building close by stood Eisenmann senior, little Schorschi in his arms. I don’t know where my wife is – I don’t know where my wife and the other children are. – It’s getting too hot, the wooden panelling is burning … over there, the hall of the Reich Bank building! We ran into a hall, it was surrounded by flames, but looked solid. There seemed to be no more bombs exploding here, but all around everything was ablaze. I could not make out any details; I saw only flames everywhere, heard the noise of the fire and the storm, felt terribly exhausted inside.
After a while Eisenmann said: We must get down to the Elbe, we’ll get through. He ran down the slope with the child on his shoulders; after five steps I was out of breath, I was unable to follow. A group of people were clambering up through the public gardens to the Bruehl Terrace; the route went close to fires, but it had to be cooler at the top and easier to breathe.
Then I was standing at the top in the storm wind and the showers of sparks. To the right and left, buildings were ablaze, the Belvedere and probably the Art Academy. Whenever the showers of sparks became too much for me on one side, I dodged to the other. Within a wider radius nothing but fires. Standing out like a torch on this side of the Elbe, the tall building at Pirnaischer Platz , glowing white; as bright as day on the other side, the roof of the Finance Ministry.
Slowly thoughts came to me. Was Eva lost, had she been able to save herself, had I thought too little about her? I had wrapped the woollen blanket – one, I had probably lost the other with my hat – around head and shoulders, it also covered the star. In my hands I held the precious bag and – yes, also the small leather case with Eva’s woollen things, how I managed to hold on to it during all the clambering about is a mystery to me. The storm again and again tore at my blanket, hurt my head.
It had begun to rain, the ground was soft and wet, I did not want to put anything down, so there was serious physical strain, and that probably stupefied and distracted me. But in between there was constantly present, as dull pressure and pang of conscience, what had happened to Eva, why had I not thought enough about her. Sometimes I thought: She is more capable and courageous than I am, she will have got to safety; sometimes: If at least she didn’t suffer! Then again simply: If only the night were over! […]
It rained, the storm blew, I climbed up a little further to the partly broken down parapet of the Terrace, I climbed down again out of the wind, it kept on raining, the ground was slippery. Groups of people stood or sat, the Belvedere was burning, the Art Academy was burning, in the distance there was fire everywhere – I was quite dulled. I had no thoughts at all, no more than occasional scraps rose up in my mind. Eva – why am I not worried about her all the time – why can I not observe any details, but see only the theatrical fire to my right and to my left, the burning beams and scraps and rafters in and above the stone walls? […]
The burning went on and on. To the right and left of me was still blocked — all the time I thought; to have an accident now would be wretched. Some tower glowed dark red, the tall building with the turret on Pirnaischer Platz seemed about to fall – but I did not see it collapse – the ministry on the other side burned silvery bright.
It grew lighter and I saw a stream of people on the road by the Elbe. But I did not yet have the courage to go down. Finally, probably about seven, the Terrace – the Terrace forbidden to Jews – was by now somewhat empty, I walked past the shell of the still-burning Belvedere and came to the Terrace wall. A number of people were sitting there. After a minute someone called out to me: Eva was sitting unharmed on the suitcase wearing her fur coat. We greeted one another very warmly, and we were completely indifferent to the loss of our belongings and remain so even now. At the critical moment, someone had literally pulled Eva out of the entrance hall of No. 3 Zeughausstrasse and into the Aryan cellar, she had got out to the street through the cellar window, had seen both numbers 1 and 3 completely alight, had been in the cellar of the Albertinum for a while, then reached the Elbe through the smoke, had spent the rest of the night looking for me. … So now it was Wednesday morning, the 14th of February and our lives were saved and we were together.
The city’s last remaining Jews, over 100 people, were due to be deported to concentration camps on 16 February. They managed to escape their fate in the confusion of the bombed-out city.
13 February 2015: 10,000 people join hands in Dresden to form a giant human chain
The commemorations in Dresden a week ago took place in a deeply divided city.
There’s a crack running through the city, with one half for diversity, openness and tolerance, while the other half is fearful or hostile, against foreigners, even against people not from Saxony.
– Dresden-based political scientist Hans Vörlander
After the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, Dresden emerged as a stronghold of the neo-Nazi movement which seized on the anniversary of the bombing to demonstrate against what it called the ‘bombing Holocaust’, seeking to equate the suffering of Germans to that of the six million Jews murdered in concentration camps. Each year, the neo-Nazi march on the anniversary has been outnumbered by counter-protestors, but in recent months the city has been the centre of anti-immigrant, anti-Islam demonstrations by the Pegida movement.
But this year, on the commemoration of 70th anniversary of the Allied bombing , right-wing activists were noticeably absent. Ten thousand people, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the German President, Joachim Gauck, joined hands to form a giant human chain along the Elbe and across its bridges to symbolize peace and opposition to racism.
In a speech at the Frauenkirche in Dresden, the Archbishop of Canterbury said:
Much debate surrounds this most controversial raid of the allied bombing campaign. Whatever the arguments, events here seventy years ago left a deep wound and diminished all our humanity. … Healing such wounds requires enemies to embark on the journey to become friends, which starts with our memories of the hurt we have suffered and ends with a shared understanding of the hurt we have caused each other. … We should never underestimate the miracle which peace in Europe represents – arguably the most significant political process of reconciliation in history.
At Dresden’s Neustadt station, where Jews destined to be shot in Riga were once packed into trains, survivors of the bombing laid white roses – the symbol of anti-Nazi resistance. In his speech at the Frauenkirche, the German President Joachim Gauck said:
A country which stood for the monstrosity of genocide, could not expect to emerge unpunished and unscathed from a war which it had itself waged. We know who it was that begun the murderous war, and we will never forget the victims of German warfare, when here today we remember the German victims.