Dresden, 60 years on

by Chris Bertram on February 12, 2005

Tomorrow is the sixtieth anniversary of the bombing of Dresden. The other week I mentioned W.G. Sebald’s The Natural History of Destruction , a work that addresses the horror of the Allied bombing raids and the inadequacy of the German postwar response to that horror. Today, of course, the bombing is being cynically used by German neo-Nazi groups who want to relativise or diminish Nazi crimes. The methodical slaughter perpetrated by the Nazis on Jews and others shouldn’t lead us to close our eyes to what happened in Dresden and in other German cities. What was done there was wrong, even though I, for one, would hesitate in blaming those who did it. Der Spiegel’s English site has an interview with historian Frederick Taylor , a piece on Victor Klemperer , and an extract from Klemperer’s diary .

{ 56 comments }

1

Kevin Donoghue 02.12.05 at 9:58 am

“What was done there was wrong, even though I, for one, would hesitate in blaming those who did it.”

This is a cop-out. (Of course I hesitate to blame you.)

2

bad Jim 02.12.05 at 10:02 am

See also the this leader in the Guardian and this comment.

Slaughterhouse Five provides an intimate if idiosyncratic perspective, and The Fog of War gets to the point as well.

3

Chris Bertram 02.12.05 at 10:03 am

This is a cop-out.

Not at all. There’s a fundamental moral distinction at work, and one that people use all the time.

4

bad Jim 02.12.05 at 10:13 am

Er, this comment. Coventry and Dresden commiserating over their mutual obliteration.

(This long piece by Jonathan Freedland has nothing to do with Dresden, though its events are roughly contemporary, but it’s well worth reading.)

5

Kevin Donoghue 02.12.05 at 11:10 am

Chris,

It is true that people frequently say such things as: it was wrong to do it, but I don’t blame you. Cases where this formula comes in handy include blind rage (for example a soldier shoots a prisoner who has himself committed some heinous crime) and pressure of circumstances (the ticking-bomb scenario).

The idea as I understand it is simply that although the action itself was wrong, there were extenuating circumstances. Are you seriously saying that that kind of reasoning can be applied to a decision to reduce a city to rubble? In the Qaradawi thread you denied that states are entitled to the supreme emergency exception. Now it seems that if they do invoke it, you file their actions under Wrong but Not Blameworthy.

If I understand you correctly, the difference between you and Brad DeLong now comes down to this: he defends the supreme emergency exception but admits to being uncomfortable about it. You reject the supreme emergency exception but you don’t blame Bomber Harris for invoking it. Is that it?

6

bad Jim 02.12.05 at 11:22 am

A few years before the first Gulf War, a U.S. Navy cruiser shot down an Iranian airliner. I had an argument with one of my partners, a former Navy man. He insisted that our sailors had done nothing wrong, while I maintained that we hadn’t intended to blow up a passenger jet. He maintained that, under the circumstances, anyone would have done the same thing. I was trying to get him to concede that the result was nevertheless a mistake.

And so it goes.

J.K. Galbraith recounted his experience in the post-war bombing survey and its conclusion that it wasn’t particularly effective. Tactical interdiction was occasionally useful. Attacks on the industrial infrastructure were generally not.

The destruction of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably didn’t change the course of history for anyone sufficiently distant from ground zero.

If so, we should agree that, yeah, we shouldn’t have done it, even if under the same circumstances we would have done the same, which may have something to do with North Korea’s proud proclamation of its nuclear capability, or India’s, or Pakistan’s.

7

Chris Bertram 02.12.05 at 11:34 am

Kevin,

I was thinking mainly of the aircrew. Would you want to blame them?

As for Harris, yes, I agree with you that we should blame him for what was an immoral policy. But that’s still a stone I cast with some reluctance, sitting as I am in an English city in peacetime, knowing what I know now, etc.

8

Skip 02.12.05 at 11:43 am

Taylor suggests that David Irving is responsible for bringing Dresden to the forefront as an Allied war crime because he was the source for Slaughterhouse Five.

I generally believe that the truth can come from any source, even one as flawed as Irving, but does anyone else find it odd that a Nazi apologist lies about the actual events and his example is now used almost exclusively to illustrate the moral lapse of the Allies.

9

Andrew Boucher 02.12.05 at 11:47 am

Sorry, you would *hesitate* to blame the aircrew(s)? On the contrary, I would think you should get down on your knees and thank the British and American aircrews, every one of them. They did not, of course, have a choice of what they would bomb, and they faced terrible odds of survival.

10

Chris Bertram 02.12.05 at 11:50 am

If I understand you correctly, the difference between you and Brad DeLong…

is that if we were each faced with the decision to bomb or not bomb, I’d say that to do so is morally impermissible and he’d say it is morally obligatory.

11

Chris Bertram 02.12.05 at 12:01 pm

Andrew, my purpose in posting was to mention a terrible event that ought to be commemorated rather than to spark off a discussion about blame and responsibility. If you want it clearer I’m happy to say that I don’t blame the aircrew.

12

Kevin Donoghue 02.12.05 at 12:15 pm

Chris,

I don’t blame the aircrew at all and I am not even sure I blame Harris. The phrase “only obeying orders” has bad connotations but, absent evidence to the contrary, aircrew are entitled to assume that their orders are morally defensible, not just technically lawful.

The difficult question here, as in the Qaradawi thread, is the idea of non-combatant immunity. We only adhere to that principle as long as we can afford it. There is a get-out: Necessity knows no law. Harris may have been too quick to adopt that escape-clause, but I wouldn’t elect a wartime leader who refused to acknowledge its existence.

Anyway I appreciate that you don’t want to “spark off a discussion about blame and responsibility” so I will leave it at that. Thanks for your replies.

13

Andrew Boucher 02.12.05 at 12:17 pm

Chris, ok no harm done. Blogging’s tough work isn’t it?

14

Luc 02.12.05 at 12:37 pm

I find the contrast in tone and description between the two Guardian pieces Bad Jim mentioned rather typical.

I quite prefer Paul Oestreichers article over the Guardians leader.

15

abb1 02.12.05 at 1:54 pm

Yes, when your side does it, it’s always between ‘wrong but understandable’ and ‘we should’ve killed more of ‘em bastards’.

Luckily, though, when the other side does it there is no ambiguity whatsoever – they are plain monsters.

As Vonnegut would say: and so it goes…

16

Brian C.B. 02.12.05 at 3:14 pm

How is David Irving the source for Slaughterhouse Five? Vonnegut was a survivor of the raid himself, and had long wanted (according to him) to write about his experiences.

The Vincennes incident is illuminating because immediately after the downing of the Iranian airliner the commander of a destroyer escorting the cruiser wrote a scathing criticism of the Vincennes skipper. He had been so intent on challenging anything in the Gulf that crossed paths with his ship that fleet officers had taken to derisively calling his ship “Robocruiser”. He was entirely unsuited to any but total war, since he didn’t grasp, according to his collegue, that the region was filled with innocent commercial water and air traffic. Dresden, and Iraq, and reading about the war in the East between the Soviets and the Nazis, have moved me nearly to the point that I think nearly no other war than total war is permissible. If one isn’t so very threatened that one is willing to do anything, if one isn’t fighting for survival, then there can be few moral justifications for the horrors that will certainly be released.

17

Austroblogger 02.12.05 at 3:48 pm

In Austria, today’s “Die Presse” has a very good OpEd on Dresden and our approach to the question’s thrown up by its remembrance. Unfortunately the English webstite has not provided a translation. The article was so good I decided to translate the important sections myself: this is important!

18

Jake McGuire 02.12.05 at 5:07 pm

Vincennes vs. Airbus was a US screw-up from top to bottom. Avoidable at numerous points along the way, and the result of poor training and poor judgement all along.

Dresden? Bombing cities was the way WWII was fought. It’s just that by the time Dresden was hit, the Germans saw more propaganda value in inflating casualty figures than in minimizing them, and the Soviets likewise. Horrible, but no more so than much of the rest of the war; for which I lay the huge majority of the blame on those who started it.

On the other hand, deliberately massacring millions of your own people was a unique bit of evil (on the part of the Germans), as was wholesale slaughter of captured civilians (on the part of the Japanese). But bombing the other side’s cities? The Allies just happened to be better at it; that’s all.

19

jet 02.12.05 at 5:18 pm

You can always apply the “knowing then what we know now” logic to it. And then it becomes quite apparent that Dresden was a mistake from the military’s point of view. The concept of dropping massive amounts of bombs on indiscriminate targets was the wet dream of the US military. But looking back, we can see that the military effort would have been much better used in building fighter bombers rather than strategic bombers. The ability to nullify German air power and provide US ground forces with overwhelming air support should have been the only driving goal of the US Air Corps. Strategic bombing was useless except for revenge, keeping navies away from shores, and setting back Axis production a few days.

So Dresden was wrong in military logic. But politically could the Allies let Hitler bomb cities uncontested? It was paramount that Hitler understand that Axis bombing of civilians would be met in kind. That was the only meaningful way to send a message to that crazy bastard. Who will argue that Hitler’s change to bombing cities should have been met with cries of “unfair” instead of doing in kind to Axis cities? There is a strong argument to be made that Dresden was a sound logical decision.

20

Stan 02.12.05 at 5:29 pm

“Dresden? Bombing cities was the way WWII was fought.”

Jake: Do you actually believe this to be an argument? According to your “logic” anything done by the Nazis would have been permissible for the Allies as well, because “that’s how the war was fought”. As far as I can tell, there was no military reason for the massacre in Dresden, and hence no moral justification for it.

21

Stan 02.12.05 at 5:38 pm

Jet:

The reason why people argue about the Dresden bombing and not about the bombing of other German cities (almost all of which were targeted and many of which were destroyed) is timing: by the time of the Dresden bombing, the war was almost over, Dresden was bursting with refugees from the East, and there was nothing of military value in Dresden (except rail lines which were explicitly not targeted during the bombing night in question). Said differently, the message you are talking about had long been sent and can not justify what happened in Dresden.

22

Stan 02.12.05 at 5:42 pm

Jet:

The reason why people argue about the Dresden bombing and not about the bombing of other German cities (almost all of which were targeted and many of which were destroyed) is timing: by the time of the Dresden bombing, the war was almost over, Dresden was bursting with refugees from the East, and there was nothing of military value in Dresden (except rail lines which were explicitly not targeted during the bombing night in question). Said differently, the message you are talking about had long been sent and can not justify what happened in Dresden.

23

Thomas Palm 02.12.05 at 5:42 pm

Jet wrote: “But politically could the Allies let Hitler bomb cities uncontested? It was paramount that Hitler understand that Axis bombing of civilians would be met in kind.” The Brittish were the ones who started the indiscriminate bombing war, one of Churchill’s first decisions as PM, because long range bombers was all they were better at than the Germans. It was very cynical, but may have won the war.

What makes the bombing of Dresden stand out is that it served little military purpose. The railway station that might have been a reasonable target was outside the city and wasn’t even targetted the first day. I suspect it was largely based on the idea that they had all those bombers and the generals in charge felt they should be used even if there were no decent targets left. It’s the same principle that makes managers spend all of their budget at the end of the year just to seem important.

Even worse were the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were designed as bomb tests more than strategic bombing. The americans deliberately choose cities that were of such small importance that they hadn’t been bombed before just because they wanted to see the effect on a “virgin” city. Nagasaki wasn’t even the primary target for the second bomb, but Kikura was covered in smoke from a nearby burning city so they couldn’t drop the bomb there. Well, they could drop the bomb, but the accompanying plane wouldn’t get good pictures of the damage which would ruin the whole idea.

24

Thomas Palm 02.12.05 at 5:43 pm

Jet wrote: “But politically could the Allies let Hitler bomb cities uncontested? It was paramount that Hitler understand that Axis bombing of civilians would be met in kind.” The Brittish were the ones who started the indiscriminate bombing war, one of Churchill’s first decisions as PM, because long range bombers was all they were better at than the Germans. It was very cynical, but may have won the war.

What makes the bombing of Dresden stand out is that it served little military purpose. The railway station that might have been a reasonable target was outside the city and wasn’t even targetted the first day. I suspect it was largely based on the idea that they had all those bombers and the generals in charge felt they should be used even if there were no decent targets left. It’s the same principle that makes managers spend all of their budget at the end of the year just to seem important.

Even worse were the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were designed as bomb tests more than strategic bombing. The americans deliberately choose cities that were of such small importance that they hadn’t been bombed before just because they wanted to see the effect on a “virgin” city. Nagasaki wasn’t even the primary target for the second bomb, but Kikura was covered in smoke from a nearby burning city so they couldn’t drop the bomb there. Well, they could drop the bomb, but the accompanying plane wouldn’t get good pictures of the damage which would ruin the whole idea.

25

Stan 02.12.05 at 5:44 pm

Your server is weird! Sorry about the double post.

26

bellatrys 02.12.05 at 6:25 pm

Dresden was vengeance. Tokyo was terror. In both cases the Allies became (openly) what they pretended to condemn as the justification for their opposition to the enemy (as always.)

Many years ago, I spoke to an elderly Londoner who remembered, not only the Blitz, but the first bombing of England, the one that I have had people sincerely tell me never happened, that I was mistaken about, even though I’d seen the photographs of it in books seventy years old.

She told me – she was still active in charitable work for the homeless, btw – that when Dresden was bombed, she felt that the Allies had lost their soul, and the moral high ground, and never regained it. It was very sobering, coming from someone who had actually been on the wrong end of German bombs, and began to shake my confidence in the “Just War” dogma I had been raised to parrot from earliest childhood, even before the revelations of the Orwellian “collateral damage” disinformation to come.

That was years before the documents that revealed that Dresden and the other bombings of German cities, deliberately targeting cultural treasures like Koln Cathedral, were not “strategic” nor military necessity, but nothing more than excercises in Allied schrecklichkeit, even more than they were acceptance of the Reich philosophy that sufficient terror would bring the enemy to their knees (which had worked so well in the Blitz, after all.)

But Americans are so brainwashed into having their self-esteem depend on their image of us as spotless saints defending Truth and Justice and Freedom against virtueless monsters, that to even point out that we, too, (and our allies, with whom we self-identify) are mere fallen mortals not immune to any of the sins of humanity, is to be a heretic, and reviled…

27

jet 02.12.05 at 6:31 pm

Stan,
Good point, I’m convinced. There is no excuse for Dresden.

Thomas Paine, I don’t want to deflect the thread, but the way I see it, the Japanese had long lost any right to complain about the method in which their enemies fought them. 2.5 times as many died in the random Japanese slaughter of Chinese civilians after the Doolittle raid than died in the nuclear bombing. The Americans were in no more awe of their new toys than the Japanese were in awe of their old toys (samuri swords). It’s just the Japanese toys killed more innocents, while doing nothing to end the war.

28

Jim 02.12.05 at 7:08 pm

Bad Jim posts: “The destruction of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably didn’t change the course of history for anyone sufficiently distant from ground zero.”

I will not dispute the inclusion of the first three cities on Bad Jim’s list, but he appears to be claiming that Japan would have surrendered on Aug 14 even if no atomic attacks had taken place.

Every day the war continued, Americans and Japanese died. Every day the war continued many, many more civilians living under Japanese occupation died. If the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortened the war by even one day, then the bombing clearly “changed[d] the course of history” for some people sufficiently far from ground zero.

The morality of using the A-bombs is a different issue. I happen to find the use of the A-bombs morally acceptable for reasons specific to the PTO, but (as it takes us far from the discussion of Dresden) it is a discussion for a different thread.

29

Skip 02.12.05 at 7:40 pm

For brian c.b

This from a review of Taylor’s book in Salon:

Most Western misperceptions about the bombing of Dresden — especially the casualty count of 135,000 — come from one source, the 1963 bestseller “The Destruction of Dresden” by David Irving. Irving’s book is the source of much of the misinformation Vonnegut reproduced in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and Vonnegut goes so far as to mention Irving’s book in his novel. This added the authority of an eyewitness to Irving’s account, but as Taylor demonstrates in “Dresden,” the terror and confusion of enduring a bombing raid often drastically distort the memory. One Dresden survivor recalls finding refuge on an ice floe in the midst of the Elbe River, while another describes the same river aflame with phosphor. It was a mild evening and phosphor didn’t figure significantly in any of the ordnance. To a POW like Vonnegut, forced to excavate corpses from the bomb shelters under the rubble, 45,000 dead could easily look like over 100,000.

Seems clear to me about how Irving is very influential to Vonnegut’s view of Dresden. Is there dispute about this?

30

Thomas Palm 02.12.05 at 8:53 pm

Jet, two wrongs doesn’t make a right. Yes, the Japanese soldiers acted horribly in many cases, but in what way does that make the civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki deserve to die?

Incidently the bomb over Nagasaki was something of a miracle. Not only did they bomb the wrong city, but when the plane got to Nagasaki it was cloudy there too, but they didn’t have fuel enough to continue so they dropped the bomb over the only hole in the clouds they could see. This was about 100 meters from the largest cathedral in Japan, right over the centre of the Christian community. I don’t believe in God, but otherwise it would seem like some kind of message. Some fanatically nationalist Japanese even welcomed that bomb since it got rid of the christians…

31

jet 02.12.05 at 9:19 pm

Thomas Paine,
But those bombings ended the war. There is a case, very weak in my opinion, that the coming Russians were part of the reason that Japan surrendered, but it is a laughable argument that those two bombings didn’t deeply effect the Japanese decision to give up. Yes it sucks those civilians died. But it would have sucked even more if US soldiers, or Russian soldiers would have had to die in the Human Blender that would have been a Japanese homeland invasion. And far FAR more Japanese civilians would have died in that invasion.

Every day that the war continued, Chinese civilians were killed for no reason or died from their treatment. US POW’s were killed for no reason or died from their treatment. So what if the US looked for any city where they could drop the bomb. Japanese atrocities continued at a horrifying pace until the end of the war.

There is an argument to be made that the US should have waited a day (at what cost?) for a better target. There isn’t an argument to be made that they shouldn’t have used the bomb. When you start talking about 10′s of millions of massacred civilians, nuclear weapons lose their taboo status.

32

Keith M Ellis 02.13.05 at 2:21 am

The first creation of a firestorm (Hamburg?) was an accident. Those that followed were intentional. A firestorm is not mere bombing, it is horrifying tactic to kill and frighten civilians. That is the crucial moral difference.

33

him 02.13.05 at 6:18 am

The claim that phosphor wasn’t used in the bombing is wrong. The markers dropped by specialist navigation planes to mark the targets and approaches were phosphorus, and there were hundreds or thousands of them.

34

Lionel 02.13.05 at 9:44 am

and there was nothing of military value in Dresden (except rail lines which were explicitly not targeted during the bombing night in question).

this is part of the problem with people who haven’t read a thing on Dresden except for neo-nazi garbage and leftover soviet disinformation.

Firstly, a main facility producing gas used at the death camps was produced in Dresden. Dresden was the location third largest German govenrment and Army administrative center.

And most imporantly the rail yards were to going be used to transport 500,000 Nazi soldiers to the eastern front in late February. This has all been indicated in recent Ultra declassifications.

You are completly wrong on the issue of the rail yards. Of the five strikes on Dresden in Jan to March, four were direct targeting of ONLy the rail yards where the Nazi troops were marshalled. The British raid of 2/14-15 targeted botht the city center AND the rail yards.

My dad, like Vonnegut, survived Dresden as a POW and I have followed much of what has been written as well as the doumentary evidence, including declassified ulta material ignored by German revisionists and their apologists over at the Guardian.

Brian,
How is David Irving the source for Slaughterhouse Five? Vonnegut was a survivor of the raid himself, and had long wanted (according to him) to write about his experiences.

Ok so you haven’t read Vonnegut and what he HIMSELF says on this? Vonnegut himself has said that he actually did not recall much of what happened even to HIMSELF at Dresden and that he used Irvings now DEBUNKED and discredited garbage.

What is oging on is people are parroting Soviet propaganda aimed at deflecting the fact that they killed more Germans AFTER teh war was over and dragged away every thing that wasn’t nailed down, neo-nazi propaganda and debunked authorities such as fraud David Irving.

35

bad Jim 02.13.05 at 10:00 am

Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima may well have shortened the war, but if, as I believe I’ve read, negotiations were already underway for a cessation of hostilities, with the status of the emperor being a sticking point, there might have been other routes to the same end.

The bombing of Nagasaki doesn’t seem at all defensible.

I’ve read nothing that dealt with the utility of the systematic bombing of Japanese cities, whether that shortened the war or not. As McNamara makes clear in The Fog of War, though, the people involved were aware that their acts could be considered war crimes.

36

joejoejoe 02.13.05 at 12:49 pm

I think only in hindsight can the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki be viewed as separate events. A single atomic bomb could be dismissed or misunderstood as conventional bombing by the Japanese (Tokyo firebombing damage was equivalent to either atomic bombing). Only in repetition does the prospect of complete destruction become obvious and produce the surrender of Japan.

As for selecting targets in Japan I fail to see why it matters ethically which cities were bombed. Destruction was sure to be complete in the blast radius. Any target would have a huge majority of civilian casualties. I see the A-bombs as two sword strikes against the body of Imperial Japan. Does it matter if you hit the head, the heart, the leg or the arm of a nation? The point was to strike fatal blows and by hitting Hiroshima and Nagasaki the United States did just that.

You can argue the ethics of using atomic bombs against Japan but I don’t think which cities were hit is a reasonable variable in deciding either way.

37

Sandals 02.13.05 at 4:27 pm

holy crap, someone fix that trackback spam!

Anyways, Hiroshima & Nagasaki is a very clear moral choice if you frame it as between atomic bombing and ground invasion, which would inevitably have been far more horrible if you look at, say, Okinawa.

The A-Bomb’s terror value- as something new and horrible and with the capacity to utterly destroy a nation- was considerable. Cities have burned down; cities have been destroyed in fighting; yet the prospect of this is not nearly as daunting as Hiroshima. I think its role in bringing Imperial Japan’s surrender without an invasion should never be underestimated.

Think of it this way; imagine that England lost the Battle of London and that a sea invasion seemed imminent, and America remained neutral. Would England have surrendered? It doesn’t seem likely, not going by the stirring rhetoric of the time. But then think if Germany proceeded to drop a pair of atomic weapons on England, when the vast majority of English had no inkling that such a thing was possible. I should think that surrender would come quickly, because A-Bombs cannot be fought.

As to Dresden- I recall that the military rationale was to block German troop movements to the Eastern Front, and that there were quite a few valid military (industrial) targets. It’s really a lie to say it was pure revenge targeted at killing German civilians for revenge.

38

Shai 02.13.05 at 6:19 pm

well some people won’t be impressed by the body analogy, and the unseparable event point is unargued

i’m certainly not equipped to discuss this particular historical counterfactual, but I do suspect that the otherwise unavoidable land war dilemma is a little too simplistic; the entities and actors instantiated in mind more often filled in by ideology than any careful investigation or sense of possibility.

and I suppose something similar and twisted follows from a whiggish post Universal Declaration of Human Rights perspective. the right course of action is imagined by wishful projection of reasonable circumstance.

39

Fred 02.13.05 at 8:33 pm

Jet writes:

“But politically could the Allies let Hitler bomb cities uncontested? It was paramount that Hitler understand that Axis bombing of civilians would be met in kind. That was the only meaningful way to send a message to that crazy bastard. Who will argue that Hitler’s change to bombing cities should have been met with cries of “unfair” instead of doing in kind to Axis cities?”

In grade school, we called this the “he hit me first” defense. it didn’t work then, either.

If X may not be done, it doesn’t really matter if you want to argue that X might have some positive side effects. Consider a more general version of jet’s statement:

“But politically could the Allies let Hitler [conduct war crimes] uncontested? It was paramount that Hitler understand that his [war crimes] would be met in kind. That was the only meaningful way to send a message to that crazy bastard. Who will argue that Hitler’s [war crimes] should have been met with cries of “unfair” instead of doing in kind?”

Look, I love Connery’s “they put one a yours in the hospital …” speech from The Untouchables, but if you adopt it as policy you end up with, for example, the idea that Abu Ghraib is an acceptable response to terrorism.

40

jet 02.13.05 at 9:33 pm

So Fred,
If you were Churchill, and you saw this report every day:
http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/Alley/5443/bofb4.htm
you would just tell your citizens to endure and that the RAF is doing the best they can? Or would you direct your bombers to burn their cities too, in the hopes you killed them off before they killed you off? It wasn’t like this was some sort of grade school tussle. The English had brought out WWI caches of mustard gas and were preparing to use if in the when the Germans invaded. You are the type of person Churchill replaced.

41

Detlef 02.13.05 at 9:57 pm

From reading the comments, especially Lionel´s and Sandals´, there were three (supposed) good reasons to bomb Dresden.

I used today to google around a bit to get some information.
So…

1) Destroying the transportation hub (especially railways) to hinder the eastwards deployment of German troops.

http://www.airforcehistory.hq.af.mil/PopTopics/dresden.htm
(No publication date mentioned but certainly after WW2.)

“By air action on communications hinder the enemy from carrying out the shifting of his troops to the East from the Western Front, from Norway, and from Italy (In particular, to paralyze the junctions of Berlin and Leipzig).

I´m not a military and history expert but:
- How were the Nazis going to transfer a meaningful number of troops with their equipment from Norway to Berlin or Dresden?
Despite total Allied air and sea superiority?
There is some water between Norway and Germany. :)
- And transfering troops from Italy or the Western Front?
Were the American and British forces supposed to sit still in such an event?
It would have made attacks even more easier against a weakened enemy?
Not to mention the fact that these troop movements would have been restricted to the night and really good hiding during the day because of Allied fighter-bombers and bombers.

And I really, really doubt that there was enough railway stock left and/or available to transport 500.000 soldiers and their equipment across Germany or from Italy/Norway to Germany.

And do I need to remind you of the acute and big fuel shortage in Nazi Germany?

http://www.anesi.com/ussbs02.htm#taoo
(This report is from September 30 1945.)

“When the Germans launched their counter-offensive on December 16, 1944, their reserves of fuel were insufficient to support the operation. They counted on capturing Allied stocks. Failing in this, many panzer units were lost when they ran out of gasoline.”

Did the Americans and British fail to detect that fact after the “Battle of the Bulge” ended?
Panzer units not attacking, retreating or moving at all after they ran out of gasoline?

Taken together I have to say that yes, this could be a reason for bombing the rail yards.
If so though, the Allied intelligence officers in early 1945 had to have been amazingly stupid.
Which I doubt. :)

Difficult to believe that Nazi Germany in February 1945 could shift 500.000 soldiers and their equipment (not to mention their supplies including the non-existent gasoline) hundreds of kilometers across Germany and Europe.

(An issurance policy could have been to just destroy the railway and road bridges across the river Elbe.)

2) Industry producing war material and gas for the Concentration Camps

I don´t know about the gas-producing plant.
So I´ll accept it as true.
I notice though that the Allies never bombed the railway lines leading to Auschwitz nor the camps itself.
So I´m not sure if that was a main factor in the bombings?

Anyway…

http://www.anesi.com/ussbs02.htm#taoo

“As a rule the industrial plants were located around the perimeter of German cities and characteristically these were relatively undamaged.”
[Relatively undamaged by city area bombings especially at night.]

(I visited Dresden a few years ago and the tour guide then mentioned – unrelated to any bombing attacks – that Dresden had a “city law” since the 19th century forbiding the building of any factories with “large” chimneys in the “inner” city.)

And:

http://www.airforcehistory.hq.af.mil/PopTopics/dresden.htm

Target area in Dresden from January 1945 to March 1945:
American 8th AF: 4 attacks against “Marshalling Yards” with an average of around 300 arcraft.
RAF Bomber Command: 1 attack against the “City Area” with 772 aircraft.

Oh, and one single attack against the “Industrial Area” on April 17 1945 by the American 8th AF
with 8 aircraft.

So I have to assume that the “Industrial Area” wasn´t a main target?

3) Military installations.

That would be a very good and legitimate reason.
Unfortunately in 1871 the then Saxon King founded the “Albertstadt” suburb.
That was kind of a “garrison town” close to the capital of Saxony.
Since then almost all military installations were concentrated there (barracks, supply depots, administrative buildings etc.)

Surprisingly this part of the town wasn´t targeted. It only got hit by a few accidentially dropped bombs as far as I can see.
It existed since 1871 so it is a bit hard to believe that the Allies didn´t know that.

This website (in German)

http://www.geschichtsthemen.de/bombenterror.htm

claims to have a copy of the March 1945 Dresden police report.
The report says that only around 100 military personal were killed during the attacks.
(It doesn´t say if those 100 might have been staying home with their families perhaps.)

So, military installations don´t seem to have been a major target too?

Now, I am a German and I admit that I´m biased here. :)

(Notice that the bombings of Hamburg for example are treated entirely different?
Hamburg with roughly the same number of civilian victims happened in 1943. Around 40.000 killed.
As Stan said, “timing”.
Not to mention the Hamburg shipyards building submarines in 1943.)

If the sources I cited were right, industrial and military areas weren´t the main target at all.

One could make a (in my opinion weak) case that destroying the “Dresden transportation hub” was important to protect the Russian advance against Berlin against a German counterattack from the South.

Still, that´s something hard to believe as I tried to explain in point 1).
Where was the (still intact transport) infrastructure, the gasoline and all other supplies to support a transfer of 500.000 troops with their equipment across hundreds or thousands of kilometers (Italy/Norway) in February 1945?
Not to mention the coordination and planning problems needed in such an effort.

Sorry, it´s just not plausible in my opinion.

Detlef

P.S. Note that I don´t even mention alledgedly
RAF quotes trying to “hamper the evacuation” [of German civilians from the East] or alleged RAF quotes trying to show “Stalin what heavy bombers could do”.
I´m wary of these quotes so I didn´t include them.

42

Jean Lepley 02.13.05 at 10:48 pm

Some years ago, in his physicist Freeman Dyson put “strategic bombing” (including the atom bomb) in a prespective that made compelling sense to me. As one closely involved in the program, he saw it as a political necessity — what else could any British PM have done, with Londoners under nightly attack? — but a strategic failure, nonetheless (with mounting loss of crews and planes.) A terrible time…

43

Jean Lepley 02.13.05 at 10:59 pm

Sorry about that garbled first sentence — it should have read “in his book Disturbing the Universe, physicist Freeman Dyson put . . .

44

Sandals 02.14.05 at 1:11 am

Detlef; Doubtless both motivations were present. This Wikipedia article documents the military reasoning of the Allied commanders rather extensively with quotes and supporting material.

45

D ave F 02.14.05 at 8:45 am

if one is to draw any precedent from the Nuremburg trials, the aircrews certainly could be considered culpable.

In addition, it was dubious even then that area bombing of concentrations of civilians – later to become a defined offence under the Geneva conventions — constituted legal prosecution of war. Obeying an illegal order is no defence.

The difference between Dresden and the camps is the matter of genocide, of course.
But that should not weaken the principle of legality.

46

Sandals 02.14.05 at 8:57 am


if one is to draw any precedent from the Nuremburg trials, the aircrews certainly could be considered culpable.

That simply does not jive with the lack of prosecutions of german Blitz aircrews. The precedent re: Nuremburg is that it is not prosecutable as a war crime, not that it is.

47

Thomas Palm 02.14.05 at 9:51 am

Both Jet and Jean Lepley seems to think that Brittish bombing of Germany started as a response to the Blitz, but it didn’t. Churchill ordered the first bombing attacks on German railway stations and similar targets May 11th 1940, which given the inaccurace of bombs meant civilians were killed too. June 20th the targets were extended to any industrial target, including the housing for the workers. This was still several months before the Blitz started.

The ruthlessness of the Brittish bombing campaign wasn’t surprising. They had learned everything about terror bombing in India, Iraq and other colonies where it was routine to destroy villages of rebelling natives from the air. It was in India Harris developed the perfect mix of explosive and incendiary bombs to maximize damage.

48

Bob B 02.14.05 at 11:19 am

This and much else on the web page provides illuminating perspectives on the fanatical obsession with “area bombing” of Bomber Harris, head of the RAF’s Bomber Command from 1942 on.

” . . A corollary of the Trenchard Bomber Doctrine was that defense was useless because, as Stanley Baldwin reminded Parliament in 1932, ‘the bomber will always get through.’ Although the British devoted few funds to research and development for the RAF during the inter-war period, the government was shocked when the C-in-C of Bomber Command, Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, informed his superiors in July 1939 that their front-line bombers had been made obsolete by the development of monoplane fighters armed with cannons and machineguns. British bombers lacked speed, adequate defensive armament, bombs large enough to sufficiently damage targets, and navigation equipment to enable planes to locate targets hundreds of miles away. After the outbreak of hostilities it was discovered that British bombers tended to burn easily when attacked by enemy aircraft. . .”
- at: http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v01/v01p247_Lutton.html

The Mosquito was one of the most astonishing new bombers to emerge as a result of that bleak assessment shortly before the outbreak of WW2:

http://www.aviation-history.com/dehavilland/mosquito.html
http://www.aviation-central.com/1940-1945/aeg70.htm
http://hsfeatures.com/mosquitoprototypesb_1.htm

Various sources report that even during the war it was recognised that the Mosquito, although a light, twin-engined bomber with a crew of only two, was significantly more accurate than the heavy bombers and suffered a lower casualty rate on missions. Nevertheless, Harris remained fixated on use of heavy bombers committed to “area bombing” at night because heavy bombers were so inaccurate – a sort of classic variation on: Catch 22 – and that despite the high casualty rates of RAF bomber aircrews and the economic costs to Britain’s war economy of making heavy bombers rather than the light Mosquitos, made mainly of wood!

49

david g 02.14.05 at 4:33 pm

Alfred Coppel wrote an alternate history of the end of the war with Japan about 20 years ago called, I think, “The Burning Mountain”. In this book, the original bomb test in New Mexico fails, so the U.S. has to begin invading the Japanese Home Islands. Nine months and over a million more dead Americans and Japanese later, a new a-bomb test succeeds. Truman decides to use the bomb on Japan, since obviously the Japs aren’t giving up, and final victory would be infinitely more bloody. In the final scene, a Japanese fighter pilot just fails to shoot down the Superfortress carrying the bomb to Hiroshima, because his fuel runs out. He plunges to his death thinking “How beautiful is the land of Yamato, and how tragic.”

Dresden was the ultimate “shock and awe” raid, and it’s easy 60 years later to condemn it and much of the whole anti-civilian RAF Bomber Offensive as immoral or a violation of just war principles. I have read horrendous, heart-rending testimonies from the summer 43 Hamburg raids; they, and many others, were as bad as Dresden. The RAF dropped over 20 times as much explosive on Germany as the Luftwaffe (which never acquired 4-engine bombers) did on Britain.

Still, there was a war on. It is not easy to sit today and say, I would never have approved that raid, or, Churchill and Harris shouldn’t have ordered it. They wanted to destroy Germany (and not, of course, to save victims of Nazi rule, that is another ex post rationalization), and they did. They were not squeamish about the means. It’s anachronistic and ahistorical to apply simple blanket judgments so many years later. “Should” and “shouldn’t” are moral, not historical, categories. Best just to understand what happened, which was a tragedy.

50

david g 02.14.05 at 4:34 pm

Alfred Coppel wrote an alternate history of the end of the war with Japan about 20 years ago called, I think, “The Burning Mountain”. In this book, the original bomb test in New Mexico fails, so the U.S. has to begin invading the Japanese Home Islands. Nine months and over a million more dead Americans and Japanese later, a new a-bomb test succeeds. Truman decides to use the bomb on Japan, since obviously the Japs aren’t giving up, and final victory would be infinitely more bloody. In the final scene, a Japanese fighter pilot just fails to shoot down the Superfortress carrying the bomb to Hiroshima, because his fuel runs out. He plunges to his death thinking “How beautiful is the land of Yamato, and how tragic.”

Dresden was the ultimate “shock and awe” raid, and it’s easy 60 years later to condemn it and much of the whole anti-civilian RAF Bomber Offensive as immoral or a violation of just war principles. I have read horrendous, heart-rending testimonies from the summer 43 Hamburg raids; they, and many others, were as bad as Dresden. The RAF dropped over 20 times as much explosive on Germany as the Luftwaffe (which never acquired 4-engine bombers) did on Britain.

Still, there was a war on. It is not easy to sit today and say, I would never have approved that raid, or, Churchill and Harris shouldn’t have ordered it. They wanted to destroy Germany (and not, of course, to save victims of Nazi rule, that is another ex post rationalization), and they did. They were not squeamish about the means. It’s anachronistic and ahistorical to apply simple blanket judgments so many years later. “Should” and “shouldn’t” are moral, not historical, categories. Best just to understand what happened, which was a tragedy.

51

david g 02.14.05 at 4:38 pm

sorry about the double post; I got an “error – page not found” message on the first try.

52

Jussi 02.14.05 at 8:28 pm

Detlef,

“How were the Nazis going to transfer a meaningful number of troops with their equipment from Norway to Berlin or Dresden?”

They weren’t, at least not many. Quite apart from the logistic difficulties you point out, a lot of the “Norwegian” resources were still engaged, fighting against the Finns.

53

Bob B 02.14.05 at 10:02 pm

Even in the last year or so of the war, there were debates, at least among the upper echelons of the war establishment in Britain, about not just the morality of wide area bombing of Germany but about whether the priority accorded to it made good strategic and economic sense in the context of other alternatives. Churchill expressed his reservations in writing but the strategic commitment continued nonetheless. Harris’s fixation with area bombing prevailed. That it did despite the widely expressed reservations is hugely significant. The triumph of the will? Vested interests in making heavy bombers? Surely not implacable clamour from heavy bomber crews who had to withstand the high casualty rate?

54

David 02.15.05 at 3:55 am

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

There is no ambiguity in this, moral or otherwise. If you didn’t want your cities bombed, then you shouldn’t have bombed ours. You brought this upon yourselves. Simple.

Now I realise this reasoning may not appeal to the more intellectually inclined amongst you, but it is how most of us feel. It therefore has a genuine resonance that your moralistic musings lack.

“From now on we shall bomb Germany on an ever-increasing scale, month by month, year by year, until the Nazi regime has either been exterminated by us or — better still — torn to pieces by the German people themselves.”

Churchill. Payback, as ever, is a bitch.

55

Jim 02.15.05 at 4:03 am

BadJim writes: “Dropping the bomb on Hiroshima may well have shortened the war, but if, as I believe I’ve read, negotiations were already underway for a cessation of hostilities, with the status of the emperor being a sticking point, there might have been other routes to the same end.”

It has been a few years since I last read “Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire” (by Richard B. Frank), but my recollection is that Frank examines records of the discussions at the highest levels of Japan’s wartime government, as well as the Japanese diplomatic communications that the US had intercepted and decrypted. From these he concludes that the handful of (mostly) military officers running Japan had no interest in negotiating peace from a position of Japanese weakness. Instead, Japan’s strategy was to let the US invade and then inflict as much carnage as possible upon the invading armies to force the US to negotiate a peace that left the warmongers in charge in Japan.

In other words, the sticking point was not the status of the emperor, but the desire of Japanese leaders to retain at least the status quo ante bellum.

The US military made several estimates of the expected casualties from an invasion. The low was of order 50,000 (K/W/M) the high was of order 200,000 (K/W/M). Historically, Japanese casualties were several times those of the US in the PTO, with a larger fraction of Japanese KIA.

In addition, in Aug. ’45 the US was set to start targeted bombing of the Japanese transportation infrastructure. The Japanese were projecting very low harvests that year (of order 1400 calories per person per day). As it was, only US food stocks and US transport stave of widespread hunger in the winter of ’45-’46. Had the war continued, the added disruption of Japan’s rail / road / sea routes would have made famine in the cites quite likely.

Finally, it is estimated that of order 100,000 to 200,000 civilians were dying each month in Japanese occupied territories because of the occupation. These deaths would continue at least as long as the hostilities with Japan.

These factors, in aggregate, to me, are sufficient to justify the atomic attacks.

56

theorajones 02.16.05 at 12:46 am

What I find interesting is that the Germans did not paint themselves as victims after these bombings. Certainly, they could have made a case. But they did not appear to seriously try.

Perhaps such talk was unacceptable, because they had just lived through the society that results when you see yourselves as the victim of historic wrongs, and do not consider the objective morality of your actions but instead justify “anything goes” in pre-emptive strikes or revenge against your enemies. Nazism was born out of a sense of persecuted and aggreived victimhood, and I can see how Germans of that era would be wary of induging in that particular vice twice.

Also, do you think the Geneva conventions came about simply because people were horrified by what the Germans had done? They were horrified by what THEY had done.

Of course the other guys were more evil. But the mark of civilization is first admitting that even though the other guys were eviler, you were pretty evil too; and second, attemting to set up some sort of institutional barrier against such actions in the future (obviously, without sacrificing your legitimate need for self-protection).

So, kindly spare us all the little justifications as to why one horror or another was acceptable. They simply aren’t. They may have been necessary, but that doesn’t make them any less a horror, or make the human suffering they caused any more acceptable. Once should never look upon Dresden or Hiroshima and walk away with a sense of moral justification. Down that path lies far, far worse than Abu Ghraib.

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