Dresden: Peeling Back Layers of
“Europe is a fortress. But it is a fortress without a roof.”-Allied propaganda leaflet dropped en masse on Nazi Germany.
While I was in South Jersey, I stopped in the Moorestown Barnes & Noble, and picked up a copy of Frederick Taylor’s 2003 book, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945. I read through most of it on the plane today.
All in all, it’s a magisterial work. Taylor places the city of Dresden not just into the context of World War II, but within the history of Germany, as well as Europe, going back millennia to trace the city’s role in history.
Dresden became famous for its role in two overlapping wars: first, as a target of the allies in the waning days of World War II, as the city was bombed by the British and then the US on February 13th, 1945. Of this, history is certain: the bombing leveled the city and left thousands killed.
As Taylor recounts, almost immediately after the city was bombed, Dresden was about to become a pawn in a different war all together: a propaganda war.
First, Joseph Goebbels added an extra zero on the immediate death toll in German propaganda, to turn an estimate of 20,204 killed into 202,040, in order to rally Germans for one last push before the inevitable downfall.
Then, the Soviet Union captured the city and it became part of communist East Germany, exchanging, as Taylor notes, one totalitarian master for another. And just as Nazi Germany had a skilled propaganda machine, so did the Soviet Union, which were all too happy to use the destruction caused by the allied bombing as a way of inflicting maximum guilt on the free west.
Add to this the role of David Irving, now relatively well known as a Holocaust denier, but in the early 1960s, just making his name as a historian. Arguably, it was his best-selling 1963 book, The Destruction of Dresden, that was most effective in establishing the modern myth of Dresden as an innocent city wrongly incinerated by the Allies in a final punch-drunk show of force late in the war. It served as the basis of a growing method for Germans to deflect their own responsibility for the tens of millions killed by National Socialism by transforming World War II into a sort of massed guilt that attempts to portray American and British actions as equally culpable as the Nazis, much as multiculturalism attempts to argue that no single culture is greater than another. (Japan has tried to use our atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in similar fashion to deflect its own barbarities.)
One by one, Taylor thoroughly demolishes all of the myths that had built up about Dresden. You can’t really call it a revisionist book, as Taylor is actually peeling back layer after layer of existing revisionist history about Dresden–and World War II itself. As George Rosie wrote in his fine review of the book for England’s Sunday Herald:
The bombing of Dresden in February 1945 has passed into popular history as one of the atrocities of the second world war. It is one of those events that seemed to shift the moral ground. The “fire storm” that laid waste Dresden allowed the Nazis to claim the status of victims. Like Hiroshima, it became a symbol of the misuse of military power. And it trailed some chilling questions. Why Dresden? Was it an attempt to eradicate the best of German culture? How many died? Was it 100,000? Was it 200,000? Is it true that the British and the Amer-icans targeted refugees fleeing the city? Did low-flying Mustang fighters really strafe helpless civilians trying to shelter in parks?Almost certainly not. As Taylor points out, we owe most of our ideas of the raids on Dresden to a handful of books, one of them by the “revisionist” historian David Irving. His account, The Destruction Of Dresden, was first published in 1963, long before he was discredited. Reasonably accurate accounts by German historians were largely ignored and most of the official information about the raids was buried by the communist regime which inherited Dresden in 1945 and was quite happy with western breast-beating over the “atrocity”.But with the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989, information has been seeping out of that beautiful city on the Elbe and much of it has been scooped up by Taylor. He also talked with many survivors and some British and American flyers who manned the bombers as well as scouring the official archive in London and Washington. Taylor is an assiduous researcher. He paints a picture which, while still terrible, is not quite the apocalyptic one of popular history. And in the process he deflates a number of myths.One of them is that Dresden was an “innocent” city, a wonderland of art and architecture devoid of any strategic significance. Nothing more than Florence on the Elbe. This is nonsense. Dresden was home to any number of high-tech engineering firms all working flat out to supply Hitler’s war machine. One was Carl Zeiss-Jena, the lens-making company which was churning out optics for bomb sights, artillery sights and U-boat periscopes. Many of these factories relied on slave labour from concentration camps. In fact, the Dresden Yearbook for 1942 boasts that the city was “one of the foremost industrial locations of the Reich.”Dresden was also the site of one of the most important railway marshalling yards in eastern Germany. It was a nodal point on the network with hundreds of thousands of troops, guns and tanks being shunted through Dresden on their way to the eastern front. Politically, the city was solidly Nazi. Hitler’s visits were met with wild enthusiasm. There was an SS barracks in the suburbs. Hundreds of Hitler’s enemies had died on the blade of Dresden’s electric-powered guillotine. One way or another, Dresden was a “legitimate” target for the allied bombers (if bombing of any city can be regarded as legitimate).Ironically perhaps, Dresden’s tragedy was not to have been bombed far earlier in the war. If it had been, things might have been different. But for years the city was beyond the reach of allied aircraft. Dresden seems to have been lulled, quite literally, into a false sense of security. As a result it failed to build the kind of deep, air-raid shelters with blast shutters and air-filtration systems which was the norm elsewhere in Germany (and which probably saved millions of lives). Dresdeners made their own arrangements – in basements, cellars, under stairs, where so many were to prove utterly vulnerable to the rain of high explosives and incendiaries.
Along the way, Taylor also punctures the myth that the allied bombing efforts of World War II were ineffective, as this passage from his book illustrates:
It became fashionable among writers in the postwar period to dismiss city bombing, not only as immoral but also as essentially useless. There seems, however, little doubt that the strategic bombing campaign played a major role in the defeat of Germany (if not perhaps the “knockout” one that Sir Arthur Harris and his supporters dreamed of), and growing evidence that it may even have proved decisive. Early postwar surveys made the mistake of confining cost-benefit analysis to a kind of simple accounting of notionally lost German production. Especially when Speer took over the government’s war, industries portfolio and introduced long-overdue efficiency measures (aided by the growing political trend toward a “total war” ideology among more radical Nazi leaders such as Goebbels and Ley), German armaments production continued to increase. This trend continued until the end of 1944, and it was therefore assumed that Allied bombing had been almost entirely ineffective.More recent studies, especially those of Professor Richard Overy, have taken a broader view and also included the massive financial and material costs involved for the Reich in creating a complex and sophisticated aircraft tracking and air defense system, in rebuilding and relocating industrial and military installations, and in feeding, housing, amid caring for victims of the escalating Allied bombing. This not only took weapons and equipment from the frontline land troops, but also vastly reduced the number of offensive aircraft available on all fronts, especially in Russia. Moreover, while the ever-aggressive Hitler demanded more bombers, the constant need for night and day fighters to keep the Anglo-American bomber fleets away from German cities and factories meant that fighters were always given priority over a new generation of long-distance bombers, which might have enabled the Luftwaffe to take the fight to the enemy. From 1943 Germany was always, as the sporting metaphor goes, “on the back foot” as a result of the strategic bombing campaign.At the beginning of January 1945 Albert Speer and other leading officials met and summarized the effect of relentless Allied bombing on production during 1944. Germany, they calculated, had produced 35 percent fewer tanks, 31 percent fewer aircraft, and 42 percent fewer trucks than planned. All this was due to intensive Allied bombing of the Reich’s industrial centers-which even in cases defined as “precision” would have caused “spillage” (the World War II American euphemism equivalent to the modern “collateral damage”) and in others would have been a by-product of area bombing, where civilian casualties were ruthlessly factored in.On the last day of January 1945 (coincidentally the twelfth anniversary of the Führer’s accession to power), Speer sat down and wrote a memorandum to Hitler in which the armaments minister frankly admitted defeat in the struggle to continue supplying German armed forces. “Realistically,” he wrote later, “I declared that the war was over in this area of heavy industry and armaments…”
The history of America’s war in Vietnam has undergone multiple revisions by the left, similar to what Dresden has gone through over the decades in microcosm: Johnson’s early efforts in Vietnam enjoyed popular support, until Walter Cronkite transformed an American military victory during the 1968 Tet Offensive into a propaganda coup for the North Vietnamese, beginning a wave of increasing American anger with the war (and ultimately costing Johnson–and Hubert Humphrey–the White House). Then in August of last year, John Kerry cynically transformed the same Vietnam war that he trashed in front of the US Senate in 1971 into the moral underpinning of his entire campaign, causing James Lileks to write “The past was more malleable than you had ever expected”:
“I defended this country as a young man, and I will defend it as President.” [Kerry said at the 2004 Democratic National Convention]This really intrigues me. I agree that Vietnam was a defense of the United States, inasmuch as we were trying to blunt the advance of Communism. So: only Nixon can go to China. (Only Kirk can go to Chronos, for you Star Trek geeks.) Only Kerry can confirm that Vietnam was a just war. This completely upends conventional wisdom about the Vietnamese war, and requires a certain amount of historical amnesia. Why does this get glossed over? The illegitimacy of the Vietnam war (non-UN approved, after all) is a key doctrine of the Church of the Boomers; to say that service in Vietnam was done in defense of the United States is like announcing that Judas Iscariot was the most faithful of the disciples. Imagine if you were a preacher who attempted such a revision. Imagine your private thrill when everyone in the congregation nodded assent.
Which brings us to today. As our own efforts to reform the Middle East are subject to an ongoing propaganda war in the news media and the Blogosphere, and the media simultaneously attempts tries to surpress the very images of the attacks on US soil that started it, Fredrick Taylor’s Dresden, enjoyably written and expertly researched, allow us to observe just how fluidly history and propaganda can be intertwined, even in a war as seemingly as black and white as World War II.