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Bombing of Dresden


John Simkin
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I have always considered the bombing of Dresden on 13th February 1945, a war crime. For example, here is an internal RAF memo circulated in January, 1945.

“Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester, is also far the largest unbombed built-up the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westwards and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium. The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front, to prevent the use of the city in the way of further advance, and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.”

The main reason for the destruction of this medieval city was as a warning to the advancing Red Army (also one of the main motivations behind the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan). To their credit, some RAF aircrews did not follow instructions during the raid.

Churchill, being an historian, became concerned about how these firestorms would be seen during the post-war period. On 28th March, 1945, Churchill wrote to Bomber Harris: “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. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. We shall not, for instance, be able to get housing material out of Germany for our own needs because some temporary provision would have to be made for the Germans themselves. I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives, such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction.”

After the war some British historians were highly critical of the attack on Dresden. As it was clearly a terror attack on a civilian population some have described it as a war crime. Although terror bombing was Churchill’s policy, Harris took the blame and was not given the honours that men of equivalent rank were given. Harris was so bitter about this he emigrated to South Africa.

A couple of years ago I produced a web page on the bombing of Dresden. In fact, if you type in the word “bombing of Dresden” in Google it come up 1st out of 27,400 pages.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWdresden.htm

I have not passed moral judgment on the bombing in the narrative. However, I have received several hostile emails for my choice of documents to illustrate the event.

In recent years there has been attempts to defend the terror bombing of Germany. This has culminated in a new book by Frederick Taylor. This is part of a review that appeared in Saturday’s Guardian by Michael Burleigh, one of a new generation of right-wing, nationalistic British historians.

Attempts to treat the bombing of Dresden as a war crime perpetrated against the innocent inhabitants of a historical cultural centre of no industrial or military significance began two days after the attack. This was the handiwork of the Nazi propaganda supremo Goebbels, whose "spin doctors" exaggerated the city's population by a factor of four to support the wild claim that two million refugees from the east had been caught by the raids, and who doctored the number of corpses publicly burned (with the help of the SS who had some experience of these tasks) by adding an extra nought to the actual figure of 6,856....

Frederick Taylor's well-researched and unpretentious book is a robust defence of the Dresden raids that counters recent attempts to recast the nation that gave the world Auschwitz as the second world war's principal victims, attempts that stretch back to the time of Goebbels. They continue in the form of criminalizing RAF Bomber Command's supremo Bert "Bomber" Harris for a high-level strategy that was largely designed to show Stalin that his western allies were actually fighting if not in, then at least above, Nazi Germany...

Taylor skilfully interweaves various personal accounts of the impact of the raids on the permanent or temporary population of Dresden, including its slave-labour force. But the main thrust of his book is to defend a mission that was merely successful rather than exceptional. It came at the conclusion of a long war that, while generally brutalizing and dulling moral sensitivities, also had clear enough justification in the fight between good and evil.

What do people think? Was it a war crime or have we been victims of Nazi propaganda?

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Guest Adrian Dingle

You're in the wrong subject!! You see, that's the problem with History, open to all these confounded "interpretations". Not the case (relatively) in chemistry!

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The bombing of Dresden can be seen as a war crime but the same goes for the bombing of Coventry.

Concerning historic truth and historic books a similar trend can be found in Germany: for my generation the bombing of the German cities was seen as a result and effect of the German actions (see above: Rotterdam, Coventry and many others). A couple of months ago a book was published which highlights the aftermath of the bombing of Dresden, the suffering and dying and depicts the Germans as victims of allied "terror".

I do not want to downplay the loss of lives, the misery and suffering inflicted by the air raids and ensuing firestorms but I have second thoughts when the publication of this book coincides with a speech of a CDU MP on October 3rd about the influence of Jews on the Bolshevik movement and their involvement in the Russian Revolution (October). This speech aimed at turning history upside down blaming the Jews for the atrocities of the Russian Revolution and furthermore for the purges and in doing so it aimed at whitewashing the Germans.

Despite different interpretations of historic events the right wing revisionist historians seem to be back exculpating their own nations (ties in niecly with the topic: nationalism and history)

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Dresden a war crime? Probably but isn't war a crime in itself?

Ever since the establishment of the Geneva Convention in 1864 attempts have been made to make warfare more "humane". This has focused on issues concerning the way you treat captured soldiers and the relationship between the combatants and the civilian population.

The development of weapon carrying aircraft has caused particular problems. Governments have always justified this by insisting that these weapons are only used against military targets. In recent wars governments have tried to give the impression that new technology enables us to be so precise in our targeting that civilians are rarely killed. This is why there was such a fuss about the use of cluster bombs during the recent Iraq War. These are weapons that targets civilians. As a result I believe that the people who authorized the use of such weapons are war criminals.

In the early stages of the Second World War the Luftwaffe used bombing raids to terrorise civilian populations into surrender. At this time the British government considered this strategy to be a war crime and insisted on following a policy of attacking military targets only. However, night-time raids dramatically reduced accuracy and it became impossible for pilots to concentrate on bombing military targets.

In 1941 Charles Portal, head of RAF Bomber Command, argued for a change of policy. He advocated that entire cities and towns should be bombed. Portal claimed that this would quickly bring about the collapse of civilian morale in Germany. When Air Marshall Arthur Harris became head of RAF Bomber Command in February 1942, he introduced a policy of area bombing (known in Germany as terror bombing) where entire cities and towns were targeted.

In the later stages of the war the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force developed a new strategy that involved the creation of firestorms. This was achieved by dropping incendiary bombs, filled with highly combustible chemicals such as magnesium, phosphorus or petroleum jelly (napalm), in clusters over a specific target. After the area caught fire, the air above the bombed area, become extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside and people were sucked into the fire. The most notable examples of this tactic being used was in Hamburg (August, 1943), Dresden (February, 1945) and Tokyo (March 1945).

In my opinion the creation of firestorms is a war crime. The whole idea of this strategy is to terrorize and kill civilians. It is my strong belief that the people responsible for ordering such raids should have been charged with war crimes.

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The Second World War was a brutal and inhuman war in many ways. The European part of this war was probably more inhumanly and cruelly fought at the Eastern front than at the Western front. The behaviour of the Nazis occupants in the conquered territories was unbelievable. The racist policy of The Nazis was being imagination.

From this point of view it was right to use whatever force the opponents have to bring the war to a swift end.

Even by bombing defenceless women, old people and children? By bombing them without any mercy? By bombing them in the way which didn't offer any way of escape? Like bombing of Dresden?

I believe that there is also a humanistic (or more philosophical aspect) when looking at this controversy.

I do believe that no democratic government, no democratic nation should ever behave in the same way as the totalitarian enemy nation is behaving? It's not easy to "draw the line" when you fight a fierce war. But how about the accusation of the enemy for inhumanity when the accuser is using similar methods? Are the arguments trustworthy in that case? Will the democratic nation be trustworthy in the critical views of future historians?

When fighting against the totalitarian regimes one must not land at the same level if one is representing and fighting for human democratic ideas. Simply because this would harm these same ideas irreparably.

From this (mayby idealistic) point of view I do believe that bombing of Dresden was a war crime.

Edited by Dalibor Svoboda
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On such a complex matter, 2 simple questions :

- why, in the Frankfurt city centre, a short memorial text, describing the german victims of the allied bombing, says nothing about the nazi regime ?

- why, after Hiroshima, did Japan tried to be seen as a victim, hiding his role in the outbreak of WW2 ?

Vichy propaganda used these bombings. About Rouen, a poster said :

"Les assassins reviennent toujours sur le lieu de leurs crimes".

A Disney-like cartoon suggests that these bombings killed people who supported the allied camp.

There may be 2 dangers to avoid :

- revisionnism, in changing aggressors into victims

- anachronism, if we question history with today standards.

DL

Edited by D Letouzey
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On such a complex matter, 2 simple questions :

- why, in the Francfurt city centre, a short memorial text, describing the german victims of the allied bombing, says nothing about the nazi regime ?

- why, after Hiroshima, did Japan tried to be seen as a victim, hiding his role in the outbreak of WW2 ?

There may be 2 dangers to avoid :

- revisionnism, in changing aggressors into victims

- anachronism, if we question history with today standards.

DL

I find these comments very disturbing. You seem to be confusing governments with civilians. Did the people living in Hiroshima deserve to suffer the consequences of the atom bomb being dropped on their city? In what way were they guilty of the crimes committed by their government? The same is true of the inhabitants of Frankfurt and Dresden. It seems these people had already suffered enough from having a barbaric government.

I do not know what you mean by the comment that revisionism is changing aggressors into victims. In what way were the people of Hiroshima and Dresden aggressors?

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In what way were they guilty of the crimes committed by their government? The same is true of the inhabitants of Frankfurt and Dresden. It seems these people had already suffered enough from having a barbaric government.

John,

Do you mean that all the evil lies just on some leaders ?

That Hitler alone killed by himself more than 5 millions Jews and nearly 20 millions Russians ??

How do you make war without the active cooperation of ordinary men ?

How do you run concentration camps without active railwaymen in all occupied Europe ? During the Papon trial, french historians used the word " crime de bureau".

Daniel

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Do you mean that all the evil lies just on some leaders ?

That Hitler alone killed by himself more than 5 millions Jews and nearly 20 millions Russians ??

How do you make war without the active cooperation of ordinary men ?

How do you run concentration camps without active railwaymen in all occupied Europe ? During the Papon trial, french historians used the word " crime de bureau".

Does it follow from that once you have suffered at the hands of one particular country that you have the moral right to punish all the people from that country? This idea of revenge might satisfy the blood lust of the victims but has nothing to do with justice. For example, some people living in Vichy France collaborated with the authorities in the arrest and deportation of Jews to the concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Would the allies have been right to bomb Vichy as a punishment for this behaviour? Or does this sense of morality only apply to the treatment of people living in Germany and Japan?

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The question which means are justified or justifiable in a war against a not only totalitarian but also extremly barbaric system is indeed a complex moral issue.

The rationale behind the bombing of German cities towards the end of WW II was to "bomb" a nation into a either fast surrender and thus saving thousand of lives on the different fronts or into resistance.

As we know neither of these two aims were reached by the air raids. But did the leaders of the allies really know that the "weapon" they were using was useless and in some cases even led to the opposite: a growing hostility towards the allies or could they have known.

If they had known, these attacks would have been simple acts of revenge and punishment. If these attacks were meant as punishment and revenge, then their legitimacy and justification would be questionable. If not, they would be nothing but another operation in a terrible war.

why, in the Frankfurt city centre, a short memorial text, describing the german victims of the allied bombing, says nothing about the nazi regime ?

- why, after Hiroshima, did Japan tried to be seen as a victim, hiding his role in the outbreak of WW2 ?

I think we'd better not confuse things: on the one hand you have the victims of the Nazi system and on the other hand you have the German victims of the war. I am strongly against commemorating both groups in one memorial because not only the amount but their suffering as such is so very different.

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  • 3 weeks later...

An interesting article in today’s Guardian by Paul Oestreicher about the Bombing of Dresden. He writes:

In Coventry, on the 50th anniversary of the attack, the German president Richard von Weizsäcker spoke of his nation's guilt; but when the Queen visited Dresden, she failed to lay a wreath at the cathedral ruins. Her advisers feared tabloid headlines. And, who knows, someone might throw an egg. It was a sad failure of diplomacy. Yet maybe a few have accepted that in war, however just the cause, no one emerges with clean hands. Saying sorry is not a sign of weakness.

As early as the 60s a group of young people went from Coventry to help to rebuild a Dresden hospital destroyed by British bombs; and when, on June 22, a golden cross tops out the rebuilt cathedral - the famous Frauenkirche - it will be a gift of the people of Britain, including, personally, the Queen. The British Dresden Trust commissioned a London goldsmith whose father had flown that terrible night over Dresden.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,...1160568,00.html

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  • 2 months later...

Interesting discussion on "war crimes". My dad worked on the A-bomb in WWII. He always felt it was necessary to use it - not to "punish" the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but to convince the Japanese government that it must surrender.

It did, in fact, have that effect. Richard Rhodes makes that clear in his Making of the Atomic Bomb. Only the personal intervention of the Emperor forced the Army to concede defeat, and even at that there were those ready to attack the Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, rather than surrender.

Does that mean we had to drop it on populated areas? Hell, I don't know. All we know is that it had the "desired" effect.

In the case of Dresden, it is pretty clear that the fire-bombing had no noticeable effect on our war aims.

Strategic bombing in Vietnam did not have the effect people like McNamara thought it would. What about aerial bombing in the Gulf War? Did that make the subsequent land battle less costly? Probably....

The bottom line is that war IS a crime and when you get into it, you WILL use criminal methods to attain what you believe to be your aims. Like most other crimes, the fact that it is a crime doesn't mean we'll stop doing it.

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In the case of Dresden, it is pretty clear that the fire-bombing had no noticeable effect on our war aims.

Strategic bombing in Vietnam did not have the effect people like McNamara thought it would.  What about aerial bombing in the Gulf War?  Did that make the subsequent land battle less costly?  Probably....

The bottom line is that war IS a crime and when you get into it, you WILL use criminal methods to attain what you believe to be your aims.  Like most other crimes,  the fact that it is a crime doesn't mean we'll stop doing it.

During the Second World War there were very few people in the UK who were opposed to the bombing of Germany. Those that did were mainly pacifists. The most notable of these was Vera Brittain. From September 1939 she published Letters to Peace Lovers, a small journal that expressed her views on the war.

There were two other public figures who regularly criticised the government for its strategy of area bombing (also known as saturation or terror bombing). Richard Stokes, MP for Ipswich, was a Christian Socialist who considered it immoral to bomb civilian areas during the war and constantly raised this issue in the House of Commons.

The third figure was George Bell, Bishop of Chichester. His case raises important issues about modern warfare. He was one of the first people in the UK to criticise the government of Adolf Hitler (he was told off for interfering in politics at the time). Although in favour of the war, he thought it was only morally acceptable if you adhered to certain rules.

Bell got into trouble as early as 1939 for criticising the internment of enemy aliens (something that resulted in a large number of anti-fascist refugees from Germany and Italy being imprisoned).

Bell also criticised Winston Churchill and Arthur Harris for the policy of area bombing. On 10th May 1941, Bell made a speech where he described the "night-bombing of non-combatants as a degradation of the spirit for all who take part in it".

Bishop Bell called for negotiations to take place between Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler to bring an end to the policy of bombing civilian areas. This idea was dismissed by Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who claimed that such an offer would suggest to Hitler that the Blitz on Britain was being successful.

During the war Bell also complained about the British economic blockade of Europe. He established the Famine Relief Committee and attempted to raise money in order to send dried milk and vitamins to mothers, children and invalids in countries such as Belgium and Greece. However, the government took measures that made sure very little relief was actually sent to the people of Europe.

In 1941 Cosmo Lang decided to retire as Archbishop of Canterbury. For many years Bell had been seen as the likely successor but as Bishop Henson pointed out, Bell's prospects had worsened "as his sympathies with Jews and Germans have been more openly declared". William Temple was appointed to the post and when he died in 1944 Bell again failed to get the post.

I share Bell’s view of war and believe that governments should do everything possible to keep civilian casualties as low as possible.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jbrittain.htm

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/TUstokes.htm

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/GERbellG.htm

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