'Post-War Myths': The Logic Behind the Destruction of Dresden

For years, the anniversary of the World War II bombing of Dresden has been a rallying point for neo-Nazis eager to accuse the Allies of war crimes. But, British historian Frederick Taylor explains, there was a clear military rationale behind the attack.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Every year, thousands of peole show up to the demonstrations marking the anniversary of the Feb. 13, 1945 Allied destruction of Dresden. But it wasn't the only German city obliterated by Allied bombs. Indeed, the death toll from the July 27, 1943 bombing of Hamburg was likely even higher. Why is more attention paid to Dresden?

Every year, the people of Dresden commemorate the destruction of their city in February 1945.
DPA

Every year, the people of Dresden commemorate the destruction of their city in February 1945.

Frederick Taylor: Dresden was undoubtedly a particularly fine city, a tourist center well known to Germans and foreigners alike as a place where the arts flourished amidst architecturally distinguished surroundings. This gave rise to the myth that it was of no military or industrial importance. The high civilian death toll -- though current estimates of 25,000 are not as high as once thought -- also plays a role. Hamburg could never be seen as being of no military importance. Dresden, plausibly -- though not really accurately -- could be.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many claim that Allied bombers were only interested in killing as many civilians as possible. Recently, though, new studies have revised downward the number of civilians thought to have been killed in the bombing of Dresden. Do you feel that your version of events has now been confirmed?

Taylor: Such statements are often based on memoranda written by the British Air Marshal Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff. In the first, Portal argued for a new rationale, based on a hugely increased bomber force, which would carry out not just precision bombing but also indiscriminate "area bombing" by night of all German cities with populations exceeding 100,000. Portal thought that the resulting damage to the German war effort and civilian morale would lead to victory within six months. A second memorandum a year later made a similar argument.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That sounds like a rather cynical approach to the fighting of the war.

Taylor: Portal's reports state these things as facts that would result from attacks on such a massive scale -- desirable only in as far as they aided victory over Germany -- rather than things in which he took some kind of personal satisfaction. It should also be noted that by late 1944 Portal had changed his mind, and unsuccessfully tried to persuade Royal Air Force Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris, to scale down attacks on German cities. I remain unconvinced that maximizing civilian casualties -- rather than winning the war by whatever means necessary -- was their chief objective.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, there was certainly more to the Dresden air raid than a desire to destroy civilian morale, wasn't there?

Taylor: Certainly. The Dresden attack was directly linked to the conduct of the war elsewhere -- in this case on the Eastern Front. In Feb. 1945, Dresden was a major transport and communication hub less than 120 miles from the advancing Russians. The aim of the bombing was quite deliberately to destroy the center of the city, thereby making the movement of German soldiers and civilians impossible.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And in that, it was quite effective.

Taylor: There were other targets too. Berlin was also seen as essential to continuing German resistance and was heavily bombed on Feb. 3. Raids on Dresden and Chemnitz were delayed by bad weather. And ultimately, only the Dresden raid was successful -- horribly so as the 25,000 or more casualties bear witness. This was, in fact, a clear-cut case where maximum destruction was the central aim of the attack. There can be no question that the presence of many refugees was factored into the Allies' calculations. A Feb. 1, 1945 memorandum specifically noted the huge tide of refugees passing through the eastern German cities as a "plus point," chillingly adding that attacking these cities would "result in establishing a state of chaos in some or all of these areas."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: For neo-Nazis in Germany, the Dresden bombing anniversary has become the central day of protest. Why is that?

Taylor: The neo-Nazis use the anniversary in two ways. First, as a straight propaganda bludgeon against the victors of World War II, an exemple of the Allies' allegedly criminal conduct of the war against Germany. Second, more subtly, as a tool to relativize Adolf Hitler's Holocaust. They refer to a "bomb holocaust" of the Allies against the civilian inhabitants of German cities, wildly inflating the figures involved and, of course, underplaying the number of Jews, Sinti, Roma, homosexuals and political prisoners, and other millions of victims of the real Holocaust. It is this two-fold advantage of the Dresden anniversary protests that is especially attractive to the neo-Nazis and their associates. Plus, many otherwise respectable people in Dresden and elsewhere, many of whom grew up with the post-war myths, continue to believe in the inflated casualty figures and in the criminality of the Allied bombing campaign.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The inflated casualty figures have proven quite resistant to academic research. The myth of Dresden as a victim of Allied aggression is one that refuses to go away. How innocent was Dresden really?

Taylor: Dresden was undeniably a beautiful city, a center of the arts and a symbol of all that was great about pre-Nazi German humanism. It was also quite strongly Nazi and a major industrial center. Its light industries, ranging from factories producing typewriters and cigarettes to furniture and candy, had overwhelmingly been converted to war use after 1939. Around 70,000 workers in the city are thought to have been involved in war-related work. Its regional railway directorate was heavily involved in the war effort on the eastern front and also in the transport of prisoners within the concentration camp system. The question therefore is not whether Dresden contained legitimate bombing targets, but whether the method and intensity of the February 1945 bombing was justifiable.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think it was justifiable?

Taylor: Personally, though I can trace the logic of it, I have serious doubts. It is a ghastly example of how war depletes the moral reserves even of democratic nations. Goetz Bergander, who survived the bombing of his native city as an 18-year-old and has written widely about its destruction, has described the bombing in his characteristically forgiving way as "outsize." It was certainly all of that.

Interview conducted by Charles Hawley

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