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Aug 20, 2005 4:23 am

The Bombing of Dresden

The Wilson Quarterly often contains some of the most interesting and useful historical articles in print. A good example, in the Spring, 2005 issue, is a piece entitled “Dresden’s Ashes” by Tami Davis Biddle, Associate Professor of National Security at the United States Army War College. It is also timely, for on the 60th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War, thoughtful people everywhere are pondering, yet again, the wisdom of dropping the atomic bombs and wreaking havoc on enemy cities through aerial bombing.

The bombing of the beautiful and cultured city of Dresden, the Florence of Germany, has long been thought to have been one of history’s most frightening slaughters. Some 25,000 people were killed in a city center of no more than eight square miles, and tens of thousands of others were wounded and left homeless. (One American author has erroneously claimed the death toll to have been 250,000.) At the time of the bombing, Dresden was swollen with refugees, fleeing the Soviets, meaning that many of the victims were women and children. And the Allies knew of their presence. Photographs showing the ruins of the city after the firestorm of February 14, 1945 are stunning and deeply saddening. One might well ask how civilized people could possibly do such things to each other.

The bombing took place in the darkest moments of the twentieth century, a time in which the Germans seemed to have mounted an effective resistance to the Allied sweep East and appeared to be developing weaponry that might prolong the devastating war that had been raging since 1939. In December, 1944, the Allies suffered 74,788 casualties at the Battle of the Bulge, and in the following month they sustained another 61,692 casualties. In its March 5 issue, Time magazine listed American casualties on all fronts for the month of February to have been 49,689 killed, 153,086 wounded, 31,101 missing, and 3,403 taken prisoner. In a single month. The greatest issue facing Allied leaders was how to stop this toll of their dead and wounded as quickly as possible. The time had passed when they adhered to scruples about bombing cities and attempting to kill everyone in them. Pledges made in 1939 to bomb only military targets had been undermined by the Nazi attacks on Warsaw and Rotterdam, and by the German bombs and rockets that indiscriminately killed tens of thousands in Great Britain.

There were military targets in Dresden, the seventh-largest city in Germany; it was an important railroad center. But the bombing was also an attempt to aid the Soviet advance by causing confusion and disruption behind enemy lines. There were doubts among top Allied officials that the Soviet push westward in the spring would be effective. At Yalta, FDR wanted to persuade Stalin that the Anglo-American bomber offensive was serving as a second front, easing the path of the Soviet war machine. Berlin had been put under massive attack on February 3.

As horrendous as the air assault on Dresden was, other German cities suffered greatly as well, including Cologne (1942), Hamburg (1943), Darmstadt (1944), and Pforzheim and Wuerzburg (1945). The number of dead in Dresden was only about a quarter of the 100,000 listed in Tokyo on the night of March 9-10, 1945, air attacks that preceded the dropping of the atomic bombs.

Biddle describes the attack on Dresden in detail, noting the circumstances that made it unusually devastating. But she does not shirk the moral implications of the disaster. “The history of the Dresden raid deserves to be told clearly because it speaks directly to the brutalizing and corrosive effects of war, even upon those who are fighting for a righteous cause and believe themselves to be fighting honorably.” True enough, but let us not forget that the aggressors in the Second World War, above all, bear the major responsibility for the tragedies inflicted upon millions. German and Japanese leaders brought on themselves and their own people the horrors they had first inflicted on others. It is hard to fault the Allies in their desperation to end the most ghastly war in human history by all means necessary. The bombing of Dresden played a role in stopping the slaughter; Hiroshima and Nagasaki were more decisive.

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