Dresden, the Fire and the Darkness, Sinclair McKay, Viking, 2020
LESLIE JONES revisits the Dresden raid of February 1945
“Man is at bottom a savage, horrible beast” (Arthur Schopenhauer)
Historian James Holland, a ubiquitous presence on television programmes about World War 2 these days, featured in Lost Home Movies of Nazi Germany. In the undated footage in question, a group of Jews are being deported from Dresden. Holland confides that he had always considered the city “an innocent place”, bombed needlessly in February 1945. But having watched this amateur film, he reminds us that it was also a rail hub with over 140 factories producing war material. For example, from 1942 the Zeiss Ikon camera plant produced precision instruments and optical technology for the military. It employed slave labour, including Jewish women. In this “hotbed of Nazism”, Holland maintains, the Jews were dealt with as brutally as anywhere in Germany. He acknowledges, however, that the Dresden firestorm was “horrendous”, something of an understatement.
In Greatest Events of World War 2 – Dresden Firestorm, Holland returned to this contentious subject. He referred to the German air raids on England, notably those on London and Coventry but conceded that in all of these attacks, ‘only’ 40,000 people were killed. Dresden suffered more losses between the 13th and 15th of February. Holland blames the Nazi authorities in Dresden, notably the Gauleiter of Saxony, Martin Mutschmann (‘King Mu’), for failing to build air raid shelters for the civilian population (but not for himself).
In his review of David Irving’s The Destruction of Dresden (1963), Harold Nicolson, like Holland, conflates the Dresden raid and the Shoah, calling the former “…the single greatest holocaust caused by the war”. In Dresden, the Fire and the Darkness, in similar vein, Sinclair McKay notes that bomber crew survivors were proud of their service, as they considered Nazism “a tumour…[that] could not be cut out without damage to the surrounding flesh”. Or, put otherwise, they were “simply doing what they were told”.
Apropos the morality of incinerating 25,000 virtually defenceless civilians (there were no anti-aircraft guns or searchlights in Dresden by this time) McKay contends that the concept of a “war crime” implies “intentionality and rational decision-making”. He suggests, accordingly, that “these city bombings were not vengeful or consciously merciless” but “desperate reflexive attacks launched to make the other side simply stop”. War, he avers, creates its own momentum, its own desperate logic.
McKay evidently sympathises with Air Chief Marshal Harris’ contention that the Nazis were a fanatical enemy that “could be vanquished only by the trauma of complete, civic obliteration…” (McKay, p 20). He concedes, however, that Harris hated the Germans and was indifferent to the fate of German civilians. His sole concern was the heavy losses of airmen in Bomber Command. Four out of every ten bomber airmen were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Any distinction between military and civilian targets was superseded by the concept of total war, as espoused by Harris, Churchill and his scientific adviser Lord Cherwell.
Dresden, the Fire and the Darkness is replete with graphic and compelling details about the raid. The author tells us that at the zoo, “the elephants bellowed and the gibbons chattered in wild distress”; that people’s shoes melted and their clothes self-combusted; that bodies of pregnant women were torn open to reveal unborn children; that in the Great Garden, body parts hung from trees but that elsewhere, they were sent skywards; and that after the raid, “distressed ownerless dogs” kept people awake at night.
The author endeavours to contextualise or relativise the effects of carpet/area bombing (or “worker de-housing”) by dwelling on the undoubted fear experienced by bomber air crews and on the persecution of the Jews. But German historian Sönke Neitzel is correct when he asserts that the objective of terror attacks, like the one on Dresden commencing on the night of February 13, was to kill as many civilians as possible in order to hinder troop movements and to paralyse infrastructure and industry.
In the British press, the Dresden raid was presented as an attempt to help Marshal Ivan Konev’s advancing forces. At the Yalta Conference, Stalin’s commanders had asked the Anglo-Americans to target Dresden, a transport hub. But, in the event, the Germans did not buckle. Stories of rape and mutilation by the advancing Red Armies were rife and encouraged German soldiers to fight on. A PR disaster in the neutral press, the destruction of Dresden enabled Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels to momentarily occupy the moral high ground.
Equivocation and jesuitry aside, Dresden, the Fire and the Darkness is unquestionably well written. The memoirs and diaries of those who survived the ordeal, notably the diary of Victor Klemperer, the former Professor of Philology and Romance Studies at the Technical University of Dresden, enliven the narrative. McKay evidently understands why the “German Florence”, with its fine art and architecture, was so treasured by its citizens. As he remarks, “To each and every Dresdener, the city had a unique and perhaps sacred beauty”. And, in due course, every citizen of Dresden also understood “the terrible fragility of historic beauty” (McKay, ‘Why the Dresden bombers weren’t war criminals’, The Telegraph, 13th February 2020).
LESLIE JONES is Editor of the Quarterly Review