Dresden: 2013

You guys burnt the place down, turned it into a single column of flame. More people died there in the firestorm, in that one big flame, than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Ash Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 marks the 68th anniversary of the Allied bombing of the cultural city of Dresden, Germany’s “Florence of the Elbe”. In recent years, Neo-Nazi factions have rallied on these anniversary dates with demonstrations to protest the “criminal bombing holocaust” in order to strengthen their nationalist identity with funeral marches to mourn the loss of Adolf Hitler and the demise of Third Reich. Serious resistance to these Nazi gatherings arose in 2009 with the Alliance for Nazi Free Dresden (Dresden Nazifrei ). This year, more than 10,000 anti-fascist demonstrators formed a human chain around the historic center of the city, successfully blockading the Nazi agenda. This level of activism is heartening given recent reports of Neo-Nazism growing in the eastern regions of Germany and various parts of East Europe, as well. Resisting this brand of fascism is even more urgent now that holocaust researchers have catalogued the shocking reality of more than 42, 500 Nazi organized ghettos, camps and sub-camps throughout Europe between 1933 and 1945 . (N.Y. TIMES,2013/03/03). Nevertheless, the firebombing of Dresden remains oneof the most controversial events of the Second World War.

Even British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, who had authorized bombing of German civilians, expressed some later reservations… “The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing”. (Robert Mackey, NY TIMES,2013/02/13 )Toward the end of the war, on the night of February 13/14th,1945, British and American bombers reigned death and destruction upon this ancient Saxon city of artists, craftspeople, exquisite china, museums and many priceless art and architectural wonders. Dresden had little in the way of military value. Local citizenry were struggling to celebrate Shrove Tuesday, a carnival tradition before Lent, with their country already on the verge of surrender.

At that time, Dresden was Germany’s seventh largest city, a hospital location for wounded soldiers, and overflowing with desperate refugees fleeing an advancing Russian Army. The Allies first aerial attack lasted some 24 minutes, with over 700,000 phosphorus and incendiary bombs filled with highly combustible chemicals, leaving the inner city a vast conflagration of raging fires. Masses of air were drawn into the inferno forming an artificial tornado which sucked thousands into the towering flames . It has been speculated that ensuing temperatures reached a level of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. A second raid of incendiary bombs began some three hours later, strategically timed to arrive just as terrified survivors would be emerging from their shelters. And then, a third assault came on the morning of February 14th as American bombers devastated what was left of a once medieval splendid city. U.S. Mustangs flew low over scorched ruins , strafing anything that moved.

Dresden was spared no horror. More bombers arrived on February 15th, March 2nd and finally on April 17th. German-American anti-war novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote of his experiences there as a POW and survivor in the now classic Slaughterhouse Five. (http://rense.com/general19/flame.htm.) No one really knows how many died in the two month bombings of Dresden, and estimates range between 35,000 and 135,000. These numbers will likely remain uncertain due to the effects of extreme heat and an unknown number of refugees. Justifications for this tragedy have ranged from retaliation for the Luftwaffe bombing of London, need to destroy a Dresden centered communications network for the Eastern Front, a show of military might to impress Stalin, psychological terror intended to de-moralize the enemy, and the usual insanity of war.

Many members of my Mother’s and Father’s family, men and women, were heavily involved in both World Wars I and II. During the Second World War, two of my Mother’s brothers were bomber pilots that flew raids over Germany from bases in Southeast England. As I was growing up, there was not much said about PTSD or any kind of war trauma, in my family circle , at least, even though another of Mother’s brothers was a psychiatrist with the Veterans Administration who had served as a flight surgeon in the Pacific Theater. Within our Cornish culture and amongst that generation in general, there was a belief that unpleasant events in the past are best left unexplored. According to a cousin, however, there was a rumor, that at some family gathering one of the bomber pilots was overhead to say “we flew so low that we could see their faces”. This could explain why neither of these uncles would agree to set foot onto any aircraft whatsoever,after returning from the war. 

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