13 February 2005

Anniversary of the Allied bombing of Dresden

For as long as I can remember I have been appalled that British and US military forces could have perpetrated such an horrendous act as the firestorming of Dresden (13 February 1945). It was not, as a child, that I failed to recognise the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi military hate and destruction machine: the Holocaust (being brought up among Jewish families, I learned about Anne Frank when I was a young child), the Nazi military bombing of Coventry, and the blitzkrieg of London (I was brought up in London in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and saw in my daily life many bombsites, some made, no doubt, by V2 missiles). It was that, as a child, I could not accept that 'my side' had knowingly willed and perpetrated the deaths of so many civilians. Surely that act made 'us' no different from 'them', and therefore as morally debased. I learned about US military forces dropping the only nuclear weapons ever used in war: on Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August 1945). In the late 1970s I learned that Durham, the UK city in which I live, was to have suffered the fate that soon befell Coventry, in retaliation for the firestorming of Dresden. In the late 1990s I visited Lubeck (famous for its medieval architecture and the literary Mann family), near Hamburg in northern Germany, Berlin (now restored as the capital city of Germany), and Pisa, Italy, to discover that Allied carpet bombing of culturally important cities was not confined to Dresden. Recently, I watched on television part of an interview with Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote Slaughterhouse Five, a book I have not yet read. I believe that the concerns he was expressing so eloquently, are similar to my own. I have three issues: the mass murder of civilians (was a principal purpose of the UK military invasion of Iraq not to locate weapons of mass destruction?); the Philistinic destruction of rafts of European culture; the de facto equation of Allied and Nazi morality.


Saije said...

If the allied actions in WWII hastened the end of the war and saved even one of our soldier/sailor/airmen/marine's lives then it's okay by me. We didn't start the war.

Terrible things happen in all war and those who bear the responsibility of making the decisions carry an enormous weight. What I don't understand is criticizing those decisions 60 years later with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. What would you or I have decided to do back then?

Peter Hughes said...

I have encountered this first argument before, in response to similar views that I expressed on my website. I have unqualified sympathy with the desire to minimise the extent of human suffering. It is, however, far from clear that destruction of cultural icons has ever saved a single life or prevented a single wounding. On the contrary, in the case of Durham City, Coventry and St Paul's Cathedral in London, the Nazi attacks on these iconic landmarks appear to have strengthened the resolve of the British people. For me, the associated argument stands: the values of humanity cannot be sacrificed in defence of those values. Herein lies the apparent hypocrisy of the foreign policy of the current US administration.
Regarding the second argument, I am unfamiliar with the notion that history should not be examined and critiqued. Personally, I consider the re-examination of historical decisions to be of considerable importance, so that our leaders and politicians are guided away from making the mistakes of the past.

Saije said...

You seem to be arguing that Dresden should have been off-limits because it was an historical site or had some cultural significance. But I think that might be why it was targeted in the relentless pursuit of unconditional surrender by the Nazis. Presumably it helped to get the point across.

And there is no way of knowing otherwise, i.e., would the war have ended sooner if this hadn't happened (and the same with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). It is easy to sit back now and say, well this or that was unnecessary because the enemy was already close to being defeated. I just don't know how anyone can say that the people making the decisions at the time could possibly have known whether or not a particular action would or wouldn't have the desired effect. This is my point about looking back and saying, they shouldn't have done this or that.

I realize I have probably not responded adequately to your point which I take to be that the rules of engagement should declare certain actions off-limits regardless of the overall objective. With that, I cannot agree, at least not as a general premise.

Perhaps this is a European issue and why I feel differently. Yours is perhaps comparable to the view of some in this country that the Union's actions during the Civil War were unnecessary, e.g., the burning of Atlanta. But again, I think that also served to make the point to the Confederate states.

Interesting discussion, thank you.

alan said...

Saije makes some interesting points - i guess i am interested in how a decision gets to be made that affects hundreds, thousands maye even millions of people. there were articulate voices at the time arguing successfully against carpet bombing civilian and cultural areas - eg Rome, Venice were not significantly bombed - and against the use of what we might now call weapons of mass destruction in Japan to end the war, including eminent scientists and thinkers like Einstein apparently. so how were some decisions made at that time to destroy Dresden and to use nuclear weapons?