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Book Review: Dresden, Tuesday, February 13, 1945 by Frederick Taylor

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On the morning of February 13 1945, Dresden was in full flower. For centuries, the capital of Saxony had been enticing visitors from near and far to sample its delights: sumptuous royal palaces, glorious churches, a pleasing climate and a thriving cultural scene. Not for nothing was Dresden known as "Florence on the Elbe".

Even the worst of the Second World War appeared to have skirted Dresden in deference to its charms. The mighty cities of Hamburg and Berlin, Leipzig and Cologne had not escaped the horrors of aerial bombing. But Dresdeners believed they were safe. After all hadn't the English always loved Dresden, and didn't Churchill have a favourite aunt there?

On the morning of February 14, Dresden was in ruins. Tens of thousands lay dead: incinerated or asphyxiated by a terrible firestorm wrought by deadly incendiary devices.

For the Allies, the Dresden raids were among the most successful of the whole war, and the bomber squadron, commanded by Arthur Harris, returned to England in a blaze of glory. But as the scale of the death toll emerged and word began to spread that one of Europe's most enchanting cities had been laid waste, doubts began to surface. Even Churchill appeared to be distancing himself from the bombing of Dresden.

Yet, as Frederick Taylor's impressive book shows, Dresden was not the delicate china ornament she appeared to be. Beneath the beautiful facade, ugly forces were at work.

The city had been a Nazi stronghold, even before Hitler came to power, and Dresden’s Jews were among the very first in Germany to experience the petty prejudices that would escalate into state-engineered extermination. Once the war began, Dresden, a city once geared to precision engineering and tobacco, was at the forefront of the military effort. Cameras and cigarettes were forsaken for gun-sights and bullets.

All of which is not to say that Dresden deserved its appalling fate. But, as Taylor says in his preface, a legend has grown up that the city was an innocent victim, singled out for unusually harsh treatment. The bombing of Dresden, Taylor finds, was unusual only in its terrible success. Forces that had worked against the Allies elsewhere in Germany suddenly and briefly combined in their favour. Technology, weather, lack of air defences and above all the grossly inadequate nature of air raid shelters for the bulk of the populace ensured Dresden would become the unlucky target of a perfect aerial operation.

The book is a remarkable melange of scholarship, journalism and storytelling. Taylor focuses not only on the big story, but on the people at its heart – British airmen, Jewish families, the odious governor of Dresden.

The eyewitness accounts are especially affecting. Those Dresdeners who thought they might escape the awful heat of the firestorm sought refuge in water tanks and fountains, only to be drowned or boiled alive. But while the destruction of Dresden was a nightmare for most, it came as a godsend for the city’s few remaining Jews. Only days away from deportation to the death camps, they tore the yellow stars from their clothes and took flight from the blazing city.

The author's detailed research included access for the first time to papers previously locked away in the German Democratic Republic. Keen to perpetuate the politically expedient myth of their Soviet masters that closer to 250,000 than 25,000 perished in the bombings, the East Germans always claimed that Dresden showed the West at its worst.

Taylor is a self-confessed "pacifistically-inclined baby-boomer". But it’s clear that in the course of writing this book, he was forced to re-examine his feelings about war, and to place himself in the wartime mindset. In February 1945, no-one knew a long and brutal conflict that had already cost millions of lives was in its closing months. Even before the full horror of the Holocaust became public knowledge, a Nazi victory was a real and fearful prospect. In that context, says Taylor, Dresden was a legitimate target.

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  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • LAM-07

    SO, JUST WHAT WAS THE POINT OF CARPET-BOMBNG THIS CITY,
    ESPECIALLY SO CLOSE TO THE END? OUR GENERALS KNEW THAT
    GERMANY WAS BEATEN BY THIS TIME. WAS IT SIMPLY TO TRY OUT THE NEWLY-DEVELOPED DOW CHEMICAL DEATH GEL INCENDIARY BOMBS? WAS IT BECAUSE WE HAD ALREADY BOMBED ALL THE OTHER MAJOR GERMAN CITIES BACK TO THE STONE AGE? WAS IT BECAUSE DRESDEN WAS A RELATIVELY UNDEFENDED TARGET? ALL OF THE ABOVE? SOME OF THE ABOVE? NONE OF THE ABOVE?
    I HAVE BEEN CURIOUS ABOUT DRESDEN SINCE I WAS A CHILD WAY BACK IN THE 1950’S. MY BIRTHDAY IS 14 FEBRUARY, 1945. I AM THE SON OF IMMIGRANT RUSSIAN JEWS. I AM CONVINCED THAT HITLER, THE NAZI PARTY AND THE GERMAN PEOPLE COLLUDED TO DESTROY EUROPE’S JEWS. THEY WERE ALL GUILTY
    AS CHARGED DESPITE THEIR PROTESTATIONS TO THE
    CONTRARY. STILL I HAVE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO GRASP THE
    NECESSITY OF THE LEVEL OF DESTRUCTION METED OUT TO
    THE CITY OF DRESDEN. I WILL MOST CERTAINLY READ THIS BOOK.

  • http://bacalar.blogspot.com Howard Dratch

    Your review makes a good case for the book. It is a subject many of us (mostly me) know little or nothing about.

    Since Kurt Vonnegut made me aware of the devastation of Dresden in, I think, Slaughterhouse 5, it has been a question since it was so well-done (pardon the pun). We cannot forget that it was a Nazi city sitting pretty on the corpses and ashes of 10s of millions of Germany’s victims.

    If a case can be made for using nukes in Japan to bring the war to a close… if… then there is a case for making Dresden a highly successful bombing raid.

    It was not a nice act on our part, destroying beautiful architecture and non-Germans held in Dresden but nothing equals the ferocity and barbarism of the German over the course of their attempt to dominate the world.

  • Peter

    It really is a waste of time to read American/ English reports when it comes to WW II. They are all the same: Dresden was a military target, every german was a nazi (probably the babies, too), etc…..it is sad to see how the former Allies still keep on lying, like Mr. Carson does. “Dresden was a Military Target”, its a lie that can be revealed easily by several facts:

    1. Yes, Dresden did have some industry, not much, but it did have some. But if you look at RAF and US Air Force Documents, you can clearly see the Target: It was the inner city, with quaint timbered wooden houses, market places, opera houses, art galleries, orphan’s homes, hospitals – no military whatsoever. If Mr. Carson had bothered only a second to look at the photographs taken by his own country, rather than keeping on telling the usal american/british lies, he would have seen that his alleged “important industry” was there, yes – but far outside the targeted area. The targeted area was a triangle, defined by the Ostra Sports Stadium, the Hauptbahnhof (central train station) and the Carola Brücke (bridge). No industry inside of it. But tens of thousands of innocent people, civilians, mothers, babies, the elderly. So, you Americans and English keep on talking endlessly about the “Military target Dresden”, whilst at the same time your own documents reveal the civilans were the target – whilst the industries remained largely untouched.

    2. The Main proof for Mr. Carson’s lies: A Law, passed by the allies on February 14th 1942, called “area bombing directive”. In this directive, issued by the british air ministry, it is clearly said that “the target are civilians, not military sites”. This is the exact Text of the allie’s law:

    “Operations should now be focussed on the morale of the enemy civilian population and in particular, the industrial workers”. Lest there be any confusion, Sir Charles Portal wrote to Air Chief Marshall Norman Bottomley on the 15 February “… I suppose it is clear that the aiming points will be the built up areas, and not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories.”

    Any more questions?

    Look at your own documents, dear “good” allies. And then think twice, whether it really was a war “good against evil”. To me, WW II was a dirty business, a war “evil against evil”.

    I have been to dresden, i love this city, it’s a place of incredible beauty. Sometimes i wonder what made the English want to destroy it – by bombing art galleries and frying and lacerating innocent children alive you don’t win any wars. Germans have rebuilt large parts of dresden, and it will shine again in all its incredible beauty – no matter if the english and the americans hate art, culture and beauty.

    But please dont keep on telling your american/british-style lies. Germans have faced up to the dark chapters of their past, now its time the Americans and English face up their evil past, too. And please dont tell me about the jews – neither America nor Anti-Semitic Britain have ever entered war to save them. Americans knew years before 1945 what happened in Auschwitz – they did not care, and why germans of jewish religion desperately tried to leave the country, America closed their doors to jewish immigration frodm germany. This equalled the death sentence to many jews. “sorry we have no space in america, tiny country” or what? Ah, alright. Please, Amnericans and English: don’t complain about the holocaust, when you were taking part yourself. Tiny remark on the side: you should shed some light on your own holocausts before pointing to someone else. 6 millionen innocent jews is bad enough, but whats 60 million african americans killed by english and americans? And we havent even talked about the indians yet…

    America and Britain, its time you start getting honest!

    greetz

  • James Carson

    It wasn’t my intention to cause offence by writing about this book. I read it, enjoyed it and wrote about it in good faith. For that, I have been called a liar.

    I am always willing to admit my mistakes, naivety, stupidity even, especially in the face of those who know so much more. But the accusation that I am deliberately spreading falsehoods is deeply offensive.

    If this is the standard tone of response I can expect on this site, it will be a long time before I post anything here again.

  • Peter

    I found this website by accident, but its the same thing as usual with American and English people, and i am sorry i am so sick of it:

    All germans are guilty (quote Mr.LAM-07), no matter what political party they belonged to, therefore all English/American people are good. Dresden was a “military Target” even the Targeted Area was clearly far outside any military or industry sites (except one major train station.

    I am sorry Mr Carson, but as soon as i hear these things (i have heard them a million times in my life and they are NOT TRUE ), i get upset. I am sick of being indoctrinated with British/American Ideology, two countries who show Nazi films in black white all day, and who hardly ever show any programs about their own holocausts (African Americans, Indians, Aboriginis, British Concentration camps in South Africa etc).

    I dont care if you hide the past of your own countries, but at least PLEASE stop lying about Germany. I know you dont like the word “lie”, but what would you prefer? OK, you told the “untruth” If that makes a difference to you. I am sorry, but when you say dresden was military target and therefore it was necessary to be bombed this is HOGWASH, because as i said:

    yes of course there were some factories in the city, but THEY WERE NEVER TARGETED. The Albertstadt (named after King Albert of Saxony), a huge military complex, was (or rather IS) on the other side of the Elbe, and this tiny “is” is the point: it is still standing – nearly untouched! Easy – it was far outside the targeted area.

    I know that you “only quote” Taylor, but what if you “only quoted” David Irving (a british neo nazi) in a german Blog? Without contradicting Irving? People would speak to you much sharper than i did…..You should have known that in the internet it is possible that someone from Dresden reads what you wrote, James. Normally Dresdners are very restrained with accusing, you ll find Dresdner saying things like “well its our own fault, we started” or “london has suffered, too”, etc, so you can imagine what it means it Taylors Book is boycotted in Dresden. You won’t find a single bookstore in the whole city who stocks it.

    I don’t know if taylor wrote in his book that the city was packed with about a quarter to half a million refugees from east prussia and silesia, trying to flee the soviets. The allies knew very well that the refugees were in the city, it didnt hamper them, to the contrary: they were, as the 1942 british directive showed, the target. How disgusting! I am sorry, but how can you review such a disgusting book, James, without contradicting Taylor? You must be prepared that when a book causes

    I am not gonna touch this book, it’s another attempt to legitimize mass murder. The Aim of “area bombing” in Germany might have been something that made sense at the time: The allies hoped to cause riots, revolutions, uprising against hitler. But it is proven long time ago that bombing germans cities caused the opposite: people clinged even more to their government, till the bitter end. If you like, British and Americans bombing of German cities (then, toghether with italien cities, the most beautiful in the world)didnt help to win the war, but artificially prolonged the war and sacrificed countless allied soldiers, german children, all IN VAIN. “Area bombing” does not work.

    If you review a book that causes great stir, you must be prepared that your quoting the book without being critical to what you read will cause the same stir. I havent read a single passage where you were suspicious to what Taylor wrote,
    James.

    I have Jewish ancestry, and i think its very sad that i have to stress this fact at all – only in order keep me from b eing called a “Nazi” or whatever. Dresden is my emotional home. It is the most important city to me. It was one of Mankind’s greatest cultural treasures ever, all destroyed in one senseless, brutal act. This city was more beautiful than paris or rome of venice, it will never be the same, we are trying to rebuild at least some of its former beauty. 90 % of the city nowadays are ugly and modernist contrete, but the 10 % percent that have been rebuilt are a wonder.

    I am sorry James for having been to sharp, i do apologize to you.

    But please, anybody who indetends to tell me that bombing 250 000 refugees (non dresden residents) in Dresden was “a legitimate military” target, will have to be prepared that i will speak my mind. Bombing cities like Paris, Venice, Dresden, Rome, Florence should be banned by Mankind – forever. Bombing Children and their mothers in private housing, too.

    There is NO excuse whatsoever for bombing children – neither Dresden 1945, nor Iraq 2006. If Macho men are stupid enough to fight wars, they should at least do it man to man – and not man to innocent children and women.

    regards

    Peter

  • John

    Every NAZI was a target as they should have been, it did not take the reading of Mr. Taylor’s book to realize this and it only cemented my belief we should have bombed them even more relentlessly.

  • http://none hitler

    wut in the world are you guys ralking about in my opinion the bombing of dresden was a wrong thing to do by the german and how ever we will continue after …………….

  • Lissy

    You anglo-american racists are just evil people.

    You are trying to talk yourself out of it, by waffling about hitler and the Nazis. So why did you not hit the Nazis, but innocent children?
    Where the Nazis hit , or were the German people hit? You clearly targeted the innocent German population, women and children. No matter how much you lie about it, i talked to a lot of Dresdners, they trust what they have seen with their own eyes, not what British-Yankee liars spread in their Bush-sponsored neofascist Media.

    Dresden was an undefenced city full of women and children, at the time of your infamous massacre 500 000 refugees were in the city, addtionally to Dresden citizens. Those refugees (who were trying to flee your looting, raping and child-murdering Soviet barbarian friends, were mainly women and children, too. You evil british gangsters targeted them intentionally. Be proud of your heroic act, destroying a highlight of human culture and art galleries, packed with women and children.

    Now let’s all join the drunken british thugs, yelling RULE BRITANNIA! LETS KILL MORE INNOCENT CHILDREN; THEY DESERVE IT! RULE RACIST BRITANNIA – – – – RULE SLAVERY; RULE EXTERMINATION OF NATIVE AMERICANS; RULE BUSH-FASCISM!

  • Jeff

    As an American, I share the unfortunate disgust that Peter and Lizzy express in terms of history-as-written-and-blindly-endorsed-by-the-victors. Clearly, the Hitler regime had moved into a position that threatened peaceful coexistence. but, the British Empire had already achieved the claimed goals of Hitler–world domination. Common to attending American schools during the 1950s and 1960s was the theme that “the sun never sets on the British Empire” and “…all those land masses in pink(usual color) cover 75% of the world and are/were part of the British Empire.” I think anyone or any nation who wants to express horror at megalomania or holocausts should look first at GB, then the American native populations. The false notion that Germany owns agressive behavior actually tends to perpetuate the malady, as evidenced by the last 60 years of continued anglo-british militarism. If a person or a nation is not held accountable, they just continue.

    Regarding Dresden, it was mass murder. Churchill was a vengeful Germanophobe who grew up loathing the German threat to British commercial and military advancements. They were poised to be the leader in so many fields of commerce, academia, science, medicine, etc. Following WWI, Germany rebounded miraculously and reemerged as a world power. This infuriated Churchill. It is well documented that Dresden was one last opportunity to inflict immeasureable misery for the purpose of sadistic revelry.

    A main reason why Churchill so desperately and willingly murdered millions of civilians was to ensure HE would write the history of the war. He had much to protect himself from, such as the truth. Had he not been the one to declare war and wage an all out assault, it is quite likely that Hitler’s Poland invasion would have resulted in little more than a regional skirmish possibly escalating into a war with the USSR that could have been contained.

    The murder of the peoples of Dresden is not only the crime, but it extends to the entire peoples of the world who, for centuries, will be unable to enjoy and savor the glory or what creative men once built for everyone.