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.