Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Dresden Sixty Years Later

This year will mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal discusses the upcoming February 13th milestone:
On no city does history weigh heavier than on Dresden. It is 60 years in February 2005 since the bombing that forever changed the basis of the city’s renown. Overnight, the Florence of the Elbe became a perpetual monument to destruction from the air, famed for its rubble and its corpses rather than its baroque architecture and its devotion to art. And then came communism. . .

But the bombing caused some unease in Britain even at the time. Was it justified? The issue of the war, after all, was by then hardly in doubt; and, in any case, both the ethics and efficacy of bombing civilian areas had been questioned, not only by left-wing politicians and George Bell, bishop of Chichester, but by the air-force commanders themselves. A debate has simmered ever since, occasionally coming to a boil, as when a statue commemorating the head of the RAF’s Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, was unveiled in London in 1992 or, more recently, when the Queen paid a state visit to Germany and failed to utter an apology for the bombing. . .

[T]the idea sometimes propounded by those who seek to condemn the bombing as an atrocity equal to, and counterbalancing, Nazi atrocities—that Dresden was some kind of city of the innocents, concerned only with the arts and having nothing to do with the war effort, cut off from and morally superior to the rest of Nazi Germany—is clearly absurd. It is in the nature of totalitarian regimes that no such innocence should persist anywhere; and it certainly didn’t in Dresden in 1945. For example, the Zeiss-Ikon optical group alone employed 10,000 workers (and some forced labor), all engaged—of course—in war work. Nor had Dresden’s record been very different from the rest of Germany’s. Its synagogue was burned down during the orchestrated Kristallnacht of November 1938; the Gauleiter of Saxony, who had his seat in Dresden, was the notoriously brutal and corrupt Martin Mutschmann. The bombing saved the life of at least one man, the famous diarist Victor Klemperer, one of the 197 Jews still alive in the city (out of a former population of several thousand). He and the handful of remaining Jews had been marked down for deportation and death two days after the bombing; in the chaos after the bombing, he was able to escape and tear the yellow star from his coat.
At least since the 1969 publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s famous countercultural antiwar novel, the immorality of the bombing has been an article of faith among the pacifist left. But not, Dalrymple observes, among Germans:
[F]or several decades, it was impermissible for Germans to allude publicly to their own sufferings of the period, much of which must have been innocent, unless it be considered that all Germans were equally guilty ex officio, as it were. No doubt the impermissibility of publicly expressed complaint, and therefore of resentment, was a powerful stimulus of the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle, into which the Germans in the West threw their potentially resentful energies after the war, for lack of anywhere else to direct them. But this left a legacy of deep emptiness that all the reflective Germans I have met seem to feel. Perhaps it explains also the German longing to travel, greater than that of any other nation I know.
Dalrymple's ending is both insightful and wistful: "As I walked through Dresden, I lamented the loss of an incomparable city, while thinking how difficult it must be to be a German, for whom neither memory nor amnesia can provide consolation."

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