remembering and forgetting, the bombing of Dresden

‘I had to leave there in a hurry

I only saw what they let me see’

Bob Dylan, Trying to Get to Heaven (before they close the door)

It depends where and when you begin. 1940, shortly before the fall of France:

‘A further forty Battles and Blenheims were lost to enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire. This reduced the force to a quarter of its original strength. One of those who survived wrote of his comrades’ vomiting from sheer terror and exhaustion before climbing into their aircraft and flying off to do battle with an enemy whose equipment was superior to their in every way.’ from ‘Dresden, Tuesday 13 February 1945’, by Frederick Taylor.

Those who would later be accused of terror bombing, flying up to a thousand unopposed heavy bombers loaded with incendiaries to burn whole towns and cities began the war in France, with what were virtual suicide missions against the triumphant German army.

It depends where you’re coming from.

From Goebbels diary for September 11, 1940, after a feeble British bombing raid on Berlin:

Attack on the Government quarter. Brandenburg Gate, Academy of Arts and Reichstag hit. Nothing serious, but I organise for the matter to be given a little extra help. Through fake incendiary bombs. Wodarg has this photographed immediately. A splendid propaganda device.

A year and a half later the needs of propaganda had changed. This is a statement that refugees from Cologne were made to sign after the bombing of May 30 1942, Bomber Command’s first ‘Thousand Bomber Raid’:

I am aware that one individual alone can form no comprehensive idea of the events in Cologne. One usually exaggerates one’s own experiences and the judgement of those who have been bombed is impaired. I am therefore aware that reports of individual suffering can only do harm, and I will keep silence. I know what the consequences of breaking this undertaking will be.

Towards the apocalyptic end of the war Goebbels changed course again. He was the first to exaggerate the numbers of the dead at Dresden, trying to convince the Germans that their enemy was pitiless, and that they had no option but to fight to the very end.

All that remains in my mind of Dresden is the smell of burning and the sight – through the slightly open sliding door of the freight car – of charred bundles piled one on top of the other between tracks and in front of scorched facades. Some claim to have seen shrivelled corpses, others God knows what (weissnichtwas). We covered up our horror then by quarrelling over what had happened, much as today what happened in Dresden lies buried under verbiage (Gerede – talk, report, rumour).

We seemed to have arrived at a reality only to abandon it or exchange it for something that claimed to be another reality. From Peeling the Onion, by Gunter Grass

Grass was just seventeen and a new recruit to the German Army, on his way to the Russian Front which was only about 70 kilometres east of Dresden. As a contribution to the arguments over the raid of February 13, 1945, (was it justified by Dresden’s importance as a centre of communications, as an industrial city still producing,for example, lenses in the camera factories it was famous for, or was the attack a war crime?) it is worth noting that a couple of weeks later – Grass doesn’t give a date – the trains were running.

Henry Rousso, a French historian, describes Patrick Modiano’s portrayal of the Occupation as

‘a puzzle that must never be solved, for it is only through the gaps in the picture that the truth can emerge’.

Modiano was born just after the end of the war, but as one of his characters puts it, ‘my memory goes back to before I was born’.

Grass tries to describe the first attack he’s caught up in, when his unit is hit by invisible Russian rocket launchers, the Stalin organ, and wiped out in a few minutes. ‘But I had already read everything I write here. I had read it in Remarque or Celine, who – like Grimmelshausen before them in his description of the Battle of Wittstock, when the Swedes hacked the Kaiser’s troops to pieces – were merely quoting the scenes of horror handed down to them.’

Or you can read it in Homer.

For Sebald most accounts by survivors of the air-raids are cliched and seem remote from felt experience. But 20th century bombing, like 20th century genocide, brought images and stories of war that were new, and some of them have only come into the open recently. Friedrich Reck, in a diary entry for August 1943 describes a group of refugees from Hamburg trying to force their way onto a train at a station in Bavaria. As they do so a cardboard suitcase

‘falls on the platform, bursts open and spills its contents. Toys, a manicure case, singed underwear. And last of all, the roasted corpse of a child, shrunk like a mummy…’

This is ‘the objective existence of industry’ (Marx) see below.

During lunch breaks at school, when I was in the sixth form in the mid sixties, we would sometimes wander past the cathedral and through the gateway into the High Street. Incidentally there was a local myth or story that Salisbury was never bombed because the German planes used the cathedral as a navigation point. On a corner was Beeches’ many roomed, uneven-floored second hand book shop. Further down the street, WH Smith, where they used to display a big picture book called something like Atrocities of the Third Reich. It felt a bit like dipping into pornography, seeing my first pictures of men hanging from trees or a pile of bodies in a pit. Sebald tells of a ‘teacher in Detmold who as a boy in the immediate post-war years quite often saw photographs of the corpses lying in the streets after the firestorm brought out from under the counter of a Hamburg seond-hand bookshop, to be fingered and examined in a way usually reserved for pornography.’

I have just one story of the bombing. It comes, like quite a few stories, from walking the dog in the park. I chatted to a German woman, who had married a Pole after the war and come to Britain. I don’t know how she came to tell me this, I was probably was asking her questions, and I don’t remember anything else she said, but she told me that as a girl she saw bodies come floating down the river after the Dam Busters raid. The one war film we’d all seen, a film about courage, technical ingenuity and morally pure strategy, but they left out the drowned civilians. I looked it up: there were 1,293 of them.

The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in. Kurt Vomnegut.     He had obviously not heard of Victor Klemperer. Klemperer was a Jew who survived the Nazi period in Dresden, just, because he was married to a non-Jew. But he and a handful of others were due to be deported on the day after the bombing. See below.

Joseph Conrad was describing the British naval bombardment of African coastal settlements when, in An Outcast of the Islands (1896), he wrote of ‘the invisible whites’ who ‘dealt death from afar’. In Lindqvist’s history, too, aerial bombardment appears as a novel kind of punitive raid. The first bomb ever to be dropped from a plane – an Italian monoplane piloted by Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti – landed among troops encamped at an oasis outside Tripoli on 1 November 1911. It was reported to have had ‘a wonderful effect on the morale of the Arabs’. The Spanish practised the technique in Morocco, as did the French – who also dropped bombs on Syria and even designed a special ‘colonial’ plane which allowed its airmen to ‘sit in the shade with plenty of space for their machine guns and shoot the indigenes in comfort’. The British bombed revolutionaries in Egypt and Pathans on India’s North-West Frontier in 1915. After the First World War, the future of the British Air Force was guaranteed by Mohammed Abdille Hassan, the troublesome ‘mad Mullah’ of Somaliland, who was bombed into submission within a week. Arthur (Bomber) Harris was a squadron leader in the Third Afghan war of 1919, and pioneered the strategy of ‘control without occupation’ in Iraq, which entailed sprinkling fire on straw-roofed huts: ‘within forty-five minutes,’ Harris reported, ‘a full-sized village … can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target.’

from a review in the London Review of Books by Patrick Wright of ‘The History of Bombing’ by Sven Lundqvist.

Is the attack on Guernica so famous only because it was the first big bombing raid in Europe?

Speer quoted from a speech made by Hitler in 1940 at a dinner in the Reich Chancellery: Have you ever seen a map of London? It is so densely built that one fire alone would be enough to destroy the whole city, just as it did over 200 years ago. Goring will start fires all over London, fires everywhere, with countless incendiary bombs of an entirely new type. Thousands of fires. They will unite in one huge blaze over the whole area. Goring has the right idea: high explosives don’t work, but we can do it with incendiaries; we can destroy London completely.’

They started it.

First all the doors and windows were torn from their frames and smashed by high-explosive bombs weighing 4,000 pounds, then the attic floors of the buildings were ignited by lightweight incendiary devices, and at the same time fire-bombs weighing up to 15 kilograms fell into the lowers storeys. Within a few minutes huge fires were burning all over the target area, which covered some 10 square kilometres, and they merged so rapidly that only a quarter of an hour after the first bombs had dropped the whole airspace was a sea of flames as far as the eye could see. … the fire, now rising 2,000 metres into the sky, snatched oxygen to itself so violently that the air currents reached hurricane force, resonating like mighty organs with all their stops pulled out…. the storm tore trees from the ground and drove human beings before it like living torches…. those who had fled from the air raid shelters sank, with grotesque contortions, in the thick bubbles thrown up by the melting asphalt…’ from W.G. Sebald’s account of the Hamburg raid in 1943, in ‘On the Natural History of Destruction’.

Perhaps we should allow Arthur Harris himself the final word on the pusillanimous handwringing over the bombing of Dresden some still feel necessary to indulge in, nearly 70 years on. As Harris wrote to the Air Ministry in the aftermath of the raid: “The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden, could be easily explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East. It is now none of these things.”

As the son of a refugee from Hitler, I for one am glad that the war against an enemy of unspeakable degeneracy and evil was prosecuted with such vigour and clarity.
Adam Kirby
Singapore            letter in the guardian, 2012, in response to a (hand wringing) article by Richard Overy

This is where it gets personal. Arthur Harris in the psychiatrist’s chair, telling me amongst others that I’m not shocked by the horrible deaths of thousands of people, I’m just concerned about Dresden shepherdesses. Meissen china, so fragile, and its connoisseurs, so effete, offer him a good target. I’d intended a montage of quotations with little comment, but Bomber Harris always had a way of stirring people up. His other famous, outrageous remark is this: I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier. The cities – and the millions of people living in them? It’s a clever remark because it echoes Bismarck, who said, ‘the whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.’ The extraordinary thing – to me – about that letter to the Guardian is that those words of Harris are usually used against him. But that just shows the weakness of my idea of a montage without comment. Although that works well in the latest issue of the London Review of Books with an anthology of quotations from Donald Trump, about whom almost the whole world agrees. But what about ‘pusillanimous hand-wringing’? That’s just a euphemistic cliché, a supposedly polite way of saying, ‘fuck off you pathetic scumbag.’ And ‘as the son of a refugee from Hitler’: That’s like saying, ‘as an Arsenal supporter I definitely think Theo Walcott should have had a penalty.

But yes, it all depends where you are, and when, and if you try to be in different places and different times at the same time, well, that’s the impossibility of history.

To give the context of Harris’s notorious remarks:

After the bombing of Dresden Churchill began to have a change of heart. On 28 March, in a memo sent by telegram to General Ismay for the British Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff, he wrote: It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.

That word ‘terror’ again, twice.

Having been given a paraphrased version of Churchill’s memo by Bottomley, on 29 March, Harris wrote to the Air Ministry:

I … assume that the view under consideration is something like this: no doubt in the past we were justified in attacking German cities. But to do so was always repugnant and now that the Germans are beaten anyway we can properly abstain from proceeding with these attacks. This is a doctrine to which I could never subscribe. Attacks on cities like any other act of war are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier. The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden, could be easily explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East. It is now none of these things.

On April 1 Churchill issued a different memo: It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of the so called ‘area-bombing’ of German cities should be reviewed from the point of view of our own interests. If we come into control of an entirely ruined land, there will be a great shortage of accommodation for ourselves and our allies. … We must see to it that our attacks do no more harm to ourselves in the long run than they do to the enemy’s war effort.

This idea would soon figure in DDR and Soviet versions of history, that the imperialist war machine destroyed Dresden and massacred its people, 200,000 they claimed, as a kind of pre-emptive strike on the construction of socialism in ‘an entirely ruined land.’ The disproportionate effect of the bombing on working class housing in city centres – for example, the beautiful bourgeois villas of Dresden along the valley of the Elbe were largely untouched – gave some support to these claims.

Here’s an apparently sober and well informed view of the situation in 1945: By the beginning of 1945, before the invasion of the homeland itself, Germany was reaching a state of helplessness. Her armament production was falling irretrievably, orderliness in effort was disappearing, and total disruption and disintegration were well along . Her armies were still in the field. But with the impending collapse of the supporting economy, the indications are convincing that they would have had to cease fighting-any effecting fighting-within a few months. The mental reaction of the German people to air attack is significant . Under ruthless Nazi control they showed surprising resistance to the terror and hardships of repeated air attack, to the destruction of their homes and belongings, and to the conditions under which they were reduced to live . Their morale, their belief in ultimate victory or satisfactory compromise, and their confidence in their leaders declined, but they continued to work efficiently as long as the physical means of production remained . The power of a police state over its people cannot be underestimated . 5. The importance of careful selection of targets for air attack is emphasized by the German experience. The Germans were far more concerned over attacks on one or more of their basic industries and services-their oil, chemical, or steel industries or their power or transportation network-than they were over attacks on their armament industry or the city areas . The most serious attacks were those which destroyed the industry or service which most indispensably served other industries . The Germans found it clearly more important to devise measures for the protection of basic industries and services than for the protection of factories turning out finished products .

from the United States Strategic Bombing Surveys, published in the 1950’s.

‘Operation Gommorah’ – the name for the firestorm attack on Hamburg – reaping the whirlwind. The apparent acceptance by Germans of the idea of retribution or divine justice, as if without immediate human agency the flames roll out across Europe and then back to the centre to destroy Germany…. the lack of hatred which surprised American observers in Germany in 1945.Instead lots of people were anxious to emigrate to America as soon as possible.

The construction of the strategy of air war in all its monstrous complexity, the transformation of bomber crews into professionals, ‘trained administrators of war in the air’, the question of how to overcome the psychological problem of keeping them interested in their tasks despite the abstract nature of their function, the problems of conducting an orderly cycle of operations involving ‘200 medium sized industrial plants’ flying towards a city and of the technology ensuring that the bombs would cause large-scale fires and firestorms – all these factors, which Kluge studies from the organizers’ viewpoint, show that so much intelligence, capital and labour went into the planning of destruction that, under the pressure of all that accumulated potential, it had to happen in the end.’   Sebald.

Kluge, in ‘Air Raid’, captions a photo of the ruined town of Halberstadt with a quotation from Marx:

‘We see how the history of industry and the now objective existence of industry have become the open book of the human consciousness, human psychology perceived in sensory terms…’

What did they let me see in Germany? By the catholic church in Dresden, near the river, an exhibition in the open of photos of refugee children, one child and their story in each photo.

In hospital, or in the woods somewhere near Bosnia. One couldn’t sleep with her head on a pillow, she had come to associate a pillow with the nightly air raids in Syria. The exhibition was unsupervised, untouched. They didn’t let me see the neo-Nazis. (In Germany they don’t call them ‘neo’. They’re just Nazis. I saw young Germans with dreadlocks, vegan cafes, chinese tourists, no sign of Nazis. But I guess it depends where you look).

Victor Klemperer, who tore off his star and mixed with the Aryan refugees after the bombing of Dresden didn’t encounter many Nazis. If you’re looking for answers to questions: was Germany beaten? Was morale destroyed? Was the social order breaking down? – the kind of questions that address the purpose and validity of the bombing – you’ll be disappointed. He writes in great detail, (in his recently published diaries,) dispassionately, although at the same time we feel how incredible it is that at last he is simply a German among other Germans. He gives us the usual rich human experience of revolutionary times. In the country outside the city there’s a well organised soup kitchen where he gets three bowls of soup, (on the first day – less later.) The SS have taken to hanging cowards and deserters from trees. Some people believe. They believe that Hitler will come up with something. A cunning plan. It’s more and more obvious that they are mad, but only if you’re not mad yourself. Some people, having time to think, as they shelter in the forest and hear war in the distance, are winding down. Feeling bold enough to say that they never really liked the Nazis. A couple of SS men come by and are rude to everybody. Someone from Berlin says that what they did to the Jews was terrible, we don’t know if Klemperer was tempted to reveal that he is a Jew. Probably not. News about the Americans is favourable, Apparently the black soldiers are the friendliest! (note – this news came a bit later in the diary, not immediately after the bombing of Dresden.) A gang of crazy Hitler Youth are playing with real guns and live ammunition among the trees and pissing everybody off. Things are normal enough for Klemperer to be acutely aware that he, a bourgeois, (he was a university professor until 1933,) is uncomfortably close to a whole lot of working class people. He thinks that, well, there never really were that many of us, so mixed in with everybody else of course we’re going to be thin on the ground, and feel isolated. It’s amazing that a new reality(see Grass) – the old reality – has asserted itself so quickly and so strongly that class not race becomes the real social marker again.

We begin to see how the suppression of the immediate past begins. Soon, beginning with clearing the rubble, work would begin to bury memory.

We seem to be watching a drama of two violently opposed acts. First the apathetic survivors stumbling among ruins, then, quite suddenly, the builders of a clean future.

For the refugee mother from Hamburg, the past is a dirty, heart-breaking secret.

Remembering, for Germans, is a very different thing from remembering for the British. Did it begin with what we allowed the Germans, and develop into what they allow themselves?

Even Churchill used the word ‘terror’ in connection with the allied bombing. I only saw the word once in (a fleeting) visit to Germany. In the crypt of the Frauenkirche in Dresden is an exhibition devoted to its destruction and rebuilding, which contains a typed report from a city official written immediately after the bombing, which it describes as a Terrorangriff, a terror attack, the official term at the time.

In the big park just outside the centre of Dresden is a memorial – which I didn’t visit – to the victims of the bombing. Many died in this park. People who escaped here from the first wave of bombs were caught two hours later by the second. The inscription, roughly translated, reads:

This is a place of remembrance. Here the bodies of thousands of victims of the air attacks of february 13 and 14 1945 were cremated. At that time the horror of the war, delivered by Germany to the whole world, came back to our city.

How many died? Who knows the number?

In thy wounds we see the pain

of the nameless ones who burned here

in hellish fire by human hand.

In memory of the victims of the bombings of Feb 13-14, 1945

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1 Response to remembering and forgetting, the bombing of Dresden

  1. Judy says:

    24 Jan 2017
    Bomber Harris – a montage without comment – and then you say about Trump “… about whom almost the whole world agrees”. I don’t think that was true in October last year, when this blog was posted (or is this just hindsight on my part?) much as I’d like to have believed that everyone felt like me about Trump. It’s not just the other side who live in a media bubble – we do too, getting our news from sources which share our principles.

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