#NeverForget: The obliteration bombing of Dresden ended on February 15, 1945
“There are no sacrifices we will not make, no lengths in violence to which we will not go.” — Winston Churchill in an address to the House of Commons, September 21, 1943
On this day in 1945, Allied forces completed their obliteration bombing of Dresden just a few days after FDR and Winston Churchill met with Joseph Stalin in Yalta to plan the reorganization of post-war Europe. The aerial bombing had started on February 13 and was designed, in Churchill’s words, to subject Germany to an “ordeal the like of which has never been experienced by any country” (John Ford). While Nazi crimes against humanity are well-known and powerfully documented by the victims, we should also never forget what happened during these three infamous days in February of 1945 near the end of the first global war after the war to end all wars.
The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front…and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.
— RAF memo issued to airmen on the night of the attack (Wikipedia)
Dresden was not the first or last city destroyed by obliteration bombing during the war. Hamburg had already been destroyed in July of 1944, and the first firebomb (napalm) was dropped on Tokyo on February 23rd, 1945. In August of that same year the United States would become the first and only nation ever to use atomic weapons in war, prompting Albert Camus to issue a powerful “demand to choose definitively between hell and reason” in Combat, the newspaper of the French Resistance.
Three years later, Camus — a self-described “unbeliever” — was asked by the friars at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg to address the question: “What does the world expect of Christians?” He urged them to “speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, should rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today” (Michael Marrus).
We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from. I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them.
— Lothar Metzger, survivor (Wikipedia)
During this time, Camus would also write about the emerging Cold War and how he was “fairly sure” that he had made the choice to “never again be one of those, whoever they be, who compromise with murder.” While Adolf Eichman and others were tried and executed for their war crimes, no one was reprimanded for the obliteration of Dresden, or Tokyo, or Hamburg, or Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Another writer and American from Indianapolis had enlisted in the United States Army in 1943. He was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and interned in Dresden during the Allied bombing. Kurt Vonnegut was also an atheist and the son of German-American freethinkers. His great-grandfather was the first president of the Freethinkers Society of Indianapolis. In 1969, Kurt would write a semi-autobiographical satirical novel about his experience in Dresden.
Vonnegut would later serve for many years as the honorary president of the American Humanist Association and “went to a Unitarian church several times, but with little consistency” (Wikipedia). He greatly admired the Sermon on the Mount (Susan Farrell, 2009), and wrote in Palm Sunday (1981) that it “suggests a mercifulness that can never waver or fade.”
In the aftermath of the “utter destruction” and “carnage unfathomable” at Dresden, Vonnegut and other soldiers were forced by the Nazis to help gather the dead for burials in mass graves. He would later lament 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” (Wikipedia). A month and a half after the bombing, Churchill would distance himself from the act writing in a memo to British military staff:
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.
Camus, who had written both his most significant work of philosophy and a classic of 20th-century literature in 1942, would go on to write another novel about a cholera epidemic in 1849 and one which Jean-Paul Sartre described in eulogy as his “perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood” (Wikipedia). Camus died in a car accident in 1960, two years after winning the Nobel prize for literature, while still working on what he had predicted would be his finest work (Kim Willsher).
To help increase the reach of this post, click the ❤ to recommend it. You might also enjoy my reflections on my paternal German ancestors in Amerika.