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Eoghan Harris: The moral dilemma posed by Dresden

Eoghan Harris

Published 12/02/2012 | 05:00

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TOMORROW, the citizens of Dresden remember a dreadful day. On the fine spring evening of February 13, 1945, 700 Royal Air Force bombers began to destroy their city, one of the most beautiful in Europe, in a raid that would last two days.

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The bombing crews -- they suffered 50 per cent casualties during the war -- were acting on the orders of Air Marshal Arthur Harris. He was carrying out the wishes of Winston Churchill, who later let him down by airbrushing the brave men of Bomber Command out of his victory speech.

We can learn lessons from Dresden. The obvious ones concern the pity of war. But stating the obvious does not deal with other moral obligations posed by the deliberate bombing of Dresden. Having wrung our hands about the horror, we are still left with hard questions.

The hardest concern the Holocaust. Can what Dresden did to its Jews be completely excluded from the moral calculus which condemns the bombing? Increasingly, the educated elites seems to say yes, Dresden was different, an appalling atrocity, maybe a war crime.

Anyone who continues to ask awkward questions can be accused of justifying the murder of women and chil-dren. But it is a risk worth running. Because Dresden points up the problems posed by the politics of remembrance which haunt both modern Ireland and modern Germany.

The ceremonies in Dresden tomorrow demonstrate the danger of what, in an Irish context, I call a "leaky consensus". Democrats and neo-nazis will attend different ceremonies. But when it comes to the politics of victimhood, the boundaries between them begin to blur.

Neo-nazis who heckled German revisionist historians at public meetings have been applauded by the decent majority. This blurring happens here too. Hard nationalists who heckled revisionists for raising the enforced exodus of southern Protestants in 1919-23 have received rounds of applause from audiences who claim to abhor the hecklers' nationalist politics.

In Dresden, as in Dublin, the blurring of boundaries begins with myths. Many of the myths about Dresden began in the twisted and brilliant brain of Josef Goebbels, Hitler's minister for propaganda. The communists who took control of Dresden continued the process, conflating Churchill and Hitler as two war criminals.

After the war, some of these myths made their way into the wider world. They form the core of the current consensus among educated liberal elites that Dresden was a war crime. Frederick Taylor's Dresden is one of the few modern histories to challenge three of these core myths.

The first myth concerns casualty figures. By 1963 David Irving, the dodgy historian of the Holocaust, had bumped up Goebbels's first casualty figures of 135,000 to 250,000. Today, thanks mainly to German historians, we know the true casualty figures were a tenth of that, around 35,000, far fewer than the figures for Hamburg

The second myth is that bombing Dresden made no difference because "the war was nearly over". Critics who make this charge, like the Irish critics who "always knew" the Provos would make peace, are speaking in hindsight. Back in 1945, after the stoic German stand in the Ardennes, nobody knew when the war would end.

The third myth is that bombing Dresden and other German cities had no military value.

But in 1945 Albert Speer calculated that the disruption of civic administration by Allied bombing meant Nazi Germany had produced 35 per cent fewer tanks, 31 per cent fewer aircraft and 42 per cent fewer trucks than planned.

The fourth myth is that Dresden was a city of "innocent civilians". Certainly, the children were innocent. But whether the citizens of Nazi Dresden can be described as "innocent civilians" depends on your definitions of innocent and civilians.

Dresden did not just produce dolls. It was a fully functioning Nazi city, making precision war tools with slave labour. It formed a crucial part of Nazi Germany's political and administrative polity. Considered simply as a military target, Dresden was no different from Hamburg.

So why have the educated elites singled out Dresden for special sympathy? Why not Hamburg, where casualties were higher? Above all, why should the 35,000 Dresden civilian casualties command more concern from the educated elites than the 800,000 Soviet civilians who died in the siege of Leningrad?

It is hard not to suspect that the special concern of the elites has something to do with their professed appreciation of literature and art. With Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. With the fact that Dresden was a beautiful city.

Dresden was also a Nazi city. Between 1933 and 1945 it had condoned the long humiliation and then murder of most of its 6,000 Jewish citizens.

On the night of the raid, only 200 Jews were still alive. One of them was Victor Klemperer, a decorated veteran of the First World War, who kept a secret diary.

By 1945, Klemperer had been stripped of his decoration, all his rights as a German citizen, and forced to wear a yellow star. A few days before the raid, he and the remaining Dresden Jews were told to prepare for deportation.

They knew where that trip would end.

On February 13, Klemperer and his Jewish friends gathered for what they saw as their last supper. Sitting around a table they heard the drone of aircraft overhead. One of them said hopelessly: "If only they would smash everything."

Dresden's Jews were not the only ones welcoming the sound of the bombers. Below the bombers, alongside the works of art, was a prison with an electric guillotine. In the five years before the raid, 1,300 people had died beneath its blade.

Most of them were Czech democrats. The rest were communists and social democrats. The most recent victim was German, Dr Margaret Blank, who was murdered for making "demoralising" remarks.

Can critics really claim that Bomber Command destroyed a city of completely innocent civilians? Can it really be categorised as a war crime?

Back in 1945, if you tried to tell a social democrat or communist that Dresden was a war crime, they would have looked at you with disbelief and echoed Air Marshal Harris: "Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind."

The bombing of Dresden was a brutal act of war. But it cannot be compared or conflated with the murder of millions of Russians, Poles, Czechs and Jews.

And what was done to Dresden cannot be completely separated from what Dresden did to its dissenters and Jews.

No decent human being can be comfortable about the bombing of Dresden. But we have no retrospective right to denounce those who destroyed the city. None of us knows our moral limits when faced with an evil like Nazi Germany.

Seven years before the bombing, on November 9, 1938, Dresden painter Otto Griebel watched as Nazi thugs hauled pale Jewish teachers from their community house, forced them to bow to a baying mob and set fire to Dresden's beautiful synagogue. Later, as Griebel gazed at the smoking ruins, a street character called Franz Hackel passed by him with blazing eyes, muttering conspiratorially as he made this terrible prediction: "The fire will return! It will make a long curve and come back to us."

Sunday Independent

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