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The bombing of Dresden

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Historians continue to debate the bombing of Dresden. Some now describe it as immoral or a war crime, and no other Allied raid has attracted more condemnation than that launched on the night of February 13, 1945. Records show that RAF and USAF Command carried out an incendiary raid on a city that had hitherto escaped destruction. Thereafter the issue is contentious. Without doubt it was an annihilation: if the obliteration of the architectural gem of Germany does not put the raid in a different class, the casualty figures do. Around 25,000–35,000 people were killed in a city swollen by refugees; always sketchy at the time, the number of dead was exaggerated first by Nazi propagandists, who stated that 200,000 had died, then by the communists, who put the figure at 135,000.

The tragedy of Dresden is that the raid seems pointless. The stated military aim was to restrict movement of troops and armaments in order to aid the Russian advance west. As leaflets dropped on the city explained: “To the people of Dresden: we were forced to bomb your city because of the heavy military traffic your railroad facilities have been carrying. Destruction of anything other than military objectives was unintentional.” (As it turned out, those key railroads were knocked out for barely two days.) Allied bombing of civilian targets was nothing new. Yet Dresden, a city whose tradition of arts and humanism was so anathema to the Third Reich that Hitler had only visited twice, was no military lynchpin, and passing comments by High Command about shattering German morale at the end game of the war did not help the military’s case. Contemporary Allied journalists and intelligentsia sniffed something rotten, something punitive, and the raid provoked the first public dissent over High Command bombing policy. Churchill, who must have approved the plan, distanced himself from it, leaving Air Chief Marshall Arthur “Bomber” Harris to carry the can. Few historians now concur that the attack shortened the war. Just as depressing is the fact that “Dresden’s Holocaust” is a cause célèbre of neo-Nazi parties.

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