“The burning of the Munich Court Theater, where Tristan and Die Meistersinger received their first performances, where I first heard Freischütz seventy-three years ago, where my father sat at the first horn desk for forty-nine years—it was the greatest catastrophe of my life; there is no possible consolation, and, at my age, no hope.”
250 miles north of Munich lay another centre of German art and culture. Famed as ‘Florence on the Elbe’ Dresden was world famous for its glorious eighteenth century Baroque architecture. Its famous residents included Carl Maria von Weber, Schumann, Wagner, Caspar David Friedrich and Ibsen. In February 1945 the war in Europe had just four months to run, and the Russian Army was less than a hundred miles from Dresden. The city was largely undefended against air attack, and had totally inadequate protection for its civilian population which was swollen by thousands of refugees fleeing from the Russian advance. In six years of war Dresden had scarcely been touched by bombing, and its residents had concluded it had been spared because of its cultural importance.
On 13th February 1945 more than a thousand RAF bombers dropped over 4,500 tons of high explosives and incendiaries on the city, sparking a horrendous firestorm which swept through the centre. The two major RAF night raids were followed by smaller US daytime attacks. More than 25,000 inhabitants died in the bombing, and thirteen square miles of the centre were destroyed, together with priceless treasures and works of art. These included the Royal Court Theatre, the scene of premieres of operas by Richard Wagner, Carl Maria von Weber, and Richard Strauss himself.
For sixty years controversy has raged about the bombing of Dresden. Why was an effectively undefended city subject to such a colossal attack so close to the end of the war, and with Russian troops so near to it? Were the Allied commanders guilty of gratuitous violence in some sort of overblown reprisal raid? Was the sheer scale of the bombing a ‘don’t mess with us’ message to the Russian leaders as the Allies stated to flex their muscles for the post-was carve up of Europe?
British historian Frederick Taylor’s recent book Dresden, Tuesday 13th September 1945 has been accused of being no more than an apologia for the raids. After reading it I can see little substance in these criticisms. The book is extraordinarily well researched, and paints a balanced, and very moving, picture of the destruction.. Taylor’s thesis can be summed up in his own words, “Dresden was the raid that went horribly right.” He justifies the plan to bomb by the fact that the city was a key communications, administrative and intelligence centre linking the Nazi eastern and western fronts. Breaking these links certainly shortened the war. Allied intelligence was not sufficiently detailed to identify the lack of air defences or adequate civilian protection. But even if they had would this have been reason for not attacking?
By 1945 the technology and accuracy of bombing was such that raids of this type had become highly efficient killing machines. Navigation was assisted by the latest hi-tech radar, and unusually good weather and visibility allowed very precise bomb aiming. This was so accurate that the first wave of bombs levelled the designated target area. The ‘master bomber’ responsible for directing the second attack was flying low over the burning city in an unarmed reconnaissance plane. Rather than dropping more high explosives and incendiaries on rubble he took a spur of the moment decision to broaden the target zone for the second onslaught. This meant the bomb loads of approaching bombers dropped on residential areas, and onto the open spaces where refugees and the homeless were sheltering. Frederick Taylor does not attempt to excuse the slaughter that resulted. But his message is clear. The raid on Dresden was not an isolated aberration, but rather what happens when the killing machine fires on all cylinders. Dresden was the effect, not the cause. And when the machine becomes as efficient as it did at Dresden, horrors are certain to result.
By chance I read Dresden, Tuesday 13th September 1945 immediately following the horrendous terrorist bombings in London. We had spoken about the London bombings to a friend of our son, who is training to be a doctor. He was on duty at University College Hospital a few blocks away from the Tavistock Square bus bomb. He said he was struck by how efficiently the well rehearsed hospital disaster plan had swung into action as soon as the first bomb exploded. Thank God for all the dreadfully wounded that it did. But are we not replicating the efficiency of the Dresden killing machine? Just compare the photo above taken in London two weeks ago to the one above it taken in Dresden sixty years before. Isn't the similarity chilling? The London bombers also used high-tech explosives to kill unprotected civilians. Their fanaticism was doubtless fuelled by the knowledge that the resulting carnage would be efficiently captured and distributed by the wondrous technologies of mobile phone cameras, satellite TV, and yes, blogs. We all watched transfixed as the high-tech CCTV images showed the bombers at the railway station, calmly travelling to unleash death on London's transport system. And as soon as their vile deeds were perpetrated the streamlined efficiencies of disaster management and the media kicked in.
Dresden, Tuesday 13th September 1945 is about the terrifying power of a highly efficient killing machine. Sixty years later we are still tackling the effects of such a machine, without getting to grips with the cause. Pete Seeger said it all in his song……
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers every one
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?
Update Dec 2005 - follow this link for inspirational photos of the rebuilt Frauenkirche
If you liked this post take an overgrown path to Downfall - and the mystery of Karajan's personal photographer