Saturday, January 14, 2006

Vonnegut gets his Dresden facts wrong

In 1968, the year I wrote Slaughterhouse Five, I finally became grown up enough to write about the bombing of Dresden. It was the largest massacre in European history. I, of course, know about Auschwitz, but a massacre is something that happens suddenly, the killing of a whole lot of people in a very short time. In Dresden, on February 13, 1945, about 135,000 people were killed by British firebombing in one night.

It was pure nonsense, pointless destruction. The whole city was burned down, and it was a British atrocity, not ours. They sent in night bombers, and they came in and set the whole town on fire with a new kind of incendiary bomb. And so everything organic, except my little PoW group, was consumed by fire. It was a military experiment to find out if you could burn down a whole city by scattering incendiaries over it.

Kurt Vonnegut's 1968 novel Slaughter-house Five is an essential part of the literature of the bombing of Dresden. In his new book A Man Without a Country: A Memoir of Life in George W Bush's America to be published on February 6th (Bloomsbury ISBN 0747584060) Vonnegut returns to the bombing of Dresden. The extract above is taken from a feature length extract in today's Guardian.

Vonnegut may have been a genius with the fiction of Dresden, but he seems to struggle with the facts. Research has now established that the death toll in the terrible air raids was around 25,000. Even the post-war communist propaganda (Rach and Hartsch 1977) put the death toll at "more than 35,000", not "about 135,000" (Is that figure of 135,00 a very serious typo in the book?). Similarly calling it "a British atrocity" conveniently writes out of history the daylight raid by 231 B-17's of the US 1st Bombardment Division that dropped 678.3 tons of high explosives and 400 tons of incendiaries on the city.

Let's remember the horror of Dresden, but let's remember the facts.

Sources:
Dresden - Tuesday 13th February 1945 by Frederick Taylor (Bloomsbury ISBN 0747570841)
The Devil's Tinderbox - Dreden 1945 by Alexander McKee (Souvenir Press 0285635476)
Also these articles On An Overgrown Path I am a camera - Dresden, and Dresden 1945 - London 2005

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3 comments:

Emily said...

I think Shostakovich was inspired to write something after reading about Dresden... if I'm not mistaken it's one of his piano trios... the one that begins with the big D-S-C-H statement... but don't quote me on that. sometimes I don't remember music history class all that well.

Pliable said...

You're right Emily, but it was his Eighth String Quartet, Op 110.

He visited Dresden in July 1960. The city was then in the communist German Democratic Republic. He was there to write the score for a film, 'Five Days, Five Nights'.

This was the first time he had seen the devastation caused by the Allied bombing raids on February 14th 1945. The experience directly inspired his Eighth String Quartet, which was written in just three days, and dedicated to the victims of fascism and war. The quartet became a musical symbol of the devastated city.

Richard Friedman said...

Our current US administration, looking back at the US tonnage used in the bombings, would probably sum it up by declaring it a successful urban renewal project, and a good investment for the future.