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Were the Nazis the only criminals?


April 1, 2004, 5:35PM

A city in flames

Historian offers well-researched new look at Dresden bombing


Tuesday, February 13, 1945.
By Frederick Taylor.
HarperCollins, 528 pp. $26.95.

IT was known as "the Florence of the Elbe." For more than 200 years artists and lovers of culture had been attracted to Dresden, Germany, an elegant jewel of a city known for its fabulous art treasures, exquisite porcelain china and Baroque palaces.

Then for 15 hours -- from approximately 10 p.m. Feb. 13, 1945, until after noon on the next day -- 1,200 British and American bombers dropped 4,500 tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs, destroying the city in a cataclysmic firestorm and blasting apart and incinerating at least 25,000 of its inhabitants.

History has never put the Dresden bombing completely to rest. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a thunderbolt of a memorandum written six weeks after the event, expressed rage at why figurine-making Dresden had been singled out for "terror and wanton destruction" when other military targets were available. Besides, as everyone understood at the time, the defeat of Germany appeared only weeks away.

And those astounding casualty figures the German press put out -- 135,000 or 250,000 or even 400,000 dead. What civilized nation could possibly take pride in having perpetrated such an atrocity, Churchill and others were beginning to ask.

Drawing upon the archives of Britain, Germany and the United States as well as eyewitness accounts and memoirs by bombing survivors and Royal Air Force veterans, Frederick Taylor, editor and translator of The Goebbels Diaries, has written a fascinating and revealing study of this controversial subject.

Taylor begins Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 in Germany's misty past, starting with Dresden's environs circa A.D. 350 and bringing the reader all the way up to the present. He describes the endless early Slavic-Saxon animosities, the Holy Roman Empire rulers and the artistically ambitious Emperor Frederick Augustus of the late 17th to early 18th centuries who planned Dresden's renovation as the architecturally glorious capital on the Elbe.

In giving us a true picture of the 1945 bombing and the ensuing inferno, the author makes excellent use of eyewitness interviews and memoirs. He quotes survivor Otto Griebel, who described his experience of the devastating firestorm in which 800- to 1,000-degree heat sucked all oxygen out of the air at ground level and caused widespread combustion higher up: "Everywhere we turned, the buildings were on fire. The spark-filled air was suffocating, and stung our unprotected eyes. ... Entire chunks of red-hot matter were flying at us."

Dresden's chief of firefighting services stated that his 1,000-man department was "completely powerless. ... The buildings along the streets, shattered under the hail of bombs and seared by fires from the incendiaries, had collapsed and blocked the exit routes, consigning thousands to death in the inferno."

In dealing with the persistent controversial questions surrounding the destruction of Dresden -- the rationale for bombing a city that seemingly had little to do with Germany's war effort, the veracity of those astoundingly high casualty figures -- Taylor offers a completely revised story: Despite the outward appearance of being a mere purveyor of fine porcelain figurines, Dresden was also a major manufacturer of communications equipment, radios, fuses, cameras, lenses and electrical products, all of which were crucial to the war effort. Although the city lacked smokestack industries, its factories contained "the cutting edge apparatus of modern war, 1940s style," Taylor writes. He also informs us that Dresden was a main north-south and east-west railway junction for all of Germany.

Taylor also reveals that the six-digit casualty figures represented nothing more than creative efforts of Nazi propagandists working under the direction of Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, who was ever on the lookout for ways to galvanize the German people to fight on during Nazi Germany's final, desperate days.

Dresden came under Soviet domination after World War II, and only after the fall of the Soviet Union did records emerge that documented the true casualty figures -- 25,000 to 35,000 dead.

In Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 Frederick Taylor has written a fine, revealing work of revisionist history. He has also given us a deeply haunting human drama.

Chris Patsilelis is a reviewer in Camden, N.J.



February 2, 2005


A War of Words

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces in World War II, a major neo-Nazi party in the city is seeking to reinvent history by calling the attack "Dresden's Holocaust of bombs." Problem is: the party is finding resonance in a city still deeply scarred by an attack that left at least 30,000 dead.

At a meeting of parliament in the eastern German state of Saxony on Jan. 21, politicians wanted to debate the best way of commemorating the victims of the decimation of Dresden by Allied bombers on Feb. 13, 1945. What parliament got instead was one of the most embarrassing outbursts yet from a right-wing, neo-Nazi party whose leader calls for the creation of a new German "Reich."

As the parliament held a one-minute moment of silence in memory of the victims of National Socialism and World War II, 12 members of the National Democratic Party (NPD) demonstratively walked out of the chamber. Later, they declared they would only commemorate victims killed during the bombing of German cities. In the subsequent debate, the NPD's Juergen Gansel described the British Royal Air Force-led attack on the city as "mass murder," calling it Dresden's Holocaust of bombs."

"Today we in this parliament are taking up the political battle for historical truth, and against the servitude of guilt of the German people," he told the outraged parliament.

The NPD's political antics have fueled a major national debate across Germany, where sensitivities are still strong about how the bombing should be interpreted. The spectacular firestorm caused by the carpet bombing left Dresden, long known as "Florence on the Elbe" because of its splendid Baroque architecture, in ruins, officially killing at least 30,000 people. The exact number will always be the subject of great debate and some estimates count tens of thousands more deaths. There is no doubt that the horror was a tragedy of terrible dimensions, but was it an act of vengeance on the part of the British and Americans for the Nazi bombings of Britain or was the decision to attack born out of the perception of military necessity?

One prominent argument is that it was a needless act on the part of the British at a point when the Germans were retreating on many fronts and the Russians had already crossed the Oder River into Germany. The other, most recently proffered by British historian Frederick Taylor is that the Allies saw in Dresden an important communications and transportation hub from which supplies and troops were being sent to the eastern front, where the Soviet Army was suffering heavy troop losses. The latter, one could argue, would make Dresden a legitimate military target. Residents of Dresden, indeed, across Germany, remain divided between these theses as the 60th anniversary of the Dresden firebombing approaches.

To complicate matters, for decades, the Communist government of East Germany routinely portrayed the bombings as a campaign of "Anglo-American terror." The NPD has capitalized on this rhetorical tradition that finds traction in some quarters.

Fertile ground

"The phrase 'Holocaust of bombs' falls on fertile ground with many Dresdeners," said Stephan Fritz, the reverend of the recently reconstructed Church of our Lady (Frauenkirche), whose ruins long served as a symbol of the destruction of Dresden. "One shouldn't have any illusions."

British historian Taylor himself encountered that ground during a recent appearance in the city. Though his book "Dresden," published last year, in no way directly attempts to justify the attack, he is still the target of considerable anger in the city -- so much so, that he had to have police protection when he appeared at the city hall event. Dresden's mayor, Ingolf Rossberg, said he knew his appearance would be a delicate matter but that he had allowed him to hold the event because "uncomfortable truths must also be given their place in democracy." Try telling that to the mass circulation
Bild newspaper, which led a campaign against the "scandal author," and solicited locals to express their outrage in letters to the paper.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the NPD's stab at historical revisionism, by directly comparing the conventional bomb attack with industrialized genocide, has found greater resonance than one might expect. A poll by the
Welt am Sonntag newspaper found that 27 percent of Germans under 30 found the term to be acceptable. Among the 60-plus crowd, 15 percent found it okay to call the attack "Dresden's Holocaust of bombs."

Those are exactly the kind of voices that embolden the extremist NPD, which entered the Saxony parliament after garnering 9.2 percent of the vote in state elections in September. The party has long propagated the idea that Dresden is a city of German victims, and for five years it has helped pour gas on the flames of a symbolic battle over the history of the Saxon capital. Every year, the number of people participating in the NPD-organized "funeral march" to commemorate the bombing grows -- in 2004 close to a thousand young men showed up, and this year 5,000 sympathizers from across the country are expected.

Though that's a fraction of a fraction in a country of 82 million, it has nevertheless brought the historical debate close to the boiling point. That's why the organizers of the memorial events are working hard to dissipate the dark cloud cast by the NPD. Some state politicians have also sought to marginalize the neo-Nazi party, whose basic platforms involve keeping foreigners out.

Three months ago, Julia Bonks, the youngest member of the state parliament and a member of the leftist Party of Democratic Socialism, showed up to work in a t-shirt that read "Life's better without Nazis." At least 86 newspapers ran the photo. But months later, her action has done little to stop the men German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has dubbed "the hopeless neo-Nazis." His description is hardly a stretch for a party whose national leader, Udo Voigt, recently thanked officials for constructing Berlin's new Holocaust memorial, which he described as "the foundation for the chancellery of the new German Reich."

Candles for democracy

Voigt's are the kind of polemical statements that horrify the broad coalition of groups that are planning the 60th anniversary events in Dresden right now. For the Feb. 13 memorial, the group has asked Dresden residents to pin white roses to their shirts as a visual protest against the planned right-wing extremist march. They will also carry candles so that, when they come together in front of the city's famous Semper Opera building, they will form the shape of a giant candle to be captured by the TV helicopters hovering above. Fritz promises it will be a grand gesture by "Dresden's champions of democracy."

"The Nazis are attempting to exploit the day, but we're not going to allow them to," said Rev. Fritz. As Fritz notes, there's a cardinal rule in Dresden when it comes to remembering the war: Those who speak of Dresden's suffering also must not deny Germany's guilt. "Dresden was not an innocent city, it was a Nazi city like all the others," the reverend said. He believes the vast majority of the city's residents share his sentiments.

One thing is certain: the NPD is doing all it can to promote as many myths about the bombing of Dresden and Germany's responsibility for the war as it can. In the state parliament, the party now has a powerful podium from which it can get its message out to many. Rev. Fritz believes the commotion it caused a fortnight ago "was really a calculated coup in order to mobilize its own ranks and to address other groups." With its funeral march on Feb. 13, the order of the day will be drawing as much attention as it possibly can. Unfortunately, a lot of that attention will come from abroad.

With reporting by Carsten Volkery in Dresden



"Dresden: Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945"

Frederick Taylor is the author of a new book about the Allied bombing of Dresden in World War II called "Dresden: Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2004). Conventional wisdom has long had it that the bombing of the cultural pearl in eastern Germany was gratuitous violence and an inhuman attempt to kill as many civilians as possible in a city that had little in the way of an armaments industry or strategic importance. It is exactly this image of the Dresden bombing that Taylor's book goes a long way toward correcting. He shows that, in fact, Dresden hosted dozens of factories, many of them smaller but important workshops located in the old town, devoted to the war effort. His book also presents a much lower death toll (25,000 to 40,000) than previous estimates, some of which claim that hundreds of thousands died. At the same time, however, Taylor doesn't seek to minimize the horrors visited upon the city. He has sympathy for the suffering of the population and has grave misgivings about air warfare in general and the Dresden raid in particular.

Taylor studied history and modern languages at Oxford and Sussex universities in Britain and focused on the history of the extreme right in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. He traveled widely in both East and West Germany during the Cold War and has edited and translated a number of works from German. He lives in Cornwall, England with his wife and three children.

February 11, 2005


"Dresden Bombing Is To Be Regretted Enormously"

The Feb. 13, 1945 bombing of Dresden by the British Royal Air Force has become a symbol for excessive, gratuitous violence on the part of the Allies during World War II. But with the 60th anniversary of the bombing on Sunday, a new book by British historian Frederick Taylor argues that this view may not be quite accurate.
SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with the author.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some critics have accused you of writing a justification of the bombing of the city of Dresden. Is this accusation misplaced?

Taylor: Yes it is. Some people mistake the attempt at rational analysis of a historical event for a celebration of it. My book attempts to be distanced and rational and where possible I try to separate the myths and legends from the realities. I personally find the attack on Dresden horrific. It was overdone, it was excessive and is to be regretted enormously. But there is no reason to pretend that it was completely irrational on the part of the Allies. Dresden had war industries and was a major transportation hub. As soon as you start explaining the reasons for the attack, though, people think you are justifying it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was it a war crime?

Taylor: I really don't know. From a practical point of view, rules of war are something of a gray area. It was pretty borderline stuff in terms of the extent of the raid and the amount of force used. It's comparable with other air attacks in the war such as the German attack on Belgrade or even Stalingrad before it was besieged and of course other British and American attacks as well including the big ones in Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). These are examples where you get close to saying "you absolutely cannot do this," and I think bombing is the most dubious form of warfare possible. But a war crime is a very specific thing which international lawyers argue about all the time and I would not be prepared to commit myself nor do I see why I should. I'm a historian.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Since the war, discussion of World War II war crimes has focused almost exclusively on those committed by the Nazis. But hundreds of thousands of German civilians were also immolated in firestorms created by English and American bombs. Should not Allied excesses be addressed as well?

Taylor: We have to discuss them frankly. There is something inherently fascistoid in air warfare -- you don't see the person you are bombing and killing or injuring and you have this sort of psychopathic gaze from above. The air war is the only part of the war where the Allies, leaving aside the Russians, seriously ran the Axis powers a good race in terms of ruthlessness. But it is now 60 years after the fact, most people involved are dead and we shouldn't start pointing fingers except for in the case of the Holocaust. But the English and especially the Americans have continued since World War II to rely on bombing as an instrument of policy and that really concerns me. I feel uneasy about it. So I think Allied excesses are a legitimate subject for discussion. Absolutely.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why do you think it is important, six decades after the bombing, to revisit the event in 2005? What can be gained by taking a fresh look at the city's destruction?

Taylor: When the idea first crystallized in my mind five years ago I certainly wasn't out to write any kind of revisionist history. Two things motivated me. Firstly, the fall of the Berlin Wall meant free access to both archives and people in former East Germany -- access that wasn't there before. Secondly, of course, the eyewitness generation was aging fast and dying. There were of course previous books in English on the subject, but my main question was, "can I describe it better?" I think there is always something to be gained from a fresh look at history.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You were recently in Dresden to speak to the city about the bombing and about your book. Did you get the impression that people there are open to a more nuanced view of what took place on Feb. 13, 1945?

Taylor: My impression is that there are a considerable number of people in Dresden who take a balanced view -- survivors included. Others, of course, don't. But whether they think it was an atrocity is neither here nor there. It is perfectly possible to argue that the Allied attack on Dresden was rational but at the same time an atrocity. One view doesn't exclude the other at all. And for those survivors who still focus solely on the violence of the attack, that is their Dresden and it must be respected.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) recently referred to the bombing as the "Holocaust of bombs." This is, of course, a viewpoint held by more than just the German right wing. What is the problem with this viewpoint?

Taylor: The whole "Holocaust of bombs" thing has been around on far-right Web sites for years and is only now emerging into the NPD's antics in the (Saxony state government). I frankly don't understand what they're saying. All sides bombed each other's cities during the war. Half a million Soviet citizens, for example, died from German bombing during the invasion and occupation of Russia. That's roughly equivalent to the number of German citizens who died from Allied raids. But the Allied bombing campaign was attached to military operations and ceased as soon as military operations ceased. But the Holocaust and the murder of all those millions would not have ceased if the Germans had won the war. Bombing is ruthless war making, but to use the word Holocaust to describe ruthless war making is to confuse two entirely different things.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Vast attention was paid to the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz here in Germany and around the world. Now, however, the country is approaching a number of anniversaries, like the advance of the Soviet army and the post-war expulsion of Germans from Poland and the Czech Republic, that place Germany in a victim's role. Are Germans sliding back into the victim role they took on in the 1950s?

Taylor: I hope not. I sympathize with the desire to mourn and with the desire to acknowledge suffering. If that's what one means by seeing oneself as a victim, that's ok. In fact I think it's a psychological necessity for a nation just as it is for an individual. But to simply look at one's own victimhood and blank out Germany's unprovoked aggressive war against just about the rest of Europe and the genocidal aspects of that war can't do any good at all. The Germans, 60 years after the war, have to sort these things out and see how they feel about themselves. It might get a bit messy and I think that's what's going on at the moment. I can only sympathize.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do Britons view the bombing of Dresden today?

Taylor: There are some people in Britain who still think the bombing of Dresden was a terrific idea and that (the UK) could do no wrong in World War II, but the majority has a much more balanced view. I think the British didn't sympathize with the Germans who were bombed during the war but after the war when we looked at the damage, there was regret. It's hard not to feel pity for what happened to old Dresden. Most people combine an irreconcilable sense of conflict between what was necessary -- as people saw it at the time -- to defeat the Nazis and what you can feel good about as a people. There is no real solution to this paradox.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In Berlin in January, you had a podium discussion with the German historian Joerg Friedrich and he strongly attacked your viewpoints on Dresden ...

Taylor: ... Yes, he did ...

SPIEGEL ONLINE: ...and he was accusing the Allied bombers of a desire to kill as many civilians as possible and of not having legitimate military aims.

Taylor: I don't agree with him. His view was basically the old idea of "well the war was already over" when Dresden was bombed. From the way he described Germany in February 1945, I'm surprised the Germans lasted three days let alone three months. I disagree with that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you consider him to be a serious historian?

Taylor: I don't know. He seems very very certain of everything, in a way that most historians are not. He's a very clever man, he writes very well and I found his book ("Der Brand" -- "The Fire" -- October 2004) very interesting. But as a work of history I don't know. It's not generally admired by professional historians for anything other than its literary style.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The bombing of Dresden resulted in between 25,000 and 35,000 deaths. More people, though, were killed in the July 1943 firestorm in Hamburg. Nevertheless, the citizens of Hamburg seem not to be as obsessed by the bombing today.
Why is that?

Taylor: There are two reasons for the difference. First is that Hamburg was acknowledged and acknowledged itself as an important city from a military and industrial point of view. They always knew they were going to be bombed so there was not the same element of surprise or sense of injustice about being bombed. A lot of people in Dresden felt that the city was somehow protected because of its beauty, which increased the trauma enormously. Second, the city was part of a totalitarian dictatorship for 45 years after the war. That system exploited Dresden as a Cold War tool. They accused the Anglo-Americans of deliberately destroying those parts of Germany that would be occupied by the Soviet Union and of war crimes. Dresden was used throughout the Cold War as a cudgel to beat the West with.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What does Dresden mean today?

Taylor: The destruction of Dresden has an epically tragic quality to it. It was a wonderfully beautiful city and a symbol of baroque humanism and all that was best in Germany. It also contained all of the worst from Germany during the Nazi period. In that sense it is an absolutely exemplary tragedy for the horrors of 20th Century warfare and a symbol of destruction. There have been some calls in Germany for the day of the destruction of Dresden to be commemorated. If that were just used to exemplify German suffering then it would be wrong. But as an example of what advanced industrial countries have to try to avoid in the future then it is a legitimate symbol.

Interview conducted by Charles Hawley in Berlin.


May 11, 2005


My Personal VE Day

By Matthias Matussek

With the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II safely behind us, SPIEGEL magazine's correspondent in London, Matthias Matussek, thinks it's time the British give up their obsession with World War II triumphalism.

It seems to be an act of public suicide for a post-war German to criticise the British view of history on a day like VE day. To do so is to be cursed as a Nazi nostalgic or as an irredeemable loser.

But several British colleagues have asked me for a strongly worded polemic about the British obsession with Germany and the war.

So, here goes: we Germans consider VE day the day when the Hitler terror was finally vanquished.

We have learned the meaning of mourning and are determined never to allow another genocide.

In contrast, our British neighbours have not learned much more than the triumphalist trumpeting of the victor.

We Germans confront the guilt and shame of our past daily, and more thoroughly and obsessively than probably any other nation on earth has done. Even 60 years after the end of the horrors, we are still preoccupied, perhaps even more so now than before. In the heart of the capital a Holocaust memorial in the shape of a forest of grey cement posts has just been inaugurated.

Every German schoolchild knows the tales of German atrocities. But in England, Prince Harry parties with a swastika arm band. Eighty per cent of youngsters don't know what Auschwitz was about, but each one will be familiar enough with heroic films about the "Battle of Britain" to believe they had personally kicked the Hun up the backside.

Where does this giddy pride come from - and the lack of sensitivity toward the victims?

The Russians in the meantime consider us friends, even though they lost 25 million people in the fight against the Nazi horde. They respect us as a hard-working, peace-loving people who have emerged renewed from the devastation.

The British, who only survived thanks to the Russians and Americans, behave as if they had conquered Hitler's hordes single-handedly. And they continue to see us as Nazis, as if they had to refight the battles every evening. They are positively enchanted by this Nazi dimension.

The British love to hate us Germans. So much so that my 10-year-old son was chased by English school kids chanting "Nazi, Nazi". In fact, the hunt for Nazis has become a neurotic English parlour game. The British really enjoy raking over the German past instead of devoting themselves to their own. In psychoanalysis, this is called a "substitute act".

Perhaps VE day is, as my friend Anthony Barnett from
openDemocracy wrote to me, the perfect point in time for the British to grow up and say goodbye to their subterfuges. For example, the delusion that war was declared on Germany in solidarity with the persecuted Jews, as Tony Blair claimed not so long ago in an Observer interview.

This is far from the truth, as is well known outside the island. The British policy of appeasement handed Hitler a victory over Czechoslovakia. By delaying the war, it made it worse. Nazi Germany enjoyed great sympathy, above all from the British aristocracy. Israel's prime minister Kazav rightly pointed this out during the recent Auschwitz ceremonies: the British did nothing to stop the Holocaust.

The English history books say nothing about the passivity of the Allies towards the Holocaust. They also ignore, as recently demonstrated in the Independent, other dark sides to the empire. A new revisionism is afoot. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown has just declared that there is nothing about the Empire of which the British need be ashamed. Instead, New Labour increasingly philosophises about the blessings of being British, with no sense of there being a dark side, as with all other peoples.

Back to the war. The Churchill government had evidence from Polish resistance forces about the Nazi camps as early as 1940. And by 1944, there were precise aerial photographs of the Auschwitz concentration camp. A few bombs targeting the railway lines would have stopped the death transports. Nothing like this happened. Instead of saving Jews, the British preferred bombing Dresden and other German towns in order to destroy the cultural face of their hated neighbour once and for all.

Of course, this is terrible.

Even when the horrors of the Nazis were laid bare, the British colonial powers did not exactly treat the Jews with great care. I have never understood how the British colonial masters could send the starved survivors of the concentration camps who hoped to emigrate to Palestine straight back, often to the very camps from which they had been released.

This is not talked about. Instead, the British peruse the third post-war German generation carefully for signs of Nazi contamination.

This was evident again recently when I was asked to participate in a panel discussion about Oliver Hirschbiegel's film, "The Downfall."

The panelists, chaired by Max Hastings, insisted on seeing the film, which showed Hitler's last dark days in the bunker, as evidence of a new German Hitler nostalgia.

This was supported by the daftest arguments. For example: the music had been very tragic. What is one to expect in a film about murder and suicide, about senseless soldierly loyalty and the sinister swallowing of cyanide capsules? The Beatles?

The film showed youngsters abandoning their loyalty to Hitler in the final days of the war. Didn't happen, the panelists pronounced. They were all enthusiastic Hitler youths, right to the end. And that makes the foundations of the new Germany highly suspect, even today.

Some thought Hitler had been portrayed as too human, others felt he was shown to be too inhuman. It was his inhumanity that made the German people look like victims. And so on. You can twirl these pirouettes of interpretation endlessly. But the intention is always the same: to show the barbaric nature of Germans, that they are still not civilised. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently, and rightly, called this "moral arrogance."

Meanwhile the British have no shortage of good subjects for debate. I suggested to the panel that my British friends should occupy themselves with the problems of Britain's past, with the massacres of the Boer war, with the infamous Opium Wars, with the concentration camps of Kenya in the 1950s.

There was a fluster of excitement about this in the press. But that evening, I received applause for these remarks. Applause from a thoughtful British public.

I believe the official British triumphalism has to do with the Iraq war. If you continuously inflate your self importance with memories of grandeur in the Second World War, if you endlessly replay your "finest hour", you will have a distorted view of the moral problems of today.

A Britain which assumes itself too much in possession of all virtue has dangerously self-aggrandising features. Through deception and manoeuvrings you can find yourself going into a war that breaks international law and costs thousands of innocent civilian lives - simply because of an uncritical faith in an historic mission. For Tony Blair, it seems to me, "Rule Britannia" applies to the moral sphere as well.

I have learned from history that Germany did not lose on VE Day, but on the day when Hitler took power. On the day, when a leader and manipulator appeared, who was convinced of his own historic mission and trampled on right and humanity.

On this day, the losers were German culture, spirit, decency. The losers were Luther, Goethe and Bach. VE day also is the day on which they won again, with the help of the Russians, the Americans and the British.

And incidentally, if it had not been for VE Day I would not be here today. My father, who as a Catholic had a mistrust of the regime (though he had been dazzled in the early days) told me how he had longed for this VE Day. Not least because he did not want to die in a senseless war that had already been lost two years earlier in the battle for Stalingrad.

For me, VE Day is an occasion for joy and gratitude, but also for soul searching. Like so many of my generation I have visited Buchenwald concentration camp - near Weimar, where Goethe and Schiller shaped the pinnacle of German classic culture, and I was stunned to the core at what man can do to man. And sad. Sadder than I can describe. And helpless.

And the worst of it: I knew that this continues. Man continues to do this to man. War, massacres, holocaust. Perhaps that is one of the lessons we should all learn from VE day: that those who look the other way and don't interfere when a people is decimated, whether Jews, Tutsi, Armenian, Cambodian, Russian or Chinese, are also guilty.

We all must learn, losers as well as victors, British and Germans together. Only then will this VE day be one for mankind.

This article first appeared in



May 12, 2005


The Germans Are Obsessed Too

Following a piece on Britain's ongoing triumphalism regarding World War II by SPIEGEL author Matthias Matussek, British historian and author of "Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945" Frederick Taylor responds. The Germans, he says, are also fixated on World War II.

Matthias Matussek's article about the obsession of some Brits with the Nazis, though rather grumpy in tone, makes some good points, especially about the legacy of the British Empire and the causes of the continuing disaster that is the Iraq war. Nevertheless, it does seem rather one-sided. The tabloid press may have played up the role of the Brits in the Second World War to an almost comical degree, but most of the more serious publications here have been filled with discussion about who should really be granted the victor's laurels, with a general consensus arising that the determined, long-suffering soldiers and citizens of the Soviet Union, rather than Britain or America, should be awarded most of the final credit for defeating Hitler.

Moreover, it doesn't seem to me, as a regular reader of the German press and a frequent visitor to Germany, that in terms of quantity the British have recently showed any more "obsession" with the Second World War than their friends and close cultural relatives east of the Rhine. As Britain's Ambassador (to Germany) Sir Peter Torry has also pointed out, the German press and media have likewise been full of 60th-anniversary material, some -- though by no means all -- of a tendentious nature. (The German tabloid) Bild Zeitung has, sadly, matched the jingoistic idiocies of our own Sun and Daily Express.

I share Mr. Matussek's anger, by the way, that his son was forced to suffer the "Nazi" jibe at his school in London, and add my own shame and apology as a British citizen that this kind of thing can go on. We can only hope that one positive effect of the gradual retreat of the Second World War from memory into history may be that such attitudes fade as well. (Though I am told that for decades after the Napoleonic Wars, being French in Britain could also be tough!)

One thing continues to disturb me in his article, however, and that was his introduction into the discussion of the "bombing Auschwitz" controversy. There were of course good humanitarian reasons for the Allies to bomb the rail links to Auschwitz (with hindsight, to my mind overwhelmingly convincing) but there were also sound military reasons not to do so -- problems of distance, doubts about cost-effectiveness (railways lines were just about the easiest things to repair in war time), and in the spring and summer of 1944 the urgent need to concentrate Allied air forces on support for the Normandy invasion. And yes, at the time genteel anti-Semitism may also have played a role, in America as well as Britain, in the soft-pedalling that went on. So we Brits cannot feel too self-satisfied about that aspect of the war. There is a suspicion here, however, that Mr. Matussek is trying to make the Anglo-Americans co-responsible by omission for the terrible things done at Auschwitz by by the Hitler Regime and its cohorts. This is frankly unacceptable. It was the Nazis who set up and operated those extermination camps, no one else, and the responsibility for the millions who died is theirs. Period.

But the most perplexing of Mr. Matussek's remarks is that "instead of saving Jews, the British preferred bombing Dresden and other German towns in order to destroy the cultural face of their hated neighbour once and for all". The errors and prejudices packed into this single sentence almost took my breath away. Chronologically speaking, of course, Dresden was in fact bombed some weeks after the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, which makes nonsense of the reference to "saving Jews" anyway (although it is true that many of the few Jews surviving in Dresden were in fact saved by the bombing of that city). But even if we ignore this, is he saying that the British (and the Americans) should have bombed Auschwitz all year round instead of bombing German centres of population, communications, transport and industry (i.e. German cities -- yes, including Dresden)? And if not, then what is he actually saying? Is he also claiming that the chief or, as the sentence implies, the only aim of the bombing of Germany was to destroy his country's cultural heritage? If so, where does he get this information? It was an accusation frequently levelled by wartime Nazi propagandists, for obvious reasons, but I can assure Mr Matussek that it is not supported by research in the records of Bomber Command. The Anglo-American bombing offensive was without question ruthlessly destructive, the decision-making processes involved sometimes reeked of philistinism, and most British people feel a justified degree of discomfort about what was done in their name, but to dismiss the entire strategic bombing campaign as crude, futile cultural vandalism is absurd.

I think it makes a lot of sense for our two peoples to make their own matching resolutions in celebration of the 60th anniversary of VE-Day. The Brits will promise to stop being so horribly, narcissistically smug about "winning the war" and pay attention to other, less palatable aspects of their history, and the Germans will promise to cut down on the chronic self-pity that can creep into the writings even of perceptive and sensitive observers like Mr Matussek. Do we have a deal?

With best wishes for Britain and Germany's relationship over the next 60 years


Frederick Taylor


Mission accomplished

Michael Burleigh is won over by Dresden, Frederick Taylor's staunch defence of the bombing raid condemned by others as a war crime

Saturday February 7, 2004
The Guardian

Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945
by Frederick Taylor
544pp, Bloomsbury, 20

At about 6pm on February 13 1945, aircraft from RAF Bomber Command's elite 5 Group took off from Swinderby in Lincolnshire. They included 244 fully laden Lancaster bombers code-named Plate Rack Force. This fleet stacked up an hour later over Reading to form an armada bound for Germany and crossed the French coast shortly before 8pm. Fourteen hundred Allied planes were operational over Germany that night, many involved in diversionary raids to conceal the main target. Complex aerial manoeuvres kept 5 Group's designated target a mystery to the bitter end: German defenders could not determine whether the goal was Berlin, Leipzig, Chemnitz or fuel plants in the south-east. Where should they despatch their depleted fighter forces?

Just before 10pm sirens sounded in Dresden, the historic Saxon capital known as "Florence on the Elbe". High above in an unarmed British Mosquito, Wing-Commander Maurice Smith, the night's master bomber, who was in radio communication with Bomber Command's High Wycombe HQ and the bomber fleet, ordered in planes that dropped target-marker canisters. Next, he gave the fateful order:

"Controller to Plate Rack Force: Come in and bomb glow of red target indicators as planned. Bomb the glow of red TIs as planned."

Within two minutes this force dropped a range of ordnance, with powerful explosive bombs smashing holes in roofs and walls through which tens of thousands of smaller incendiary devices fell. These worked, since they had been tested back in Britain on replica German houses containing exactly the sort of furnishings in a typical German home. Dresden began to burn brightly with thousands of small fires.

As Dresden's civil defence forces tried to deal with the aftermath of this attack, a larger force of 550 bombers arrived to complete the double punch of such city centre area raids, whereby the civil defence forces would be caught as they went about their desperate business of suppressing fires. Since the centre was already burning brightly enough to be seen from 50 miles away, this second wave decided to widen the arc of destruction, crossing over in fan formation.

Dresden was soon engulfed in an enormous firestorm, its citizens asphyxiated or dissolved into viscous puddles in cellars. At around noon on what was now Ash Wednesday, an armada of US B-17 bombers appeared to pulverise whatever parts of Dresden were not obscured by smoke, although some of them managed to rain bombs on Prague. As a result of these raids, 25,000 people died - that being the minimum estimate - and 13 square miles of Dresden lay in ruins.

Attempts to treat the bombing of Dresden as a war crime perpetrated against the innocent inhabitants of a historic cultural centre of no industrial or military significance began two days after the attack. This was the handiwork of the Nazi propaganda supremo Goebbels, whose "spin doctors" exaggerated the city's population by a factor of four to support the wild claim that two million refugees from the east had been caught by the raids, and who doctored the number of corpses publicly burned (with the help of the SS who had some experience of these tasks) by adding an extra nought to the actual figure of 6,856. A regime that had picked British targets from Baedecker guide books dilated upon the damage to Germany's own cultural heritage.

After a brief hiatus when the East German communist authorities were scared to cast aspersions on any of the Allies - for the bombing of Dresden had largely been designed to relieve pressure on the Red Army - by 1950, a predominantly British raid was being blamed on the Americans, with Truman and then Eisenhower cast as the prime culprits: "Wall Street wanted to make it impossible for the Soviet Union, its supposed ally, to help the German people after the end of the war," in the leaden Marxist argot. Nazi talk of "Anglo-American air gangsters" was recycled in the equally un-free communist press.

Although the raids on Dresden have passed into the annals of Allied obloquy, eclipsed only by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in fact all that was exceptional about the bombing of Dresden was that for contingent reasons the raids went horribly right; the level of destruction visited upon, say, lowly Pforzheim was far greater, since a sixth of its population and 83% of the town were wiped out.

Frederick Taylor's well-researched and unpretentious book is a robust defence of the Dresden raids that counters recent attempts to recast the nation that gave the world Auschwitz as the second world war's principal victims, attempts that stretch back to the time of Goebbels. They continue in the form of criminalising RAF Bomber Command's supremo Bert "Bomber" Harris for a high-level strategy that was largely designed to show Stalin that his western allies were actually fighting if not in, then at least above, Nazi Germany. Vengeance also played a part, given the destruction wreaked upon British cities, not to speak of Belgrade, Rotterdam, Stalingrad or Warsaw, whose devastating bombing by the Luftwaffe has not generated such shelves of literature as the Allied bombing of Germany.

It must be conceded that the book is slightly over-padded with deep historical detail about our ancient Saxon cousins. There are also descriptions of the development of aerial warfare, stretching back to the Italo-Turkish war in Libya, that drone on with the tedium of aircraft engines.

Undoubtedly, the most fascinating theme, which Taylor does successfully develop, is how, and why, targets were acquired by RAF and intelligence planners. He convincingly rebuts - one hesitates to write "demolishes" - the legend that Dresden was purely a cultural centre, since even the (neighbouring) Meissen porcelain manufacturers had been converted to produce military teletypers. In fact, Dresden had considerable light industrial facilities that had been covertly transformed from making cigarettes or squeezable toothpaste into producing such precision military equipment as bomb-sights, fuses and radios, as well as vast quantities of bullets.

Dresden was also an important railhead, used to funnel men and materials from the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe into the fight against the advancing Red Army. Anything that might diminish the ferocious resistance the Russians had encountered at other "fortress" cities met with their enthusiastic approbation. There is no evidence that the raids were designed to impress the Soviets with western airpower. For the Allies, the war was not nearly "over", as the ferocious battles of the Ardennes or in the purlieus of Berlin would prove.

Equally crucially, Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee had already decided that a knockout blow against Berlin was a tall order, given the capital's distance, air defences and urban sprawl, and that therefore Bomber Command should hit more compact eastern cities, expressly to cause chaos. Dresden began to emerge as a possible target. Shortages of high-explosive bombs increased the attractions of virgin objectives that would burn more easily if showered with cheap and plentiful incendiary devices. Anonymous RAF meteorological officers finally sealed Dresden's fate when, on the morning of February 13, they predicted cloud breaks over the city, and good weather over the Lincolnshire bases to which the bombers would return. The final elements of the catastrophe were supplied by Germany's removal of anti-aircraft guns to use in the field against the Russians, and the Dresden Nazi authorities' failure to provide the city with adequate public shelters (although the regional gauleiter had provided his own house with a deep bunker).

Taylor skilfully interweaves various personal accounts of the impact of the raids on the permanent or temporary population of Dresden, including its slave-labour force. But the main thrust of his book is to defend a mission that was merely successful rather than exceptional. It came at the conclusion of a long war that, while generally brutalising and dulling moral sensitivities, also had clear enough justification in the fight between good and evil.

Michael Burleigh's The Third Reich: A New History is published by Pan.



"Dresden: Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945" by Frederick Taylor

So the Allies ruthlessly -- and unjustifiably -- firebombed Germany's most beautiful city and murdered hundreds of thousands of people, right? Not quite, says a prominent British historian.

By Laura Miller

March 1, 2004  |  Most Americans -- at least, the ones who aren't addicted to the History Channel -- know about the bombing of Dresden in 1945 from Kurt Vonnegut's bestselling novel "Slaughterhouse-Five," based on Vonnegut's own experiences as a prisoner of war. The attack is still a touchstone for the moral perils of war. Frederick Taylor, a British historian whose new book on the subject goes on to challenge much of what we think we know about the bombing, describes the conventional understanding thus: "Dresden was the unforgivable thing our fathers did in the name of freedom and humanity, taking to the air to destroy a beautiful and, above all, innocent European city. This was the great blot on the Allies' war record, the one that could not be explained away."

"Slaughterhouse-Five" came out in 1969, a time when many Americans were wondering just how much carnage could be justified by the trumpeted ideals of democracy and freedom. Like Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," "Slaughterhouse-Five" is a book set during World War II that was read in the light of Vietnam. It wasn't the first time Dresden was seen as a proxy. Taylor writes that not long after the war's end, and certainly before that, "Dresden became one of the most well-placed pawns on [a] virtual propaganda chessboard." There is the real Dresden and the Dresden of legend. Taylor makes what is by all appearances a good-faith effort to excavate the former by digging through the many layers of the latter. His "Dresden: Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945" aims to be the last word on the subject, though it's sure to be argued about for years to come.

The most familiar version of the story, the one that appears in "Slaughterhouse Five," is that Dresden, the seventh largest city in Nazi Germany, was a lovely, cultured place of no military significance that had been left untouched by the air war before February 1945. The Allies' attack, two waves of Royal Air Force bombings on the night of Feb. 13 and a lesser raid by American planes the following day, was an unprecedented, unnecessary, vindictive assault made at a point when the war was essentially over and when the Allies knew that the city was full of refugees fleeing the advancing Russian front to the east. The attack, according to this version, was a pure "terror bombing" designed to wreak maximum havoc and culminating in the aerial strafing of people fleeing the flames. Somewhere between 135,000 and a half-million people were killed.

According to Taylor, most of the above is simply untrue. Tapping municipal records that have only recently become accessible after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of East Germany (the nation that included postwar Dresden), he persuasively argues that the real death toll from the attack was somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 and that Dresden was far from innocent of war-related industry and activity. After scrutinizing and comparing the records and history of British bombing campaigns against the Third Reich in the latter days of the war, he finds that "Dresden was a big raid, but no bigger than a considerable number of others at that time directed against the urban areas of Germany." He comes up with several stated and plausible reasons for the Allies to target the city besides the main motive attributed to them by their harshest critics: bloodthirsty revenge for the bombing of London during the Blitz and anti-German zeal. The strafing almost certainly never occurred.

That doesn't mean that Taylor minimizes the horrors Dresden and its people suffered. "Dresden" is not a simplistic or simplifying book. Along with his diligent documentation of body counts and British bombing strategies, he presents the fruits of in-depth interviews with survivors of the attack. The centerpiece of the book is a riveting narrative account of how Dresden's citizens experienced the bombing and the monstrous firestorm it succeeded in fomenting. Twenty-five thousand people killed is still a massacre, and Taylor's description of the bleak aftermath is a nightmare of corpses lying in heaps on a landscape blasted and burned into lunar rubble. The day after, Feb. 14, was Ash Wednesday. That weird metaphorical coincidence is in tune with the many ironies Taylor encountered during his research.

Perhaps the first and most striking of those ironies is that Victor Klemperer, the famous Jewish diarist of the Nazi era, had been ordered to report for deportation on Feb. 16, along with what remained of Dresden's Jewish population (all married to "Aryans"). Everyone knew what this meant: "It promised at best transportation to the Theresienstadt ghetto, at worst a death march of the kind that had already consigned tens of thousands of Jews to a bitter and brutal fate just as the new Allied advances seemed to bring deliverance so tantalizingly close," Taylor writes. Klemperer and his wife escaped in the chaos after the bombing, posing as "Aryans" whose papers were destroyed in the fires. (Klemperer's diaries are one cultural treasure that was saved rather than destroyed by the bombing.) Another of Dresden's Jews, Henny Wolf, wrote "For us, however macabre as it may sound, the air raid was our salvation, and that was exactly how we understood it."

There were only about 170 Jews left in Dresden at the time of the attack (and 40 of them died in it), but their welcoming of the raid points up the impossibility of characterizing Dresden as "innocent." The city had a solid history of anti-Semitism, and while it never had many Jews to persecute, it did its best with the victims at hand. "Dresden was a Nazi stronghold even before Hitler took power," Taylor explains, noting that the National Socialists became the city's largest party in the Reichstag elections of 1932. The local party leader and provincial governor, Martin Mutschmann, was a particularly rabid specimen and insisted that the city go into public mourning for the eight days between Hitler's suicide and the arrival of the Red Army.

As for the idea that Dresden played little part in the war effort, Taylor shows that this was neither the case nor something the Allies believed. Although the city didn't turn out great big tanks or aircraft like the two other urban centers selected for bombing at the same time, Leipzig and Chemnitz, all of its high-end "precision work" manufacturing capacity had been converted to war use. Instead of cameras and cigarettes, two Dresden specialties besides the famous china and chocolates, the factories (some operating on the slave labor of POWs and Jews) made military optical devices and bullets. How could they not, in a Germany dedicated to the imperative of "total war"?

The British commanders who organized the raid maintained that Dresden was targeted mainly because it was a communications and transport hub. The city contained military barracks, but its role in funneling troops and supplies east to German forces fighting the Soviets was what doomed it, as Klemperer himself predicted four months before the bombing. Yet the February 1945 attack clearly targeted the city itself by focusing on its built-up and highly flammable center, rather than limiting itself to the barracks, industrial suburbs or railways.

The intention behind the attack was to throw the entire city into chaos, and the Allies were prepared to destroy a European architectural and cultural treasure -- and to kill thousands of civilians -- to do that. The Soviet Army was taking heavy losses after agreeing to push west earlier than originally planned, and the Allies in trade would try to make sure that, in Taylor's words, "the defending Germans would have their backs to a wasteland, and reinforcement would be almost impossible."

The war was anything but over to the people who were fighting it, and it's risky to judge the combatants' actions on the basis of hindsight about how few months of fighting were left. (Taylor argues that the Ardennes offensive in December 1944 had made the Allies believe that Germany was rallying.) As Taylor points out, to the 79,000 Soviet soldiers and 125,000 Berliners who would die in the taking of Berlin 10 weeks later -- or for that matter to the civilians in Paris and London still being targeted by German V-1 and V-2 rockets -- the war was anything but a done deal. Nevertheless, it's in the decision to devastate Dresden that the moral wicket gets sticky. Some of the air crews winced at the idea of raiding a city known to be harboring refugees. "We had leveled ourselves to the Krauts," one radio operator wrote in his memoirs.

Taylor doesn't deny that the question of whether it was worth stooping to such tactics remains a painful one. His quarrel is with the notion that Dresden was exceptional, or at least intentionally so. He points out that previous and subsequent raids on other cities aimed to be just as destructive, but didn't succeed because weather or human error or some other unforeseen factor interfered. Hamburg, a larger city than Dresden, took more casualties when it was bombed in 1943, and the towns of Pforzheim and Darmstadt lost a greater percentage of their population when their turn came. Conditions in Dresden combined to create the firebombing equivalent of a perfect storm. That the same thing did not happen elsewhere wasn't because the Allies didn't try.

One factor that contributed to the catastrophe was a widespread lack of preparedness in Dresden: There were few decent shelters and citizens didn't understand the importance of extinguishing the fires started by incendiary devices as soon as possible. (High-explosive bombs did limited damage by comparison.) As Taylor depicts them, Dresdeners lived in a dream world, "floating happily under the illusion that their city was too beautiful and too famous to suffer as other population centers in the Reich had suffered."

It's only when writing about this belief that the scrupulously fair and compassionate Taylor slips into testiness. He implies that this fantasy was a version of the larger German denial about what they'd allowed their nation to become under the rule of a maniac who rhapsodized about their special destiny. He quotes a long-suffering Soviet soldier who asked his superior officer why the conquered Germans should be treated kindly, when "They were well off, well fed, and had livestock, vegetable gardens and apple trees. And they invaded us."

Perhaps the extremity of the firebombing of Dresden's civilians was unnecessary, but there is no doubt that the war that caused it was, and that Dresdeners shared with other Germans the responsibility for that war. "With the vast material and spiritual riches of places like Dresden at your disposal," Taylor writes, "why place all that at risk by launching a ruthless, in large part genocidal attack on the rest of Europe? ... Did anyone really expect the world to fight back while wearing kid gloves, in order not to damage Germany's artistic treasures or kill German civilians?"

Exceptionalism played its part in the legend of Dresden as well, although that has only become obvious over time. The origins of the casualty reports in the hundreds of thousands lie, not surprisingly, in the propaganda efforts of Joseph Goebbels, who wanted to convince Germans that the Allies were so bloodthirsty that their only choice was a fight to the bitter end. And while the bombing was executed largely to support the advancing Soviet Army, once the communists took over Dresden and the Cold War was underway, it became a symbol of Western barbarism. In the unoxygenated environment of the Soviet state media, all sorts of bizarre and exotic rumors flourished, including one that Vice President Harry Truman (who would become president a few months later, after Franklin D. Roosevelt's death) had personally ordered the bombing.

Most Western misperceptions about the bombing of Dresden -- especially the casualty count of 135,000 -- come from one source, the 1963 bestseller "The Destruction of Dresden" by David Irving. Irving's book is the source of much of the misinformation Vonnegut reproduced in "Slaughterhouse-Five," and Vonnegut goes so far as to mention Irving's book in his novel. This added the authority of an eyewitness to Irving's account, but as Taylor demonstrates in "Dresden," the terror and confusion of enduring a bombing raid often drastically distort the memory. One Dresden survivor recalls finding refuge on an ice floe in the midst of the Elbe River, while another describes the same river aflame with phosphor. It was a mild evening and phosphor didn't figure significantly in any of the ordnance. To a POW like Vonnegut, forced to excavate corpses from the bomb shelters under the rubble, 45,000 dead could easily look like over 100,000.

Taylor carefully documents the flaws in Irving's account of the attack. Some of Irving's mistakes are understandable, given the inaccessibility of much of the evidence. In some cases, however -- specifically in verifying reports that Allied planes had strafed refugees -- it seems likely that Irving deliberately misrepresented evidence and based his accounts on documents that don't exist.

This is less shocking now than it would have been in 1963, when Irving still had a reputation as a brilliant if iconoclastic historian and a diligent researcher. Today, he's best known as a Holocaust denier. When he sued American scholar Deborah Lipstadt for calling him just that, his writings on the Holocaust and Hitler came under greater scrutiny. As Charles Taylor wrote for Salon in reviewing Richard J. Evans' book about the trial, that work was found to show "a consistent pattern of misquotation, selective editing, reliance on documents later found to be forged (and in one case known by Irving to be forged), suppressed information that ran counter to his case and fiddled figures." To judge from "Dresden," Irving was doing this even before he started writing about the Holocaust.

In his afterword to "Dresden," the author describes a ceremony he attended in 2002 commemorating the bombing. Far-right groups and Nazi apologists gather at the margins of such events, where they can promulgate their message that "in the Second World War the Allies, not the Germans, were the true war criminals." The inflated death tolls for Dresden become part of a numbers game intended to neutralize the enormity of the Holocaust (which in turn, these groups seek to minimize).

That is, of course, not the way Vonnegut portrays the devastation of the city whose beauty led him to compare it to Oz. For the novelist, and for many others like him, Dresden, like Hiroshima, is a pacifist watchword, proof that even those with right on their side can slip into savagery once they succumb to the moral fog of war. In other contexts, the myth that more people died in Dresden than in the bombing of Hiroshima becomes a cautionary tale about the lethality of conventional weaponry in the atomic age.

Enough people died in Dresden for the event to be justly labeled a tragedy. Enough of them were genuinely blameless (most of Taylor's sources among the survivors, for example, were children at the time) for the attack to shade into the realm of atrocity. Yet it's hard to argue that the Allies were wrong in deciding that winning the war mattered more than anything else, given the kind of world we would have inherited had they failed. The moral truth about Dresden is fundamentally ambiguous, however much some parties might want to paint it otherwise. Only histories like Taylor's, which encompasses both the raw human suffering of Dresden's people and the incontrovertible political facts about the city and nation they inhabited, can do it justice. And no just cause can be well served by anything less.

About the writer
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon.