Bombing Symbolized Modern War's Fury

By Koenig, Robert L. | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 5, 1995 | Go to article overview

Bombing Symbolized Modern War's Fury


Koenig, Robert L., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


FOR ANITA JOHN, the nightmare is a pitch-black coal cellar where she lost her parents to the fury of a firestorm.

For Klaus Lang, it's a pyre of charred corpses in the marketplace of what had been a "fairy-tale city" the day before.

And for Thomas A. Jones, it's a meat locker packed with 100 American POWs as Allied bombs struck - WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP! - in the doomed city above.

When they emerged from the slaughterhouse's cellar the next day, the shell-shocked Americans witnessed a scene that burned into their memories: a blazing ruin that, just hours before, had been one of Europe's most beautiful cities.

"When we arrived, Dresden was like a fairy tale, the most amazing place I'd ever seen," recalls Jones, 70, now retired in Manassas, Va.

"But that night, the entire the city was ablaze, as far as the eye could see. It was a totally unbelievable sight."

The attack, three months before the fall of Nazi Germany, killed tens of thousands of people - mostly women, children, and refugees from eastern Europe. This Feb. 13, on the 50th anniversary of the firebombing, some of the Dresden residents who survived the attack will gather with German President Roman Herzog and dignitaries from Britain and the United States to lay wreaths and express the bombing's meaning. The visitors will include the mayor of Coventry, an English city whose cathedral was destroyed by Nazi air attacks.

Little Military Significance

One of Jones' POW buddies in the slaughterhouse was Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who struggled for two decades before he could write about the firebombing. His novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five," is about Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier a bit like Tom Jones who survived the firebombing of Dresden.

The book became an anti-war best-seller during the Vietnam War, and it burned images of the Dresden bombing into a generation of American readers.

Vonnegut, for one, won't be going to Dresden for the anniversary. He explains: "I've said all I have to say about an event so enormous, and yet so meaningless."

So enormous: The firebombing of Dresden was the most intense of the European war, killing somewhere between 35,000 and 135,000 people - a number impossible to confirm because so many bodies were burned without being counted or identified. By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed at least 80,000 Japanese.

So meaningless: Unike the Hiroshima bombing, which helped end the war against Japan, the firebombing of Dresden had little, if any, military significance in ending the war in Europe. The main target of the Allied bombers was Dresden's historic central city and rail yards, rather than the industries and military encampments elsewhere in Dresden.

British writer David Irving, author of "The Destruction of Dresden," called the bombing "the biggest single massacre in European history," based on his estimate - now considered too high - of 135,000 persons killed.

Some Germans - including writer Ralph Giordano - consider such accounts as diminishing the enormity of the crimes of Nazi Germany. They go as far as to criticize President Herzog for agreeing to be the main speaker at the ceremonies in Dresden.

The critics note that even Irving's higher number represents only about one-tenth of the number of European Jews and others who the Nazis killed in the Auschwitz death camp, which was liberated just two weeks before the Allies bombed Dresden.

"Those who want to twist the truths of history and to minimalize Germany's crimes are seeking to misuse the memory of that horrible night in Dresden," Giordano charged in an open letter to Herzog.

Firestorm

While the justification of the Allied bombing and the exact death toll are disputed, the central facts are clear: More than 1,400 British and 300 American aircraft dropped about 3,500 tons of explosives and incendiary bombs in separate attacks on Feb. …

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