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Dresden: Time to Say We’re Sorry

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As the U.S. Fifth Army inched its way up Italy in 1944, its command constantly pondered which towns should be spared bombardment. Monte Cassino was destroyed. The centers of Rome and Florence were saved. The Pieros of Sansepulcro were reprieved at the last minute (I believe by an art-loving gunner). These decisions were taken out of respect for the civilized values that the Allies believed they were defending, even if they cost soldiers’ lives. The Allies were right.

Now we are arguing about Dresden again. Yesterday its people commemorated the night, 50 years ago, that Bomber Command devastated their city, roasting at least 25,000 of its inhabitants in the notorious firestorm. They would like us to apologize. To them it was an act of pure savagery, planned at Stalin’s request and aimed at civilians and refugees from the east. The war was all but over and military installations around Dresden were not targeted. The attack was a modern version of medieval ” putting a city to fire and the sword.”

Attitudes to the Dresden bombing, have undergone many shifts over time. Immediately after the attack there was widespread revulsion. Winston Churchill, who had ordered the raid to appease Stalin, was sufficiently shocked by the reaction to question the policy of “bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror.” He referred to the bombings as “mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive. ” The Americans likewise distanced themselves from avowedly “terrorist” air attacks, after their own planes had gunned down people fleeing the burning city the morning after the British raid.

In the 1950s the issue was buried. Bomber Command veterans were highly sensitive about what was euphemistically called “area bombing.” Their portrayal in war films was duly heroic. In the 1960s and ’70s came a resurgence of doubt. This culminated in controversy after the death of the head of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, in 1984, and the proposed erection of a statue to him. Now on the 50th anniversary, right-wing revisionists defend the bombing as part of the “context” of war. It has become intellectually chic to claim Dresden was a good thing. There is little chance of Prime Minister John Major recommending an apology.

Everything I have ever heard or read about Dresden convinces me that it was a crime against humanity — unless I adopt the morally ludicrous position that no Allied troops were capable of such a thing by definition. The Dresden raid was bitterly controversial at the time, a product of the internecine war-cabinet politics of early 1945. Harris was beyond the control of his superiors and had defied the orders of his boss, the weak Sir Charles Portal. Portal and the Americans had pleaded for the bombers to be directed against specific military and economic targets, in particular oil supplies, to speed the Allied advance across Europe. Nor could the war cabinet see any point in flattening cities and creating millions of refugees who would shortly be an Allied responsibility.

Harris was a fanatical believer in bombing cities. He was contemptuous of the oil targeting strategy. Like many commanders scenting victory, he was not interested in helping the army and longed to see his bombers carry the vanguard of victory over a flattened wilderness. Many Germans, including Albert Speer, later wrote that the one thing that could have ended the war in 1944 (and saved hundreds of thousands from the gas chambers) would have been the redirection of Allied bombing from cities to oil supplies.

There would then have been no German counteroffensive. Harris’s failure to implement the Anglo-American order to attack oil supplies, as Max Hastings has shown in his book on Bomber Command, “will be remembered as one of the Allies’ great missed opportunities.” Harris’s insubordination was the central catastrophe of the last year of the war.

Harris used incendiaries on Dresden to create a firestorm; in other cities he used high explosives. The city-center churches and palaces packed with refugees were targeted, rather than railways or barracks on the outskirts. The attack was morally identical to an infantry massacre of civilians on the ground. There was no rational argument that such terrorism would undermine Hitler. A year of saturation bombing had not brought an uprising, nor did the bombing of Berlin. As Hastings concludes, “The Wehrinacht’s last stand, and the continued output from the factories until the last weeks, rendered the concept of morale bombing finally absurd.”

The Thunderclap operation, as it was called, was openly “terroristic.” Harris wanted to flatten “two and a half cities a month” until there were none left. He saw no distinction between the Nazis and three centuries of European culture still resplendent in the great cities of Germany. He appeared to believe that destroying what was ineffably beautiful would break the morale of a people he saw as evil. That the breaking of morale might, in ravaged Germany, be politically ineffective was too subtle a point for him. He was not above the thought that he was destroying a culture still respected by his more effete Whitehall opponents. His much quoted motto was that “bombing anything in Germany is better than bombing nothing.”

The Dresden raid was part of a final destructive frenzy by an insubordinate commander, unleashed by Churchill to bring a gift to Stalin at Yalta. Even then Stalin would have been content with the bombing of supply lines and oil depots ahead of this advancing army. When he did a “Dresden” on Warsaw he at least warned the population to leave first.

Dresden was more than a distortion of the war effort or a concession to an odious ally. Dresden cannot be excused as “balancing” Auschwitz or Coventry or German punitive massacres of villages in the Balkans. That demeans the Holocaust and reduces Nazi atrocities to a level moral playing field of tit-for-tat. Besides, the Germans have endlessly apologized.

Harris’s campaign was an aberration. It began as false strategy and became a moral obscenity. This is not hindsight. Many people, not least in the Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Force, opposed Harris at the time, were appalled by what he did and have been so ever since.

Saying sorry costs nothing. The Allied cause in 1945 was right and was triumphant. That rightness shows its strength when it can recognize and atone for its errors, especially when they were as awful as the destruction of Dresden.

This article originally appeared in the Times of London and the Spectator. It was reprinted in the February 14, 1995, issue of the Wall Street Journal. Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal. Copyright 1995, Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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    Mr. Jenkins writes for the Times of London and the Spectator.