Controversial anniversaries of Dresden bombing
This week marks the 73rd anniversary of the British and US Second World War bombing raid on the German city of Dresden. The attack was controversial at the time and has remained so throughout the decades. Thousands of civilians died in a firestorm. There are questions about the morality of targeting civilians and about the need for the attack in February 1945 when the war was almost at an end. Soviet troops were only a few miles from the city which was crowded with refugees. The enormous firestorm in the heavily populated city centre killed thousands of men, women and children. Over the years, the precise number of people killed has been disputed, the current accepted figure being about 25,000 but at times it has been put as high as nearly a quarter of a million.
The figure varies depending, among other things, on the global political agenda. During the Cold War, there were those who wanted to talk up the tragedy, those who wanted to talk it down, and some who wanted to keep the whole thing under wraps. Indeed until the 1960s, most people in Britain were unaware that this attack had taken place.
What is interesting – as much as the fluctuating casualty figure – is the manner in which the anniversary has been marked over the decades in this country. As with the figure for those killed, it tells us something about political attitudes and agendas. A quick trawl through The Times archive for the relevant date in February shows the following:
1955 – Cold War propaganda
Ten years after the raid, the one brief news story in The Times focussed on Communist propaganda rather than the raid itself. Dresden lay behind the Iron Curtain, in the Soviet Union sphere of influence. The headline read Dresden Raids as Propaganda. The anniversary was seen in Britain as an opportunity ‘by the east German Government to repeat their attacks on the rearming of the Federal Republic … and to assert the peaceful complexion of the Communist world.’
1965 – dropped off the schedule
By 1965 the Dresden anniversary had all but dropped off the news schedule. The only reference in The Times came at the end of three paragraphs noting that the Mayor of West Berlin, Willi Brandt, was going to visit Coventry Cathedral later that year. The cathedral’s Provost, the piece said, had launched an appeal to help rebuild a Dresden hospital damaged during the raid.
1975 – Dresden the forgotten past?
There was no mention at all of Dresden in 1975. Why not? Perhaps we were preoccupied with the end of the Vietnam War and had no time to think about previous conflicts.
1985 – the most unnecessary air raid of the pre-atomic age?
But by 1985 it was all change. There were four news stories and several other references to the Dresden raid in The Times which sent a journalist and a photographer to the city to cover the anniversary events taking place in the city. The first report by Alan Hamilton began:
Forty years ago tonight at ten minutes past ten in the chill dark, the air raid sirens wailed across the roof tops of the finest baroque city in northern Europe.
Dresden had always thought itself safe: the war was near its end, the city had no major military installations, and no civilised nation would bomb such a treasure store of art and architecture. Its population of 650,000 was swelled by half a million refugees fleeing before the advancing Red Army.
By dawn the jewel of Saxony had been pounded and burnt to rubble by the most devastating, and some say the most unnecessary, air raid of the pre-atomic age. Eight hundred RAF bombers dropped one incendiary for every man, woman and child in Dresden. It is today accepted that those buried, incinerated or suffocated in “The Night of the Devil’s Tinderbox” amounted to an estimated 135,000 Germans.
The report went on to note that a British group led by the Bishop of Coventry and the city’s Lord Mayor were in Dresden to mark the anniversary.
Meanwhile Channel 4 was running a documentary in which the official history of RAF Bomber Command defended the raid. Dresden had become controversial again.
1995 – a sense of national guilt
Over the next ten years, a sense of national guilt about the Dresden air raid grew. The Cold War had come to an end in 1990. At the time of the 50th anniversary in 1995 The Times published around a dozen news stories relating to the Dresden anniversary, plus a leader, a feature by Simon Jenkins with the headline Ban airborne terrorism and another by the Bishop of Coventry, Simon Barrington-Ward, headed Sharing in Dresden’s sorrow.
2005 – neo-Nazis capture the headlines
By 2005 the tone had changed again. The Times focussed its attentions on what it described as neo-Nazi attempts to hijack the commemorations in Dresden.
2015 – the morality of targeting civilians during war
In 2015, the morality of the air raid was once again on the agenda. Targeting civilians during war had become tragically relevant as conflict raged in Syria.
The last gasp of the Second World War or the first act of the Cold War?
Dresden is part of my personal story too. I went there in 1965 to help rebuild the hospital mentioned above. I have written about this in Communing with the Enemy and in Stepping Off the Map. I have argued that the bombing of Dresden was one of the first acts of the Cold War rather than the last gasp of the Second World War.