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The arc of European reconciliation

On the night of 13 February 1945, 805 RAF Lancaster bomber crews set out on what was, apparently, just another raid on a German city. For the loss of nine aircraft, Bomber Command dropped approximately 2600 tonnes of high explosive and incendiary bombs into the centre of Dresden, creating the firestorm that devastated it. The numbers of people killed are still disputed but the best evidence suggests that 25–35,000 died (only slightly fewer than at Nagasaki under the second atomic bomb). About 35 square kilometres of the city were completely destroyed and many more badly damaged.

The raid left us one of the most famous and powerful photographic images of the war. From high on the roof of the Town Hall, a blackened statue of a woman, her arms spread, appears ready to embrace in pity the skeletal remains of gutted buildings which run for block after block. It is a view of Sodom and Gomorrah after the cataclysm. One of the Lancaster pilots who had looked down in awe at the blazing city was Frank Smith, whose son Alan, nearly 60 years later, would play a significant role in Dresden’s resurrection.

Although it is crucial to emphasise here that I reject any suggestion of moral equivalence between the Allies’ destruction of Dresden and the Nazis’ genocidal campaign against the Jews, both were products of the insidious tendency in wartime for the previously unthinkable to become routine or even desirable. On 3 September 1939, when Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany in support of Poland, practically no one in either Britain or Germany had heard of Auschwitz. Most Europeans knew Dresden only as an architectural marvel, ‘Florence on the Elbe’. That both Auschwitz and Dresden would become and remain icons of the utmost horror was simply inconceivable in London and Berlin that early autumn day.

Even as he started a war he blamed on them, Hitler had no plans to murder the Jews of Europe. Yet in less than two years genocide had become a major, if highly secret, war aim of his. And when the RAF went to war in September 1939, it was ordered to confine its air raids to offshore naval targets because of the possibility of causing civilian casualties if land targets, even of a military nature, were attacked. While, in the light of what we know happened afterwards, this punctiliousness seems almost laughable, British policy at that time was one of strict compliance with international law as it then stood. Growing casualties forced Bomber Command to fly at night to avoid enemy fighters. The Germans then inconveniently turned off the lights in their cities, making targets hard to find. Gradually, along with many aircrew, the law became a casualty of war.

On 14 February 1942, the British Government made the fatal decision to abandon its policy of solely striking military targets and ordered Bomber Command to attack ‘the morale of the enemy civil population’, i.e. to bombard German cities. The new theory was that if armaments factories could not be hit, their employees could be killed or bombed out of home, reducing the efficiency of the economy and the desire of workers to continue the war. A new fire-breathing commander, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, was placed in charge of Bomber Command.

Harris had fought as a fighter pilot during World War I and had become a true believer in the superiority of strategic air power over massed infantry tactics. He was convinced that Germany could be defeated from the air given sufficient numbers of bombers and a no-holds-barred approach to bombing cities. He was contemptuous of any other approach and, late in the war, was almost removed from his post for his resistance to orders requiring him to give priority to bombing oil and transport targets rather than cities. His ferocious and callous approach to the deaths of German civilians was demonstrated most graphically after the devastation of Dresden resulted at last in Churchill reviewing the policy of area-bombing. ‘I would not regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British grenadier,’ he protested. ‘The feeling over Dresden could easily be explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses …’

Under Harris’s control, Bomber Command relentlessly attacked German cities most nights of the war. Dresden is the most famous of his victims, but it was also one of the last. By 12 February 1945, it was one of a very few German cities that had not been heavily damaged by air raids. While Dresden is famous for its firestorm, Hamburg suffered one even worse in July 1943, in which about 42,000 people died. So delighted was Harris with the results of the Hamburg raid that he sought to emulate it for the rest of the war. Five hundred thousand German civilians are estimated to have been killed in air raids.

For Harris, the victims under the bombs were simply statistics. One dark night during World War II, an English police officer waved down his speeding car. ‘The way you’re travelling, sir, you’ll kill someone,’ he scolded Harris. ‘Young man,’ came the reply, ‘I kill thousands of people every night!’ In Dresden, these thousands burned, were boiled to death in fountains and water tanks, crushed, vaporised or disintegrated by high explosives or suffocated as the tempest reached 1000o centigrade and oxygen was sucked out of the air. Survival was little consolation. The German writer W. G. Sebald relates the story of a woman, bombed out of home and deranged with grief, carrying her dead child around in a suitcase for several days.

Auschwitz necessarily stands as a monument to unfathomable guilt—Nazi, German, human—and loss. While a survivor recently stated that if he met Dr Mengele (the camp doctor and mass murderer) he would forgive him, Auschwitz defies reconciliation. It is proper that it signifies the unforgivable, the irreconcilable.

Dresden, however, can tell us another story. Canon Paul Oestreicher was the son of a refugee German Jewish father. He is the former director of the Centre for International Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral. Despite his commitment to the reconciliation of Britain and Germany, he has an unblinking vision. Reconciliation is costly. ‘The Germans brought it on themselves,’ he told the Financial Times (UK) in 1995. ‘They started the bloody war. The anniversary of the bombing of Dresden is, among other things, supposed to teach us to avoid another Dresden … History creates symbols. Dresden is a symbol for all the cities which had been bombed during the war.’

It is now, however, emblematically more striking and complex than this alone. On 22 June 2004, with the interesting number of 30,000 people watching, a 15-year program to rebuild the Frauenkirche, the largest Lutheran church in Europe, and, until February 1945, one of its baroque gems, reached its climax with the careful placement of a golden orb and cross, more than five metres high and weighing more than a tonne, on its spire.

The cross was forged by a Coventry silversmith, Alan Smith, whose father had piloted one of the Lancaster bombers on 13 February 1945. The Duke of Kent, President of the Dresden Trust, which was formed to raise funds in Britain for the orb and cross, was among the guests of honour. Coventry, which lost its own medieval cathedral and more than a thousand of its people in the blitz of 1940, contributed about A$1.3 million, a gesture of solidarity with the Germans who had contributed to the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral in the 1950s. Among thousands of British contributors to the reconciliation project was the Queen herself.
Frederick Taylor, author of a respected study of the Dresden raid, observes that ‘the politics of remembrance in Dresden are complex, complex as memory itself’. Anti-war feeling is strong in the city but for the radical right in Saxony and other parts of Germany, Dresden is a rallying point: they claim to represent the German victims of the war and deeply resent the emphasis on the Holocaust and Germany’s crimes. For them David Irving’s proven lies about the Holocaust and the Dresden raid remain both gospel truth and powerful sources of propaganda.

Such people and attitudes may, paradoxically, serve a useful purpose by reminding other Germans and Europeans of what Nazis look and sound like, and how it came about that 6,000,000 Jews were murdered and how Dresden and most of the rest of the cities of Germany were left in ruins by 1945. It is heartening to observe that German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has threatened ‘consequences’ for the ‘treacherous views’ of neo-Nazi MPs who recently protested against the Auschwitz anniversary commemoration in the Saxon parliament.

Immediately after the bombing in 1945, before the worst was known in Britain, The Guardian newspaper expressed the hope that Dresden was not badly damaged ‘because it belongs to the whole of Europe’. Perhaps it now does, and to the world, but in a different and better way. 

Hugh Dillon is a Sydney magistrate.


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