Read Dresden Online

Authors: Frederick Taylor


Frederick Taylor

Tuesday, February 13, 1945

To Alice

How lonely lies the city that was full of people. All her gates are desolate. The holy stones lie scattered at the head of every street. From on high He sent fire, into my bones He made it descend. Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of the earth?

She took no thought of her doom; therefore her fall is terrible, she has no comforter. For this our heart has become sick, for these things our eyes have grown dim.

Why do you forget us forever, why do you so long forsake us? Restore us to your self, O Lord, that we may be restored. Renew our days of old, O Lord, behold my affliction, O Lord, and behold my distress!

, 1, 1, 14, 13; 2, 15; 1, 9; 5, 17, 20–21; 1, 9

Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, die voll Volks war. Alle ihre Tore stehen öde. Wie liegen die Steine des Heiligtums vorn auf allen Gassen zerstreut. Er hat ein Feuer aus der Höhe in meine Gebeine gesandt und es lassen walten. Ist das die Stadt, von der man sagt, sie sei die allerschönste, der sich das ganze Land freuet?

Sie hätte nicht gedacht, dass es ihr zuletzt so gehen würde; sie ist ja greulich heruntergestossen und hat dazu niemand, der sie tröstet. Darum ist unser Herz betrübt, und unsre Augen finster geworden.

Warum willst Du unser so gar vergessen und uns lebenslang so gar verlassen? Bringe uns, Herr, wieder zu dir, dass wir wieder heimkommen. Erneue unsre Tage wie vor alters. Herr, siehe an mein Elend, ach Herr, siehe an mein Elend!

1, 1, 14, 13; 2, 15; 1, 9; 5, 17, 20–21; 1, 9

Verses from Luther's translation of the Bible, arranged in: Funeral Motet for mixed choir
a cappella:
“Wie Liegt die Stadt so Wüst.” Introduction to the
Dresden Requiem
by Rudolf Mauersberger (1889–1971).



Part One
   Florence on the Elbe

    Blood and Treasure

    The Twin Kingdom

    Florence on the Elbe

    The Last King of Saxony

    The Saxon Mussolini

    A Pearl with a New Setting

    First the Synagogue Burns, Then the City

    Laws of the Air

    Call Me Meier


    Fire and the Sword

    The Reich's Air Raid Shelter

    A City of No Military or Industrial Importance?

Part Two
   Total War

    Ardennes and After

    Thunderclap and Yalta

    Intimations of Mortality

    Time and Chance

    Shrove Tuesday


    “Air Raid Shelter the Best Protection”

    The Perfect Firestorm


    Ash Wednesday


Part Three
   After the Fall

    City of the Dead


    The Final Fury

    The War Is Over. Long Live the War

    The Socialist City

    The Sleep of Reason


Appendix A
The “Massacre on the Elbe Meadows”

Appendix B
Counting the Dead

Appendix C
Legends of the Fall

become the legend, print the legend!” So says Dutton Peabody, the cynical newspaperman in the classic Western movie
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

As a student in the 1960s, I knew only the legend of Dresden, because it was just about all that was ever printed. Like so many others of my age, I had learned of the city's destruction principally through a work of fiction: Kurt Vonnegut's acidly surreal masterpiece,
A brilliant novel, written partly from the perspective of his own grim personal experiences as a prisoner of war who shared the city's fate—but a figment of the imagination nonetheless.

For thirty years Vonnegut's bestselling work—and books by David Irving and Alexander McKee—sufficed to describe the catastrophic air raid on Dresden in February 1945, which for most readers in the English-speaking world and elsewhere came to represent not just the savage apogee of the conventional bombing war but something far worse: a senseless crime. The message these works conveyed for us, the next generation in Britain and the United States, was one of almost entirely unmitigated shame. 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.

Perhaps there were always parts of the legend that didn't ring entirely true. The vast casualty figures cited—rising into the hundreds of thousands—so much more horrifying than the consequences of any
other conventional air raid, and greater, some claimed, than the numbers killed at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The notion that Dresden, a city of almost three-quarters of a million hardworking human beings in one of the oldest-established industrial regions of Europe, concerned itself only with harmless cultural pursuits and the making of luxury goods and china, even in the middle of the Nazi regime's self-proclaimed “Total War.” The almost complete lack, wherever one looked, of any background information on the city, its political passions, economic problems and social anxieties: its ugly and intolerant aspects, which must be considered along with its beautiful, cultured side.

Part of the problem was always that, less than three months after its destruction, Dresden exchanged one set of totalitarian masters for another, when the Communists replaced the Nazis. What records remained after 1945 of the city's former life were less than fully open to scholars and investigators, and most of its surviving people kept the silence of official conformity. Versions of what happened between ten
. on the night of February 13, 1945, and noon on February 14, 1945—many originating from the fertile brain of Hitler's propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels—became set in cold-war stone, and further reexamination of the circumstances was not encouraged by a communist government eager to blacken the names of the Western Allies. The liberating moment came in 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism in East Germany. At last the people of Dresden could write, discuss, and access their collective memory without hindrance or fear of official persecution, and so could outside scholars and investigators.

The most objective work previously available concerning the destruction of Dresden has all been in German. Götz Bergander, Dresden-born and a teenage witness of the bombing, later a radio journalist and writer based in Berlin, wrote his book
Dresden im Luftkrieg
(Dresden in the Air War) in the 1970s and after 1989 revised it extensively in the light of the new information becoming available. Scandalously—considering the heedlessness with which apocalyptic legends of Dresden's fall continue to be printed in the English-speaking world—Herr Bergander's scrupulous, rich, and fascinating account of the attacks on his home city has never been translated into English. Likewise in the case of another Dresden historian, Matthias Neutzner, whose books
(Signs of Life) and
Martha Heinrich Acht
(Martha Heinrich Eight—Dresden's code name on the German air defense grid) manage the almost impossible task of setting Dresden's destruction in wartime perspective while at the same time heightening to an all but unbearable level of intensity the tragic human loss it involved.

It was after I read these books, and came into contact with their authors, that my own journey began. The journey was, of course, a physical one: to Dresden and Berlin and London and Washington to consult records and documents; from an RAF veteran's cottage in Norfolk to a former slave laborer's house on the edge of the Bavarian forest; from interviews with Dresden's survivors in hotel rooms to emotional conversations in neat apartments built on the very rubble of the districts where eye-witnesses had grown up. It was also, however, a mental journey, confronting evidence that did not fit my old idea of what Dresden had been, and forcing myself to see the wartime years, not through the eyes of the pacifistically inclined baby-boomer I had been and remain, but as it might have been regarded by those who lived and fought, suffered and struggled at the time, when the future was unknown and thousands of innocents were still dying every day.

The picture that emerged for me was not by any means one of an “innocent” city but of a normally functioning city (both in the universal sense and in the context of Nazi Germany), made extraordinary by its beauty. This is not to go to the other far extreme and say that Dresden “deserved” to be destroyed, but that it was by the standards of the time a legitimate military target. The question is whether enemy cities, necessarily containing large numbers of civilians and fine buildings but also many vital sites of manufacturing, communications and services of great importance to that nation's war effort, should be bombed despite the probability of high casualties among noncombatants. This issue remains one that can and should unleash passionate moral and legal arguments—even in the age of the so-called “smart bomb.”

Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945
will not settle any such arguments, but my belief is that it will reveal a more complex and ambivalent moral framework than has hitherto been generally recognized. The final moral judgment about the city's fate in February 1945 remains, as it must, the readers'.

Perhaps if there is a moral conclusion it can only be found in the
German phrase that I heard again and again from the lips of Dresdeners, spoken with a passion born of terrible experience:
Nie wieder Krieg
. Never again war. With the terrible weapons of mass destruction at its disposal, humanity can no longer afford intolerance and war, and that is the ultimate lesson of the bombing of Dresden. May it eventually be heard loud and clear, even though sixty years have passed.

of many individuals and institutions in Britain, Germany, and the United States, researching and writing this book would have been at best difficult, at worst impossible.

In Germany I especially should like to express my thanks for the advice of four of Dresden's most distinguished historians—Götz Bergander and Matthias Neutzner, Günter Jäckel and Karl-Ludwig Hoch—three of whom, as eyewitnesses of the bombing of Dresden, also kindly granted me frank and moving interviews about their experiences. Dr. Helmut Schnatz of Koblenz, chronicler of the Rhineland city's wartime history and author of the remarkable book
Tiefflieger über Dresden? Legende und Wirklichkeit,
also gave me invaluable information and advice and, along with Frau Schnatz, generous hospitality. Like the other historians mentioned, he also allowed me to read and draw upon material from his own private archive. In Dresden, the staff of the City Archive (Stadtarchiv), Main Saxon State Archive (Sächsisches Hauptstaatsarchiv) and City Museum (Stadtmuseum) were kindness and patience incarnate. In the case of the City Museum, I should especially like to thank Herr Friedrich Reichert and Herr Holger Starke, who gave me the benefit both of their curatorial knowledge and, as working historians, their labor in the field of Dresden's history, prewar, wartime, and postwar, pointing me in the direction of information and sources I might otherwise never have managed to locate.

To all those survivors of the Second World War in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Israel who granted me interviews—and in many cases the use of private photographs and documents—my heartfelt gratitude.

In Britain, I am very grateful to the secretary of the Bomber Command Association, Douglas Radcliff, for his early advice and help in contacting RAF veterans of the Dresden raid. Equally important was the military historian Robin Neillands, whose contacts among those same veterans he willingly granted me permission to pursue. I trust that he will consider I have done right by them. Dr. Noble Frankland also gave much useful and enlightening advice at an early stage in my research. Sir Martin Gilbert put me in touch with survivors of the German slave labor system and also read parts of the unrevised manuscript, making many invaluable suggestions. I must also thank the efficient and helpful staffs of the Imperial War Museum and the Public Record Office.

In the United States, the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland, were superbly helpful, enabling me to cover a great area of ground during a relatively brief stay. And to Dr. Gary Shellman of the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee) and Sally Shellman for their hospitality and for organizing a richly informative trip to the Midwest, especially my lecture at the Oshkosh Air Show, which brought a number of interesting experiences to light.

The skillful liaison work of my agents, Jane Turnbull in London and Emma Parry in New York, enabled me to concentrate totally on the book. All right-minded authors value their agents, but Jane and Emma are jewels beyond price. My editors, Bill Swainson at Bloomsbury Publishing in London and Dan Conaway of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, were stern taskmasters and intrepid companions on the journey of writing this book. Without their keen observations and diplomatic suggestions, this book would have been considerably longer and made appreciably less sense. The hard work of their assistants, Sarah Marcus in London and Jill Schwartzman in New York, enabled this manuscript to reach its final destination at the printer with astonishing ease. Also thanks to copy editor Eleanor Mikucki, and to production editor Sue Llewellyn and designer Nancy Field at HarperCollins, for going the extra mile.

Had it not been for a lunchtime stroll though the Cornish countryside with the poet and critic Derrek Hines, this book might never have been conceived in the first place.

And last but not least, eternal gratitude to my wife, Alice, who read every word and put up with those long absences—whether in my study or in foreign parts—for almost three years.

Other books

Daughters of Silence by R.L. Stine
Into the Darkness by Delilah Devlin
Beyond the Rage by Michael J. Malone
A Dozen Deadly Roses by Kathy Bennett
Star Witness by Kane, Mallory
Fragments by Dan Wells
High Water by R.W. Tucker
Chapel Noir by Carole Nelson Douglas
Pack Daughter by Crissy Smith