Dresden Burning

Ralph Zuljan

The fact that 59 years after the fact books are still written justifying the bombing of Dresden speaks volumes about the dubious morality guiding such raids. Nazi Germany was all but defeated in February 1945. There were no targets of any military importance left to bomb. Furthermore, Dresden was on the verge of being captured by the Red Army. That reality was accepted by the German high command as well since that happens to be why Dresden was designated a "fortress" like just about every other place that was about to be overrun by Soviet forces. What was the point of bombing a city that was known to be crowded with refugees and was going to fall to the Soviet advance shortly anyway? Bombing Dresden had no impact on the outcome of World War II in Europe but it highlighted nagging doubts in the Allied camp over the morality of the strategic bombing campaign.

The question of the morality of area bombing in general, and instances such as Dresden in particular, was very much historically present in the Allied camp. Various public figures argued against its employment on moral grounds. In private correspondence, the Marquess of Salisbury pointed out that "of course the Germans began it, but we do not take the devil as our example." By the time the results of the Dresden firestorm became clear even Churchill is believed to have expressed doubts about the morality of bombing cities. Even Bomber Command's commander-in-chief, Arthur "Bomber" Harris, probably understood that area bombing was a morally questionable activity but he also firmly believed that it would win the war for the Allies and that end justified the means. Harris was determined that the Nazis should "reap the whirlwind." The problem with area bombing was that, without question, it targeted enemy civilians and that did not fit comfortably with the self-image of the Allies as having a morally superior position.

The deliberate targeting and killing of civilians had not been considered acceptable practice in wartime among western nations since around the time of the Thirty Years War 1618-1648. The Great War of 1914-1918 which was the experience most people identified with as the model of modern warfare had resulted in minimal civilian casualties even though the carnage wrought was in the millions on all sides. The foundations of strategic bombing had already been laid by the end of it, however, and World War II saw the practical application of it on a large scale for the first time. By 1945, the tonnage of bombs dropped in a single raid had reached levels inconceivable a mere five years before. There could be little doubt that success in the bombing raids was measured in the death of enemy civilians and the spreading of terror among the survivors. The moral line drawn in western civilization between killing soldiers and murdering civilians had been crossed.

So long as Nazi Germany continued to be threatening, there was less interest in an esoteric on the morality of strategic bombing. There was little doubt about victory by February 1945 yet only at that time did theoretical targets like Dresden come to be considered for bombing. Defenders of that choice tend to focus on the minutiae of industry and railways in Dresden while losing sight, in the process, of the reality in Europe. Nazism was all but defeated. If Dresden was second only to Berlin in terms of military significance in February 1945, there was nothing militarily significant left to bomb. Berlin, being the capital, had political significance. Even so, the raids on Dresden would probably have been forgotten had it not been for the firestorm and massive casualties that drew attention to it. The very success of the bombing was what caused questions to arise. What had been viewed as a great battle in the skies, as the Allies tended to portray the air war, now seemed to appear more like a deliberate massacre. Victory at Dresden revealed the nature of the strategic bombing mission.

The strategic bombing campaign deliberately targeted enemy civilians. This distinction is highlighted by considering the employment of the same bombers in tactical missions during the Normandy campaign. When a bomb killed civilians in Normandy, the responsible Allied command viewed this as a mission failure or at worst unavoidable collateral damage. There were clear and defined military objectives for the bombers to hit. But in the bombing of Dresden, every civilian killed or even just terrorized was considered a part of the mission's success. This disturbing mindset inherent to the Allied strategic bombing campaigns in Europe and Japan laid the foundations of a moral critique of Allied methods in World War II that took on greater urgency with the development and use of atomic weapons, an outgrowth of the bombing mindset. Kenneth Bainbridge, witnessing the Trinity Test, commented: "Now we're all bastards!" It was an admission of guilt that was deservedly shared by everyone.

Originally published in "Articles On War" at OnWar.com on February 1, 2007.

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