60 Years Later, Dresden Bombing Claims Another Victim: Memory
By Deborah Lipstadt
February 18, 2005
On Sunday, some 5,000 neo-Nazis took to the streets of Dresden to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Allied bombing of the baroque city. The march — one of the biggest far-right demonstrations in Germany since the fall of the Third Reich — sought to draw an "immoral equivalence," in the words of one neo-Nazi leader, between the "Allies' Holocaust of bombs" and Nazi crimes.
Unfortunately, it is not only admirers of Hitler who believe in the mythology of Dresden.
The British and American raids on February 13-14, 1945, have entered popular history as an action, taken for no strategic or military reasons against a city that was harboring thousands of refugees, that resulted in the death of between 150,000 and 250,000 people. The facts, however, are remarkably different.
Historian Fredrick Taylor has meticulously demonstrated this in his fascinating book, "Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945." Wartime Dresden was a German "administrative, industrial and communications center" that was close to the front lines and home to one of the Reich's largest military garrisons. Dresden, Taylor points out, was a key railway junction. In October 1944, as the military fronts in the East and Southeast were coming closer, 28 military trains carrying almost 20,000 soldiers transited through Dresden daily. By February 1945, that pace would not have measurably decreased. Dresden's railway traffic made it an important Allied target.
Dresden, however, was inviting not only because of what went through it. The city's legendary china, camera, chocolate, bicycle and other factories had been reconfigured to produce precision military equipment and armaments. Zeiss Ikon, the distinguished camera company, made shell cartridges. The Germans, anxious about protecting these factories, kept them secret. Often, only the factory workers knew that its prewar consumer product had been replaced with military equipment. Furthermore, the city's leaders, sure that Dresden's status as a Kulturstadt would protect it, steadfastly refused to prepare basic air raid protection, which greatly increased the death toll.
Critics, relying on hindsight — which is always 20/20 — charge that the raid came when victory was in the offing. But in February 1945, Allied strategists as well as soldiers on the front were quite uncertain that Nazi Germany was collapsing. A month earlier, the Battle of the Bulge had cost the Allies 80,000 killed, wounded or captured. Two months later, the Soviets would lose 80,000 soldiers in the assault on Berlin. Germany fought till the bitter end.
This was particularly so, at least ideologically, in Dresden, which was an avidly Nazi city until the bitter end. After Hitler committed suicide, Dresden observed an eight-day period of public mourning, leading one survivor to recall that "Dresden was the only city that experienced eight days of National Socialism without Hitler."
Critics of the bombing also have charged that the Allies purposely strafed innocent people who were trying to flee the Russian advance from the East. But there is no evidence of strafing in Allied or, even more significantly, German military documents . Neither the Wehrmacht's report on the bombing nor Göbbels's propagandists — who were wont to highlight charges of strafing — mentioned it. In fact, the German and American documentary records of the bombing are remarkably similar, making it unlikely that the American records were subsequently falsified.
Using the number of burials, certified deaths, missing persons lists and other official sources, virtually all historians, Taylor included, have concluded that the death toll was between 25,000 and 40,000 — a substantial figure, but far less than the 250,000 figure that is often cited. So how did strafing, tremendous death tolls and a strategically unnecessary military exercise enter popular mythology?
First of all, immediately after the bombing survivors made all sorts of demonstratively false charges, as Taylor proves. Göbbels's propagandists reiterated these charges and circulated a death toll of between 200,000 and 250,000. For Göbbels, the bombing of Dresden was a "cynical opportunity" to motivate Germans to keep resisting the Allies. Subsequently, Communist authorities, anxious about portraying the West badly, reinforced this version of the bombing.
But most influential, Taylor argues, was David Irving's "The Destruction of Dresden." Irving, a writer of historical works that tend toward a sympathetic view of the Nazis, spread the story of deliberate strafing in his 1963 book and promulgated the notion of a very high death toll. The book, a best seller, was repeatedly reissued and translated into many languages. Kurt Vonnegut used it as the source for his bestselling "Slaughterhouse-Five."
When Irving sued me for libel for describing him as a Holocaust denier, my defense team decided to examine his treatment of the bombing of Dresden. While Taylor attributes many of the misconceptions about the raid to Irving, he does not seem to be aware of the extent to which Irving not only misrepresented the evidence that he had, but also ignored and even suppressed information that proved him wrong — particularly in relation to the death toll. That aspect of the myth has taken on a particular importance, because Holocaust deniers use the inflated figure to "balance" the deaths in camps such as Auschwitz.
In court, Irving claimed that his estimates came from a March 1945 German document, TB-47, which was a "brief extract" from a statement by the Dresden police chief. After the war, a Dresden photographer had seen a copy of it in the home of a Dresden doctor. The photographer surreptitiously copied the doctor's copy and subsequently typed it up. In 1964, when Irving was visiting the photographer, he saw the copy of the copy of the extract, and asked for a copy for himself. The photographer's wife typed up additional copies, and Irving took one. Our historical witness, Richard Evans, testified that, based on this carbon copy of a typed copy of a typed copy of a surreptitiously handwritten copy of an unsigned document that was an "extract" from an official police report, Irving proclaimed to have reliable information about the bombing.
From the witness box, Irving insisted that the doctor, from whom the photographer copied the report, was Dresden's chief medical officer during the raid, and therefore a most trustworthy source. In fact, after the publication of the German edition of Irving's book, this doctor wrote him, protesting that he had only been a urologist and had no hand in any official reports. Irving ignored the doctor's protests, continued to adhere to a higher figure and on the stand argued that the doctor was lying in order to please Communist authorities. This was completely illogical. The Communists wanted a higher, not lower, death toll.
The Dresden official responsible for collecting and counting the bodies, Theo Miller, wrote Irving in 1965 that the highest possible toll was 30,000. Irving ignored Miller's lucid and sober account in the many subsequent editions of his book. In 1965, a copy of the original police report, from which TB-47 had been extracted, was found. It listed a toll of 20,000 to 25,000.
Charles Gray, the presiding judge in my case, found Irving's treatment of the Dresden historical record "reprehensible" and "absurd" and concluded that Irving's work on this topic "fell far short of the standard to be expected of a conscientious historian." Even more telling is what Irving's German publishers wrote on the title page when they republished his book in 1985: "a novel."
Though the devastation of Dresden was immense, Taylor's riveting book conclusively proves that the bombing was not a unique and senseless crime against an innocent city. Holocaust deniers and other extremists, who care little about the facts, will be unmoved, as Irving has been unmoved by all the contradictory evidence that has come his way. That is to be expected. However, in order to thwart their attempt to engage in immoral equivalencies, those who do care about historical accuracy must abandon the exaggerated mythology of the bombing of Dresden.
Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, is the author of "History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving" (Ecco, 2005).