Thursday, February 17, 2005

Lipstadt on 60th Anniversary of Bombing of Dresden

Forward Forum
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).


Anonymous said...

Wow, very eye opening. Thank you. I'll check out this book.

calvinthecelt said...

Wow! Hundreds of thousands of civillians are exterminated by immolation, explosion and asphixiation. A cabal of maidservant historians dispute the extent of the slaughter and claim that the people who were slaughtered had it coming anyway? I think I'm having deja vu.

Inquiring Mind said...

How ironic. Irving is a liar, but his site contains this interesting document: it was pure terror bombing.

Why would you want to defend this wanton destruction of innocent civilians? And whether ideologically they were Nazis doesn't matter in the least, why did you even mention this irrelevancy? To further whitewash the bombers?

Also, it's "Goebbels", without umlaut.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Germans claimed to have invaded Poland ( an anti-semitic/fascist military dictatorship) because Polish paramilitaries had massacred 58,000 ethnic Germans after the conclusion of an illegal treaty with France and Britain. Conventional historians refute this. Why don't these historians get branded "holocaust deniers"? Is the right to dispute historical authenticity race specific?

Anonymous said...

Prof. Lipstadt is being a little loose and easy with the 'facts' regarding David Irving's book(s) on Dresden. Irving's 1963 work, "The Destruction of Dresden" truly launched Irving's career as a historian. In this work Irving posited the figure of 135,000 deaths. Although Lipstadt never actually attributes the figures of 150,000 to 250,000 to Irving, one could conclude from this review that Irving suggested such figures. Lipstadt neglects to mention that Irving totally revised his book and republished it as "Apocalypse 1945: The Destruction of Dresden" in 1995. In the preface to the new edition Irving writes, "Spaatz commented that my casualty figure for Dresden was twice as high as any other estimate that he had seen, and that he felt that I had under-estimated the city's military importance. In retrospect, I feel that his comment had much merit."
Irving provides detailed analysis of the casualty figures for Dresden. He comments that Dr. Goebbels exaggerated the number of deaths (p. 243). Irving concludes in his 1995 edition that the death toll was "Sixty thousand or more; perhaps a hundred thousand -- certainly the largest single air raid massacre of the War in Europe." (p. 245)
Lipstadt's review mischaracterize Irving's works and by omission mischaracterize Irving's views on Dresden as well.

Anonymous said...

Professor- as a historian, you know that history is an imperfect science and that it often takes many years and many books to get the facts write. Irving's was one of the first one Dresden, and now, 50 years, later, after many studies, theses, and questioning, we think we have a better idea with Taylor's recent volume.

Are you willing to admit that historians can examine the Holocaust in similar fashion? Could some facts be wrong? Virtually the whole world took the enormous death toll at Dresden as fact for 50 years. Is it possible that the Holocaust death toll is also overestimated?

"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."

Are there ANY German military documents referring to gas chambers at Auschwitz? From what I've read of the 136-page High Court opinion of your trial (I have yet to read books by you or Irving), there are none. Then why do we accept it?

You must realize that this post on Dresden speaks volumes. Are we all "Dresden-deniers" for even examining these events?


jim comfort said...

Read the article today in the Forward. Wonderful article. As usual, I am amazed the those who continue go after you in the Blog. Also was looking at Amazon today, and the reviews on your earlier book, and those reviews who attack your book. Looks like the anti semitic comments are always with us.

david gehrig said...

An anonym above sez: "Although Lipstadt never actually attributes the figures of 150,000 to 250,000 to Irving, one could conclude from this review that Irving suggested such figures."

Justice Gray attributes the figures to Irving in paragraph 11.6(iii) of the judgment, through the simple expedient of quoting Irving directly using exactly those figures.

Irving explicitly claimed such figures at the press conference of 23 June 1989, in which he unveiled the British edition of the Leuchter Report. "There were one million refugees in the streets of Dresden at the time that we burned Dresden to the ground, killing anything between 100,000 and 250,000 of them."

See Evans' Lying about Hitler, page 182, for more.