Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut: Using David Irving's fabrications to rewrite the history of the bombing of Dresden?

Oliver Kamm, writing in The Times [London]observes how Vonnegut helped spread the misconception [read lie] about the Dresden death toll. Vonnegut, quoting Irving, claimed there were 135,000 dead about five times as many as the Dresden era police estimated to be the case.

This was covered extensively in my trial and in Richard Evans's report, available on line or in Lying About Hitler. I also discuss it in History on Trial.
Irving responded to Kamm's column with a virulent attack hypothesizing that Kamm's piece was, as Kamm explains in his blog
"commissioned by the newspaper after pressure had been exerted upon it by an external body whose identity (or at least ethnicity) you will be able to guess immediately."
People like Irving, i.e. Holocaust deniers, like to inflate the number of dead in Dresden as a means of engaging in "immoral equivalencies," i.e. arguing that while "some" Jews may have "died" [not murdered] in Auschwitz, this number pales by comparison to the number of "innocent" Germans killed in the bombing of Dresden.

Vonnegut helped perpetuate that myth and spread this form of denial. He probably did so initially unwittingly. But since the publication of that book enough has been written to show this is not true and he could have corrected it has he been so inclined.

And so it goes.... on and on and on.


JC said...

Dr. Lipstadt -

I am a graduate student at SUNY Albany, taking a history course on the Holocaust. While this is my first at the graduate level, I did take several in undergrad on this subject (SUNY Oneonta). However, this is the first time I have undertaken any study of Holocaust Denial. I am presenting your book for class discussion (Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory) this evening. I would like to thank you for your work in this area. Not only is this disturbing in the area of Holocaust history but in the study of history in general. As a student I have become increasingly aware of general society viewing history as a dying field - which I find very upsetting. Attacks on legitimate research, and the fictionalization of evidence in the course of historical study is an insult to anyone with an intellectual curiousity.

I just wanted to extend to you my appreciation for what your work adds to the passion of a young student of history.

Thank you!

Peter Hedrook said...

Dresden was the real Holocaust - in contrast to the fake Jewish one.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

The previous comment is typical of deniers. It's a good example of the kind of stuff they throw around.

Unknown said...

I remember this figure in Slaughterhouse Five, and the misconception stuck with me until I read about your trial. Fortunately, that information's out there now.

However, you almost make it sound like Vonnegut was intentionally falsifying history to support causes like Irving's, and you don't mention the fact that Vonnegut was actually there. On the one hand, books like Slaughterhouse Five and Mother Night wouldn't suggest that, after fighting them in the war, he turned Nazi sympathizer. And on the other hand, Dresden being one of the most traumatic events in his life, it's no wonder that he indignantly latched onto the greater figures, if he even knew about the lesser ones. (Realize that this is an explanation, not a justification.) And his stated equivalence was between Dresden and Hiroshima, not Auschwitz. With respect to that, I don't think he ever mentioned the Holocaust, nor Auschwitz, and neither did he dispute its figures, which he would've had to have done for it to be an equivalent figure at all.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

I did not mean to suggest that Vonnegut was a denier or sympathetic to deniers' attempts to equate Dresden with Auschwitz.

What I did suggest, if not more than that, was that Vonnegut helped mainstream a misconception about what happened at Dresden [yes I know he was there] by relying on Irving's work.

It's a prime example of how misrepresentations of history get mainstream, however inadvertently.

Anonymous said...

It would be nice to see the sources for your lower figures. Some of the early reports from Dresden cite more than 200,000. Since it was a massive firebombing raid and since there were tens of thousands of refugees in exposed situations and since smaller raids in Hamburg killed 20-30,000+ in a single night, the 135,000 figure is quite reasonable and arguably on the low side. Whether or not a moral equivalence argument is in the mix, the event can be handled alone without any of that unnecessary fluff.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

Actually none of the early figures -- except for the one released by Goebbels was higher than 30,000. The Nazi era Dresden police's figure was in that range as well. See the discussion of the proof about the death toll in Richard Evans' Lying about Hitler or in my History on Trial. The figures you give have no basis in reality or in the evidence.

Anonymous said...

Well, first I note you didn't cite any specific sources. One of the earliest ones from Voigt, who was charged with making the official count as part of his main role in helping to identify the bodies - those that were still in sufficient physical form for such - was well over 100,000 of whom around 48,000 were both identified and buried, an unknown number were burned in piles in the city using gasoline, an unknown number were incinerated in cellars underground or simply vaporised in the height of the fire storm which sucked up and distributed solid detritus in a 20 mile radius around the city, leaving only silhouettes traced in ash and suchlike on the melted pavements and elsewhere, just as in Hamburg earlier. A later raid in the small town of Pforsheim (sp?) had something like 15,000 confirmed dead but this was a miniscule raid compared to Dresden 25,000 of whose 28,500 residential buildings in the city centre were 'destroyed' - a separate category from 'damaged'.

The 30,000 figure seems impossibly small given the several hundred thousand non-resident, unsheltered refuges in Dresden at the time and the ferocity of the firestorm which was clearly visible in the night sky over 200 miles away. Furthermore, all governments involved had good reason to low-ball the numbers.

Of course, we shall never know exactly and that is not the point. But 30,000 seems absurdly low given similar firestorms elsewhere in Germany during the war and given the early lists of 'identified' dead was 40,000 +.

Perhaps the official rubble statistics are the most telling:
"Expressed in the dry terms in which German air raid statisticians
excelled, while by comparison in Munich there were 8.5 cubic yards of rubble per citizen, in Stuttgart there were 11.1 cubic yards,
in Berlin 16.5 and in Cologne 41, in Dresden, for each of the citizens including those killed in the raids, there were fifty-six cubic yards of rubble—more than eleven truckloads of rubble per inhabitant." (from Irving) And none of the other cities had such a high proportion of unsheltered refugees.

(Even though this is from a source you don't respect, I assume the footnote references valid sources: See too Dokumente deutscher Kriegsschäden, published by the Bundesministerium
für Vertriebene, Flüchtlinge und Kriegsgeschädigte, vol. i, Bonn 1958.)

Incidentally, Irving now espouses the report from a police chief that puts the total around 30,000 but given so many other facts from soon after the event, I suspect this figure is political low-balling to reduce panic in the population etc. Certainly it is impossible that if 28,000 were actually buried, and this count doesn't include the bodies that only had heads, or legs or whatever, and it is known that so many others were burnt en masse and untold thousands literally vaporised, then the 30,000 figure is impossibly low and therefore one mainly used for propaganda purposes.

In any case, I find it interesting that so many historians of all stripes tend to air their opinions with great authority but rarely cite specific original first-hand sources.

Deborah Lipstadt said...

I didn't cite sources?? I told you to look at Richard Evans'Lying about Hitler and my History on Trial, both of which are filled with original sources.

If you want more sources go to www.hdot.org and read the trial transcripts which deal with Dresden or, better yet, the Judge's verdict on Irving's claims -- many of which you parrot -- in which the Judge says his accounts are fanciful.

Anonymous said...


I thank you for the references and intend to go through much of the trial transcripts in the next few days paying special attention to the parts dealing with Dresden.

In your reply above you wrote: "Actually none of the early figures -- except for the one released by Goebbels was higher than 30,000." I wanted precise references to such early figures because from reading Irving's work it appears there were several other 'early' figures from first-hand and other official sources that were significantly higher and that they have gradually decreased over the years – generally speaking.

I was asking for other sources on Dresden because the only thing I have ever read on it was Irving's work (which does not seem all that inflammatory given that he cited many different reports with different numbers and also makes it clear that the total/exact number is neither of fundamental importance nor can ever be known with any certainty, both of which seem reasonable points responsibly made) and I was curious if there were totally different sources that he excluded. This does not seem to be the case, rather the quarrel is mainly about which ones to emphasise and which to discount.

In terms of the figures: those going over the number of identified and buried dead, which in one passage are cited as 48,000 and in another as 24,000 from on-site sources at the time both indicate that the now-accepted figure of 30,000 is very low, if not outright impossible given the many corpses too damaged to be identified, not to mention those that were simply vaporised as occurred in Hamburg. In any case, my interest is not in the exact numbers but in simply being able to review and evaluate the various different sources and how they are interpreted by the various partisan interests that cluster around such issues.

Anonymous said...

A well crafted article from Esquire Magazine, Nov 1963 written by a British citizen who was involved in some aspects of the war planning and operations etc. Gives background of the political reasons for the raid - why and when - and then a narrative of how it unfolded.


Laura said...

I'm so glad to see this. I just read Slaughterhouse Five for the first time a couple years ago, and was shocked to see Irving mentioned in the introduction. I was even more surprised to find that no one talks about it - I'd talked to serious Holocaust scholars who weren't aware that Vonnegut had used Irving as a reference.

I can understand why Vonnegut was willing to rely on Irving when he was writing, but it really troubled me that my copy didn't come with a "New Introduction for 200x," explaining and denouncing Irving. It wouldn't have diminished the book at all.

I've also wondered where Vonnegut got the idea that Dresden was an "open city," and wouldn't be bombed. Victor Klemperer writes of air raids, and of wondering when they're going to get worse. Novelists, of course, are not historians - but when they're so strongly coloring people's impressions of historical events, it would seem they'd have some obligation to the truth.

Thank you so much, Dr. Lipstadt, for the work you've done!

Unknown said...

Your post is disturbing.
Irving is a discredited antisemitic hack, certainly.

Vonnegut, however, is not.

Slaughterhouse Five was published some twenty years before Irving's overt admission of Holocaust denial.

Lumping Vonnegut in with the likes of Irving is a mistake.
If Vonnegut is guilty of anything, it is only of citing the wrong statistic.

Even if only thirty thousand were killed in Dresden (and they weren't all Germans), I don't think anyone can make a case that the firebombing of Dresden wasn't horrific.

Most importantly, drawing attention to that horror isn't necessarily to mitigate the horror of the Holocaust. In Irving's case, it may very well be. In Vonnegut's case, it is decidedly not.

To say that Vonnegut is responsible for helping to spread Holocaust denial is...staggeringly stupid.

The idea is totally inconsistent with Vonnegut's ethical, humanist sensibilities.

And if the idea, here, is either that Vonnegut's work was intended to perpetuate lies for the advancement of Holocaust denial or that his readers generally understand his work as such, you really ought to try reading some Vonnegut.