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Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden

by Marshall De Bruhl, Random House, 2006, $18.45

On February 13 and 14, 1945, British Bomber Command and the American Eighth Air Force dumped 3,431 tons of high explosives and incendiaries on Dresden. The resulting firestorm killed tens of thousands of residents and refugees—and became the archetypal example of horrific aerial slaughter of noncombatants during the postwar debates over strategic bombing. The fervor of the debate was spurred largely by two books. The first was David Irving’s The Destruction of Dresden, published in 1963. Irving, whose “scholarship” has been thoroughly discredited, hoisted Dresden above other contenders by claiming a death toll of 135,000—the number fabricated by Josef Goebbels’ propaganda machine and echoed by East German Communists. The second was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Spun from Vonnegut’s experiences as a prisoner of war in the city, it has been a college-course staple since its 1969 publication.

Essentially, the historical indictment of the Allied bombing of Dresden boils down to four charges. Dresden was a priceless repository of cultural riches. It lacked any valid military target. It was undefended. And finally, the raids killed stupendous numbers—some claims ran as high as 400,000—of guiltless civilians.

De Bruhl sets the tone for his chronicle with a vivid description of the architectural and decorative arts of this “Florence on the Elbe” destroyed by the fire-bombing. He recounts the intricate history and etches a beautiful portrait of the Zwinger Complex, featuring a cathedral, a theater, the royal palace and an opera house, all in harmonious yet distinctive styles ranging from neoclassical to Renaissance. Besides the porcelain inextricably linked to Dresden, the city’s Grünes Gewölbe (“Green Vault”) contained priceless masterpieces by jewelers, silversmiths and goldsmiths.

But De Bruhl’s success in dealing with points of controversy about Dresden varies. His strongest arguments parallel Frederick Taylor’s in Dresden, Tuesday, February 13, 1945. De Bruhl and Taylor both note that the city housed significant war industries and was a vital strategic point. They agree that the “undefended city” accusation is arguably disingenuous, since planners could not have known that the anti-aircraft batteries protecting the city were moved before the bombings to confront the approaching Soviet armies. And both authors suggest the death toll was more likely 35,000 than 135,000.

De Bruhl also ably deals with the key question: Why Dresden? From a strategic perspective, Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz and Berlin were the four important communications centers and transportation hubs crucial for shuttling German forces from the Western to the Eastern Front and visa versa. Then there was luck: Winter weather that at first protected Dresden exposed it to attack.

De Bruhl is less successful at evoking larger contexts, like the overall moral atmosphere and the evolution of bombing policy. The alliance of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union was depicted by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt as a matter of shared noble values; publicly, at least, they overlooked Josef Stalin’s slaughter of millions. But this enveloped the Allied cause with a moral relativism that facilitated the drift to ever less discriminate bombing. Both Roosevelt and Churchill participated in the pre-D-Day decision to use a massive railway bombing campaign to isolate the Normandy battlefield—despite the warning it might kill up to 40,000 Allied civilians. Once Allied leaders could justify killing that many Allied noncombatants to achieve a vital objective, they had no rationale for limiting Axis civilian casualties.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here