Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945

by Paul Addision and Jeremy A. Crang, editors, Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 2006, $16.95

The Allied air raid on the beautiful Saxon city of Dresden was a defining moment that bridged the World War II and the Cold War. The rebuilding of the historic Frauenkirche, architectural and emotional symbol of the city’s destruction, was widely viewed as a milestone of postwar reconciliation. Yet there is apparently no reconciling the debate about Dresden: Was the city the innocent victim of Allied war crimes or a serious military target?

Firestorm, an edited collection of papers from an international conference of leading military historians, sheds important light on the topic by exploring various facets of the raid, its aftermath, and its legacy. The nine core chapters range across the development of strategic bombing theory and practice; the planning and execution of the raid; debates about the effectiveness, legality, and morality of the bombing; the political and cultural symbolism of Dresden; and the significance of Dresden’s reconstruction.

Sebastian Cox warns against comfortable judgments made in hindsight. He notes complex factors that led to the decision to attack Dresden. Most notably, the December 1944 Ardennes counteroffensive and signs of German technological developments, like jet fighters and improved U-boats, stoked fears among the Allied leadership of a lengthy struggle. “This was not a war,” he writes, “which was obviously over to those engaged in fighting it.” Sönke Neitzel delves into the state of German air defenses and what it meant to be “under the bombs” that night. Jeremy A. Crang’s analysis of the wartime diaries of Jewish professor Victor Klemperer explores how some of the city’s dwindling Jewish population regarded the attack as a godsend. Tami Davis Biddle and Richard J. Overy trace the wartime and postwar discussion, debate, and mythmaking about the raid. And Donald Bloxham argues that while “whatever Dresden was, it was not Auschwitz,” it still remains “a black spot on the British conscience,” a disproportionate and indiscriminate act committed in pursuit of a just end.

Offering up so many points of view is the epitome of evenhanded treatment. There may yet be a final verdict on the Dresden bombing, but as one of the contributors suggests, “any such judgment must eschew the myth, distortions and lack of understanding…which began almost as soon as the bombers departed.” Firestorm comes as close as may be possible to that goal.


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