Dresden Revisited

This is a guest post by Doerte Letzmann.

Every year on February 13th and 14th, Germans commemorate the bombing of Dresden by the allied forces in 1945.

Usually there is an official memorial at the ‘Heidefriedhof’, a cemetery in the outskirts of Dresden. This year on February 13th , Dresden’s mayor Helga Orosz and Saxony’s prime minister Stanislaw Tillich spoke to the 200 mourners and laid a wreath in commemoration of the dead. Like in the years before, this event was also attended by several neo-Nazis, for example by members of the NPD, the main far right party, and of the neo-Nazi organisation HDJ.

In the evening of Friday February 13th, around 2500 people gathered around the ‘Frauenkirche’ (‘church of our lady’) – which was burned out during the bombing and collapsed – to remember the people who died during the bombing. Around the same time, around 1100 neo-Nazis marched through the city with torches.

Usually there is a major neo-Nazi demonstration to commemorate the bombing. This year on February 14th , about 6000 neo-Nazis – the highest number so far – from all over Europe came to march in Dresden. They listened to Wagner, symbolically laid down a wreath and carried placards saying: “allied bombing holocaust” and “historical truth brings intellectual freedom”. In their speeches they pointed out how the Allies “demolished an innocent city” and killed “hundreds of thousands of civilians”. In 2004 a commission of historians made clear that about 25000 people died during the bombings – far fewer than the number claimed by Nazi propaganda at the time and today’s neo-Nazis. It seemed necessary to highlight yet again how the city and its people were not that ‘innocent’: many of Dresden’s residents worked in war industries and the city was a communication and transportation hub.

A broad alliance of democratic institutions and individuals – among them the confederation of German trade unions and members of the Social Democratic, Green and Left Party- called ‘Geh Denken’ (‘Go think’) that engages against right-wing extremism in Dresden organised a counter-demonstration, which was attended by 7500 people. ‘Geh Denken’ opposes the ‘exploitation’ of the remembrance event by neo-Nazis, the “distortion of history” and wants to send a “democratic signal” against right-wing extremism.

The anti-fascist left is split over the possible counter-actions. The anti-fascist alliance ‘No Pasarán’, which was also part of ‘Geh Denken’ and doesn’t want to “let the nazis lie about history” staged an anti-fascist counter-demonstration that was attended by almost 4000 people. This demonstration was dispersed by the police and several protesters were arrested.

The ‘Vorbereitungskreis Keine Versöhnung mit Deutschland’ (preparation group no reconciliation with Germany) however, opposed the abandonment of left-wing positions in favour of a mass mobilisation and pointed out that the collective mourning of German ‘victims’ characterises both the neo-Nazi demonstration as well as the official commemoration events and that both were staged in order to find a new German collective identity. ‘Vorbereitungskreis Keine Versöhnung mit Deutschland’ organised a rally and concert on Friday February 13th against the remembrance event the same night and demanded the abolition of such events in general as they are an attempt to revise history and turn people that were involved in the national socialist state into ‘victims’ and ‘innocent civilians’.

They are clearly fighting an uphill battle. For Germans who yearn for a clear conscience, it is hard to be reminded of the simple fact that Hitler’s regime remained popular and the Germans remained loyal to it until its final hours. A ‘neutral’ German civil society did not exist in that sense, because the German reality of total war, ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ and ‘final solution’ required Germans to be either actively involved in what would now be considered war crimes and crimes against humanity, or to give an ideological approval to stay passive in light of this reality. Germany’s behaviour in the war, the crimes it committed, and the role of its civilian population were unique.

Like in the speeches at the memorial at the ‘Frauenkirche’ on Friday evening, it is often claimed that ‘legitimate’ mourning for Dresden is characterised by a demand for reconciliation while neo-Nazi marches stand for revenge. The understanding that Germans in Dresden and elsewhere were ‘innocent victims’, however, seems to be an uncontested value that most Germans, neo-Nazis or not, share. This is not what Allied leaders thought at the time, nor is it what history teaches.

The ‘innocent victims’ of Dresden is an historic construct collectively remembered every year so that Germans today can feel better about themselves.

21 Responses to “Dresden Revisited”

  1. Mira Vogel Says:

    My WW2 history is abysmal – I’ve been used to thinking of Dresden as a British act of needless slaughter which had only very late in the day been permitted to challenge our heroic war narrative – thanks to the courage and persistence of revisionist historians. So I’d missed this debate, and Frederick Taylor’s 2004 book on Dresden reviewed in The Guardian.

  2. Saul Says:

    The issue here is not whether Dresden was or was not a war-crime; but, as is so often the case, the idea of establishing an “equivalence” and hence “normalisation” and neutralisation of the Holocaust.
    See also the comments here,


  3. Eric Lee Says:

    I think it’s important to remember where this idea of Dresden being some kind of ‘war crime’ comes from. It wasn’t brave revisionist historians in Britain (including the vile David Irving) who developed this idea. It was in fact Dr Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry. In the final weeks of the second world war, the Nazis suddenly became concerned with their reputations, with how history would see them, and began to insist that the Allied “terror bombing” was as much a war crime as anything they had done. Of course the international war crimes tribunal in Nuremburg rejected these ideas out of hand. But over many years, the revisionists have increasingly won the argument, with most people now believing that the bombing of Dresden was somehow wrong – or to use a popular expression these days, “disporportionate”.

  4. m Says:

    The review that Mira linked to states the following:

    “As a result of these raids, 25,000 people died – that being the minimum estimate”

    This is inaccurate; 25.000 is actually the *highest* estimate of the history commission, 18.000 being the minimum.

  5. Gil Says:

    Regarding Saul’s pointing out the Times article on the deportations of French Jews: I question why the moderators of the Times website made this article open for comment. After reading the pure filth from many antisemitic commenters I think this should have been closed to commentary from readers. I can read that stuff on CIF.

  6. Mira Vogel Says:

    A link would be good, m.

    Much of the revisioning of Dresden has been and is politically motivated, but for many in Britain the very same questions which threaten anti-fascist Germans for the reasons Saul mentions have been for us a more straightforward matter of questioning of our own heroic war narrative. It get the impression from the scant amount I’ve read, that this well-meaning questioning arose from a heap of propaganda. Nevertheless, questioning the parts of your own national narrative which are covered-in-glory is a good thing to do. I can’t remember who the pro-boycott trade unionist was some years back who retorted that the British had an unimpeachable track record on antisemitism based on resisting the Nazis in WW2 – it’s on Engage somewhere but I can’t find it. He could have done with examining his.

  7. Spzl Says:

    I agree with Saul

    the neo-nazi Dresden’s commemoration is just a part in the revisionist propaganda:

    first “did six millions really die?”
    second “at that time, Dresden was the *real* genocide”
    third “stop the holocaust in Gaza” (neo-nazi protesters gladly joined in the anti-israel protest movements in Dec.Jan.)

    as we say in French “la vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid”… even 60 years later, nazis are looking for revenge.

  8. m Says:

    Mira, the report of the “Historiker-Kommison” (end of 2008) can be found here, but only in German:

    Click to access Erklaerung_Historikerkommission.pdf

    Here is one of the (many) English websites which took up the news:


  9. Bialik Says:

    I disagree. The bombing of Dresden was a war crime and there is such a thing as innocent civilians. But even if you think that munitions workers of any country in a war are a legitimate target, there was no call to use incendiary bombs. And even if you think the incendiary bombing of Dresden was legitimate because of the retrospective justification of war workers (Harris’s purpose was to lower morale), you have to explain why this was permissible so late in the war when Germany was losing anyway.

  10. Bialik Says:

    Furthermore, I am embarrassed to read justifications of the deliberate killing of civilians in war on this website.

  11. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Okay, Bialik, so justify or excuse (if you can) the so-called Baedeker raids, in which Goerring (or his Luftwaffe planners) deliberately selected British regional towns of no possible military strategic significance, but of historical & tourist importance, for terror raids. Can we please remember who started the bloody war, who used (military) terror tactics to overrun Poland, the rest of Eastern Europe and Western Europe, who had no compunction about strafing roads filled with refugees to slow down the military, who killed 6 million Jews, at least that number of Russian civilians, 250,000 Roma, etc etc, before we start getting misty-eyed about British military methods.

    And the point is made by Burleigh’s review of the book: Dresden _can_ without difficulty be justified as a military target. And let’s also stop playing the neo-Nazi & apologists’ game of inflating the death toll (Gaza, anyone?).

    As a friend said, reading the programme notes for a Richard Strauss piece, where he bemoaned what the war (not, note, the Nazis) had done to his beloved Germany (and I’m not attacking him: he joined the Nazi Party to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandson): “but I still can’t feel sorry for Dresden”.

    Some historical truth and balance, people. Stop agreeing with Nazis, especially when they’re wrong.

  12. Mira Vogel Says:

    Bialik, I think the Taylor book goes some way to answering the points you raise. And I don’t see any justifications of the deliberate killing of civilians. I see a response to the story the German far right are trying to tell Germans.

  13. Another Observer Says:

    I agree with Mira that one’s one national narraves need to be questioned.

    Be that as it may, as Saul and others have noted, the point of Mira’s initial post is not whether or not Dresden was a war-crime, but the idea that somehow, even it if was, it somehow cancels out the nazi crime.

  14. The Moral Maze Says:

    At the time of the Dresden bombings, a “transport” of Jews were on their way to the death camps. The bombing created the condition to allow their escape. (see Klemper’s diaries).

    I leave it to others to work their way out of that moral connundrum. (I.e. in a situation in which millions were killed, how does one even begin to think through the fact that, against all the odds, some lives marked for termination for no apparent reason, were saved even if unintentionally)

  15. Saul Says:

    “Stop agreeing with Nazis, especially when they’re wrong.”

    Erm, does that not imply they are sometimes right?????

    “Say what you like about the nazis but, at least………………”

    Brian, Brian, Brian. Shame on you!!!!! You know as well as anyone, nazis are never right about anything – that’s what makes them nazis!!!!!

  16. Roger Darlington Says:

    Doerte’s article makes some excellent points and the subsequent debate raises some difficult moral issues, but the idea of ‘innocent’ citizens in a totalitarian regime goes beyond Nazi Germany of course.

    When I visited the memorial museum in Hiroshima, I was really surprised at the English text on the narrative which represented the people of Hiroshima as ‘innocent’ victims of an unjustified nuclear attack by the USA.

    The museum – like the text books in Japanese schools – tells us nothing about the Japanese invasions of China, Korea and other Asian nations. In fact, a significant proportion of the ‘Japanese’ killed in Hiroshima were Korean slave workers and a memorial in the city to their death took many decades to erect.

  17. Mira Vogel Says:

    Hi again Roger.

    I don’t really understand the use of the word ‘innocent’ in this context except as propaganda (not yours – theirs). Participation in one’s ruthlessly totalitarian country’s war effort is something I guess many of us would have succumbed to, through confusion or through fear. It was normal. And even if this participation in the war effort merits collective blame it surely didn’t merit collective annihilation. Nor (as far as I know) does anybody except the far right argue that bombing Dresden was some kind of punishment. It was a strategic part of a world war where civilian lives became just numbers.

    I think that people who subsist under totalitarian regimes have diminished autonomy. Not innocent, which is just a propaganda word, but not complicit either. Just involved, by default. And vulnerable.

  18. Toby Esterhase Says:

    Why is it that British discourse around The Blitz – the bombing of civilians in the East End of London, Coventry and elsewhere – invariably constructs it as part of a war, while human rights literate people in Britain and in Germany are increasingly tempted to think of the bombing of Dresden as a crime?

    If I ask you whether The Blitz was a crime, I guess you’ll agree that it was. But it is not usually described in those terms.

    Dresden is.

  19. Bialik Says:

    Brian, the Baedeker raids were also a war crime. I didn’t think I had to list all the war crimes conducted in WWII when the article was about the commemoration of Dresden.

    The Hague Convention which entered into force in 1910 made the following actions a breach:

    Art. 23 To employ arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering;

    Art. 27 In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes.

    It is the duty of the besieged to indicate the presence of such buildings or places by distinctive and visible signs, which shall be notified to the enemy beforehand.

    The firebombing of cities was recognised at the time as problematic and Churchill distanced himself from Bomber Harris while the war was still on.

    Mira, point taken about the political motives behind the Dresden narrative. People who agree on a narrative should be picky about whom they share a platform with, cite as references etc.

  20. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Sorry for the delay, but we’ve been away for a few days. This response assumes that anyone is still checking on comments for this long ago.

    Bialik: the Hague of 1910 was written and accepted before there were such things as air forces, bombers, etc. War had long ceased being a “game” played by aristocrats, with the aim of extending diplomacy “by other means”. That period ended with Napoleon and _his_ methods of total (for his time) warfare. Only the British cottoned on rapidly enough to stop him (and I _do_ have a reference for that if anyone cares enough).

    So, to reiterate, the Nazis started the modern concept of “total war”, with their almost total destruction of cities in both Eastern and Western Europe (The Hague, Guernica, let alone Warsaw, etc, etc), so how were the allies to stop them? By going back to gentlemanly methods of fighting wars? Or by matching the Nazis in tactics and strategy? I repeat, who started the bloody war? And, regrettable though the loss of civilian lives (or those of unwilling conscripts) are, we have to match up the deaths of even less willing victims – Jews, Roma, Russian civilians, other forced labourers – and further remember that there weren’t _that_ many active opponents to Nazism _within_ Germany and Austria.

    Like my friend, I still can’t feel sorry for Dresden, especially when my country and the USA and Russia were _responding_ to other’s war crimes.

    Okay, Saul, I miswrote. So sue me!

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