“The elephants gave spine chilling screams. The baby cow elephant was lying in the narrow barrier moat on her back her legs up... she could not move... We did what we had to do but it broke my heart.”
Close on the heels of its orchestrated witch-hunt of a so-called “holocaust denier” Der Spiegel suddenly executed a seamless volt-face and declaims that the holocaust of Dresden was no big deal, after all.
The declamation takes the form of an “interview” with Frederick Taylor, a purported historian, who has written a revisionist account of the Anglo-American firebombing of the exquisitely beautiful baroque jewel on Elbe river on the night of 13-14 February 1945. Taylor, who is English, was interviewed by Spiegel in 2005, after his book was published in 2004; but it is apparently time for a re-quel.
Taylor’s account is, in fact, largely a rehash of standard Allied self-exculpation. Nevertheless, under current definitions, Taylor’s work qualifies as revisionism in that he seeks to minimize the number of casualties as well as to minimize the moral culpability of the Anglo-Americans for the slaughter of innocents.
The main thrust of Taylor’s polemic is that Dresden was a “legitimate” military target and well ... you know, all’s fair in love in war,
“I remain unconvinced that maximizing civilian casualties -- rather than winning the war by whatever means necessary -- was their chief objective.”
The premise of Taylor’s statement is that there is a distinction between winning a war and the wholesale slaughter of civilians. Not only is the distinction correct, it is the basis for the whole structure of international conventions on warfare, the premise of which is that it is possible to wage and win war with an eye to minimizing civilian casualties.
The scurrilous falsity of Taylor’s “unconvinced” conclusion is found in the prepositional phrase; “by any means necessary” which simply swallows the distinction. By any means necessarily includes maximizing civilian casualties.
This forensic artifice is well known to lawyers. It is the “small exception” that swallows the rule, the “fine print” that destroys any real obligations under a contract or, simply, the “weasel clause”.
The fact is that the British high command had adopted a policy of mass slaughter as a means to winning the war. The evolution of that policy was an issue of intent carried on the wings of happenstance.
The idea of terror bombing preceded the World War and was the brainchild of the Italian General Guilio Douhet who argued that strategic bombing would avoid stalemates on the battlefields, such as those endured for four grim years during the Great War. Douhet saw war as a “battle of wills” and concluded that the quickest, and ultimately most “humane”, way to win would be to directly target the defenceless civilian population, crushing its will to resist or provoking it to revolt. (Douhet, The Command of the Air, (1927) Office of Air Force History, Wash. D.C.)
The Washington Treaty (1922) had outlawed the bombing of non-military and civilian targets; nevertheless, Douhet’s ideas found receptive ears in the United States and Britain. Hugh Trenchard, RAF Commander 1919-1930 and Billy Mitchell both agreed that the enemy’s center of gravity was his will to fight and that this could be undermined by prolonged attacks against the enemy’s “vital centers.” However, they both rejected the idea of targetting civilians directly. In their view both ability and will to resist would be undermined by targetting vital infrastructures (factories, food centers, communications etc.) (Phillip S. Melinger The Paths of Heaven - The Evolution of Airpower Theory (1997) Air Univ Press; Jones, Neville, The Origins of Strategic Bombing (1973) London, Oxf. Univ. Pr.) The tactical differences between Douhet and Trenchard/Mitchell underlay the later distinction between area bombing and precision bombing strategies.
Hitler, who knew a thing or two about many things, worried about English air doctrine. In May 1933 he told an English interviewer that modern warfare had sped up so much that swift bombing machines could lay waste to European capitals within 40 minutes of war being declared. In 1936, Hitler put forward proposals to ban all bombing outside immediate battle-zones. This view reflected German military doctrine that, at the time, viewed air power as a species of artillery. Needless to say, nothing came of it. (J. M. Spaight Bombing Vindicated (1944) London.
In the event, Hitler’s fears were realized; but the initiation of English terror bombing was not a simple issue of applying theory to ground. As usual, it was more a combined question of what people wanted to do, what they were capable of doing, what they thought they could get away with.and what they felt they had to appear to do.
The war began conventionally enough with both sides bombing eachother’s docked fleets. The British Ruhr Plan (1939) envisioned bombing Germany’s industrial centers in the event the Low Countries were attacked. In May 1940, they were. By what is now indisputably acknowledged as a communications mistake, the Germans bombed the center of Rotterdam. The English retaliated by bombing Rotterdam’s oil refineries as well as oil tankers in Bremen and Hamburg. Britain also bombed Aachen for no particular reason than that it was there.
The Germans now bombed installations in the Rhone Valley and conducted an air raid on Paris. The French bombed Munich and Berlin in retaliation. The English bombed an airfield in Rouen and the Germans bombed one in Jersey. The English bombed Kiel and began night raids over Germany. It is now July 1940, and the Battle of Britain has begun.
For the most part, both sides contented themselves with bombing industrial and military installations of various sorts, particularly ports and air fields. However, in late August, Luftwaffe bombers lost course and mistakenly bombed civilian areas in London. Unlike the English, the Germans did not have radar. England retaliated by bombing Berlin. Germany accepted the penalty and refrained from further retaliation; but when England continued with several more attacks, Hitler flew into a rage and ordered the unrestricted bombing of London.
The cat was out of the bag. But as early as the month previous, in July, Sir Charles Portal, then Chief of Bomber Command, wrote a private letter in which he complained of policy constraints on allowable targets. “We have one offensive weapon in the whole of the armory, the one means by which we can undermine the morale of a large part of the enemy people...and at the same time...dislocate the major party of their heavy industry...” (Letter A.M. Portal to A.V.M. Douglas (July 17, 1940) AIR 14/1930)
In so saying, Portal was merely echoing Churchill’s own opinion, expressed ten days before that “ When I look around to see how we can win the war I see that there is only one sure path. .... and that is an absolutely devastating exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country on the Nazi homeland.” (Churchill, Their Finest Hour Vol. 2, (London 1949) p. 505; Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979) Dial Press. )
The war of intentions now escalated. On September 5, 1940, Hitler made his famous threat that “when they declare that they will step up their attacks on our cities, then we shall erase their cities.” On September 9, 1940 British pilots were told that if they could not hit their intended targets they need not feel any compulsion to bring their bombs back; they could always dump them on secondary targets even if they were in “built up” areas. (The Strategic Air War, 1939-1945 (1998) London.)
In October 1940, Charles Portal was elevated to Chief of the Air Staff and on December 12, 1940 Portal told the War Cabinet that Churchill had instructed that there be a change of policy “from strictly military objectives to a political objective, namely the effect on German morale “although “some” industrial importance still factored in (War Cab. Meeting. (12 Dec. 1940) WM 40 305 12/12/1940 CAB 65/16.
To all intents and purposes, the policy of targetted precision bombing had been abandoned. The only person who didn’t get it was Trenchard himself who, in early 1941, protested from retirement that that the fact that bombs missed their targets did not matter because even if 99% missed their target they “all help to kill damage, frighten or interfere with Germans ...and therefore [are] doing useful work.” (Memorandum Lord Trenchard. 19 May 1941 in SAO IV.) Portal’s wry comment to a colleague was that Trenchard was beating a dead horse, as the policy had already been adopted ( AIR 8/283, June 4, 1941)
Still there was resistance to the policy. There were those who questioned the efficacy of the Douhet’s “will-breaking” theory. Others questioned whether England had the resources to conduct such a campaign when ammunition and planes were needed elsewhere as well. On the 7 July 1941, Churchill, irked by the concentration of too much air power on strictly military objectives complained that “the devastation of the Germany cities is urgently needed.” (Church ill, War Papers p. 909.)
A month later, in August 1941, the War Cabinet released the Butt Report which analyzed the results of English bombing and concluded, unhappily, that less than a third of the sorties flown got within five kilometers of their intended targets. In other words, the British were, despite themselves, engaged in random bombing.
The proponents of area bombing were delighted. If Britain couldn’t be precise she could at least be indiscriminate. The aim of the attacks was now defined an Air Staff paper dated 23 September 1941, as follows
"The ultimate aim of an attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this, we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger. The immediate aim, is therefore, twofold, namely, to produce (i) destruction and (ii) fear of death."
Then, in February 1942, Sir Frederich Lindeman, Churchill’s German Jewish science advisor, issued the so called Dehousing Paper in which he argued that de-housing the the industrial worker would break German morale. Bombs were not to be wasted on middle class homes since these were surrounded by gardens and open space. More bang for the buck if dropped on apartments and inner city tenements. Accordingly, General Directive No. 5 (S. 46368/D.C.A.S) 2/14/42 provided
“ It has been decided that the primary objective you your operations should be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular industrial workers.”
Bombers were to “employ forces without restriction”.
From time to time, bombing policy was adjusted to the exigencies of the war. Thus the Casablanca Directive (CS (21 Jan. 1943) 16536 S.46368 ACA/AX) provided for “The progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic systems and the undermining of the morale of the German people...”
This brief summary of bureaucratic policy making shows that, despite twists, turns and modulations, British air policy was astonishingly consistent since the early days of Douhet and Trenchard: breaking enemy morale was always a policy goal.
It should not be thought that the bombing of dams, factories, rail-lines, food centers, hospitals and other infrastructures somehow did not kill civilians. It was always understood that it would, just as it was understood that the “military” blockade of Germany in the Great War had induced starvation. The difference in modulation is that by no later than 1942, the pretence of a military target was completely off the table. The direct target of bombing was German civilians and if military targets were collaterally damaged so much the better.
Der Spiegel’s Taylor cannot escape these memoranda, and states “Portal thought that the resulting damage to the German war effort and civilian morale would lead to victory within six months. A second memorandum a year later made a similar argument.”
Aha! So then, Britain, and through her, the Americans, admitedly did adopt a policy of mass civilian slaughter. But, but! Taylor argues, Portal states these things “only in so far as they aided victory over Germany -- rather than things in which he took some kind of personal satisfaction.” Oh well... in that case....
Here Taylor resorts to another trick from the sophist’s bag of tools: switching focus. The topic under discussion was whether or not the Allies had some sort of justification for bombing Dresden. According to der Spiegel, Taylor is going to explain to us that “there was a clear military rationale behind the attack” Therefore the issue concerns the nature of this military rationale. The issue is not whether Charles Portal is some sort of salivating psychopath creaming in his pants as he reads bombing reports.
Of course, such sophistries have the additional advantage of reducing what purports to be a serious discussion into a trite and imbecilic soap opera in which the world war gets explained in terms of evil stepsisters, growling gnomes, and a whole cast of us-good guys versus them awful, icky-pooh, horrible, yuk-monsters. Sixty years on and we’re still awash in Allied War Propaganda masquerading as history.
IF it is established that there was no legitimate military target at Dresden, then one can go on to ask whether the policy had some deranged personal or collective animus. But asserting that no personal hostility existed does not establish military legitimacy.
As for "legitimacy," Taylor advances the tired argument that Dresden was an important railway hub “directly linked to the conduct of the war” on the Eastern Front 120 miles away. The funny thing about railroads, is that they tend to be directly linked to places. But according to Taylor “The aim of the bombing was quite deliberately to destroy the center of the city, thereby making the movement of German soldiers and civilians impossible.”
Does Taylor actually whisper the “and civilians” part, hoping we kind-a won’t notice? Taylor avoids outright lying, but he also avoids explaining the murderous policy behind the “and.” He obscures rather than clarifies that the policy was one of so-called “dehousing”.
As a specific matter, the reference to “civilians’ is an unmistakable allusion to the fact that a hundred thousand and more civilians were desperately fleeing into Dresden from the murderous Russian advance to the East through Silesia. One Red Cross worker described the scene,
“ There were so many refugees from Silesia... What I saw there of the suffering and misery can hardly be described. There were women, old men and children in a condition that was not human anymore... a woman came and begged me for milk for her child...and showed me the child.... I wasn’t a doctor but I coud see that the child was dead, it was stiff and blue and must have been dead for several days.”
Taylor does not explain how disrupting civilian flight served a military objective. In fact, as anyone can figure out, the mass movement of refugees from the east would lead to a natural chaos that of itself impeded military movements from west to east.
As for purely military movements, what Taylor alludes to is the oft dredged up request by the Russians to bomb the rail communications at Berlin and Leipzig. Although the major thrust of the Russian request was for the British and Americans to tie down German forces in the West, and although the major military thrust of the Russians was directly at Berlin further north, it is true that Russia was concerned about its flanks to the south and that, at the same time, it had its eyes on taking Prague and Vienna, once it reestablished its supply lines and discipline among its own troops, now swarming over the borders of Germany proper. It may also be assumed for the sake of argument, as the U.S. Air Force claims, that for technical reasons relating to railway networking, disruption of the Berlin - Leipzig line required bombing the Dresden rail junction to the south of Leipzig.
The problem with all these rationales, taken at face value, is very simply that the Allies did far, far more than just bomb the railroads. The air surveillance photos prove beyond doubt that the destruction of Dresden was not the unfortunate and regrettable collateral result of some stray bombs that “missed” their target.
The photos indisputably prove that the target was not “communications” but Dresden.
And countless other German cities.
All German cities over 50,000 were 50 - 80% destroyed. By some calculations Germany was 20% destroyed. In June 1945 Gen. Omar Bradley said that Germany was utterly and completely destroyed.
It will never be known for sure how many were incinerated in Dresden. The official accounts of 35,000 (now minimized to 25,000) tabulated only the identified dead based on local records. They cannot possibly account for the streams of refugees, the people who were incinerated beyond recognition, the mass graves of people quickly burned on pyres.
The Nazi count of 400,000 was undoubtedly exaggerated, but estimates of in the vicinity of 100,000 to 150,000 are not implausible. At the time, the Red Cross put the estimate at 250,000. But in the end, arguing that only 25,000 victims were incinerated at Dresden is much like arguing that only 35,000 victims died at Dachau. In either case a holocaust is minimized by arguing over a singular detail. Just as the overall impact of Nazi policies on the Jews of Europe was undeniably horrible, so too the overall impact of Allied terror bombing on Germany as a nation and as a civilization was horrible and undeniable. [ FN1 ]
Churchill and, in the United States, Henry Morgenthau, aimed not simply to defeat Germany but to eradicate her. What else could Churchill have meant when he wrote after Dresden that the time had come to reconsider "the question of bombing German cities "simply for the sake of increasing the terror"? [Churchill Memo] If the blood-thirsty things Churchill said about Germans were put into Hitler’s mouth to be said about Jews, they would be cited as proof-positive of genocidal intent. Morgenthau’s policy paper for the post-war insisted that all of Germany be converted to a cow pasture and Germans reduced eeking out a survival on a “permanent diet of potatoes.”
There are those who indignantly claim, as if it were a self-evident fact, that there can be no moral equivalence. Why not? Why is the death of one child more morally worthy than the death of another? Was Coventry Cathedral more worthy in God’s eyes than Fraunkirche?
The assessment of legal or moral culpability has always been based on examining the two components of act (what was actually done and the resultant damage) and intent. That done, the evaluation goes on to assess circumstances in mitigation, justification or excuse, (as in stealing bread but in order to feed one’s child).
There is certainly enough evidence to suggest a prima facie case of democide by the Allies. The stated British intent was not simply to “terrorize” Germans but to destroy Germany as a physical, demographic, economic and cultural entity. Surely, no one thought it would be possible to “exterminate” all 65 million Germans but the goal was to kill and devastate on such a colossal and catastrohpic scale that the survivors would be reduced to a state of permanently terrorized sub-subsistence. This policy was in fact continued, by other means, after the cessation of hostilities, in what amounted to a program of de-construction and mass starvation. [ FN-2 ]
But Der Spiegel is hardly interested in presenting an even-handed account that provide an objective basis for a comparative assessment of policies. Instead it serves up Taylor’s pseudo history the sole aim of which is to obfuscate and exculpate Allied culpability for what were in fact war crimes. This follows directly on the heels of a two week long witch-hunt in which Spiegel sought to induce a frenzied hysteria over the blasphemous fact that an excommunicated bishop in Argentina had had the temerity to read and believe revisionist accounts of the Jewish holocaust.
Spiegel has nothing to contribute to any serious historical discussion. But that, most evidently, is not its intent. What Spiegel is hawking a species of mandatory self-abasement that minimizes anything done to Germany by the Allies while insisting that Nazi Germany alone committed the greatest evils ever done ever.
This is a warped mirror. National Masochism is not a proper antidote to National Socialism. It is untrue, unnatural and unhealthy and serves only to foster increasing and festering resentment. Ultimately, this is a stupid policy that puts right in the mouths of neo-nazi boors. The bombing of Dresden was a terrible, inexcusable and vile atrocity. Spiegel’s white-wash flies in the face of decency.
It is also a polemical policy that is injurious to us because it promotes the false notion of Allied exceptionalism. -- the idea that as they could no good we could no wrong. Denial of the German Holocaust becomes a necessary correlative within a trite and offensive manicheism that ends up excusing away humanitarian crimes in Gaza and terror bombing in Japan, Vietnam and Iraq. While neither of these war crimes approachthe sheer scale of the World War’s horrors, that is small justification. Better to remember that self-righteousness goes before the crime.
In my view, there is no substitute for fearless and insistent objectivity and this, most emphatically, includes, doubting the “undoubtable” and entertaining the “unacceptable”. It is only when we loose our partiality that we can see the “right” on both sides of the battle field and become truly open to the shortfall of our human existence. That, it seems to me, is a better place to arrive at than some false moral high ground from which we always and inevitably fall.