"Dresden Bombing Is To Be Regretted Enormously"

Frederic Taylor

Der Spiegel

February 14, 2005

The Feb. 13, 1945 bombing of Dresden by the British Royal Air Force has become a symbol for excessive, gratuitous violence on the part of the Allies during World War II. But with the 60th anniversary of the bombing on Sunday, a new book by British historian Frederick Taylor argues that this view may not be quite accurate. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with the author.

Some critics have accused you of writing a justification of the bombing of the city of Dresden. Is this accusation misplaced?

Taylor: Yes it is. Some people mistake the attempt at rational analysis of a historical event for a celebration of it. My book attempts to be distanced and rational and where possible I try to separate the myths and legends from the realities. I personally find the attack on Dresden horrific. It was overdone, it was excessive and is to be regretted enormously. But there is no reason to pretend that it was completely irrational on the part of the Allies. Dresden had war industries and was a major transportation hub. As soon as you start explaining the reasons for the attack, though, people think you are justifying it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was it a war crime?

"Dresden: Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945"

Frederick Taylor is the author of a new book about the Allied bombing of Dresden in World War II called "Dresden: Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2004). Conventional wisdom has long had it that the bombing of the cultural pearl in eastern Germany was gratuitous violence and an inhuman attempt to kill as many civilians as possible in a city that had little in the way of an armaments industry or strategic importance. It is exactly this image of the Dresden bombing that Taylor's book goes a long way toward correcting. He shows that, in fact, Dresden hosted dozens of factories, many of them smaller but important workshops located in the old town, devoted to the war effort. His book also presents a much lower death toll (25,000 to 40,000) than previous estimates, some of which claim that hundreds of thousands died. At the same time, however, Taylor doesn't seek to minimize the horrors visited upon the city. He has sympathy for the suffering of the population and has grave misgivings about air warfare in general and the Dresden raid in particular.

Taylor studied history and modern languages at Oxford and Sussex universities in Britain and focused on the history of the extreme right in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. He traveled widely in both East and West Germany during the Cold War and has edited and translated a number of works from German. He lives in Cornwall, England with his wife and three children.

Taylor: I really don't know. From a practical point of view, rules of war are something of a gray area. It was pretty borderline stuff in terms of the extent of the raid and the amount of force used. It's comparable with other air attacks in the war such as the German attack on Belgrade or even Stalingrad before it was besieged and of course other British and American attacks as well including the big ones in Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). These are examples where you get close to saying "you absolutely cannot do this," and I think bombing is the most dubious form of warfare possible. But a war crime is a very specific thing which international lawyers argue about all the time and I would not be prepared to commit myself nor do I see why I should. I'm a historian.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Since the war, discussion of World War II war crimes has focused almost exclusively on those committed by the Nazis. But hundreds of thousands of German civilians were also immolated in firestorms created by English and American bombs. Should not Allied excesses be addressed as well?

Taylor: We have to discuss them frankly. There is something inherently fascistoid in air warfare -- you don't see the person you are bombing and killing or injuring and you have this sort of psychopathic gaze from above. The air war is the only part of the war where the Allies, leaving aside the Russians, seriously ran the Axis powers a good race in terms of ruthlessness. But it is now 60 years after the fact, most people involved are dead and we shouldn't start pointing fingers except for in the case of the Holocaust. But the English and especially the Americans have continued since World War II to rely on bombing as an instrument of policy and that really concerns me. I feel uneasy about it. So I think Allied excesses are a legitimate subject for discussion. Absolutely.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why do you think it is important, six decades after the bombing, to revisit the event in 2005? What can be gained by taking a fresh look at the city's destruction?

Taylor: When the idea first crystallized in my mind five years ago I certainly wasn't out to write any kind of revisionist history. Two things motivated me. Firstly, the fall of the Berlin Wall meant free access to both archives and people in former East Germany -- access that wasn't there before. Secondly, of course, the eyewitness generation was aging fast and dying. There were of course previous books in English on the subject, but my main question was, "can I describe it better?" I think there is always something to be gained from a fresh look at history.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You were recently in Dresden to speak to the city about the bombing and about your book. Did you get the impression that people there are open to a more nuanced view of what took place on Feb. 13, 1945?

Taylor: My impression is that there are a considerable number of people in Dresden who take a balanced view -- survivors included. Others, of course, don't. But whether they think it was an atrocity is neither here nor there. It is perfectly possible to argue that the Allied attack on Dresden was rational but at the same time an atrocity. One view doesn't exclude the other at all. And for those survivors who still focus solely on the violence of the attack, that is their Dresden and it must be respected.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) recently referred to the bombing as the "Holocaust of bombs." This is, of course, a viewpoint held by more than just the German right wing. What is the problem with this viewpoint?

Taylor: The whole "Holocaust of bombs" thing has been around on far-right Web sites for years and is only now emerging into the NPD's antics in the (Saxony state government). I frankly don't understand what they're saying. All sides bombed each other's cities during the war. Half a million Soviet citizens, for example, died from German bombing during the invasion and occupation of Russia. That's roughly equivalent to the number of German citizens who died from Allied raids. But the Allied bombing campaign was attached to military operations and ceased as soon as military operations ceased. But the Holocaust and the murder of all those millions would not have ceased if the Germans had won the war. Bombing is ruthless war making, but to use the word Holocaust to describe ruthless war making is to confuse two entirely different things.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Vast attention was paid to the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz here in Germany and around the world. Now, however, the country is approaching a number of anniversaries, like the advance of the Soviet army and the post-war expulsion of Germans from Poland and the Czech Republic, that place Germany in a victim's role. Are Germans sliding back into the victim role they took on in the 1950s?

Taylor: I hope not. I sympathize with the desire to mourn and with the desire to acknowledge suffering. If that's what one means by seeing oneself as a victim, that's ok. In fact I think it's a psychological necessity for a nation just as it is for an individual. But to simply look at one's own victimhood and blank out Germany's unprovoked aggressive war against just about the rest of Europe and the genocidal aspects of that war can't do any good at all. The Germans, 60 years after the war, have to sort these things out and see how they feel about themselves. It might get a bit messy and I think that's what's going on at the moment. I can only sympathize.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do Britons view the bombing of Dresden today?

Taylor: There are some people in Britain who still think the bombing of Dresden was a terrific idea and that (the UK) could do no wrong in World War II, but the majority has a much more balanced view. I think the British didn't sympathize with the Germans who were bombed during the war but after the war when we looked at the damage, there was regret. It's hard not to feel pity for what happened to old Dresden. Most people combine an irreconcilable sense of conflict between what was necessary -- as people saw it at the time -- to defeat the Nazis and what you can feel good about as a people. There is no real solution to this paradox.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In Berlin in January, you had a podium discussion with the German historian Joerg Friedrich and he strongly attacked your viewpoints on Dresden ...

Taylor: ... Yes, he did ...

SPIEGEL ONLINE: ...and he was accusing the Allied bombers of a desire to kill as many civilians as possible and of not having legitimate military aims.

Taylor: I don't agree with him. His view was basically the old idea of "well the war was already over" when Dresden was bombed. From the way he described Germany in February 1945, I'm surprised the Germans lasted three days let alone three months. I disagree with that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you consider him to be a serious historian?

Taylor: I don't know. He seems very very certain of everything, in a way that most historians are not. He's a very clever man, he writes very well and I found his book ("Der Brand" -- "The Fire" -- October 2004) very interesting. But as a work of history I don't know. It's not generally admired by professional historians for anything other than its literary style.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The bombing of Dresden resulted in between 25,000 and 35,000 deaths. More people, though, were killed in the July 1943 firestorm in Hamburg. Nevertheless, the citizens of Hamburg seem not to be as obsessed by the bombing today. Why is that?

The raid came less than three months before the end of the war leading many to argue that it was, in fact, unnecessary.

Taylor: There are two reasons for the difference. First is that Hamburg was acknowledged and acknowledged itself as an important city from a military and industrial point of view. They always knew they were going to be bombed so there was not the same element of surprise or sense of injustice about being bombed. A lot of people in Dresden felt that the city was somehow protected because of its beauty, which increased the trauma enormously. Second, the city was part of a totalitarian dictatorship for 45 years after the war. That system exploited Dresden as a Cold War tool. They accused the Anglo-Americans of deliberately destroying those parts of Germany that would be occupied by the Soviet Union and of war crimes. Dresden was used throughout the Cold War as a cudgel to beat the West with.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What does Dresden mean today?

Taylor: The destruction of Dresden has an epically tragic quality to it. It was a wonderfully beautiful city and a symbol of baroque humanism and all that was best in Germany. It also contained all of the worst from Germany during the Nazi period. In that sense it is an absolutely exemplary tragedy for the horrors of 20th Century warfare and a symbol of destruction. There have been some calls in Germany for the day of the destruction of Dresden to be commemorated. If that were just used to exemplify German suffering then it would be wrong. But as an example of what advanced industrial countries have to try to avoid in the future then it is a legitimate symbol.

Interview conducted by Charles Hawley in Berlin.