Was bombing Dresden a war crime?

Even Churchill distanced himself from this “act of terror”

January 27, 2020
The aftermath of the Dresden bombing Source: Wikimedia Commons
The aftermath of the Dresden bombing Source: Wikimedia Commons

The destruction of Dresden has come to symbolise the horrors of total war. In mid-February 1945, 800 Allied aircraft dropped high explosive bombs, engulfing the city in a firestorm visible 50 miles away. Its centre was reduced to incandescent rubble and 25,000 people were killed: whirled away by tornadoes of flame, asphyxiated as the inferno sucked oxygen from the atmosphere. Cellars which served as shelters became, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “corpse mines.” One witness said the raid “opened the gates of hell.”

All this is familiar, if gruesome, territory, but journalist and historian Sinclair McKay’s well-written book, published to coincide with the 75th anniversary, adds new features, drawing on first-hand testimony collected by Dresden’s municipal archive. He has an eye for detail, recording animal as well as human suffering: the trumpeting of elephants as the zoo took direct hits (though rats, gorging on cadavers, became obese). Amid the town’s ruins, one traumatised survivor initially thought he was hallucinating: walking down the street was a giraffe.

Dresden, though a Nazi stronghold, had long been known as “Florence on the Elbe.” Famed as the source of porcelain—“white gold”—it was beautiful, sophisticated, artistic. Thus the Lancaster bombers, ordered to target built-up areas as well as factories and railways, not only massacred civilians but smashed a cultural gem. Dresden came to epitomise Allied barbarism, although other cities fared worse. Was it a war crime?

Despite having advocated use of “exterminating force,” Churchill distanced himself from this “act of terror.” Moreover, area bombing was dropped from the indictment of war criminals at Nuremberg, since the Allies were open to the same charge. Dresden, though understandable in the context of a “people’s war,” was an atrocity. But, as emerges from this accomplished book, it was not, as some historians suggest, morally equivalent to the Holocaust. By no stretch of the imagination was Dresden Auschwitz.

Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness by Sinclair McKay (Viking, £20)