Dresden, once known as “Florence on the Elbe” because of its beauty and culture, is now best known for its destruction by British and American bombers in February of 1945. “Dresden” is the name of a haunting movie, originally made for German television, about a love affair in the doomed city.
Dresden is of course also the German city that Barack Obama intends to visit–for reasons best known to himself–during his current trip to Europe. It seems like this would be an appropriate time to review the film (which I watched a couple of months ago via Netflix) and to use it as a springboard for discussion of the Dresden bombing and of the WWII strategic bombing campaign in general.
Here’s a brief synopsis of the film. I’ve tried to minimize the spoilers, but some are inevitable.
Anna Mauth is a nurse in a Dresden hospital. Although she hopes to attend medical school and become a physician, she has put these plans on hold in order to assist her father, Dr Carl Mauth, who runs the hospital–which is heavily overloaded and constantly short of supplies. Anna’s fiance, Alexander Wenninger, is a dedicated young physican but just a bit of a pompous prig. Her sister, Eva, is a horrible little Nazi enthusiast, glorying in her affair with a Gauleiter’s adjutant and luxuriating in the special privileges she is able to obtain through this relationship. Anna’s best friend, Maria, is married to a Jewish man, Simon Goldberg–and she holds his life in her hands, because it is only by virtue of the marriage that he has been–thus far–protected from arrest and shipment to a concentration camp.
Robert Newman, a British bomber pilot, had been shot down during an earlier raid somewhere in the vicinity. Aided by his ability to speak excellent German (his mother was a German who moved to Britain), Robert makes his way to Dresden and–masquerading as a German soldier–seeks treatment in Anna’s hospital. She is immediately attracted to him. (At first she thinks he is a German deserter and later concludes that he must be a British spy.) After discovering a terrible breach of medical ethics by both her fiance and her father–one that both men justify in terms of higher responsibility to family than to patients–Anna falls in love with Robert and begins an affair.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, Bomber Command is doing target planning. The Russians, who have launched a major offensive, have requested massive air strikes in order to absorb German resources and prevent reinforcements from reaching the battlefront. The targeting analysts review available cities with the intent of choosing one with the right attributes–wooden houses, narrow streets–to enable the generation of a firestorm (as had previously been done to deadly effect in Hamburg and other cities), and they choose Dresden. (In one scene, an aerial view of the city morphs into a reconnaissance photo being used for planning purposes at Bomber Command headquarters.) The raid, the resulting destruction of the city, and the efforts of Anna and Robert to survive, are vividly portrayed. The film shows very well what it really means to conduct massive bombing of an inhabited city.
The character development is generally good, and the movie features many excellent performances: I was particularly impressed by Benjamin Sadler’s superb performance as Alexander Wenninger. Felicitas Woll does a fine job as Anna. The British bomber pilot, Robert Light (portrayed by John Light) did not seem to me to be as well-developed as some of the other characters.
Some of the scenes stretch credulity. It is just barely possible to imagine that a real Anna and Robert might have had sex in a crowded hospital ward. It is not possible to imagine that a real Robert would have snuck into Anna’s engagement party; still less that he could have gotten away with it.
The movie makes an honest attempt to avoid portraying the people of Dresden as entirely innocent victims. A movie audience is shown cheering the launch of V-weapons at London. Children are shown mocking a Jewish man in the street. The fear which haunts Dresden’s surviving Jewish community is clearly portrayed. (I would have liked to see a few more scenes added along these lines–maybe Eva and some of her Nazi friends gloating over furniture and jewelry they had looted from dispossessed Jews.) Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, is allowed to state his case that the attack will shorten the war and save lives. The film also honestly shows that the bombing was applauded by victims of Naziism–Simon Goldberg, knowing that he will likely end his days in a concentration camp, prays to God that the city of Dresden will be burned to the ground.
Looking at the customer reviews of this film (on Amazon, Netflix, and other sites) is a somewhat disturbing experience. There seem to be quite a few people applauding the film for “getting beyond good guys and bad guys,” or words to that effect. I think they are finding more moral equivalency in the film than is actually in it, and more than a few seem to desire such equivalency. One (American) reviewer actually said “Because we follow characters in both England and Germany, we see that neither side is completely to blame for the horrors of WWII, however, neither is completely innocent either.”
Some reviewers were also highly critical of the fact that the attack took place so late in the war–one referred to “the decision to bomb a great, cultured city when Germany was already on its knees.”
It was indeed pretty clear in February 1945 that Germany was facing defeat, and a traditional national leader–a Bismarck, or even a Kaiser Wilhelm–would almost certainly have elected to surrender. But Germany was not being run by a normal leader. The Nazis clearly intended to fight to the end, and they had convinced a substantial portion of the population that defeat would mean personal disaster for all Germans. (This was amplified by the fact that–although most Germans did not know the details of the Holocaust–they did know that horrible things had been done in their names, and many suspected that retribution was likely.)
While the war continued, thousands of people were being killed every day. No one knew what additional tricks the Nazi leadership had up their sleeve–another secret weapon? Another massive ground attack along the lines of the one that brought on the Battle of the Bulge? No one knew, in February 1945, what the date of V-E day would be.
When strategic bombing first became practical, George Orwell asserted that “the only way to stop someone from dropping a bomb on your mother is to drop two bombs on his mother.” This was not, as it turned out, strictly true–with the emergence of radar and of computer-directed gunfire, the mantra that “the bomber will always get through” turned out to be less absolutely the case than had been envisaged in the early- and mid-1930s. But the statement still had a strong element of truth…and one that would grow further in importance after the war, with the emergence of nuclear-bomb-carrying ballistic missiles which really could not be shot down. I must observe that many of the people who denounce Dresden and Hiroshima as war crimes are the same ones who fervently oppose any form of conventional military action against rogue states such as North Korea and Iran, preferring instead to put their faith in “massive retaliation” and “deterrence.” But what massive retaliation really means in practice is doing to Teheran (for example) what was done to Dresden, multiplied a thousandfold.
It must also be remembered that precision bombing, in the present-day sense, did not exist in 1945. The U.S. made much of its Norden computing bombsight, and the Norden was indeed a remarkable piece of apparatus. But even this sophisticated equipment could not compensate for the cloudy skies common over Northern Europe, or for the unpredicable components of the wind. (The limitations of aerial navigation at the time are demonstrated by the fact that some of the bombers tasked to hit Dresden actually hit Prague instead!)
In his 1960 book Science and Government, C P Snow described the secret debate between two factions of British scientists, led by Henry Tizard and Frederick Lindemann. The two men had earlier clashed on Britain’s air defense strategy, with Tizard being a fervent advocate of radar and Lindemann (at least in Snow’s telling) being an advocate for then-impractical and even bizarre technologies such as infrared detection and aerial mines. In the 1942 bombing debate, Lindeman offered calculations predicting a very high destruction of German worker housing, which was viewed as a way to destroy morale and cut industrial production–possibly even to bring about the overthrow of the regime.. Tizard challenged Lindemann’s numbers, believing they were too high by a factor of five. In Snow’s view, the political consensus for area bombing was so strong that few really wanted to listen to the arguments of the Tizard faction.
It is possible, I supose, that some time in the future people living in a more benevolent age than ours may turn over the official records and notice that men like us, men well-educated by the standards of the day, men fairly kindly by the standards of the day, and often possessed of strong human feelings, made the kind of calculation I have been describing. Such calculations, on a much larger scale, are going on at this moment in the most advanced societies we know. What will people of the future think of us? Will they say, as Roger Williams said of some of the Massachussetts Indians, that we were wolves with the minds of men? Will they say that we resigned our humanity? They will have the right.
No. The people of the future (i.e., us) do not have that right, not at least without seriously attempting to understand the context, the possibilities, and the uncertainties of the time. My view is that Bomber Command–and its supporting entities, the scientists who did the analyses and the Rosies who built the planes–were not wolves: they were sheepdogs trying very hard to protect their flock from real wolves–among which, unfortunately, sheep were intermixed. This does not exclude the possibility that some of their decisions, and those of their political masters, may have been bad ones, but it does not justify eroding the distinction between an utterly evil tyranny and those who are doing their best to prevent the triumph of that tyranny. (Nor do I think Snow had such erosion as his intent.)
I didn’t like the way this movie ended–with some video clips of the postwar reconstruction of Dresden followed by calls for “peace” in many different languages. Dramatically, it didn’t work for me at all. More importantly, I think the message was a naive and even a potentially dangerous one. Preaching “peace” is by no means a surefire way of bringing it about. It was, after all, the extreme emphasis on “peace” in 1930s Britain, France, and America–an emphasis that was totally understandable given the dreadful experiences of World War I–that led to appeasement and thence to the apocalypse of World War II. Had the Allies been willing to use military force much earlier–say, at the time of the Rhineland incursion of 1936–the worst of World War II, and the original Dresden, like many other places, would still be standing.
Regarding Obama’s trip to Dresden: certainly, none of us really knows why he is going or what he plans to say. Many have speculated that he plans to make some kind of apology for the bombing, and indeed this seems plausible given his seemingly deep-seated desire to apologize for so many aspects of his country. But while he might be instinctively drawn to making such an apology, Obama is also an excellent politician, and I think would recognize that an explicit apology would be politically very damaging to him. More likely, he will make generalized but eloquent statements about the horrors of war.Charles Krauthammer has argued that the pairing of a trip to Dresden with a trip to the Buchenwald concentration camp shows unspeakably bad judgment on the President’s part, and that everyone in Germany, and most in Europe, will see an implication of parity between the concentration camp and the city that was fire-bombed by the Allies. Indeed, Krauthammer thinks this implication of parity will be perceived even if Obama (very improbably) doesn’t mention the fire-bombing at all when he speaks in Dresden.
Now, maybe this is wrong. Maybe Obama will construct a brilliant speech that expresses justifiable sadness at the fate of Dresden while making it very clear that he rejects any form of moral equivalency. I certainly hope so. But on the larger canvas, WWII revisionism is certainly on the rise. (Consider, for example, Jon Stewart’s recent assertion–for which he later apologized after much public outcry–that Truman was a war criminal because of the bombing of Hiroshima.) Some small part of this revisionism may be due to legitimate efforts by historians to uncover truth and to be fair to all parties. Some part of it is due to the malevolent efforts of a small number of extreme right-wingers who have an unwholesome sympathy with the Third Reich. But most of it is due to the seemingly-instinctive desire of today’s “progressives” to undercut the moral authority of their own societies and also the (strongly-related) profusion of ideas and phrases from superficial pop-psychology.
In comments to this post, Lexington Green says:
The overall leftist goal is to make the Allies and the Nazis moral equivalents. That program is well advanced. Delegitimizing the Allies is a way to delegitimize the United States and its military. If World War II, the “good war” was a holocaust and an atrocity, there is nothing of value in the American past, and the American regime is real, existing Third Reich, today, that has to be reformed out of existence to atone for its crimes. That’s the goal. Also, by making the poor Germans and Japanese victims of a holocaust, the Jews are rendered just one more victim group, and the legitimacy of Israel is undermined. That’s a goal, too.
I don’t think this is a conscious goal on the part of most leftists (“progressives,” to call them what they generally call themselves)–but it is an implicit consequence of the way that many of them think
Lex Green also says, again in comments to the above-referenced post:
This discussion proves my larger point, that two generations of Leftist indoctrination have left people in a state of intellectual damage. The typical American under age 40 or so really cannot discern the difference between a brutal, shameless, overt tyranny rounding up and slaughtering its own civilians and embarking on wars of conquest, using ruthless and lawless means and indiscriminately slaughtering civilians in the process (the Nazis) and the countries that were assailed by these people, who did not seek war, some of whom were democracies, who had to be dragged into it, and who finally responded with increasing levels of force, to try to destroy the tyranny and force it to give up, which it refused to do even when it was clearly beaten.
Reagan in his final message to the American people said that his greatest fear was the loss of historical memory among the American people.
The enemy has won this battle. For now.
I think he slightly overstates the badness of the situation..but not by much. I believe that the majority of Americans, including those under 40, are still able to make such distinctions. But the preservation of this ability is clearly under sustained assault.
Sorry this post isn’t better organized, but it’s the best I can do at the moment.
I’ll close with an excerpt from Randall Jarrell’s poem, “Losses.”
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school–
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”
They said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities.