The WWII Bombing of Dresden: Propaganda and Mythology
By: Michael W. Kramer
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Allied-aerial bombings of German cities during WWII have often produced interesting and controversial historical debates. As historian Kenneth P. Werrell states in his article, “The Strategic Bombing of Germany in WWII: Costs and Accomplishments,” perhaps in no other field of history do so many 'feel' and believe so much, rely on so little analysis and proof, and yet write so much.”1

The allied bombing of Dresden, Germany, from February 13th, 1945, to February 15th, 1945, epitomizes Werrell's statement. The correct story of what occurred, as presented to the public in the days, months, and years following the aerial attack, contained a series of ever increasing myths which have led to the bombing being perpetually stigmatized and subject to intense moral and ethical debates that last to our present day. The Dresden bombing has all to often been unfairly stereotyped as being an overly-deliberate, unnecessary, and savage aerial attack that was systematically planned and executed by allied forces.

The bombing of Dresden provides us with the opportunity to replace decades of misinformation surrounding the event with factually accurate information which will result in a better understanding of how myths and misinformation spread. Replacing the inaccurate information with accurate information will give us a greater understanding of what really occurred before, during, and after the bombing.

In the following pages, it will be argued that the Dresden bombing was indeed necessary at the time to bring about the immediate and unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. The mythology surrounding the bombing of Dresden was the result of an immediate German propaganda campaign that greatly embellished the severity of the attack. The the years following the bombing, the myths continued to escalate with the severity of the bombing being inaccurately embedded into collective memory of the event.

While myths and misunderstanding of historic events have and always will exist in world history, there are actual beneficial aspects (which will be further stated) of misleading information that tend to go overlooked.

The one word that all to often summarizes Dresden before it was bombed was innocence. As often portrayed, it is commonly considered by many post-WWII historians that the city had no military value, it was defenseless, and the civilian population did not in any way contribute to the Nazi war effort. However, it must be remembered that during wartime in the twentieth-century, and especially during WWII, aerial-bombing technological advancements before and during the war resulted in the ability for armies to more easily accomplish their goals. However debatable, it is of no question that advancements in aerial bombing played an important part in the allied victory over the Nazis.

The most common error many scholars have made while studying the Dresden bombing is that they have relied too much on having the foreknowledge that WWII ended just months afterwords. The victory over fascist Germany was easily the most significant event that occurred after Dresden was bombed. The tendency naturally exists to remember the bombing as “A” and the German surrender as “B”. But, that tendency leaves out the events that occurred during the winter of 1944 and 1945 when the actual “A” in the equation took place.

In the months prior to the bombing, WWII conflict had reached the pinnacle and the German counter-offensive in the west had allied-ground troops' resilience tested to the extreme as they bravely fought to defend their position. Concurrently, the Russian offensive in east was claiming numerous lives which caused great concern amongst the allied powers that the course of the war could stagnate and the ultimate goal of winning the war in Europe could be jeopardized.

Hitler's counter-offensive in the west created deep concern for allied-forces that, like during WWI, a lengthy stalemate could result in an unwanted extension of the war. Moreover, with allied casualties increasing, the maximum number of troops required to defeat the Germans (as well as the Japanese) concerned many allied-military leaders.

The fear that engulfed allied powers who were battling the formidable German army at the time was brilliantly stated by historian Frederick Taylor in his book, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13 1945. He writes, “The Ardennes offensive would be reckoned a catastrophe in the longer term for Germany, but in the meantime morale (of the German army) had been bolstered and the invincibility of the western Allies cast into question.”2 Taylor's book provides the factually accurate account of what actually occurred before, during, and after the Dresden was bombed.

Another example of the strong will of the German army and the unnerving threat they posed was demonstrated in the January 1st, 1945, issue of Time magazine when it was stated the German counter offensive in the Ardennes was wrecking havoc amongst allied forces. In the article entitled, “World: Battlefronts: Western Front,” it stated “the full force of the German blow was unleashed. Its suddenness, its underrated force, sent the Americans reeling like a boxer who has taken a terrific punch to the solar plexus.”3 Like a boxer in the late rounds of a championship fight, summoning the courage to continue onwards towards triumph is undoubtedly required. Likewise, the only issue of importance for allied-forces leading up to the decision to bomb Dresden was to simply win the war via any means necessary. Simply put, it was without question at the time that the German army was still perceived to be capable of winning battles and spreading further westward at the cost of thousands of allied lives.

Preservation of allied lives was a mandatory necessary as allied planners looked to minimize casualties to fight around the world. In a 1945 report issued by the U.S. Joint War Plans Committee, if an invasion of mainland Japan was necessary, casualty figures would be possibly a quarter of a million.4 It must be recollected that, at the time, the existence of the atomic bomb was known by very few allied-military leaders. Therefore, all available tools available to them were rightfully considered to keep allied losses at a minimum as each life saved would serve a valuable purpose towards achieving victory in Europe and Japan.

In the article “Dresden 1945: Reality, History, and Memory”, historian Tami David Biddle summarizes the necessity to bomb the city perfectly when she writes that with the German Luftwaffe severely impaired and with air superiority achieved, allied commanders rightfully used :

...the tool available to them (which) they had embraced years earlier: bombers. Planners and politicians had grasped at an expedient form of weaponry that seemed a natural follow. Now they would use it, in its most unbounded and unconstrained form, in a bid to keep the European war from dragging on into 1946.5

WWII was a war of extremes with the result being the greatest loss of live in the history of warfare. Underestimating the power of the axis-powers could have produced alternate versions of history with unimaginable reverberations. The decision to bomb Dresden requires a basic assessment of the “what-if” scenarios, no matter how far-fetched they may be, that could have resulted by not bombing Dresden. Indeed, the consequences of inaction due to overconfidence could have ended up being disastrous for the allied powers.

Prior to the bombing, one of the most historically significant events occurring at the same time was the holocaust. The high level of secrecy about the atrocities committed against millions of Jews was greatly concealed due to the effectiveness of the Nazi propaganda machine. The unfathomable amount of death that occurred in concentration camps was not known back then as it is widely known today. Before the camps were liberated, if people at the time were told that over six-million Jews were being killed, many would have found that hard to believe. Furthermore, it would be equally difficult for many at the time to believe that two tiny bombs would eventually be unleashed over Japan which would bring forth the end of WWII. Compared to the German masquerading of the holocaust from the public eye, successful secrecy in the U.S. was maintained in keeping the development of the atomic bomb secret for so long.

As recent studies have shown, the Germans had rudimentary plans drawn up for development of atomic bombs. As far-fetched as it may sound, any German city with a mass population could easily have been a headquarters where an atomic weapon was being developed. Evidence that the Germans were very capable of still inflicting a massive blow to allied forces was demonstrated in September 1944 when thousands of newly developed V2 rockets were launched on Britain. Increased fear was the natural result of the V2 rocket bombardment as the Germans proved that a technological advancement could easily turn the tide of the war in their favor. During wartime, expecting the unexpected would prove crucial to the allied-victory as extreme developments could have dramatically effected the outcome of the war.

Considering the alternate histories that could have occurred during WWII, evil was defeated, countless allied lives were spared, and victory was achieved. The decision to bomb, has therefore been deemed a military necessary. With the bombing now justified, we can return to focus solely on how the Dresden mythology developed after the bombing took place.

No aerial bombing during WWII would end up being considered such a controversial act as the bombing of Dresden. From February 13th, 1945, and February 15th, 1945, allied-aerial forces unleashed the aerial-bombardment on the city. The cities' population watched in fear as allied-powers summoned forth the lightning from the sky with the result of the bombing being the creation of endless infernos burning where the city once stood.

The level of damage that resulted from the bombing was due in large part to the weather on the night of February 13th, 1945. With clear skies above, the bombers had clear views of their targets to destroy. Furthermore, high winds allowed the fires to spread faster making the bombing seem to be extraordinary and purposefully intended when the bombing was nothing but an ordinary mission completed to perfection. As Biddle denotes:

a combination of factors, including unusually precise bomb aiming by the first wave of attackers, successful feints, and errors by the defender helped to exacerbate the impact of an air attack that would become all the more notorious for being launched against a city swollen with refugees fleeing the fighting Eastern Front.6

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, the mythology began to spread as Joseph Goebbels' Nazi-propaganda office released a series of misinformation regarding the bombing. The dye was now cast, and the mythology surrounding the Dresden bombing began to spread as fast as the fires that still burned in the city.

Realizing that the war was possibly lost, Goebbels saw the bombing of Dresden as an opportunity to incite the remaining German population into fighting harder. Also, at the same time, he would create a public outcry about the level of destruction the attacks had in an attempt to have a sense of sympathy and regret spread via allied-media outlets.

Having sympathy, regret, and protecting innocent civilians from being killed or wounded were not emotions that Goebbels himself felt during WWII. In fact, he had the complete opposite beliefs and believed that aerial bombings could be effective in demoralizing the enemy. For example, one day after German forces unleashed an aerial attack on London destroying the Coventry Cathedral, he wrote in his diary entry “the question is: can London be brought to its knees in this way (aerial bombings)? I would assume, yes. But we must wait things out and attack, attack!” Casualties caused by aerial bombings showcased that Goebbels' did not feel that civilians were exempt from being targeted and the usefulness of such attacks presented a useful propaganda tool. For instance, in the same diary entry he wrote that when the R.A.F performed an air-raid on Berlin one day prior, it was “nothing serious, (but).. a splendid propaganda device.”7

The myths about the Dresden were therefore spread via the misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies first presented by Nazi-controlled media outlets of which western journalists unfortunately took the bait as Goebbels' propagated would spread to mass audiences throughout the world just days after the bombing ceased.

In the February 17th, 1945, issue of The New York Times, the first German propaganda regarding the bombing was directly quoted in the body of a one paragraph article. It stated, “The German-controlled Scandinavian telegraph Bureau said today that 70,000 persons had been killed in this week's Allied bombings of Dresden.” As future evidence would show, the death toll was an embellishment from the Goebbels' propaganda ministry.

Perhaps the greatest news story that made the bombing of so Dresden misunderstood for so long long of a time was released a day after The New York Times article in the February 18th, 1945, issue of the Washington Star.

When the article was released it was printed and reprinted in all Associated Press newspapers across the United States. Amazingly titled, “Terror Bombing Gets Allied Approval as Step to Speed Victory,” the entire article was littered with explosive language of which it now comes as no surprise that seemingly eternal outrage resulted. The article, which requires reproduction in it's entirety to fully realize the historical impact, stated:


The allied air bosses have made the long-awaited decision to adopt deliberate terror bombing of the great German population centers as a ruthless expedient to hasten Hitler's doom. More raids such as the British and American heavy bombers carried out recently on the residential sections of Berlin, Dresden, Chemnitz, and Cottbus are in store for the Reich, and their avowed purpose will be creating more confusion in the German traffic tangle and sapping German morale.

The all-out air war in Germany became obvious with the unprecedented daylight assault on the refugee-crowded capital two weeks ago and subsequent attacks on other cities jammed with civilians fleeing from the Russian advance in the east. The allied view is that bombardment of large German cities creates immediate need for relief. This is moved into the bombed areas both by rail and road and not only creates a traffic problem but also draws transport away from the battlefront. Evacuation of the homeless has the same result.

Reconnaissance has show the best way to create road bottlenecks through key cities is to topple buildings into the streets. One spot on the western front recently was made impassable for nine days by such tactics. The effect on morale, both at home and at the front, is quite obvious. The decision may revive protests from some allied quarters against 'uncivilized warfare' but they are likely be balanced by satisfaction in those sections of Europe where the German air force and the Nazi V-weapons have been responsible for the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by tens of thousands.8

Undoubtedly, the immediate reactions many people had upon reading the article still continue to this day to describe what many “feel” about the bombing of Dresden. The use of words such as deliberate, terror, ruthless, unprecedented, uncivilized, and indiscriminate slaughter are all words that come to mind to provide a concise one-word summary regarding how many view the Dresden bombing.

The author of the article was Howard Cowan. Prior to writing his article, he attended a press conference held by Air Commodore C.M. Grierson who informed reporters that there were three reasons why bombing Dresden was a military necessity. First, by destroying communications centers it would (at the time) prevent any critical reinforcements being sent to the eastern front (where the German army was defending the ever-encroaching Soviet army). Second, bombing created logistical and administrative difficulties within Germany. Which, in turn, burdened the functioning of their economic system. Third, and most importantly, destroying transportation systems would physically prevent any reinforcements from reaching the eastern front.

When Cowan inquired if the aim of the bombings was to cause confusion among refugees or blast communications carrying military supply targets, Geierson replied “Primarily communications to prevent them (the Germans) moving military supplies. To stop movement in all directions if possible, movement of everything.”9

Despite being given correct information that the main intent of the bombing was to disrupt troop movements, Cowan was assured in his follow-up question that was indeed the primary objective and accomplishment of the aerial-attacks. However, the article he wrote as previously stated, surprisingly stated otherwise.

Combined with the Cowan story printed on February 18th, Goebbels' twisting of the facts for propaganda purposes continued to give the mass media a story of which allied-forces needed to defuse the amount of untruths released to the public. Fortunately, the British press did not buy into Goebbels' propaganda as Cecil King, a senior executive at the London Daily Mirror, suppressed the story from being printed.10

Issues of the Washington Star in the weeks after the bombing provide evidence showing that damage-control attempts were started by allied leaders to verify the actual intent of the bombing to prevent people from getting the wrong idea. For example, on February 19th, 1945, just one day after the Cowan story was published, an editorial titled “Terror Bombing” stated that the primary purpose of the bombings was to “hamper German transport and to force the diversion of the enemy's scare supplies from the battle fronts to the civilian centers...(the attack was) a harsh but legitimate objective of war.”11

Secretary of War Henry Stimson also attempted to inform the public that the Dresden bombing was not a deliberate attempt to terrorize and/or kill innocent German civilians. In an editorial “A Matter of Conscious” that appeared in the February 24th, 1945, issue of the Washington Star he stated that the Cowan story had been “an excusable but incorrect”12 account of why Dresden was bombed as the true intentions were misunderstood due ambiguous remarks made by Grierson after the bombing.

Compared to the Cowan article, which was printed on the front page of the Washington Star, the February 19th and 24th responses were both placed on page eight. Therefore, it is safe to assume, that casual readers overlooked or quite possibly never read the attempts to clear up the confusion about the bombing as their attention was (more than likely) to focus on the front-page news which was headlining the latest more dramatic happenings in the war.

In the days immediately after Dresden was bombed, while various reports of what occurred were sent and received at the German propaganda headquarters, Goebbels' did not present the full story he received to his domestic audience right away. Instead, his overblown account of the damage began circulating only after his over-dramatized messages were picked up by neutral newspapers. As portrayed in the neutral newspapers, Biddle writes that “Dresden was held up as an example of Allied obtuseness and disregard for German culture: the air campaign was evidence that the Allies were bent on laying waste to Germany...”13

After the articles were printed in the Washington Star, Goebbels' went to work on further embellishing the level of destruction that occurred in Dresden. On March 4th, 1945, the official report about of the bombing was nationally published in the German controlled Das Reich weekly newspaper (founded by none other than Goebbels himself). The report demonized the bombing as an uncivilized and unnecessary attack on a defenseless city with the sole intention being the mass-murder of innocent and defenseless civilians.14

Later in March, intentions to foster even more outrage about the bombing increased (not figuratively speaking) exponentially. The Dresden Police and SS issued a supplement to the neutral press by issuing a report entitled “order of the day 47” or as it was known at the time "TR47". While the number of those killed was listed on the report as being just over 20,204, with simple ease they cunningly added a zero to the end making the estimate a whopping 202,040. Several neutral newspapers, as well as the nationally published German paper the Das Reich, took the ten-times higher total as being correct and published the total to their readers. The consequences of the extra zero forever result in the death-toll being so wrongly believed.15

The ingenious extent of which Goebbels manipulated the world into understanding the bombing of Dresden in such a mythical context was (as time would tell) one of his finest, yet sinister, achievements. The magnitude of which the false information spread immediately after the bombing would reach epic proportions in the decades that followed.

The question of how and why the bombing ended up being so controversial is due, in part, to what allied force ended up occupying the city after WWII ended in Europe.

In the book, Europe: A History, English historian and author Norman Davies bluntly states that history is written by the victors and their version of the war-time events dominate the story of the conflict. He states,

The history of all great conflicts always tends to be rewritten by the victors, who maximum the crimes and follies of the vanquished whilst minimizing their own. Such, after all, is human nature...It is their version of the period which continues to dominate post-war education, media, and history books.16

The post-war historical narrative of WWII was no exception to what Davies states. Between February 15th, 1945, and the end of the Second World War in Europe on May 10th, 1945, the commonly accepted historical narrative about the bombing was dramatically altered due to the type of government that was implemented in Dresden. Taylor too writes, “It is true that much of what has been thought and said about Dresden since its destruction owes a great deal to the efforts of first Nazi and then Communists propagandists.”17

After the conclusion of any war, it is commonly assumed that those fought on alongside the victors remain at peace. But, after WWII, that was not the case as the Soviet Union and United States became entangled in the ideological struggle between Soviet communism in the east and American capitalism in the west. The result, was the Cold War which last from roughly 1952 until 1989.

During the thirty-seven year time period, the Soviets used the Dresden bombing to coverup atrocities that they committed during WWII. Such as, the mass rapes of German women committed by Soviet soldiers that physically and emotionally scarred millions of women for life. Evidence of the coverup of the atrocities is expressed by Taylor when he writes,

This fairy tale of the Red Army as Dresden’s wholly benign liberator and savior was one small but vital part of a rapidly growing tissue of myths, obfuscations, and suppressions, which was soon to make east Germany very different from the west. To talk about the atrocities committed by the Red Army during those early months became taboo. To talk about the western Allies' bombing of Dresden was, however, soon permitted.”18

After the Cold War ended, Soviet-historical archives were opened for examination. What has become clear from the outpouring of newly released data is that the Cold War Soviet Union was highly interested in the producing propaganda to alter memories and give people the impression that western-capitalist forces committed overly barbaric, immortal, and unethical acts on innocent civilians during WWII.

As historian Anne Applebaum writes in her book Gulag: A History, “the power of propaganda in the Soviet Union was such that it frequently altered perceptions of reality.”19 Applebaum researched newly released archival material and new perspectives on the Soviet Gulag were discovered.

In comparison, the archival material has also led to new and more truthful perspectives being discovered about the bombing of Dresden. A series of articles, books, personal accounts, and movies released in the months and years following 1945 prove how a mostly-fictional story gained such a high level of popularity.

One of the easiest and most convenient methods of analyzing whether any battle fought during war time was a success or a failure is the death count or (more simplistically) the number of "good guys" killed versus the number of "bad guys" killed. The number of those killed as a result of the Dresden bombing is perhaps the most misunderstood and wide-ranging tally of any WWII event.

After Dresden was bombed and the myth of the death toll began to circulate around the world. What many fail to realize is that allied forces were also suffering through large amounts of casualties in comparison to the rival axis powers. The article “U.S. War Casualties” published in March 5th, 1945, issue of Time magazine provide us with a basis for comparison. The article stated, that in the month of February alone, 49,689 were killed, 153,076 wounded, 31,101 missing, and 3,403 taken prisoner.20 The total in February alone (assuming that there was no U.S propaganda inflating the numbers) was equal to 237,269 casualties which is astonishingly close to the total of those said to have been "killed" in the bombing of Dresden. In reviewing the wide-ranging Dresden death toll, the allied casualty count is of importance to keep in mind.

The decades that followed, the true story of the bombing of Dresden was buried due to primarily two highly-popular books written by David Irving and Kurt Vonnegut. While German authors also wrote books having misleading and inaccurate accounts of what occurred, Irving and Vonnegut's books were more widely distributed across the United States and they were highly based upon the incorrect information that was released by Goebbels' propaganda ministry and then leaked to the press throughout 1945.

Irving's book, Apocalypse 1945: The Destruction of Dresden, was easily the most influential book in creating the continually high level of controversy, outrage, and misinformation regarding the bombings. The book, issued first in 1963, placed the death toll at least 135,000.21 He obtained that figure from one man, Hanns Voigt, who was a West Germany resident who was in charge of the missing persons center of Dresden in the weeks after the raid.

From 1963 until the present day, Irving has continually modified his estimate of the death toll over and over again in numerous reissues of his book. As late 2005, when his book was again reissued, despite evidence existing to the contrary, he placed his estimate at 100,000.22

In regards to Irving, the majority of his work has been now seen as unreliable as he has now become a scapegoat for historical inaccuracy as he also is an infamous holocaust denier. However, his historically overblown accounts have made Dresden the infamous innocent victim of allied bombing which was unnecessary and intentionally bombed to persuade the soon to be German army from surrendering. Biddle, writes “Irving helped lay the foundation for myths and misinterpretations that have existed in the literature until recently.”23

Further credence and backing of Irving's account was shown in the November, 1963, issue of Esquire magazine. In an article written by R.H.S. Crossman entitled, “Apocalypse at Dresden,” almost every paragraph therein provides us with a summation of what types of myths would commonly be accepted as fact in the years and decades that follow.

Crossman stated that Dresden was a systematic covered up in the west and the perpetrators of the attack should have been brought to trial at Nuremberg. By far his most outrageous claim in the article stated,

The Western democracies were responsible for the most senseless single act of mass murder committed in the whole course of World War was decided to bomb a city of no military value simply in order to impress Stalin....a fire storm was deliberately created in order to kill as many people as possible. this 'conventional" air raid was far more devastating than either of the two atomic raids against Japan that were to follow it a few months later.24

Considering all of the acts of mass murder that occurred during WWII, this statement is outright ridiculous to what was known about the war in 1963. In regards to the death toll, Crossman stated,

The German authorities were probably correct who, a few days after the attack, put the total somewhere between 120,000 and 150,000....anyone who bothers to read the books published in both Germanies and to compare the stories he hears from Communist and anti-Communist witnesses soon discovers that not only the outline of events but the details of the main episodes are agreed beyond dispute.25

He also wrote that Churchill and other allied-military leaders during the war had a sinister “hidden” purpose to bomb the Dresden when he stated,

The aerial annihilation so frightful in the destruction it wreaked that even Stalin would be impressed. Sir Winston hoped that he would be able to impress Stalin with the demonstration of what Allied air power could achieve so near the Russian allies.”26

Lastly, his concluding analysis of the bombing was stated,

For what concerns me in this inquiry is not the public image of Anglo-American idealism that was shattered by the Dresden raid, but the crime against humanity which was perpetrated. I believe that the motive which prompted us was a very characteristic Anglo- Saxon desire to defend ourselves without preparing for war to win the fruits of victory; without actual fighting, and (if this proved impossible) at least to keep casualties down to a minimum among our own soldiers. Not only do British and American fighting men demand a far higher standard of living than most of their enemies. Even more important, they insist that they should not be required to risk death in close combat if remote-control methods of destroying the enemy are available.27

It was then as it is now, a dubious and irrational argument to ascertain that British and American fighting men insisted upon not being required to risk death in a close combat environment. In all wars, in order to survive and win the war one must take a “kill or be killed” approach. Anyone faced with the option of fighting to the death or relaxing while your foe is killed for you would naturally chose the second option. Often, the comparison is made that aerial bombings, such as that over Dresden, was a war crime akin to a soldier walking up to an ememy civilian and shooting them in the face. That argument is without merit as it assumes the fact that aerial attacks do not exist. Surely, it would ring true in previous wars fought without airplanes but in the twentieth-century that argument has no basis in reality. Crossman's article provides us with the perfect opportunity to debunk all of the falsehoods about the bombing because it summarizes almost all of the myths that continue to surround the Dresden bombing.

Evidence of the death toll being at at such an insurmountably high-level was further relayed to the masses in 1969 when Vonnegut's book Slaughterhouse-Five was published. While the book is ficticious (more accurately, it is closer to science fiction), because the setting of the story lies in (none other than) Dresden, people can easily relate the interesting story to a city and an event during WWII. Perception of the bombing was based on Vonnegut's point of view of where he was when the Dresden bombings happened. To no surprise, he was a prisoner of war living in none other than in the center of the city of Dresden28

Vonnegut's book was eventually turned into a movie released in 1972. The movie version, which concludes after only an one-hour and thirty minutes, drew a larger audience as it is well known that it is much easier and more entertaining to see any movie than to read the book it was based on. In the movie, legitimacy is given to Irving's death total. In fact, his name is mentioned directly in the movie along with his estimated the death toll of 125,000. Added to the death toll is that it is mentioned when the main character, Billy Pilgrim, lies in a hospital bed haunted, shell-shocked, and emotionally devastated years after his experience while he was prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombings.29 While Vonnegut's book and the resultant movie were set in Dresden during the bombings. If the setting was changed to any other city bombed during WWII it would make absolutely no difference in how the book and movie ends (which, mind you, ends in mind-boggling fashion).

Outrageous accounts of the death toll reached even astounding proportions in the 1980s. For instance, the 1982 book creatively named, Dresden 1945: The Devil's Tinderbox, author Alexander McKee based his death toll off of a diary entry from a Dresden resident which had the final tally at 256,000 dead. However, one fault of McKee's number is that he completed much of his research by interviewing those who were in the city when the bombing took place. As he stated in the foreword:

The story of Dresden can be told only in the testimony of survivors. Barely half of those who lived through the raids were residents; they consisted mainly of women, children and old people. As many again were refugees trekking in from the overrun lands in the East. There were Allied prisoners of war, also on the march towards the city, or actually working in Dresden for their German master.30

As Biddle writes, the “grossly inflated figures (such as McKee's) remove the history from the documented record and place it, instead, in the realm of propaganda and politics.”31 Additionally, the inflated figures make people with casual knowledge of history and WWII easily able to accept the fictional amount without ever knowing the accurate amount of those killed.

As late as 1995, coincidentally the same year of which another updated copy of Irving's book was reissued, the death toll was still being disputed. In George Fowler's Barnes Review article titled “Holocaust at Dresden”, he argued that the estimated number of those killed was close to 135,000.32 The title of the article (as well as all similar books and articles) denotes that the bombing was of epic proportions of which highly demonstrative words must be used to represent the unfathomable outrage. Obviously, the title and insinuation Fowler denotes is of no comparison to the holocaust.

The overstated death toll is in the the mathematical equivalent of the common denominator which lies as the heart of any debate about the bombing. The death toll put the bombing in the public eye as being an immoral and inhumane act of which the perpetrators who deliberately killed the large amount of innocent civilians must be punished for their war crimes.

With the effect of the bombing being such a high number of innocent civilians killed a naturally high tendency has been the result to equally balance the effect with the cause. For instance, if one side of a scale is highly weighed down by a casualty count of 125,000, naturally, the other side of the scale holding the cause must have an equally sized weight to offset and balance the high effect.

Balancing the enormous effect with an enormous cause is often done when studying the holocaust. The number of Jews killed during the holocaust is commonly known to be approximately six million, most scholars (not including Irving) have been hesitant to denounce that number because it is commonly accepted to be the most accurate. However, with the Dresden bombing and only two days accounting for the massive amount of killing, it is common for survivors who experienced the horror to believe the number is much higher of an estimate. The psychological aspect of those under an aerial-attack plays in important and often understood part in determining the most accurate number of those who killed. Taylor summarizes how the final count of those killed can be off the mark when he states, “When an area is subjected to intense attack, terrified individuals understandably take it personally. The sense that the enemy aircraft are 'following you' or have 'picked' you out is a strong human instinct.” Compared to the holocaust which lasted years, because the bombing of Dresden only took approximately three days to complete, Taylor also states the natural result is that more “rumors, legends, and distortions spread among a terrified populace.”33

Taylor, by devoting an entire appendix of his book to counting the dead, proves all previous estimates wrong and proves that the myth of the death toll was first started through German propaganda and subsequently by the “internationally best known work” by Irving. Taylor further denotes that Irving was indeed given a copy of the TB47 misinformation report (with the extra zero added) of which he took the bait of the propaganda and believed the misinformation therein hook, line, and sinker.34

Taylor concludes that the fairest and most acceptable estimate lies between twenty-five thousand and forty thousand. He states that due to the misinformation spread throughout the years, that is the most reliable figure.35

In support of Taylor, an obvious factor which tends to be often overlooked is that Dresden was not gradually bombed to make the transition to it being completely destroyed a slow and steadily increasing amount. Similar to turning on the water in a shower, if the water is slowly turned up to a higher temperature, it is difficult to note that the temperature is rising. But, if the water goes from the coldest temperature to the hottest temperature in split second, the reaction and burns that result make the event much more memorable and all that more traumatic. Had the city been bombed before (which it actually had been bombed sporadically prior to February 13th, 1945), the slow but steady destruction of Dresden could have been as noticeable as a slowly but surely rising temperature in the shower.

Taylor's accounts has now been accepted by some other aerial-bombing scholars such as Michael Burleigh. In his book, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, he studied the moral dilemmas faced by political and military leaders on the Allied side during WWII. From a moral standpoint, Burleigh adds further legitimacy to Taylor's account by stating that,

the bombing of Dresden came at the conclusion of a long war that, while generally brutalizing and dulling moral sensitivities, also had clear enough justification in the fight between good and evil.

Burleigh similarity believes that the popularity of the Dresden bombing has been often overstated primarily because of what started from Goebbels and then spread via the “dubious mediation of David Irving, a prominent holocaust revisions who incorporated the Nazis figure of 125,000 dead in his book.” The result has been a bombing has produced far to many invalid arguments when "the brutal reality was that Dresden was just another name on a target board, to which more unjustified retrospective significance has been attached."36

To ascertain that the bombings were immoral and acts that require punishment to those who authorized and planned the firestorm do not realize that they have the ability to make that argument as a result of those they are (ironically) looking to punish.

The argument of whether or not the aerial-bombing demands repercussions for being too excessive or not necessary minimizes the psychological aspects of how much it benefits those who utilize it to perfection. or was excessive during the war. The psychological benefit of aerial superior, such as that gained over the German Luftwaffe, is also of immense benefit on soldiers who are often forced to participate in aerial bombings of which it is known collateral damage will result from their actions.

Nazi soldiers as well as allied-soldiers wrestled with this problem. But for them, it wasn't through the air that they benefited from distancing themselves from the killings, but instead from the methods of how they carried out the mass extermination of Jews. For Nazis, it was soldiers ordered to directly kill Jews that influenced how and why more gas chambers were created. As David Engel states in his book, The Holocaust: The Third Reich and the Jews, German killings of the Jews transitioned by the end of 1942 to more mass-exterminations camps because

mass shootings generated undesirable psychological repercussions in some German executioners, who found the messy business of shooting – the screaming, the blood, the stench, and (perhaps most of all) the direct confrontation with their victims – emotionally devastating. Thus, for the murder of all European Jews, a method was required that could kill greater numbers faster, require less manpower, be kept hidden from the local population, and maximum the psychological distance between killer and killed.37

Because allied forces of course did not participate in a mass extinction against Jews, they were able to easily avoid this dilemma by utilizing the power of the air. As such, they had the benefit of not having to look into the eyes of the enemy or innocent victims of war of which is a not often realized as an important aspect to how victory was achieved during WWII.

The loss of innocent lives is now a fact of warfare which will continue on indefinitely into the future as wars are no longer fought solely on battlefields. The bombing of Dresden represented the level of psychological expertise the allies had over their Nazi counterparts. The air superiority gained much prior to the bombing resulted in the allies being able to easier focus on tightening the noose around Germany while their focus was instead of rounding up innocent Jews and leading them like lambs to a slaughter to concentration camps.

A grim necessity shared by allies and axis powers alike was the necessity to realize that being evil is required to defeat evil. This moral quandary was analyzed in detail by an article published in The Newport Papers in 1991. Military historian Christopher C. Harmon article, “Are we Beasts? Churchill and the Moral Question of World War II Aerial Bombing,” Harmon argues that:

Consideration of the strategic choices made between 1939 and 1945 thus suggests a clear answer to Churchill's question "Are we beasts?" but only rather tentative answers to his subsequent query 'Have we gone too far?' They were not beasts, but leaders of an alliance desperate to preserve the world from a bestial hegemon.38

In terms of whether or not the Dresden bombing was an evil act, it is clear after further analysis, the bombing of Dresden was necessary and even if history has shown otherwise, in the context of the time military leaders had no second thoughts to bombing as the city was (as Burleigh has stated) just another city. Any recommendation (such as that recommended by Crossman) to persecute the planners for crimes against humanity was answered by Harmon as indeed what had to be done, no matter how regretful they may seem, had to be done.

Even though a great deal of misinformation and falsehoods existed and continue to exist to this day. They actually served and continue to serve a great purpose. After the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, as well as the firebombing of Japan, the Dresden bombing holds an important place in history. While the use of nuclear weapons has led many to strive for deterrence against any future usage, so to have people realized that aerial bombing, such as that propagated due to the myths spread about Dresden, aided in putting fear into the minds of many that conventional warfare also has grave consequences for civilians and soldiers alike. As Biddle excellently explains,

Perhaps the deep symbolic significance of Dresden has accrued over time because it speaks so directly to the level of vigilance needed to control the most destructive of human forces once they have been loosed by war: it speaks powerfully to the brutalizing and corrosive effects of war, even upon those who are fighting for a righteous cause, and who believe themselves to be fighting honorably.39

Furthermore, embellishing the level of carnage from historic acts of violence, however masquerading the truth, produces an equal correlation of fear in those who do not take the time to learn the true details. Regarding the legacy of the Dresden bombing, Taylor writes similar to Biddle,

Nevertheless, once the war was over and we started to look around for symbols to understand it by, the popular instinct rightly picked out, and continues to pick out what happened on Feb 13-14, 1945, as a warning of excess. Dresden remains a terrible illustration of what apparently civilize human beings are capable of under extreme circumstances, when all the normal breaks on human behavior have been eroded by years of total war.

He further states that those who ordered and carried out the war did so without regard to the circumstances as, at the time, with the war lasting so long, they simply “could not read the future.”40 Indeed, putting historical and modern events requires one to vividly imagine themselves at whatever time period is being analyzed and to erase from memory what one now knows today.

In the February 14th, 1995, issue of the Wall Street Journal, Simon Jenkins wrote the article “Dresden: Time to Say We're Sorry.” He stated that everything he has read about the Dresden bombing has convinced him that the bombing was a crime against humanity. While he acknowledges that the total killed was lesser than the astoundingly high figures many still believe (he places the total estimate at 25,000), he applies blame to the military perpetrators of the act who escaped punishment in the decades following the war without their “crimes” ever being punished.

He argues that the least that anybody affiliated with the bombing could do is apologize as “saying sorry costs nothing. The Allied cause of 1945 was right and triumphant. The rightness shows it's strength when it can recognize and atone for its errors, especially when they were as awful as the destruction of Dresden.”41

As has been argued, the bombing was not an error, it was necessary at the time and in the context of the war the alternatives and will of the German army to surrender was not known. An apology as easy as saying sorry does not account for what was at stake at the time the bombing took place.

A comparison of something of which consequences of losing would be far less devastating would be a baseball game (as war is sometimes referred to as being a game in itself). In baseball, even if a team is winning by an insurmountable margin in the late innings of a game, the game must still be played through until the very end. While, less aggressive play and starters are often take out of the game, the offense still hits and the defense still defends. When the game concludes, assuming no unwritten rules have been excessively broken, never will it be heard by the victors that they are “sorry” for winning. In baseball, as in war, saying sorry is simply not an option.

The propaganda that spread like a wildfire immediately after the bombing and the barrage of inaccurate stories in the decades that followed have and likely will continue to have many believe the mythical history about the Dresden bombing and what actually occurred between of the infamous three days between February 13th, 1945, and February 15th, 1945.

While propaganda distorts the truth, it also protects the public by paradoxical striking fear into the populace. Ultimately, the truth must come out and knowledge must conquer the lies that are spread before, during, and after wartime by power leaders who knavishly use false or embellished information to plant fear into people's minds via the use of propaganda.


1Kenneth P. Werrell, “The Strategic Bombing of Germany in World War II: Costs and Accomplishments,” Journal of American History 73, no. 3 (1986): 702.
2Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 172.
3“World: Battlefronts: Western Front,” Time, 1 January 1945, 18.
4U.S. Joint War Plans Committee, Details of the Campaign Against Japan: Plans and Operations Division, 1945 (Washington, D.C.: JWPC, 1945), 7.
5Tami David Biddle, “Dresden 1945: Reality, History, and Memory,” Journal of Military History 72, no. 2 (2008): 431.
6Biddle, 414-415.
7Joseph Goebbels, “Colossal Anger”, Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945. (Munich: Propylea Verlag, 2002), 69, quoted in Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), 100-101.
8Howard Cowan, “Terror Bombing Gets Allied Approval as Step to Speed Victory,” Washington Star, 18 February 1945, 1.
9Tami David Biddle, “Dresden 1945: Reality, History, and Memory,” Journal of Military History 72, no. 2 (2008): 437-438.
10Taylor, 362.
11“Terror Bombing,” Washington Star, 19 February 1945, 8.
12Henry Stimson, “A Matter of Conscious,” Washington Star, 24 February 1945, 8.
13Biddle, 436.
14Taylor, 371-372.
15Taylor, 370.
16Norman Davies, Europe: A History (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 899.
17Taylor, 416.
18Taylor, 386.
19Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (London: Doubleday, 2003), xxiv.
20“U.S. War Casualties,” Time, 5 March 1945 , 19.
21David Irving, Apocalypse 1945: The Destruction of Dresden, rev. ed. (London: Focal Point Publications, 1995), 243.
22Irving, 245.
23Biddle, 448.
24R.H.S. Crossman, “Apocalypse at Dresden,” Esquire, November 1963, 149.
25Crossman, 152.
26Crossman, 153.
27Crossman, 154.
28Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969).
29Slaughterhouse-Five, prod. and dir. George Roy Hill, 1 hr. 43 min., Universal Pictures, 1972, DVD (2004).
30Alexander McKee, Dresden 1945: The Devil's Tinderbox (London: Souvenir Press, 1982), 8.
31Biddle, 424.
32Fowler, Barnes Review 3.
33Taylor, 332.
34Taylor, 443-444.
35Taylor, 448.
36Michael Burleigh, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), 514.
37David Engel, The Holocaust: The Third Reich and the Jews (United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited, 2000), 57-58.
38Christopher C. Harmon, “Are We Beasts?: Churchill and the Moral Question of World War II Aerial Bombing,” The Newport Papers 1 (1991): 30.
39Biddle, 449.
40Taylor, 417.
41Simon Jenkins, “Dresden: Time to Say We're Sorry,” Wall Street Journal, 14 February 1945, A22.


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