BLOOMSBURY £20 (496pp) £18 (plus £2.25 p&p per order) from 0870 800 1122

Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945 by Frederick Taylor

Dresden, 1945: a legitimate target

Like Frederick Taylor, I grew up with a sense that the RAF's bombing of Dresden on 13-14 February 1945 was a stain on the Allies' war record. My unease owed much to Kurt Vonnegut's novelised memoir of his experience in Dresden as an American PoW, forced to disinter the corpses of German civilians who had been suffocated or baked to death in cellars beneath the ruins of their once-beautiful city. I read Slaughterhouse-Five in one sitting, and it has haunted me since.

Later, it transpired that the tragedy of Dresden was being used to relativise and so diminish the scale and singularity of atrocities perpetrated by the German army, the Luftwaffe and the SS between 1939 and 1945. At best, Dresden distorted the moral balance sheet of the Second World War. At worst, it was a tool for polemicists blurring victims and perpetrators. This disturbing trend has gained force in Germany over the past few years.

In 2002, Jörg Friedrich published Der Brand, an account of how ordinary Germans experienced the air war. Friedrich argued that the suffering of German civilians had always been unjustly overshadowed by the fate of the Jews. It sold 200,000 copies within months. Friedrich followed it with an illustrated history, using images previously considered too horrific to bear publication. This time, he accused the Allies of committing a war crime by continuing the intensive bombing of German cities between January and May 1945.

Last year, the late WG Sebald's controversial lectures On the Natural History of Destruction appeared in English, arguing that Germans had repressed memories of the air raids. He maintained: "In spite of strenuous efforts to come to terms with the past, as people like to put it, it seems to me that we Germans today are a nation strikingly blind to history and lacking in tradition." The formula "coming to terms with the past", or Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, is more usually employed to describe Germany's reckoning with the Nazi persecution and mass murder of the Jews. By using it, Sebald juxtaposed memory of the bombing with memory of the "Final Solution" and turned history on its head.

Although his lectures concentrated on the alleged failure of post-war writers to describe the destruction and carnage caused by bombing, Sebald deployed terms such as "annihilation" and "extermination" to evoke Allied policy - terms that are customarily Nazi euphemisms for genocide. The lectures triggered a huge correspondence from Germans who lived through the raids, some of which - he acknowledged - showed the persistence of an unapologetic Nazi outlook.

Now Frederick Taylor, a specialist on the Nazi era, has entered the maelstrom of conflicting interpretations. His cool reappraisal benefits from sources that have become available since German reunification and the recent work of conscientious German researchers. Even though his defence of the RAF may not convert sceptics, no one will gainsay that he has written a narrative that powers along without descending into hyperbole. It is impeccably documented while avoiding the sterile jargon of so much military history.

In setting out to create "a more complex moral and ambivalent framework", Taylor gives us the voice of civilians and bomber crews, teenage flak gunners and Jews facing deportation. For such Jews, so often omitted from the moral equation, the incendiaries and HE bombs were less a deadly rain than manna from heaven.

Even before the war was over, a legend grew up around the bombing of Dresden - largely thanks to Goebbels and his Propaganda Ministry. Nazi propaganda described Dresden as a city of no military value, crammed with refugees from the East. The "Florence on the Elbe" was allegedly obliterated in a senseless act of barbarism. Later accretions to the myth included the obscene suggestion that Dresden was targeted by the Western Allies as an object lesson for the Russians.

Taylor exposes each one of these legends. Dresden was hardly "an innocent city". It was a Nazified city in which opponents of the regime and Czech nationalists had been incarcerated and executed en masse. The Jewish population, which included the remarkable diarist Viktor Klemperer, had been reduced by deportations from 6,000 to a few hundred.

Thousands of impressed foreign workers and slave labourers toiled in the city's armaments industries. Dresden had not been turning out harmless porcelain or consumer goods for years. More than 120 factories were devoted to the German war effort. On an average day in 1944, 28 military trains passed through its marshalling yards.

Nor was Dresden selected on the whim of the maligned Air Marshal "Bomber" Harris, head of Bomber Command, at a time when the war was won. It was identified as a target by the Joint Intelligence Committee, which perceived its strategic role in resistance to the Red Army. The German high command designated it a strongpoint, although this was wishful thinking rather than military reality.

Just four weeks earlier, the German army had had ripped a massive hole in the Western front and advanced halfway to Antwerp before they were stopped at massive cost. To Allied soldiers and air crew, in the first weeks of 1945 Germany looked anything but beaten. Nor were Allied civilians sanguine about victory while V1s and V2s were inflicting heavy loss of life on Brussels, Antwerp and London.

If Dresden was defenceless, this was the fault of the local Nazi Party leadership and military overstretch. Raids on nearby cities offered plenty of warning, but the Party boss contented himself with building a private bunker. Seven batteries of heavy anti-aircraft guns were stripped away to defend the Ruhr area or for use against Russian tanks on the Eastern Front.

Protection for civilians was incompetently constructed. Tunnels connecting basements and cellars functioned as convector ovens once the firestorm began. People were instructed to stay underground when they should have rushed up to roofs to extinguish incendiary bombs.

Taylor does nothing to minimise the horror of the two RAF assaults and the less effective US Army Air Force raid the following day. But he points out that bombing continued until the end of the war, by which time several towns were relatively worse hit. Nazi propaganda fastened on Dresden because its cultural importance resonated in Britain and among neutrals.

During the 1950s, a succession of Communist officials supplemented their incomes by churning out stories of the raids that uncritically used casualty figures doctored by the SS. These tracts were explicitly intended to blacken the Western Allies' reputation, but this did not prevent the right-wing Nazi apologist David Irving from happily recycling the fantastic computations in his bestselling 1963 book, The Destruction of Dresden.

As if the fate of Dresdeners was not bad enough, their memory is still traduced for crude political reasons. In laying to rest the legends, Taylor's authoritative and moving account provides a truer, more fitting memorial.

David Cesarani's study of Adolf Eichmann will be published by Heinemann later this year

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London