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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

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