Rains of Ruin

Reviewed by Mark Lewis
Sunday, January 28, 2007

On the evening of Dec. 29, 1940, Arthur Harris looked on from the Air Ministry roof in London as German bombers set the city ablaze. "Well, they have sown the wind," he said. Four years and 46 days later, Dresden reaped the whirlwind.

London survived the Luftwaffe's onslaught, and the city's fortitude during the Blitz passed into legend. Dresden's legacy is more problematic. Largely incinerated by British and American bombers in mid-February 1945, it has been rebuilt and to a great extent restored to its former glory. But its destruction often is cited as proof that the Allies, too, committed war crimes, and that Germans, too, were victims.

"Bomber" Harris, who ran the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command from 1942 through 1945, was untroubled by second thoughts. As Marshall de Bruhl makes clear in Firestorm, Harris never regretted the decision to target the Saxon capital. Had he not done worse to Hamburg? Besides, the Germans started the war; they had fire-bombed British cities; and in the war's final months, they still were terrorizing London with V-1 buzz-bombs and V-2 ballistic missiles. Why the fuss about Dresden?

The answer is that Dresden was beautiful; it still was mostly undamaged in February 1945; and in hindsight, its destruction served no purpose since the war was almost over. This was "the Florence of the Elbe," a jewel box of Baroque architecture that had played host to Goethe and Schiller, Bach and Schumann, Wagner and Richard Strauss. Inevitably, Germans seeking to shrug off the historical burden of Nazism have seized upon Dresden as an exculpatory event. Here was a cherished symbol of everything the world still reveres about German culture, cruelly and uselessly obliterated by Harris's bombers. In this view, Dresden was not merely a crime; it was a mistake.

There are, as De Bruhl notes, some rather large holes in this theory. Dresden was a loyal city of the Reich, as supportive of the Nazis as any other burg. It was also a transportation and manufacturing center and therefore qualified as a legitimate military target, insofar as any city can be considered one. The war in Europe appeared far from over when the Dresden raid was mounted; and the number of its victims, while considerable, has been grossly exaggerated by the Nazi apologist David Irving. (Current estimates place Dresden's death toll at somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000, far below Irving's estimate of 135,000.)

De Bruhl, whose previous book was a biography of Sam Houston, devotes much space to the overall air war in Europe from 1939 to 1945. In this context, he views the bombing of German cities as a necessary evil. He compares the Dresden firestorm to "the purifying fire that brings to a close Wagner's epic Ring of the Nibelung." To De Bruhl, "the fires of World War II were necessary in order to destroy an evil society and portend a new beginning for Germany."

FIRESTORM The Bombing of Dresden 1945Edited by Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang Ivan R. Dee; paperback, $16.95

Dresden gets a bit more sympathy from the contributors to another book entitled Firestorm, this one a collection of essays from such noted historians as Hew Strachan, edited by Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang. Like De Bruhl, these essayists reject the Irving-style myths and exaggerations, most of which were exposed by the historian Frederick Taylor in his 2004 book Dresden: Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945. But one can reject the myths and still be appalled by the tragedy that gave rise to them. Donald Bloxham, a history lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, asserts in his essay that the bombing should be considered a war crime, albeit not one on the same scale as Auschwitz. Bloxham sees Dresden as "a black spot on the British conscience," and therefore a useful corrective to "the central role that a rather mythologized war effort plays in British national identity."

BLITZ The Story of December 29, 1940By Margaret Gaskin Harcourt, $27

Bloxham no doubt would gag at a book like Blitz, in which Margaret Gaskin valorizes the desperate struggle to save St. Paul's Cathedral and other architectural treasures from Nazi incendiary bombs. St. Paul's survived, but several Christopher Wren churches were gutted that night, along with London's medieval Guildhall and the attic in which Samuel Johnson composed his Dictionary. To create her narrative, Gaskin skillfully draws upon the accounts of eyewitnesses, including the American journalist Ernie Pyle -- and also the 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys, whose description of the Great Fire of London is artfully interpolated. (That 1666 fire and this 1940 fire covered much of the same territory.) The result is an absorbing book, although it's a bit thick with admiring references to Londoners' stiff upper lips. "Yes," Gaskin assures us, "a cup of tea really was viewed as the universal panacea for all ills."

As wartime targets, London and Dresden each has inspired a classic postmodernist American novel. London has Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow ("A screaming comes across the sky"); Dresden has Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Slaughterhouse-Five. What London has that Dresden lacks is a library full of books like Gaskin's Blitz: uplifting accounts of ordinary citizens heroically enduring the horrors of war. "London can take it," the British liked to boast in 1940. Well, so could Berlin, but no postwar filmmaker ever produced a German version of "Mrs. Miniver." Hence the strategic focus on Dresden as a crime against art. The Germans who died in the conflagration may in some sense have brought it on themselves by supporting Hitler, but the beautiful Frauenkirche and the Semper Opera House clearly were blameless victims of war's madness.

Even back in 1945, this argument had an impact. Dresden's destruction sufficiently disturbed Secretary of War Henry Stimson that he removed Kyoto from the Army Air Force's list of target cities in Japan. Stimson, who had visited Kyoto as a tourist years earlier, wanted to spare its temples and palaces a visit from Gen. Curtis LeMay's B-29s. So the first mushroom cloud rose over Hiroshima instead. Ars longa, vita brevis. ยท

Mark Lewis is writing a book about the American experience in the Philippines.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company