In the eye of the firestorm

Dresden, Tuesday 13 February 1945

by Frederick Taylor

Bloomsbury, 20

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Before the dozen years of Nazi atrocity between 1933 and 1945, the word "holocaust" meant only and literally a mass sacrifice or destruction by fire. We owe its redefinition to Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

In the southern, Saxon section of that Germany a man named Otto Griebel stood on a Dresden street gazing at the smoking ruins of the city’s venerable synagogue. The date was 9 November, 1938 - a year before the outbreak of war. The Dresden synagogue had been torched and left to collapse in flames as part of Saxony’s contribution to Kristallnacht ("the Night of Broken Glass"), a national orgy of Nazi arson, vandalism and murder against Germany’s Jews.

Griebel, a Communist artist, was stunned by the sight. As he watched the synagogue smoulder a kenspeckle old street character approached. "This fire will return," said the ancient fiercely. "It will make a long curve and then come back to us."

Almost exactly two years later another two men stood on top of the Air Ministry in Whitehall during the Blitz, watching the old city centre of London burn. One was Sir Charles Portal, the RAF chief of staff. The other was air vice-marshal Arthur Travers Harris. Both of them knew that the successful conclusion of the Battle of Britain had recently freed their country’s aviation industry to make an enormous investment in the production of long-range heavy bombers.

Before stumping off the ministry roof, Harris turned to Portal, indicated the flames and said: "They are sowing the wind." Portal agreed. Three months later Arthur Harris took control of Bomber Command.

The fire-bombing of the city of Dresden in February 1945 became probably the most controversial operation carried out by British and American forces during the Second World War. It has variously been described - not least from within Allied territory - as a war crime, an act of sadism, a massacre of innocents and a brutal affront to civilised values, which lowered the Allied cause to the level of their enemies.

Frederick Taylor’s magnificent, all-encompassing study of the action, its origins and its aftermath is surely as close as the English language will get to a definitive, balanced examination of the subject.

As Taylor is bold enough to say in his introduction, we may as well get it out of the way now: he absolves the Allies. If we are able to swallow the vernacular of total warfare, then Dresden was a legitimate target. It was certainly as legitimate a target as Coventry and more legitimate a target than Bath.

Dresden was not a centre of peaceable artisans turning out porcelain shepherdesses. It was a Nazi stronghold; an administrative capital - not least for the railroading of Jews to death camps - a hive of essential industry and a focus of transport and communication (which is why in February 1945 it was also the temporary home of tens of thousands of German evacuees fleeing from the Red Army in the east and Allied prisoners-of-war such as Kurt Vonnegut, the future author of Slaughterhouse-Five, who sheltered from the raid in an abattoir).

But a mythology had grown around Dresden, cultivated in part by the fact that it had previously escaped the heavy bombing that devastated Berlin and Hamburg. This was, many Saxons convinced themselves, because their fellow Saxons in those offshore islands to the west loved Dresden as they loved Tuscany. They would no sooner bomb this Florence-on-the-Elbe than they would bomb Venice. Aryan Dresdeners were incapable of seeing themselves and their city through the eyes of its violated Jews or, more crucially in 1945, through the eyes of Sir Arthur Harris.

Taylor offers us a nicely sympathetic revision of "Bomber" Harris. But then, Taylor gives us a beautifully worked version of every part of the Dresden story. Its pre-war history as the imperial and artistic centre of Saxony and its post-war fate in the German Democratic Republic is told in lucid prose. An essential and fascinating account of the development of aerial warfare, from hot-air balloon to Flying Fortress, is inserted effortlessly into his text.

When it comes to the meat of the narrative, the central events of that February night in 1945, Taylor switches elegantly to first-hand recount. The airmen and their controllers are reinvented for his reader as people trying themselves to understand and survive an unimaginable climacteric. From within the city itself he draws on the recollections of survivors, Gentiles and Jews, who struggled through the inferno.

A fire storm engulfed the old centre of Dresden. It was deliberately created to leave no human life in its wake. Men looked from above, aghast at what they had wrought. Men, women and children down below were boiled alive in the supposed sanctuary of fountains and reservoirs. Henny Wolf, a young woman with a Jewish mother who had been waiting on the order to Auschwitz, reflected that "For us, however, macabre as it may sound, the air raid was our salvation and that was exactly how we understood it."

After the deluge came the propaganda and the pain. Aristocratic British alumnii of Dresden finishing schools protested to Churchill. Questions were asked in the House. Goebbels multiplied the death toll by ten and warned the German volk that they must all die fighting or suffer such torture. In the Cold War years that followed it became convenient to East Germany’s Communist authorities to perpetuate the version of Dresden as a victim of "American war-mongers". It has, naturally, suited the German neo-right to promote exactly the same line. And few Dresden survivors could be expected to disagree.

The truth, as Frederick Taylor proposes in an afterword as exemplary as its 400 preceding pages, is far messier. There had been a sleep of reason. Then "the fighting ceased, and the world awoke from its terrible dream ... people started to turn to one another in shamed amazement and ask: Did we really do that?"