Saturday, February 15, 2020

This Day in Literary History (Dresden’s Horror Ends, Vonnegut’s Begins)

Feb. 15, 1945— Dresden, so renowned for culture that it was known as the “Florence of the Elbe,” staggered out after 48 hours of aerial bombing by British and American forces to find the city center in ruins and countless charred bodies.

The residents of the capital of the German state of Saxony would never be able to erase from their memory what they had seen here. Neither would a 22-year-old American, Kurt Vonnegut, prisoner-of-war, who, by a sheer fluke, survived the firestorm with other prisoners of war by being confined in a converted compound where animals were killed and processed for human consumption. 

In 1969, Vonnegut gave the title of this holding pen to his bestselling novel about the horror: Slaughterhouse-Five.

Fury over the Vietnam War finally enabled Vonnegut to write about what he had seen two decades previously. “We could finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis,” he recalled. “And what I saw, what I had to report, made war look so ugly. You know the truth can be really powerful stuff. You’re not expecting it.”

How bad was the bombing that precipitated the horror? Even at the time, the number of casualties created a metaphorical firestorm of controversy that mirrored the literal firestorm that took place in the proud old city. 

Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, wildly exaggerated the casualties to 200,000. In 1963, a young scholar not yet infamous as a Holocaust denier, David Irving, claimed, in The Destruction of Dresden, that the bombing was “the biggest single massacre in European history,” putting the death toll from 150,000 to 200,000.

Irving’s thesis was just one element of a postwar political climate when the truth itself about the aerial assault’s impact became a casualty:

 “In West Germany, rightwing forces have continuously presented German suffering under the bombs as atonement for the crimes committed under National Socialism,” observed Susanne Vees-Gulani in her essay “The Experience of Destruction: W.G. Sebald, the Airwar, and Literature,” in W. G. Sebald: History - Memory –Trauma (2006). “Whether justified or not, writing about the bombings is thus always under suspicion of trying to revise history in a way that could show Germans in a more favorable light or as victims themselves.” 

So many arguments ensued over the body count that in 2004, Dresden created an historical commission that combed through historical, military, forensic and archeological research for a more precise count. Six years later, it offered a much-reduced estimate: 22,700 to 25,000 dead.

That has not stopped the far-right Alternative for Germany from labeling the bombing “a war crime,” even as the party has consistently criticize the nation’s attempt to atone for Nazi atrocities.

The fact is that the tangible physical tumult associated with the bombing was horrible enough that even Winston Churchill, who did not blanch at efforts to bring the war home to the enemy, began to reconsider the military’s bombing policy. "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed," he wrote in a memo.

Vonnegut depicted the horror unforgettably in Slaughterhouse-Five: "Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn." And, in the immediate aftermath, the city was "like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead."

Another POW, British rifleman Victor Gregg, was also haunted by what he witnessed, as he related in a reminiscence for the British newspaper The Independent five years ago:

“When the raid ended, we continued with the cellars, prising them open with pickaxes and crowbars. Inside, we found the victims' bodies, usually shrivelled to half their normal size or worse. (Children under the age of three or four had simply melted.) But most looked like they had died peacefully, through lack of oxygen, losing consciousness in the process.

“We dragged their remains into the open, where they were examined for identifying marks and then piled up to await cremation – and this turned out to be the easy bit. Even the hardest of us would flinch as we got nearer to the site of the raid's centre, where fierce fires still raged…

“On the third day, everywhere I looked I could see men working in dozen-strong gangs and now, as we approached the city centre, the most terrible task began. Some of the corpses were so brittle that they crumbled into clouds of ash and dried flesh. Yet so methodical were the Germans that we were ordered to stuff any identifiable parts of these corpses into sacks.”

In addition to the charred bodies left by the firestorm, there was a spiritual void that lasted for years: Dresden's Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) imploded when temperatures from the firestorm exceeded the 800C (1470F) at which sandstone melts. It was not until the 1990s, after German reunification, that a campaign was mounted to reconstruct the Baroque structure, and not until over a decade later that it reopened.

The legacy of Dresden is profoundly unsettling, not just for the damage it caused but for the excuse it afforded far-right nationalists to ignore the city’s own deep responsibility for Nazism and the Holocaust.

“Whoever pits the dead of Dresden against the dead of Auschwitz, whoever seeks to talk down German wrongs, whoever falsifies improved knowledge and historical facts,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, at the official ceremony commemorating the attack, “we as democrats must loudly and clearly contradict them. We must defy them.”

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