The column is available on the London Free Press website and also appears below.
This weekend marks the 65th anniversary of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, a horrific raid that killed 30,000 civilians and left much of the city a smoldering ruin. With the exception of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski, no action by the Allies in the Second World War has generated so much moral condemnation. Ever since, critics have charged that the city was defenseless and of no military value. Neither of these claims is entirely true, but even Winston Churchill conceded that the attack represented a serious “query” against the moral conduct of Allies.
Area bombing — the indiscriminate targeting of enemy cities rather than specific war-related industries and military targets — was a tactic adopted by the RAF’s Bomber Command in 1941. It was a sensible decision at the time. The British were without major allies and confronted by a totalitarian enemy that had conquered all of western Europe. Without the technological means to target war industries precisely, Bomber Command aimed at what it couldn’t miss: whole towns and cities. By late 1944, however, area bombing had taken on an enormous inertia of its own, and Bomber Command continued to reduce towns and cities to rubble and ash long after there was any prospect of German victory.
Major anniversaries of this kind always stir up a brouhaha, but the controversy over the strategic bombing offensive has been simmering away for decades now. Historians and military men of unimpeachable patriotic credentials have been raising serious questions about the campaign’s efficacy and morality ever since the first bomb fell. Today, most scholars agree that the Anglo-American bomber offensive cracked German morale, destroyed the Luftwaffe, and dealt heavy blows to Hitler’s war industry.
But were the attacks moral? This is a different question entirely. Historians tread lightly here, for we are wary travelers in the realm of moral philosophy. Some people would argue that historians have no business making moral judgments at all, but clearly this will not do. Surely no one would deny us the right to condemn Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao. Nor should we submit to the temptation of moral relativism, for we cannot judge monsters by their own monstrous standards. By what standard can we judge, then? Certainly not our own. What about judging by the moral standards of the time? Again, we must be cautious. There was no consensus about the morality of killing enemy civilians at the time, as evidenced by the fact that Allied propaganda consistently downplayed or even covered up the fact that British, Canadian, and American bombers were killing women and children. These are difficult matters. But where the moral debate over the bombing of Dresden goes awry, in my opinion, is in focusing too much on the actions of the Allies, and not enough on the war guilt of the enemy.
In about sixty days in the late spring and early summer of 1943, the Second World War turned decisively against the Germans. In May 1943, they effectively conceded defeat in the Battle of Atlantic by withdrawing their U-Boats from convoy routes. Then, in July, a succession of haymakers sent the Axis reeling: the German offensive against the Soviets at Kursk was repulsed with catastrophic losses; the Allies invaded Sicily and Mussolini’s government fell; and a dreadful firestorm immolated Hamburg and perhaps 40,000 of its people following a heavy raid by Bomber Command. After that summer of 1943, and certainly no later the D-Day, a year later, it was no longer possible for any rational person to doubt what the eventual outcome of the war would be. The Nazis’ continued resistance was explicable only in light of their pathological addiction to redrawing the racial map of Europe through murder. Fighting on served no purpose except to continue the bloodletting for its own sake. Too often, we forget this, and instead chastise the Allies for their heavy handed prosecution of a war that the Nazis started in the first place and then refused to end. After the Holocaust itself, this is the worst of the atrocities that the Nazis committed: their refusal to surrender unconditionally, even long after it was clear that unconditional surrender would be eventual outcome anyway. How many millions died, in the final months of the war, to satiate the Nazis’ insatiable bloodlust?
We cannot know, for certain. But we can certainly add the dead at Dresden to their numbers. The thousands who died by fire and asphyxiation at Dresden were victims not just of the remorseless logic of Allied area bombing, but also the death fetishism of a government which many of them had once cheered onwards to victory.