Saturday, February 15, 2014


File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-08778-0001, Dresden, Tote nach Bombenangriff.jpg Note: this is a heavily revised version of an Op-Ed piece that originally appeared in the London Free Press in 2009.


"The aim of the combined bomber offensive should be unambiguously stated as the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany...the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport, and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale...are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories." 

- Arthur Harris, October 1943. 

February 13th to 15th is the anniversary of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, a horrific series of fire raids that killed 25,000 civilians and left much of that beautiful medieval city a smouldering ruin. With the exception of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 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 true, but even Winston Churchill conceded that the attack, conducted when victory was imminent, represented a serious “query” against the moral conduct of Allies.

Area bombing — usually described as the indiscriminate bombardment of towns and cities — was a tactic adopted by the RAF’s Bomber Command in 1941. It was an inevitable decision at the time, when the British were without major allies and confronted by a totalitarian enemy that had conquered much of Europe. Without the technology to hit military and industrial targets precisely, Bomber Command aimed at what it couldn’t miss – whole towns and cities. Make no mistake, civilians were made the deliberate object of attack, although contemporary authorities sometimes disguised this with such euphemisms as "dehousing" and "breaking morale" – euphemisms that modern historians are too often wont to take seriously. But at the time the meaning was clear: you break enemy morale by burning down their houses, with them in them. Or does anyone really suppose that Bomber Command thought the occupants would be out for the evening?

As its navigational and targeting abilities improved steadily over the course of 1943 and 1944, Bomber Command increasingly raided oil, transportation, and other such enemy assets, too, but in absolute terms the tonnage dropped in area raids continued to grow, peaking in February 1945. For months after there was any prospect of German victory, British heavy bombers continued to reduce towns and cities to rubble and ash. Almost forgotten, to give one example among many, is the February 23rd attack on the small town of Pforzheim, in which as many as 17,000 people – a third of town's population – were killed. Bomber Command raided the town an additional eight times after that.
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 scholars 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 forced the Germans to devote huge resources to air defense, destroyed the Luftwaffe,
cracked civilian morale, and dealt crippling blows to Hitler’s war industry.   

But were the attacks moral? This is a different question entirely. Historians tread lightly here, for they 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. No one would deny us the right to condemn Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or the 9/11 terrorists. (And surely the only thing more chilling than a Holocaust denier would be someone who admits that it happened but refuses to say it was wrong.)  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? The philosophy of ethics provides us with many possible answers, but historians don't often read moral philosophy. 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. Polls, including the Mass Observation reports in the UK, showed surprising levels of opposition to killing German civilians. Allied propaganda consistently downplayed the fact that it was happening and indeed had to: the same propaganda vehemently condemned the Germans for their inhumanity when they did it. Can we judge? Of course. How do we judge? There is no easy answer. 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 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 series of heavy raids by Bomber Command. After the 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 by violence. This is too often misunderstood, and the Allies instead are chastised for their insistence on "unconditional surrender" and their heavy handed prosecution of a war that the Nazis started and then refused to end. After the Holocaust itself, this is the worst of the atrocities that the Nazis and their very willing collaborators in the German armed forces 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 their insatiable bloodlust?

We cannot know. But the thousands of German civilians who died by fire and asphyxiation at Dresden were victims not just of the remorseless logic of Allied area bombing, but also of the death fetishism of a government that many of them had once cheered on to victory.