Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review of Dresden by Frederick Taylor (Bloomsbury, 2005)

The flattening and firestorm of Dresden on the night of the 13th February and morning of the 14th of February 1945 continues to generate controversy.  For many it has become a symbol of the extent to which the Western Allies overstepped the mark from a morally righteous war campaign to wanton destruction and mass murder.  For others, Dresden was a legitimate target; a key transport node and a centre for armaments production and administration, and the next city that the Russians would face as their front moved forward.  The controversy focuses on Dresden and not other German cities who suffered the same fate in large part because of its cultural cache -- known as ‘The Florence on the Elbe’ -- the fact that it was unprotected (its flak guns moved elsewhere), the lateness of the attack in the war wherein it was clear that the Allies were going to win, that the city was full of refugees fleeing East, that the centre of the city and its key heritage buildings were the target rather than factories, and Russian anti-Western propaganda after the war as the iron curtain closed and the cold war started.  Frederick Taylor’s book seeks to chart what happened on the 13th and 14th of February 1945, when between 25,000 and 40,000 people died, and thousands more were made homeless as thirteen square miles of the city’s historic centre was destroyed, and to contextualise it within the long history of Dresden and of modern aerial warfare and the end game of the war, and to consider the moral philosophy of the bombing.  He does so by drawing extensively on archival sources, interviews with Allied air crew and survivors of the firestorm, and by considering other accounts of the raid and their arguments.  The result is a book that does more than detail a particular harrowing destruction of a city, but tries to make sense of it.  Some of the history of the city was probably not needed and the moral philosophy could have been deepened and extended, but otherwise Taylor succeeds in his aim, providing a very readable, informative and largely non-partisan account and arguments. 

6 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob - This one sounds interesting! A part of wartime history I'm not as well-informed about as I'd like to be.

Norm said...

Books about Dresden 1945 always turn into attacks on the Allies morality and Bomber Command in particular. Who started the Baedecker Raids against English cathedral cities? People were still being systematically murdered in the camps in February 1945, and V1s and V2s were being launched against SE England.
Those of us growing up amongst the bomb sites of London, Bristol, or Portsmouth are probably are less concerned about the well being of the Florence on the Elbe.

Rob Kitchin said...

Norm, there is a legitimate question as to whether indiscrimate mass murder of civilians justifies indiscrimate mass murder of civilians. Taylor's book unequivocally reasons that Dresden was a legitimate military target, but he does present all sides of the argument before nailing his colours to the mast. Even if one accepts that the city is a military target, the question then is whether it should have been area or target bombed; whether the city is flattened or specific targets hit. And at this stage of the war, target bombing was reasonably accurate (metres not miles) and certainly the UK and US air forces pursued different approaches.

Norm said...

In my opinion anything that helped bring the war to a quicker conclusion was justified. I am also pleased that this book classified Dresden as a legitimate target. The Second World War was a battle for the survival of civilisation against barbarism and I don't believe there was the time in a fluid situation to think about justification or the morality of war. I suppose mass bombing of German cities could be compared with Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas. They are controversial and to this day inspire strong emotions, but they helped bring wars to an end . They also made the relevant populations realise that war is terrible and that they had lost.

Norm said...

Sorry Rob, for my rant but I get very upset when Dresden is mentioned, because I was fooled by previous books by a so-called historian. I hope these links work.

http://www.amazon.com/Apocalypse-1945-Destruction-David-Irving/dp/1872197183/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1380200471&sr=1-7

http://www.amazon.com/History-Trial-Court-Holocaust-Denier/dp/0060593776

Rob Kitchin said...

Norm, well, I'll not be reading the Irving book - his reputation precedes him. Taylor's book is a good direct response to that kind of historical analysis. Rob