- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004


by Frederick Taylor

Harper Collins, $26.95, 518 pages, illus.

In this age of precision weaponry, when one cruise missile can take out a power plant without killing a single worker, or several well-aimed, precision-guided munitions can cripple an entire railway system, it is hard to imagine a time when thousands of tons of high explosives were needed to achieve the same effect.

Fifty-nine years ago that was the world American and British airmen lived in. Where the truly militarily significant targets in Baghdad could be taken out with very little cost in American lives in 2003, thousands of Allied airmen and a like number of Germans died in attempting a similar goal in World War II.

This is the world that Frederick Taylor describes in “Dresden.” During the night of Feb. 13, 1945, and into the following Valentine’s Day, the mid-sized German city of Dresden was subjected to the most brutal bombing undergone by any European city during that war in such a short time frame.

Cities such as Stalingrad and Leningrad suffered agony over a longer period, and Japanese cities would be subjected to more severe firebombing and even nuclear attack later in the war. However, the bombing of Dresden has remained a blemish on the Allied conduct of the war because it has established itself in legend as a supposedly unprovoked attack on an innocent German city that had no military significance.

In this book, Mr. Taylor makes a persuasive case that Dresden was not an innocent bystander in the tragedy that was WWII. It was a transport hub, a war manufacturing center, and no more Jewish-friendly than any other German city. In fact, many Jews escaped death because of the confusion caused by the bombing, although this was not an intended Allied effect.

Mr. Taylor, who is fluent in both English and German, lays out an indictment that convinces the reader that Dresden was a militarily significant target, as well as a hotbed of Nazi sympathy. Along the way, he gives us the compelling story of the rise of the capital of Saxony from Roman times to the present.

The legend of Dresden as an innocent victim was spread largely by East German propaganda after the war and by Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘60s-era novel “Slaughterhouse Five,” told from the point of view of an Allied POW caught in the attack. Mr. Vonnegut was there, so like other first-person sources cited in the book, he saw the tragedy through a soda straw.

Dresden’s doom was spelled by three factors. First, it considered itself to be a cultural icon; indeed it was in German minds, but not to Gen. Arthur Travers “Bomber” Harris, the South Africa-born chief of the British air force’s Bomber Command.

Second, the Western Allies were determined to cut off German resupply to their forces fighting a Russian advance into eastern Germany — a move which, it was hoped, would allow Allied forces to resume their attack in the west (it had stalled at the Rhine).

The final nail in the coffin of Dresden was the incompetence of the Nazi authorities charged with its defense. They dug themselvesimpregnable bunkers while leaving the rest of the population to their own devices.

Mr. Taylor does not let the British off the moral hook, either. He describes in graphic detail the ingenious way that the Bomber Command staged their “one-two punch” raids to lull the civil authorities into a false sense of security and then catch the first responders, such as firemen and emergency workers, in the open, maximizing destruction and terror. The cynical logic behind this was to prevent the damage-control parties from saving critical military infrastructure.

Did Dresden have it coming? The city was a center of German war production and transport to an extent that its civilian population did not understand even as well as the Allies. Did New York deserve what it got on September 11? Do Tel Aviv or Jenin on the Palestinian West Bank deserve what they get on a near-daily basis?

In modern war, civilians die when the enemy is depersonalized. Perhaps the Iraqis of 2003 should consider themselves lucky to have fought an adversary that did not believe it was necessary to kill them in order to save them.

Gary Anderson lectures on the Revolution in Military Affairs at George Washington University.

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