SEVENTY YEARS AGO, the German city of Dresden — known as “Florence on the Elbe” for its countless cultural treasures — was virtually destroyed by an Allied bombing raid launched on February 13, 1945. Just before 10:00 p.m., 800 bombers approached the city, hammering it first with a wave of bombs that blew off the tops of houses. The second wave dropped incendiary devices into the open buildings, and in a matter of hours the city was engulfed in flames.
Dresden was unprotected. Any anti-aircraft artillery and other military assets had been dispatched to the Eastern Front in the losing battle against the Soviets. Top Nazi officials had built themselves bunkers deep in the earth, but the average Dresdner had no chance. Most of those who were not burned alive suffocated as flames sucked the oxygen out of the air.
A group of American prisoners of war survived the bombing, among them a young Kurt Vonnegut. The POWs had been held captive in Dresden for a month, forced into various types of labor, as the Nazis continued their increasingly desperate war effort. On the night of the bombing, Vonnegut and his compatriots survived in an underground meat locker, Schlachthof-fünf — or, Slaughterhouse five.
In 1969, almost a quarter-century after the firebombing of Dresden, Vonnegut published his greatest and most famous novel, named after the meat locker that somewhat miraculously kept him safe beneath the city’s near-total destruction. The novel was a long time in the making, as Vonnegut claims in the autobiographical opening chapter:
I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time. When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big.
Masterpiece or not, Vonnegut’s bestseller certainly made him money. As he notes facetiously in a Paris Review interview from 1977, “Only one person benefited [from the massacre at Dresden] — not two or five or ten. Just one … Me. I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that.”
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about Vonnegut’s long-gestating “Dresden book” is the lack of any detailed treatment of Dresden. Yes, this points to the impossibility of representing, through fiction, such a horrifying event — the limits of language, and so on (as Vonnegut would say). But it is also crucial to the success and longevity of Vonnegut’s strange piece of work. Even our “historical understanding” of the attack on Dresden includes as much fiction as fact, so Vonnegut’s evasive tactics benefit the novel, and give it a strange power so many years hence.
When Vonnegut’s pitiful non-hero, Billy Pilgrim, first lays eyes on Dresden, he too sees the Florence of Germany:
The Americans arrived in Dresden at five in the afternoon. The boxcar doors were opened, and the doorways framed the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen. The skyline was intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd. It looked like a Sunday school picture of Heaven to Billy Pilgrim.
Arriving in Dresden this month, I saw a similarly enchanting city. The skyline has been carefully restored. The stunning Frauenkirche, rebuilt partly with blackened stones from the rubble, imposes a heavy, Lutheran grandeur over the Old City. Further inspection reveals the incongruous socialistic architecture, legacy of the postwar Soviet control over East Germany.
But in the aftermath of the Allied bombings in February 1945, the city looked — as Vonnegut puts it — “like the surface of the moon.” He notes frankly in the same Paris Review interview:
Then a siren went off — it was February 13, 1945 — and we went down two stories under the pavement into a big meat locker. It was cool there, with cadavers hanging all around. When we came up the city was gone.
Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A firestorm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe. We brought the dead out. They were loaded on wagons and taken to parks, large, open areas in the city which weren’t filled with rubble. The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading disease.
Vonnegut notes several times, “It was the fastest killing of large numbers of people — one hundred and thirty-five thousand people in a matter of hours.” Here is where fiction is intruded upon by actual fact.
There is no doubt that the bombings of Dresden were horrific, and that many, many civilians were killed in a truly terrifying manner. But the mythos of Dresden has largely supplanted the reality.
Recent scholarship, particularly after the reunification of Germany, has revised the death toll from what the Nazis claimed was over 200,000 down to a consensus figure of 25,000. British historian Frederick Taylor used new access and insights, plus meticulously recreated firsthand accounts, to dispel some of the prevalent propaganda myths in his book Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 (Bloomsbury 2004). In an interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel on February 13, 2009, Taylor confronts the widespread argument that Dresden was of no military importance:
Dresden was undoubtedly a particularly fine city, a tourist center well known to Germans and foreigners alike as a place where the arts flourished amidst architecturally distinguished surroundings. This gave rise to the myth that it was of no military or industrial importance. The high civilian death toll — though current estimates of 25,000 are not as high as once thought — also plays a role. Hamburg could never be seen as being of no military importance. Dresden, plausibly — though not really accurately — could be.
The Dresden attack was directly linked to the conduct of the war elsewhere — in this case on the Eastern Front. In Feb. 1945, Dresden was a major transport and communication hub less than 120 miles from the advancing Russians. The aim of the bombing was quite deliberately to destroy the center of the city, thereby making the movement of German soldiers and civilians impossible.
Before Taylor is dismissed as a British apologist for the Allied actions, consider that the Dresden City Council funded an assiduous research project, which completed its work in 2010. The Dresden Historical Commission writes in its report:
The task of the Commission was to determine the current status of research regarding the number of persons killed as a result of the aerial bombing of Dresden in February 1945. This aspect of the historical events has remained a topic of contentious discussion through to the present day: The span of the purported figures is particularly wide, ranging from approx. 20,000 to 500,000, and in individual cases even up to one million fatalities: Remembrance surrounding the Allied air raids on Dresden — addressed symbolically by way of the anniversary date 13th February — continues to possess topical importance in socio-political disputes over historical images, concepts of society and identities. Within the context of this discourse, the number of persons killed in the air raids on Dresden has long since become a central argument bundling subjective valuations and standpoints.
The Commission states, without qualification, that research proves “up to 25,000 people” were killed by the air raids over Dresden.
The facts also plainly show that Dresden was a center of Nazi party activity, one of the brownest cities in Germany, as it’s said, referring to the Nazi Brownshirts. As early as 1933, Nazis were burning books in Dresden, not just in Berlin. In 1945, the people of Dresden likely figured that the war had missed them; they were unscathed and accustomed to sorties of bombers flying over the city bound for other targets, such as Leipzig. In a 2004 New York Times piece, Gabriel Schoenfeld notes:
Watching the local synagogues burn seven years earlier in the orgy of anti-Semitic violence known as Kristallnacht, one wary non-Jewish Dresdener [sic] was recorded as saying: “This fire will return! It will make a long curve and then come back to us.” He was right. The fire did return.
The dark side of present propaganda battles over Dresden manifests every year on February 13. A front line is established between neo-Nazis and the more common Dresdners who wish to disassociate the city from its troubling past. Lately, such battles have taken on added significance, with Dresden as the heart of the Pegida movement, anti-immigration activists fighting what they call the “Islamization of the West.”
This week in Dresden, I visited the Irish expatriate architect and artist Ruairí O’Brien, who has lived in the city since 1991 and has created an installation celebrating Vonnegut’s novel in the actual location of Schlachthof-fünf. I descended into the meat locker — now the coat check for Dresden’s trade fair — and ran my hands along the very walls Vonnegut himself would have touched as the bombs fell. O’Brien’s work has overlaid quotations and drawings onto a map of Dresden before it was destroyed, illuminating what has been lost and the correspondences between Vonnegut’s time-traveling Billy Pilgrim and the timeless acts that characterize war’s destructive power.
O’Brien told me:
We are standing in a city which has a difficulty at the moment with its identity. A lot of this difficulty has to do with accepting the past and not being able to deal with the mythos on one hand and the reality on the other hand. […] Let’s not be nostalgic about this. Let’s ask ourselves, What did we lose? Why did we lose it? And how can we make society better for the future. And it’s not going to happen by going backwards.
The genius of Vonnegut’s novel is that the factual discrepencies, even the chronology, don’t matter. They may even add to its success as a work of fiction. The time-travel device in Slaughterhouse-Five — Billy Pilgrim becoming “unstuck in time” — makes the rather blunt point that massacres such as Dresden happened; they always have happened and they always will happen. The numbers, the facts and figures, need not be accurately represented, if the novel’s purpose is, in effect, to prove that firebombing Dresden was not a unique act of brutality. It was one brutality in a long history of brutalities that seems to have no end in sight.
Jonathan Creasy is editor-in-chief at New Dublin Press and a reporter for RTE Radio 1, Ireland’s national broadcaster. He is currently living in Germany on a research fellowship at Freie Universität Berlin.