Dresden

2010-02-20 00:00

AN ugly piece of history, this, but we might as well remember it. In fact we’d better remember it. All of Germany is remembering it, though “commemorating” would be a better word, I suppose. The event is the bombing of Dresden, and a specific date for this event can’t be set because the city burned for a week, but it was a week 65 years ago, and that’s how long the commemoration will last. But why Dresden, when in Berlin there was hardly a single brick standing on another by the end of British/American bombing, and Hamburg too, and Cologne, and just about everywhere else? Because Dresden was entirely intact in the last days of the war, a beautiful Baroque city of no military significance at all, packed full of civilian refugees fleeing the Russians, and our strategists had decided to leave it entire, intact, with a cherry on top as it were, so we could demonstrate to the Soviet Union how we could annihilate an entire city with a single bombing raid. Dresden was right in the path of the advancing Red Army, see, so they’d get a good view when they arrived, and learn a good lesson for the forthcoming Cold War.

As of course the U.S. 8th Army Air Corps had set aside six Japanese cities to remain pristine, free from any form of everyday old bombing, because they needed some nice new ones to test their uranium and plutonium bombs on. Then suddenly they realised a certain added urgency, because the Red Army having driven clear through to Berlin, the Soviet Union now declared war on Japan and the same mighty Red Army now turned East and drove clear through Japanese-occupied Mongolia in a week or two and were all set to get a toehold on the Japanese mainland, and you know what that would mean, doncher? A Soviet presence at the surrender negotiations and Soviet occupation of part of Japan, that’s what. So Hiroshima and Nagasaki got their whack. Only they didn’t burn for a week as Dresden did and kill 30 000 civilians, they just disappeared in one millisecond flat and killed 100 000 civilians. Vapourised them, which I dare say is better than dying by breathing air hot enough to melt lead. High-powered medical teams rushed in. Not to bring succour to the dying, forsooth; this was research, man, to see how a boiling brain could instantly blow apart a human skull, that sort of Mengele stuff.

Well here we are in Dresden then, and it’s 2010, and it’s taken 65 years to rebuild the cathedral entirely, that’s the chosen symbol of remembrance and now it’s nice and finished, new, glistening. Of course the Nazi Party is banned in Germany, so is display of the old Hakenkreutz flag, the swastika, but you can’t ban peoples’ dedication, of course, so there’s a growing number of neo-Nazis these days and they can’t be banned from demonstrating, see, because banning demonstrations is a feature of Nazism. So here are yesteryear’s Schkinhäds with swastikas tattooed on their shaven skulls, plus this year’s crop of young NeoNazis who have read how Onkel Adolf ended the Great Depression in Germany at a stroke, and never mind the death camps. But curiously mingled with such thugs is a huge majority of ordinary Germans-in-the-street, who to this day live with a sense of outrage at the calculated brutality of the event. This was strategic bombing, and this is how it went: the Americans moved in by day with a thousand or so heavy bombers and dropped a thousand tons or so of high-explosive bombs to open the place up, knock down walls, of course, but also blow out all windows and doors to ventilate the buildings. Then the Brits came by night with another thousand or so heavy bombers and a thousand or so tons of incendiary bombs. Everything flammable in Dresden burned. Old newspapers, leaves, trees, puppy-dogs, people, everything got sucked into the central blast furnace by a hurricane-force wind. You couldn’t run away against such a wind, of course, and anyway the tarmac streets were burning. People thought themselves lucky to make it to an air raid bunker. Six floors down they died from suffocation, the furnace above ground having first claim on any oxygen, and above ground the concrete of the bunker was turned to calcium oxide, a fine white powder, leaving a skeletal framework of steel reinforcing rods sticking six floors high in the air. After a week there was nothing left to burn. The technical name for this is a Firestorm. When this firestorm happened Germany was already pretty-well defeated, what remained of the war was a sort of mopping up, if bitter.

They couldn’t count the Dresden dead of course, many people were reduced to crematorium ash, no bones at all. So all we got was an estimate: 30 000, which is ten times the number killed in 9/11, and as that date will remain fixed forever in the American psyche and American history, so will the Dresden firestorm remain in the German.

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