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On the Other Hand

Chaim Bermant

'The Bombing of Dresden' (17 February 1995)

‘Fifty years on, the bombing of Dresden still haunts the conscience of the West’ declared The Times on 13 February.

It doesn’t haunt my conscience, not for a minute. And it wouldn’t have bothered me if the whole of Germany had been flattened. But then, I am still haunted by the newsreels of Belsen and Buchenwald I saw towards the end of the war, and by the knowledge of what my grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

I also lived through the Blitz, and I felt then, and do now, that the Germans had it coming. From July 1940 until June 1941, German planes had devastated almost every Urban centre of the British Isles. London was battered by night and by day. Liverpool, Plymouth and Coventry were eviscerated. Coventry, indeed, was adopted by the Germans as a byword for obliteration.

There were few raids on Scotland but I still remember the Blitz on Clydebank, some 20 miles from my home. The earth quaked, windows shook, and the fires burned so fiercely that they turned night into day.

News was heavily censored. The full extent of the damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe was withheld from the public, and I grasped what the Blitz really meant only when I visited London shortly after the war. In the city, St. Paul’s was like an Island in a sea of ruins. In the East End, whole streets had vanished. Blackened buildings stood out amid the rubble like bad teeth among rotting stumps. The docklands were a wasteland and wild flowers grew in the desolation. Large parts of the West End were devastated.

It was the Germans who pioneered blanket bombing with the devastation of Geurnica before the war, who developed it further with the destruction of Warsaw and Rotterdam, and who perfected it with the raids on London and Coventry.

It was the Germans, too, who developed the concept of total war which placed unarmed civilians in the front line. Over 23,000 men, women and children perished in the Blitz between July and December 1940. Over 35,000 were to Perish in Dresden alone, but, in the words of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command: ‘The Germans had sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind.’

Harris now features in the liberal imagination as a terrorist and a war criminal, but both Harris and Churchill believed that the German war effort could be undermined by the destruction of the country’s industrial centres. We now know with the benefit of hindsight that they were mistaken, but there was no mistaking the boots to public morale occasioned by the raids on Berlin, Hamburg, Bremen, Dussledorf, Cologne, Frankfurt, Essen, Stuttgart, Nuremberg and other major cities.

The campaigns on land and sea were all distant from Germany and it was Bomber Command which carried the war to the heart of the enemy. Things in Britain were fairly bleak and news of the bombings gave a good start to the day. The price in manpower and aircraft was heavy. Of the 795 aircraft which took part in the raid on Nuremberg, in March 1944, for example, 94 – each with a crew of 7 failed to return.

In all, Bomber Command lost more than 80,000 men and, in retrospect, one must ask whether the damage inflicted on the Germans was equal to the losses suffered by the Air Force but that is not a moral issue. Nor is the fact that Dresden was a beautiful city and a major cultural centre. So were Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt and Nuremberg, but their ready acceptance of Hitler and Hitlerism had damned them all, as it had damned the entire Third Reich, including Austria.

The Bishop of Coventry, who attended the memorial service in Dresden to mark the Fiftieth anniversary of the raid, showed commendable forgiveness, but I felt that, given the seat of his diocese, his breast-beating was excessive.

It is true that a smaller total of 400 people were killed in Coventry, as against the thousands who died in Dresden, but there is no strict accounting in total war. Or as the German President, Roman Herzog, said: ‘Life cannot be balanced against life, pain against pain.’ If it could, Germany would remain eternally overdrawn.

It was left to the Prime Minister of Saxony to put events in their true perspective. He linked 13 February 1945, with 30 January 1933, the day Hitler came to power. The one he said, was the outcome of the other.

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