December 5, 2020

When the RAF turned Dresden into another Pompeii | Culture


In the unstoppable horror of World War II, the bombing of the German city of Dresden stands out with a sinister glow. On February 13, 1945, soon 75 years ago, two successive waves of bombers, 244 British apparatuses the first and 552 Americans the second, brutally razed the population in 18 hours of terror, unleashing a hell in which they burned in the middle of Dantesque scenes thousands of people, mostly civilians and in large proportion women, children and the elderly, many of them refugees fleeing the Soviet advance. The attack devastated Dresden, of 650,000 inhabitants, considered the Florence of the Elbe for its wealth of heritage and the level of its culture. The destruction of the city, one of the emblematic episodes of the war, symbol for some of the indecency of the total war and object since it happened of intense debates and controversies, now recounts it in a book as detailed as touching, Dresden 1945, fire and darkness(Taurus, 2020), the British writer Sinclair McKay – author of several works on the decoders of Bletchley Park.

Based on an exhaustive study of the sources, especially testimonies of witnesses of the bombing, both Dresden inhabitants and airmen, the scholar relives the tragedy in a shockingly vivid and kaleidoscopic way, leading the reader of the frosty Lancaster booths in the that the young crewmen clung to charms like the bra of their girlfriend to cope with fear there in the skies (50,000 airmen had died in the air campaign, in a horrendous way), to the crowded basements in which the population took refuge and that They turned into deadly traps. McKay, who estimates that 25,000 people died in Dresden that night, describes images that are hard to banish from memory: the blinded old man who advances in the middle of the fire like a fiery Lear King, the grandmother burned before his granddaughter’s eyes by setting him on the clothing an incendiary flare, people boiled in the water tanks where they had sought refuge, the bodies of pregnant women whose bellies had been opened by heat to reveal the unborn children.

Should we consider the bombing of Dresden a war crime? “The term makes me doubt,” McKay replies, “it was a terrible atrocity, but war crime is a legal concept and then we should analyze whether all the bombings on German cities were. Besides, Dresden had an undoubted strategic value, it was a military objective, with railroads, troops, factories in the center of the city that produced war material. ” Was it justified to do something like that to defeat the undisputed evil of Nazism? “The moral issue, indeed, is the core of the bombing of Dresden. Already in 1943, Churchill had serious doubts about the morality of the bombing of cities and accused the RAF Bombing Command of” acts of terror. “Others, such as the Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, the butcher, they did not understand that attitude. “Is Dresden the German Gernika?” The horror caused by the aerial bombardment begins with Gernika, Dresden is part of that terrible pattern that culminates in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “On whether the bombing of Dresden served anything, McKay reflects: “It is different to say it now, when we look at February 1945 and know that the war would end in two months, but the people then did not know, of course, and the allies watched alarmed that the German soldiers continued to resist. The war could lengthen. In that sense it must be remembered that the bombing of Dresden, next to all the horror, generated immediate military effects: it hindered the movements of the German Army, helping the Red Army and also the shock which caused the German civilian population to return them to the harsh reality that Hitler was not going to turn the war around with his marvelous weapons, that the Nazi regime was over. “

“The bombing of Dresden cannot be compared in any way with the Holocaust”

Some of the images described in the book suggest a dangerous comparison with the Nazi genocide: the corpses stacked in the streets, the cremation of the bodies in makeshift grills, the furnace itself that the city became. “Of course I have not done it explicitly, but of course it is dangerous to compare. It is obvious that I had to show those things, but I have never wanted to make any kind of comparison. Part of the difficulty of the Dresden bombing story is that the extreme Current German right tries by all means to show dead civilians as martyrs, pretending to be seen as equivalents of the victims of the Holocaust: I do not believe that this path can be taken.Holocaust planning and execution, evil, sadism , the premeditation and horror of all this is something apart, another dimension with regard to a night bombing, regardless of how horrible it was and that there were children. That barbarity is still at the core of the war. “

The author emphasizes that the current Dresden authorities are distressed at the attempted appropriation of their victims by the extreme right. McKay also questions the idea expressed by the German historian Jörg Friedrich in The fire (Taurus, 2003), that the German civilian population was as a victim of war as the others. In his book he continues to point out that Dresden was an enthusiastically Nazi city and things like that the few remaining Jews were not allowed to enter the Aryan shelters.

Sinclair McKay, author of 'Dresden, 1945', portrayed in Madrid this Wednesday.


Sinclair McKay, author of ‘Dresden, 1945’, portrayed in Madrid this Wednesday.

Dresden 1945, written with an excellent narrative pulse (transferred to Spanish by Martín Schifino), an exciting dramatic structure joins its documentary rigor. “That is easy when you have such good and literary sources as Kurt Vonnegut and Victor Klemperer, who were in Dresden, the first as a prisoner of war and the second, Jewish, leading a life of semi-clandestinity, but there are many other eyewitnesses who wrote chronicles of great quality and detail. “

What do you think of the most horrible image of the bombing? “There are so many, the atmosphere in the basements, that claustrophobia, with the light of the bulb that goes out. That is what distressed me most when I wrote. I had to stop often and go running to get rid of it.”

“The firestorm seems almost supernatural, but that has happened now in the fires of Australia.”

The fire storm was also terrible. “It seems almost supernatural, but that has happened now in the fires of Australia. Scientists are still studying the physical part of that phenomenon that took people flying. The air turns upside down, oxygen is absorbed, you can not breathe. Being able to do that is like having the power of God, something biblical, yes. “

From the accounts of horror, those 25,000 dead, says that the exact figure will never be known, but that a very detailed count was made and there could not have been many more, despite Goebbels and David Irving. “In any case it is still a huge amount.” McKay underlines his intention to do justice to the victims of Dresden, explaining their lives and their deaths. He adds that in describing the torments of fire in the flesh he has chosen to explain the impressions that the reader can understand. “It is impossible to know what it feels like to explode, but if you notice that you are blind to something that looks like burning snow, or that you suffocate in a basement.”

Of one of the canonical images of Dresden, that of the woman whose suitcase is opened and carries inside the body burned and reduced to the size of a doll of her son, says that “it is certainly not an urban legend, something that in Dresden it is not necessary ”, and that there were several cases of people transporting their dead relatives so that they did not go to the mass graves. He recounts the case of a woman who carried what was left of her son in a sack.

Dresden’s history has an echo of Pompeii. “Yes, there is something, the magnitude of the catastrophe, the apocalyptic images, the very physics of destruction that seem to defy understanding, and the nakedness of death.”

The bomber crew monument

From the Picadilly monument in London to the British bomber crews, the Bomber Boys, opened in 2012, Sinclair McKay believes that “it has finally been done, it has taken a long time, it is very controversial and paint has been thrown on occasion about him, but of course if you have to accuse someone of war crimes it is not the crews, those boys much more intelligent and sensitive than you think and who fought with much courage. “

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