Today in 1945, Allied forces began the firebombing campaign that would completely destroy the German city Dresden, killing somewhere between 22,700 and 25,000 people, though estimates as high as 500,000 dead have been put forward. The bombing was, and is, criticized as being of little strategic value to the Allies. The Firebombing of Dresden is still considered a war crime by many people.
The bombing consisted of four separate raids, conducted by 722 British Royal Air Force heavy bombers and 527 United States Army Air Forces bombers, which dropped over 3,900 tons of explosives on the city. The resulting firestorm destroyed 1,600 acres of the city center, totally demolishing what was previously one of Germany’s most culturally rich cities.
Frederick Taylor, a British historian, wrote of the Dresden bombings, “The destruction of Dresden has an epically tragic quality to it. It was a wonderfully beautiful city and a symbol of baroque humanism and all that was best in Germany. It also contained all of the worst from Germany during the Nazi period. In that sense it is an absolutely exemplary tragedy for the horrors of 20th century warfare and a symbol of destruction.”
The bombings immediately became incorporated into and exaggerated by Nazi propaganda. It has ever since also been embraced by Holocaust deniers and other Nazi and Nazi-adjacent ideologies as proof of moral equivalency between the Allied and Axis powers. Nevertheless, the ethical justification for the bombings is hazy at best.
It led to a general queasiness among the Allies. Winston Churchill himself expressed contrition about the firebombing, writing in a memo:
“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy.
The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.”
The Dresden bombing, for better or for worse, is mostly remembered as being portrayed in the novel Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut, in the introduction to a 1976 version of the novel, wrote,
“The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.”