Dresden: Peeling Back Layers of Revisionist History
"Europe is a fortress. But it is a fortress without a roof."-Allied propaganda leaflet dropped en masse on Nazi Germany.
While I was in South Jersey, I stopped in the Moorestown Barnes & Noble, and picked up a copy of Frederick Taylor's 2003 book, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945. I read through most of it on the plane today.
All in all, it's a magisterial work. Taylor places the city of Dresden not just into the context of World War II, but within the history of Germany, as well as Europe, going back millennia to trace the city's role in history.
Dresden became famous for its role in two overlapping wars: first, as a target of the allies in the waning days of World War II, as the city was bombed by the British and then the US on February 13th, 1945. Of this, history is certain: the bombing leveled the city and left thousands killed.
As Taylor recounts, almost immediately after the city was bombed, Dresden was about to become a pawn in a different war all together: a propaganda war.
First, Joseph Goebbels added an extra zero on the immediate death toll in German propaganda, to turn an estimate of 20,204 killed into 202,040, in order to rally Germans for one last push before the inevitable downfall.
Then, the Soviet Union captured the city and it became part of communist East Germany, exchanging, as Taylor notes, one totalitarian master for another. And just as Nazi Germany had a skilled propaganda machine, so did the Soviet Union, which were all too happy to use the destruction caused by the allied bombing as a way of inflicting maximum guilt on the free west.
Add to this the role of David Irving, now relatively well known as a Holocaust denier, but in the early 1960s, just making his name as a historian. Arguably, it was his best-selling 1963 book, The Destruction of Dresden, that was most effective in establishing the modern myth of Dresden as an innocent city wrongly incinerated by the Allies in a final punch-drunk show of force late in the war. It served as the basis of a growing method for Germans to deflect their own responsibility for the tens of millions killed by National Socialism by transforming World War II into a sort of massed guilt that attempts to portray American and British actions as equally culpable as the Nazis, much as multiculturalism attempts to argue that no single culture is greater than another. (Japan has tried to use our atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in similar fashion to deflect its own barbarities.)
One by one, Taylor thoroughly demolishes all of the myths that had built up about Dresden. You can't really call it a revisionist book, as Taylor is actually peeling back layer after layer of existing revisionist history about Dresden--and World War II itself. As George Rosie wrote in his fine review of the book for England's Sunday Herald:
The bombing of Dresden in February 1945 has passed into popular history as one of the atrocities of the second world war. It is one of those events that seemed to shift the moral ground. The "fire storm" that laid waste Dresden allowed the Nazis to claim the status of victims. Like Hiroshima, it became a symbol of the misuse of military power. And it trailed some chilling questions. Why Dresden? Was it an attempt to eradicate the best of German culture? How many died? Was it 100,000? Was it 200,000? Is it true that the British and the Amer-icans targeted refugees fleeing the city? Did low-flying Mustang fighters really strafe helpless civilians trying to shelter in parks?Along the way, Taylor also punctures the myth that the allied bombing efforts of World War II were ineffective, as this passage from his book illustrates:
It became fashionable among writers in the postwar period to dismiss city bombing, not only as immoral but also as essentially useless. There seems, however, little doubt that the strategic bombing campaign played a major role in the defeat of Germany (if not perhaps the "knockout" one that Sir Arthur Harris and his supporters dreamed of), and growing evidence that it may even have proved decisive. Early postwar surveys made the mistake of confining cost-benefit analysis to a kind of simple accounting of notionally lost German production. Especially when Speer took over the government's war, industries portfolio and introduced long-overdue efficiency measures (aided by the growing political trend toward a "total war" ideology among more radical Nazi leaders such as Goebbels and Ley), German armaments production continued to increase. This trend continued until the end of 1944, and it was therefore assumed that Allied bombing had been almost entirely ineffective.The history of America's war in Vietnam has undergone multiple revisions by the left, similar to what Dresden has gone through over the decades in microcosm: Johnson's early efforts in Vietnam enjoyed popular support, until Walter Cronkite transformed an American military victory during the 1968 Tet Offensive into a propaganda coup for the North Vietnamese, beginning a wave of increasing American anger with the war (and ultimately costing Johnson--and Hubert Humphrey--the White House). Then in August of last year, John Kerry cynically transformed the same Vietnam war that he trashed in front of the US Senate in 1971 into the moral underpinning of his entire campaign, causing James Lileks to write "The past was more malleable than you had ever expected":
"I defended this country as a young man, and I will defend it as President." [Kerry said at the 2004 Democratic National Convention]Which brings us to today. As our own efforts to reform the Middle East are subject to an ongoing propaganda war in the news media and the Blogosphere, and the media simultaneously attempts tries to surpress the very images of the attacks on US soil that started it, Fredrick Taylor's Dresden, enjoyably written and expertly researched, allow us to observe just how fluidly history and propaganda can be intertwined, even in a war as seemingly as black and white as World War II.
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