Yesterday I was asked to do an interview with Radio Cymru about the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the German city of Dresden by British and American bombing. The event is iconic because of the intensity of the fire storm that sucked people into the inferno and deprived them of oxygen in their shelters, because of the internationally acknowledged beauty of the baroque city centre, and because of the questionable military value of the raids in the final months of the war. It was immediately weaponised by the Nazi propaganda machine which characterised it as “terror” and has been used with renewed vigour in recent years by the hard right to detract attention from German crimes by emphasising this massacre of Germans (25,000 died). Every year there are solemn ceremonies and peace vigils, but also a right wing protest, which is in turn countered by anti-fascists.

Innocent victims of war are just that and should be remembered, but without using them to excuse or downplay unprovoked (Nazi) military aggression and genocide. War is messy and it is hard for a country to come out of it without being morally compromised, even if it was on the right side. But we should try to understand our history, even if it is uncomfortable and complicated. The war between Germany and England was carried out largely in the air. First the Battle of Britain, which prevented Germany from gaining the air superiority which would have enabled an invasion and thus a clean sweep of serious European contenders, and then the incessant waves of air raids that destroyed German cities one after another. Three aspects of the war are etched on the German consciousness: firstly, the hellish Eastern Front, where Hitler and Stalin outdid each other in their callous hubristic incompetence, leaving millions of dead in their wake; secondly the experience of 12 million (mainly German) refugees flooding into Western Germany from the Eastern Europe, fleeing the Russians and never to return to their homelands; and thirdly, the razing of German cities by allied bombing.

Dresden was not the only or even the worst conflagration of the bombing campaign. Most German cities of any size or importance were hit, and many largely destroyed. Hamburg, Cologne, Essen and Berlin to name but a few. This was not an aberration but a consistent campaign of erasure, not just of industrial capacity, military communications and transport infrastructure, but of churches, hospitals and homes; of the civilian population. This kind of warfare was used by Germany from the beginning of the war, against Coventry and London, Warsaw and Leningrad. But if they sowed the wind they certainly reaped the whirlwind and the productive capacity of the US meant that they could not resist the bombers coming from England night after night, day after day, like flocks of huge migrating birds. Around half a million people were killed, millions made homeless and a whole urban culture basically wiped out. The postwar reconstruction was in most places soulless and modernist brutalist. Only in the most important historical centres, like Dresden, were old treasures reconstructed, and in some places the odd enlightened architect managed to leave something noteworthy, such as the Dortmund opera house, which was built on the site of a splendid synagogue built at the turn of the century. The latter was destroyed by the Nazis, a fact not given prominence in the new building until the final decade of the century.  

There have been many debates about whether the blanket bombing of German cities should be considered a war crime, whether it was justified or excessive, whether the Chief of RAF Bomber Command, Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris should be honoured or condemned. His nick name in the RAF was apparently “Butcher” Harris, perhaps more because of the high death toll of bomber crew (over 50,000) than the German population. This was the era of “total war”. No longer were troops just dispatched to the front to fight from trench to trench far from home, or to engage in set piece battles. Hitler had unleashed the Blitzkrieg against France in the West: a fast moving attack that struck deep into enemy territory with motorised units, and the war of total destruction in the East, against Russia: where civilians were routinely terrorised and killed. Air raids meant that nowhere was safe. Also, the entire economies of the combatant nations were pitted against each other. So, it seemed to Harris and many commanders in the war that everything and everybody could be a legitimate target. If crushing German cities and towns into dust weakened the ability of the country to fight, then it seemed justified. To civilians on the receiving end of huge nighttime air raids with incendiary and explosive bombs, they inevitably appeared arbitrary and devastating.