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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Dresden, Vonnegut and Revenge - February 14, 1945

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

Dresden after the bombing of February 13 and 14, 1945

I read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five not long after it was published in 1969. It opened a door for me into the world of speculative fiction and I started gobbling up not only Vonnegut but also many of the other writers of the era. German history was not top of mind for me in those days, but I took note of the fact that part of the story was set in Dresden, and I liked the ring of "Schlachthof Fünf," German for Slaughterhouse Five, where protagonist Billy Pilgrim and his fellow POWs were interned.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that this part of the story was drawn from Vonnegut’s personal experience as a prisoner-of-war in Dresden. He and his fellow American prisoners survived the 1945 firebombing of February 13-14 because the slaughterhouse was underground. After the firestorm had passed, Vonnegut and the other POW’s were put to work gathering and burning the corpses, an experience that marked him for life. In the foreword to one edition of the book, he 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.

The firebombing of Dresden by British and American forces in February 1945 remains a contentious episode in Second World War history. The bombers targeted the historic inner city rather than the industrial areas in the suburbs, destroying over 75,000 buildings, including unique monuments of baroque architecture, and killing tens of thousands of mostly civilians. Casualty figures vary widely, but it seems that 25,000 to 30,000 people lost their lives in the attack. At the time, the city was packed with refugees from the east, fleeing the advancing Red Army, which makes death estimates unreliable.

Many historians and commentators consider the bombing to be a war crime. Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, wrote:

The Nazi Holocaust was among the most evil genocides in history. But the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden and nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also war crimes – and as Leo Kuper and Eric Markusen have argued, also acts of genocide. We are all capable of evil and must be restrained by law from committing it.

British historian Donald Bloxham even goes so far as to contend that there was a strong case for trying Winston Churchill as a war criminal for approving the raid. John Kenneth Galbraith also found the bombing to be repugnant and unnecessary, writing: "The incredible cruelty of the attack on Dresden when the war had already been won—and the death of children, women, and civilians—that was extremely weighty and of no avail.”

The bombardment, horrific as it was, proved to be the vehicle of salvation for Victor Klemperer and his wife Eva, who had been confined to a room in a “Jews’ House” in Dresden. Klemperer, an academic and diarist, was a long-standing assimilated Jew. He had converted to Christianity, had served in the German army during the First World War and was married to Eva, an ethnic German. Because of the status these factors provided him, he was one of the few Jews in Dresden who had not yet been sent to Auschwitz or another of the extermination camps. On February 13, 1945 he witnessed the serving of deportation notices to some of his neighbors, and feared he would be next. That night the bombs began to fall. The Klemperers survived the firestorm and, in the terrifying chaos, Victor removed the yellow star from his garments and the couple blended in with the other residents fleeing the devastation. They managed to find their way to Bavaria where they remained in hiding until the war’s end, after which they returned to their old house in the Dresden suburb of Dölzschen.

On February 14, the day the Americans took over from the Brits in the tag-team firebombing of the city, my mother, her siblings and my grandmother were in a convoy of refugees who had abandoned their village of Schönbrunn that morning, fleeing westward ahead of the Soviet Red Army. When they arrived in the village of Grunau, some 85 kilometres east of Dresden, my uncle Reinhardt noticed black embers falling from the sky. “They came from Dresden,” he writes in his memoir, “…which had been virtually demolished by British bombs.” An ominous and frightening moment, I’m sure, for my 10-year-old uncle and 16-year-old mother on their first night as homeless refugees.

It's intriguing that the stories of my family, the Klemperers and Kurt Vonnegut intersected, peripherally at least, around the bombing of Dresden, but it also brings to mind the larger context in which those stories are set: the end-days and aftermath of the war and the horrific and needless suffering inflicted upon ethnic Germans during that time. I’ve written in the past about the revenge-driven orgy of rape and murder committed by Red Army soldiers as they swept across eastern Germany and into Berlin. In addition, 12 million ethnic Germans, like my mother and her family, became refugees, driven from their homes in Germany and the surrounding countries. Of those, 2 million died of disease, starvation or mistreatment.

Silesian refugees. My mother and her family were also refugees from Silesia and trekked some 400 kilometres, on foot, into Bavaria in February and March of 1945. Dresden was filled with similar refugees during the bombings. After the war, millions of Germans were expelled from surrounding countries and became homeless "displaced persons" in Germany.

It’s tempting to say—well, they deserved it, didn’t they? After all, the Germans started the war that left tens of millions dead and were responsible for the Holocaust, one of the most abhorrent genocides in history. Shouldn't they be made to pay? In fact, that sentiment was prevalent in 1945; there was a palpable thirst for revenge among those who’d suffered at the hands of the Germans, and they wanted to see Germans suffering in kind. In the introduction to his book After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, historian Giles McDonough writes:

Friends of mine, even published historians, have often told me that the Germans ‘deserved what they got’ in 1945: it was a just punishment for their behaviour in occupied lands and for the treatment of the Jews at home. This book is not intended to excuse the Germans, but it does not hesitate to expose the victorious Allies in their treatment of the enemy at the peace, for in most cases it was not the criminals who were raped, starved, tortured or bludgeoned to death but women, children and old men. What I record and call into question…is the way that many people were allowed to exact that revenge by military commanders, even by government ministers; and that when they did so they often killed the innocent, not the guilty. The real murderers all too often died in their beds.

[…] To make all Germans responsible…is to apply the Allied weapon of collective guilt. Collective guilt makes them all responsible… Indeed, the Soviet propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg exhorted the Red Army not to save ‘the child in its mother’s womb.’

The role of revenge in history’s horror story of war and genocide is often underplayed but, to me, it seems a powerful motivator in the cycles of violence and destruction that we appear unable to overcome. The desire for vengeance, especially among the French, was a factor in the harsh conditions imposed on Germany after the First World War, and many historians agree that the severity of those conditions and the consequent sense of injustice felt by the German population helped propel Hitler to power. I’m convinced that revenge also played a role in the decision to bomb Dresden, not only as a direct impetus for military and political leaders themselves, but also as a gesture to mollify their citizens’ anger and hunger for retribution. We consider ourselves to be a rational species, but all too often we revert to primitive instincts, like the desire for revenge, that quickly overwhelm reason when we feel threatened or aggrieved. I suspect we've all been there.

Paul Lazzaro, Billy Pilgrim’s fellow prisoner and the ultimate agent of his death in Slaughterhouse Five, believed revenge to be “the sweetest thing in life.” A sad commentary, but appropriate, perhaps, on this Valentine’s Day when, 76 years ago, the incendiary bombs rained down and any thought of love was quickly driven from the minds of the humans of Dresden.

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3 commentaires

Klaus Offermann
Klaus Offermann
19 févr. 2021

Thank you Karl. Somehow it had escaped me that this bombing took place on Valentines day.

The burning phosphorus was horrific my mother Ruth told me. She said the burning phosphorus would stick to the skin. Born and raised in beautiful Dresden - the Florence on the river Elbe - my mother survived the firebombing in wine cellar of a church, that my grandfather was caretaker of.

My father Hans, who was an American prisoner of war in the West, successfully petitioned for a transfer to a Russian prisoner of war camp in the east, so that he would get closer to my mother. They found each other and later married after the war.

The British members of…


14 févr. 2021

Sobering reflection, Karl. Yet another reminder that war is never the answer.


14 févr. 2021

Thank you Karl, a meaningful reflection on revenge for Valentine's Day. Churchill was against the Nuremberg Trials as he recognized that if England had lost the war, England and he would be on trial.

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