Dresden Lingers


Dresden continues to be a source of discomfort for Britons and Americans. But though the horrific firestorm that consumed the city and the tragic deaths that resulted are what claim a hold on the Western mind, they are not what distinguishes this episode from many others in the war. The most troubling aspect of the Dresden raid has not been emphasized often enough by historians: The raid—like others waged along with it—was envisioned in part as a way to cause disruptions behind German lines by exploiting the presence of refugees. Yet many of those responsible did not allow themselves to recognize what they were doing. In their compulsion to explain, to shape interpretations, or simply to distance themselves from the story and its implications, Allied military and political leaders displayed a collective conscience that was not unburdened by Dresden’s fate. Only by appreciating the fears, dashed hopes, and weariness of Allied leaders in the winter of 1945 can we fully understand how they came to embrace plans that, in essence, made refugees pawns in a fearsome drive to end the Wehrmacht’s ability to wage war. But the very existence of those plans ought to give pause to us all, and stir wider and more thoughtful debate about human behavior in wartime. Dresden is a stark reminder of how hard it is to control the human capacity for destruction, once the forces of war have set it loose.

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