Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Dresden: Don't apologise - understand

James Woudhuysen has written a scholarly article that attempts to remind of the historical context surrounding the bombing of Dresden and to remove any sense that it was a unique action --one at odds with "standard" Allied bombing policy-- in an attempt to destigmatize the event and convince us that an apology for the Dresden bombing is unwarranted.
The enormity of Dresden means that it deserves sober assessment. Yet the recent discussion and calls for an apology provide the opposite. The further Dresden retreats into history, the more it is viewed as a timeless allegory of human evil, for which current and future generations must feel guilt, and atone. The actions of one man, 'Bomber' Harris, are singled out as barbarities that epitomise the depths to which man can sink in the pursuit of war. Such a treatment sheds no light on the Second World War as an historical event, but is all too revealing about the crisis of self-doubt among the Allied elites today.

The purpose of this essay is to examine what Dresden really meant in the context of the Second World War, and what makes the contemporary understanding of Dresden problematic.

. . . the growing worry about military adventures today finds echoes in the understanding of the Second World War in history. While the Nazis are always used as a sure symbol of Evil, there is less of a sure sense that 'our side' was quite so Good as it was assumed to be. The contrast between the Allies' willingness to bomb Dresden and its failure to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz caused no small amount of breast-beating around the recent anniversary of the death camp's liberation. Of course, the Allies' motives were never quite as pure as they have been painted. But it says a lot about the profound sense of self-doubt in American and British society today that even the Second World War has now become subject to the same kind of moral relativism that informs discussion of more recent conflicts.
Woudhuysen also offered a few reasons as to why the Allied bombing of Dresden has become so negatively viewed:

  • Critics "strip the Allies' behaviour from its historical and social context, and, in place of that, give the unchanging mantra of 'man's inhumanity to man' an accent that concentrates always on individual emotions."

  • They propogate the meme that all war is absurd, that the bombing of Dresden in particular was "over the top" and irrational.

  • They imply "a kind of moral equivalence between the Allies and the Axis."

    He then provided some historical context. First, bombs in WWII was hardly "smart" and bombing was an imprecise venture. Second, it was the stated aim of Bomber Command to target labor sources (read: average German citizens and their families) to help cripple the Nazi war machine. Finally
    By focusing on the horrors of Dresden, too many critics in practice whitewash the rest of the Allies' actions in the war - not just the use of the atomic bomb, but also, for example, Churchill's manoeuvres in the Indian sub-continent, which cost millions their lives, or the betrayal of Partisans in southern Europe, or the fake 'de-Nazification' of Germany after 1945.
    He also sees the change in perception as a result of domestic British and international politics and notes how confusion has crept in
    Shortly after Dresden, a few British clerics and obscure Labour MPs issued feeble protests. Thereafter, it suited the postwar Attlee government to distance itself from Churchill. By criticising what it took to be his 'excesses', Labour could reinforce the mistaken perception that the Second World War was a just war, whose sole aim was the defence of democracy against fascism.

    By representing the strategic bombing campaign as questionable, Labour could confirm postwar British society in the view that the rest of the tactics deployed were therefore just, too. This, the most important and lasting domestic political legacy of the war, is the one that critics completely ignore. They are part of the problem of the Second World War, and will not aid any clarification of its nature.

    It also suited Joseph Stalin to go on about Dresden. . . at war's end, Stalin had control of East Germany [and] he liked to make propaganda about the rapaciousness of his wartime partner.

    Ironically, Jörg Friedrich sees Dresden as a diversion from an interest Britain in fact shared with Germany - that of ridding the world of Stalin. For their part, right-wing apologists for Dresden can agree that Britain declared war not just against Germany, but also against the Soviet Union. The upshot is that today, people remain baffled as to what the Second World War was really all about, or should have been about. Instead of clarity on the most important event of the twentieth century, confusion reigns.
    He concluded
    An analysis of the context in which the Dresden bombing took place shows how simplistic most explanations of it are. The Second World War was not a straightforward moral battle of Good v Evil, in which Dresden formed a necessary part. Nor was Dresden an abomination that took place outside of British military policy at the time. And it should certainly not be read, as it tends to be today, as a tale of universal, unchanging human depravity - a depravity symbolised by one man's actions but one for which we all continue to remain culpable.

    Dresden needs to be understood, not apologised for. It demands a careful historical perspective about a unique set of circumstances, not an emotional spasm of wailing about the intrinsic aggression of all humankind.
    I would argue with Woudhuysen's attempt to downplay the degree to which WWII really was "a straightforward moral battle of Good v Evil," especially as it concerned the battle against Nazi Germany. However, I agree that Dresden was not a unique instance of a misbegotten Allied bombing policy formulated by one man.
  • No comments: