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The Truth about the 1945 Bombing of Dresden

By John Black, Workers World, 23 February 1995

It is now the 50th anniversary of the terror bombing and burning of the non-military cultural center of Dresden, Germany. Somewhere between 35,000 and 135,000 civilians were killed in the Feb. 13-14, 1945 attack.

The Bonn government is attempting to use the commemoration of the Dresden bombing to expand German imperialism's diplomatic and military reach. Working-class and progressive German groups are protesting this misuse of a great tragedy. They correctly point out the responsibility of German capitalism and the Nazis' own war crimes for the destruction of German cities during the war.

The crimes of Nazi Germany, however, should not prevent the U.S. working-class movement from re-examining the aims of U.S. and British imperialism's vicious bombing of Dresden's civilians as World War II drew to a close.

Dresden was a center of cultural and architectural wonders, including the famous Zwinger Museum and Palace and the cathedral, the Frauenkirche. There were no military objectives of any consequence in the city--its destruction could do nothing to weaken the Nazi war machine. U.S. and British air warfare had left Dresden intact until that point.

By February 1945, refugees fleeing westward before the onrushing Red Army had doubled Dresden's population. The Soviet military forces were poised to seize the city from the Nazis. It was at that moment that the military and political strategists of Britain and the United States decided to launch a terror bombing attack.

Winston Churchill was Britain's prime minister then. He was also responsible for war strategy, especially regarding its political aims. Churchill's goal in Europe was not only to destroy the military machine of Britain's imperialist rival--Germany--but to stop the advance of the Soviet Union. With the latter in mind, he decided to bomb Dresden.

Churchill, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had just met at Yalta to discuss the division of post-war Europe. Churchill's goal in bombing Dresden was to impress the Soviets with the air power of the Western capitalist allies and to make sure that the Red Army would seize a dead city.


During three waves of attacks, over 1,300 British and U.S. bombers dropped more than 3,300 tons of bombs on Dresden. Many of the bombs were incendiaries.

The incendiaries dropped on the old city center started a firestorm--a huge blaze that sucked the oxygen from the air. Temperatures soared as high as 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. This had not been seen before in Europe, although U.S. bombing started a firestorm in Tokyo and the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki also set off firestorms.

Low-flying planes machine-gunned the fleeing population along the banks of the Elbe river. A fourth attack on Dresden concentrated its bomb load on the roads used by the fleeing population.

The cultural center of the city was totally destroyed. Meanwhile, the only possible military or economic targets--the barracks in the city's north and the train station where trains carrying reserves for the Eastern Front might depart--were left untouched.

A look at aerial maps of the city before and after the terror attacks clearly shows the large white oil tanks owned by British-controlled Shell Oil. These tanks remained entirely untouched by the bombardment.

Official figures issued by the new city government of Dresden, set up in the wake of the city's surrender to the Red Army, indicate that 35,000 people--mostly women, children and older people--suffocated in the firestorm or burned to death. Other studies give a much higher casualty figure for the attack. The presence of so many refugees made accurate counts difficult.

Apologists for the bombing point to Nazi Germany's own crimes. Following the war's end, however, the U.S. and Britain occupiers were quick to allow all but the top Nazi leaders to play a role in western Germany--to gain these criminals as allies against the USSR. To reach the same political goal, the U.S. and British rulers could easily sacrifice more than 35,000 non-combatants with the bombing of Dresden.

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