In retrospect, the Cold War loomed at the end of the Second World War. This has led to speculation that the Americans and the British unleashed extraordinary air-borne violence against the enemy as much to impress the Russians as to end the war. In the American case, it was the atomic bombings. In the British case, it was the fire-bombing of Dresden.
Dresden was a beautiful city (“Florence on the Elbe River”) in eastern Germany. From 13 through 15 February 1945, 1,200 British and American bombers dropped almost 4,000 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city. Although the Nazis claimed that the bombing and the fire-storm it set off killed 200,000 people, the current best estimate is 22,000 to 25,000 dead. One of those who survived the attack was the American POW Kurt Vonnegut.
“Dresden” (2002) is a German television movie about being on the receiving end of “strategic bombing.” The movie’s plot is melodramatic and conventional. A German nurse falls in love with a downed British bomber pilot on the run; her father and her German fiance are diverting morphine meant for the patients onto the black market through a corrupt official so they can buy a hospital in nice safe Switzerland; the nurse’s best friend is a Gentile married to a Jew; the nurse’s little sister is a Valkyrie look-alike having it off with the corrupt official; Mom is popping pills (cue Mick Jagger); the British bomb Dresden, with the downed pilot’s best friend leading the attack; and fire and death rain down on the city as the nurse, her German fiancé, and her British lover try to escape through the inter-connected cellars of the old city.
What do we see in this movie? There is the prolongation of the air war against cities until the last stages of the war as the Germans launched V-1 and V-2 rockets against London and the Allied air forces bombed, then re-bombed every possible target. There is the hatred felt by the German civilians for the British air-crew, who sometimes were lynched as “terror-flyers” when they had to parachute onto German soil. There is the savagery of the dying Nazi regime toward anyone who showed the slightest hint of defeatism. A woman arrives at the hospital with a head-wound, then the military police arrive to finish the job for having sheltered her deserter-husband.
There are the air-raid precautions as Germans turn off the gas to the stove, gather their possessions, and head for the shelters in the basement of the apartment block when the air-raid sirens sound. There is the experience of being in the shelters while fire rages above and just outside the sealed doors, and the ground rocks with the explosions. People pray, comfort frightened children, and light candles as a warning of carbon monoxide, while the bloc-warden tries to maintain order and morale. There are people sucked into the fire by the draft a 1,000 degree fire creates. There is the horrific aftermath of an air-raid, with dazed survivors wandering through rubble-choked streets or chalking messages on the walls of their wrecked homes, and the bodies turned to cinder. There are the rare moral doubts felt by the flyers and senior officers.
What we don’t see in the movie is the successive attacks. For dramatic reasons, everything is shown as one great attack. This hides the reality that successive attacks were partly meant to catch the firemen and the EMTs out in the street—and kill them. Nor do we see the controversies that have swirled around the attack since almost as soon as it happened.