It was one of the most controversial actions of the Second World War: the fire-bombing of Dresden that city to ash and rubble. Between 13 February and 15 February 1945 (twelve weeks before the final capitulation of Germany), 3,900 tons of high-explosives and incendiary devices were delivered in four air raids carried out by 1,300 bombers. Thirteen square miles of the city and the estimates of civilian dead vary from 100,000 to 130,000 — twice the amount that perished during the entire London Blitz. Nearly a thousand invaluable masterpieces (mainly from Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister) were lost or destroyed.
The photographer contrasted its devastation with a statue of not an angel (as commonly assumed) but more powerfully, a personification of Kindness. August Schreitmüller’s sandstone sculpture “Die Gute” on Dresden’s Rathaustrum once overlooked a magnificent city, so-called ‘Florence-on-the-Elbe’, the former seat of the Electors of Saxony. Now beyond its outstretched arms lies a sea of ruins. The photo from the tower looking south was by Richard Peter, who made a name for himself recording ruins and desolation that was Europe at the end of WWII. His photo inspired many others to find their way up the tower of the city hall and take similar photos.
The decision to bomb the city brimming with refuges fleeing from the advancing Red Army was approved by the very top brass and was keep so secret that the airmen were under the impression that they were bombing the army headquarters, barracks, and poison gas plants. In fact, Dresden had no war industry. The strategy too was cynical and iniquitous: since bomb shelters could provide protection for only three hours in a burning city (due to overheated grounds and walls), the second attack was launched precisely at the moment when everyone had to go back outside.
Many newspapers toed the official line that Dresden was a major military target; when the AP reported, “Allied air chiefs have made the long-awaited decision to adopt deliberate terror bombings of German population centers as a ruthless expedient of hastening Hitler’s doom”, the British government banned its report. It was three more weeks before the Manchester Guardian published an account revealing many civilians died in a horrifying manner.
In a twisted irony, two hideous atrocities of the Second World War met in this ‘Balcony of Europe’: the cremation of those perished in Dresden was supervised by SS Sturmbahnfuhrer Karl Streibel, the man who made his name burning bodies at the Treblinka death camp. A funeral pyre at Dresden burnt for five whole weeks.
It took until the mid-90s for the British and American governments to formally apologize to Germany for the unnecessary attack.