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Dresden memories still hurt

Associated Press
Published February 13, 2005

DRESDEN, Germany - When the air raid sirens sounded in Dresden on Feb. 13, 1945, Rudi Warnatsch's family went wearily to the basement, hoping it was just another false alarm.

After all, their beautiful city on the Elbe River, known for art and delicate chinaware rather than for heavy industry, had survived more than five years of war with little damage.

That was about to end with the Allied bombing, 60 years ago today, that killed Warnatsch's mother, brother and sister, and tens of thousands more.

"We could hear a droning noise in the air that we had never heard before, and it sounded very ominous," said Warnatsch, who was 13 at the time.

The sound was from hundreds of British heavy bombers in the night sky. In a few minutes they unloaded tons of incendiary bombs on the heart of the city, on its people, its Baroque churches, famed opera house and museums.

The bombing ignited a deadly firestorm and a controversy that has yet to burn itself out. Was it a necessary action to speed World War II toward its end, or an act of terror and revenge against civilians?

In addition to controversy over its military necessity and even how many died, it has been seized on by neo-Nazi and far-right politicians for propaganda.

They call it mass murder and compare it to the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler's murder of 6-million Jews.

Twelve members of the far-right National Democratic Party walked out of the regional legislature in Dresden rather than observe a minute's silence for those who died at the Auschwitz concentration camp, with one saying that Britain and the United States committed a "bombing Holocaust." Far-right activists plan a march in Dresden on the anniversary.

A historical commission has been appointed to finally come up with an official death toll, one of the most controversial aspects. Some estimates have run to 135,000 or more, but British historian Frederick Taylor, author of a recent book on the bombing, argues the real toll was lower, between 25,000 and 40,000.

Taylor argues that Dresden was a more appropriate military target than many have suggested. Instead of being an "open city," not to be bombed as some still believe, it had war-related industries and remained a rail hub for German reinforcements heading east to fight approaching Soviet forces.

Still, German historian and documentary producer Guido Knopp called the attack militarily senseless. "The war was already decided," he said.

Within weeks of the attack, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was distancing himself from the work of Air Marshal Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command. "It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed," Churchill wrote in a March 28, 1945, memo, less than two months before the war ended.

Whatever the justification, the bombing made the city a symbol of the horrors of total war. That image was reinforced for many by the novel Slaughterhouse-Five by American Kurt Vonnegut, who survived the bombing as a prisoner of the Germans.

Nazi authorities failed to provide adequate air raid shelters for the city, which was crowded with refugees. That left people cowering in basements, where many were asphyxiated or buried by collapsing buildings. The town's antiaircraft guns had been removed for use against the approaching Soviets, letting the bomber crews take undisturbed and deadly aim.

The fire made superheated air rise rapidly, creating a vacuum at ground level that produced winds strong enough to uproot trees and suck people into the flames. Some who managed to get through the blinding sparks and fiery debris staggered into the Grosser Garden park, where many were killed by a second bomber wave the next day.

A third wave, this time of U.S. bombers, came just after noon. Thirteen square miles were turned into smoking rubble. For days afterward, cleanup workers burned bodies on the Altmarkt square.

Warnatsch still grieves for the family he lost, but "toward the Americans and the English," he says, "I have no bitterness."

[Last modified February 13, 2005, 01:09:06]

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