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The Bombing of Dresden, 70 Years Later

A BBC Breakfast interview with ninety-five-year-old Dresden firebombing survivor Victor Gregg aired last month in the UK on the 70th anniversary of the attacks. This ten-minute video should be required viewing for all, but especially those still intent on defending the horrors Gregg so unforgettably describes. (A link to the interview was posted to the website of the Anderson Valley Advertiser website; see also Gregg’s book, Dresden: A Survivor’s Story) Gregg was a twenty-five-year-old British POW held in the Saxon capital when the bombs fell on the night of February 13th, 1945.

Delivered from a bright red studio sofa in front of a projected backdrop of images of the Dresden wreckage, Gregg offered his harrowing, disbelieving testimony to a nation still mostly unready to hear his message. The tenacity of such strategies of denial is clear from the payload of opportunistic patriotism Prime Minister David Cameron dropped soon after Gregg’s appearance on national television. Speaking to workers at the port of Felixstowe in Suffolk where Cameron was announcing his Economic Plan for the East of England, the Prime Minister praised the heroism of the airmen and the crucial contribution of the bombing campaign to winning the war. Along the way Cameron claimed that the British military could not sustain any cuts in its current budget, even though he likewise asserted that his forces were still up to the task of checking Russian aggression. Such are the durable political uses of the air war.

As has long been the case, there is no easier way for a British politician to establish his nationalist credentials than by defending the wartime devastation of Dresden and more than two hundred other German cities. Like throwing charred meat to UKIP, Cameron’s comments came in direct response to the words of Archbishop of Canterbury John Welby, who had seemed to apologize in the February 13th memorial service in Dresden’s Frauenkirche, the domed symbol not only of the city’s Golden Age but also of the reconstruction efforts of the last decade. These initiatives at reconciliation were contributed to greatly by English donors and led by the Duke of Kent, who received the Dresden Peace Prize this year.

But it is Gregg’s shatteringly authentic moral voice that provides an instant antidote to Cameron’s vicious bluster. The two BBC presenters whose combined age was lfar ess than his own remained mostly—and rightly—speechless as Gregg delivered his irrefutable condemnation of these acts of barbarism he lived through.

After quickly outlining his experiences that night and conjuring images of bodies exploding while crossing the street in search of what he called “good air,” Gregg concluded:

“I’ll never forgive the people who ordered those raids, and that goes for all of them: Churchill, Atlee, all of them, whatever they can say, because as soon as it came through after about two weeks, and it started sinking in … because they were still carrying on bombing other cities like this. And then of course they try to put the blame on somebody else. But, no, no. We were supposed to be the good guys. We were going to war to rescue Europe from the evil of the Third Reich, and we finished up being worse than they were. I’m not going to say ‘we’ because what annoys me is all this was done in our name. And I felt … I felt … it really whacked me. It really whacked me that I belonged to a nation that was responsible for what was going on in that city in that night.”

One of those cities alluded to by Gregg that was destined for destruction in the waning weeks of the war was Würzburg, whose baroque splendor rivaled, if on a smaller scale, the glories of Dresden. Churchill himself had visited Würzburg as a young attaché and entered his name in the city’s Golden Book: he knew it was both beautiful and militarily irrelevant when he bombed it.

In A Colossal Wreck, Alexander Cockburn describes a teenage trip by barge up the Rhine to Würzburg to see the Venetian master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s celebrated frescoes in the Grand Staircase of the Archiepiscopal Residence; Cockburn was in the city on March 16th, 1957 for the twelfth anniversary of the bombing. His essay on the visit in A Colossal Wreck reflects on the dilemma wrestled with by Peter Johnson, the RAF commander who led the air raid. Before the mission, Johnson objected to his superiors about the target, and the bombing of civilians more generally. Johnson’s memoir The Withered Garland: Doubts and Reflections of a Bomber (1966) is viewed by Cockburn as an act of contrition.

The Würzburg raid was considered a great success by British command since the bombing destroyed 90% of the city and killed 5,000 of the 80,000 inhabitants; some 3,000 bodies were recovered from the ruins and deposited in a mass grave near the entrance to the main cemetery.

With its medieval town center and its magnificent rococo architect that made abundant use of wood, Allied command knew that the small city would burn quickly, that it would become a “furnace” as Gregg put it in his account of the Dresden atrocities. More than twenty thousand of Würzburg’s dwellings were destroyed, a grim example of the British strategy of “de-housing” the German population and thereby, it was claimed, diverting enemy resources from the war effort. Aside from the devastation of apartment blocks and houses, more than thirty of Würzburg’s churches were reduced to rubble, among them the magnificent medieval cathedral.

The Residence of the Prince-Bishops of Würzburg, which in its reconstructed state is now a UNESCO site, was largely destroyed in the bombing. Only the central element of the building—with its celebrated Grand Staircase adorned with the Tiepolo frescoes admired by Cockburn—survived the fire.

In Tiepolo’s painting can be found a portrait of the court’s famed architect, Balthasar Neumann, leaning over a cannon. Neumann was both an architect and an artillery engineer; he is said to have boasted that the massive stone vaults he designed for the staircase ceiling were so robustly constructed that not even cannon balls would be able bring them down. He proved more prescient than he could have imagined: not even the blockbusters and incendiaries of the RAF could destroy this masterpiece of proportion, ornament, and uplift—the most beautiful baroque bunker ever built.

Beyond the Residence spread the small and gracious city, a placed marked and molded by Neumann’s extraordinary vision and skill. Like Dresden, Würzburg was a work of art, and Neumann’s masterful hand shaped almost every public aspect of its eighteenth-century form.

The city was erased in just seventeen apocalyptic minutes, as Jörg Friedrich drily put in his controversial book, Der Brand of 2002 (translated into English as The Fire: the Bombing of Germany): “[The] fire achieved its peak intensity in the shortest amount of time and could not be extinguished.” In effectiveness and fury the destruction of Würzburg dwarfs the current human, archeological and aesthetic depredations of ISIS.

Friedrich catalogs the lack of preparedness among the people of Würzburg, who even after the Dresden attacks harbored delusions that they might be spared Allied wrath. When the bombing started on the night of March 16th many headed to the River Main; those who sought refuge in cellars died from the gases spawned by the fires. The young priest Fritz Bauer discovered seventy-six people in a basement near the cathedral where he served as curate: “They had no injuries. Some had laid an arm across their face, others lay on their backs with their arms outstretched, and yet others had drawn up their legs. A lot had their mouths slightly open. The eyes were usually close. Their hair was often wild, standing oddly on end.”

If the residents were unprepared, so were the overseers of the moveable cultural legacy of the city. Much of the city’s glorious musical past was engulfed by the flames. Music historian Dieter Kirsch dispassionately describes these losses at the outset of his account of the rich musical life of the city in his chapter on Würzburg in Music at German Courts, 1715-1760 (Boydell Press 2011):

“During the bombing of Würzburg on 16 March 1945, great quantities of valuable primary sources were irretrievably lost, including the entire surviving musical repertory of the Hofkapelle [court musical establishment], of which not even an inventory has been preserved.”

Fortunately, however, the musical works of Würzburg’s greatest eighteenth-century musician, the Italian émigré Giovanni Benedetto Platti, have survived. Platti is seen playing a bass viol just above Neumann in the frescoes of the Grand Staircase.

Next Friday, after we pass the 70th anniversary of the destruction Würzburg, I will survey Platti’s oeuvre and examine the burgeoning interest in this vastly underrated composer whose music evokes both the vanished and lasting glories of his adopted city.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com


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