Last week, an estimated seventeen thousand people in Dresden formed a human chain to commemorate the aerial bombing of the German city in World War II. Deputy Mayor Detlef Sittel said that Dresden remembered its victims and called to mind the days “when Warswaw, Rotterdam and Coventry were laid in ruins by German bombers”. Elsewhere in the city hundreds of neo-Nazis tried to hold a protest march, stating that Germany is not to blame for the war and accusing the Allies of war crimes. Where a demonstration last year was thwarted by anti-fascists, this time the extreme right had been granted a license to hold the protest march. Police from all over Germany, came to Dresden to keep the peace in the city.
The Aerial Bombing of Dresden
Between 13 February and 15 February 1945, British and American bombers laid the historical center of Dresden in the ashes. In four raids, the bombers dropped as much as 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices. A devastating firestorm followed, destroying almost 39 square kilometres of the city.
In the first few decades after the war, some death toll estimates were as high as 250,000, which are now considered unreasonable. Estimates of casualties, mostly civilians, vary somewhat, but the figure of 25,000 dead and 30,000 injured is more likely. An independent investigation commissioned by the city council of Dresden in 2010 reported a minimum of 22,700 victims with a maximum total number of fatalities of 25,000. These high numbers are partly caused by the fact that the city was flooded with refugees from the outlying regions, desperately trying to escape the oncoming Russian army from the East. In comparison with other German cities, the bombing raids over Dresden were not the most severe of World War II. However, they continue to be recognised as one of the worst examples of civilian suffering caused by strategic bombing. Post-war debates concentrate on the question as to whether or not the bombing was justified, and whether its outcome constituted a war crime.
An Allied War Crime?
Since 1945, the bombing of Dresden is considered by many as a violation of international law and as a crime against humanity, even though positive rules of international humanitarian law were absent at the time. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, were among the first formal statements of the laws of war and war crimes in the nascent body of international law. However these conventions, adressing the codes of wartime conduct on land and at sea, were adopted before the rise of air power. Despite repeated diplomatic attempts (→ The Hague Rules of Air Warefare 1922/1923) to update international humanitarian law to include aerial warfare, it was not done before the outbreak of World War II. The absence of positive international humanitarian law does not mean that the laws of war did not cover aerial warfare, but there was no general agreement of how to interpret those laws. The aerial bombardment of Dresden does not only raise the question as to whether or not it was an Allied war crime, but it also makes a moral appeal to prevent total war against civilian populations. It's memory is kept alive.[number of readers: 910]
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- Garrett, S.A., “Airpower and Non-Combatant Immunity: the Road to Dresden”, in: Civilian Immunity in War, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 161-181.
- Grosscup, B., Strategic Terror: the Politics and Ethics of Aerial Bombardment, New York, Zed Books, 2006.
- Langenbacher, E., "The Allies in World War II: the Anglo-American Bombardment of German Cities”, in: Genocide, War Crimes and the West: History and Complicity, London, Zed Books, 2004, pp. 116-133.
- Süß, D., Tod aus der Luft: Kriegsgesellschaft und Luftkrieg in Deutschland und England, München, Siedler, 2011.
- Ueberschar, G.R., “Dresden 1945: Symbol für Luftkriegsverbrechen”, in: Kriegsverbrechen im 20. Jahrhundert, Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2001, pp. 382-396.