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Germans Review Their World War Two Losses

On the night of February 13th, 1945, allied forces bombed the historic German city of Dresden.

"It was an art treasure. It was a wedding cake. It was a beautiful thing," says American novelist Kurt Vonnegut about Dresden before the air raid.

Mr. Vonnegut witnessed the bombing of the city as a prisoner of war in Germany. His famous anti-war novel Slaughterhouse Five is based on that experience. Together with about a hundred other captured Americans, Kurt Vonnegut was working in a Dresden food plant when the raids took place.

"It turned out we had a swell air-raid shelter because we were quartered in a slaughterhouse. And there was this wonderful, very deep cellar under there, where they hung meat, where it was cool, and so that's why we survived," says Mr. Vonnegut.

Thousands of others were not so lucky in a city that was not prepared for air raids. At least 30-thousand Dresden residents and perhaps twice as many refugees perished in the fires, which reduced the city, known as Florence on the Elbe, to rubble. During World War Two, the allies dropped about one-and-a half million tons of bombs on Germany, killing more than 600-thousand civilians, including about 80-thousand children and turning hundreds of cities to rubble.

"It was a war of masses, a war in which mass numbers, mass vehicles, mass civilian participation in the factories was vital," says Dennis Showalter, a historian at Colorado College. Professor Showalter says large-scale bombings had a dual purpose.

"I think World War Two was unique because it developed a strategy of attritional-conventional bombing that was designed to destroy or cripple the industry supporting a high-tech modern war and by extension the civilian morale, the civilian effectiveness, that in an environment of total war was considered as important as the fighting men."

The early failures of the British Royal Air Force led to the development of a tactic called area bombing, says Professor Showalter. Instead of trying to hit a strategic target and risk losing a bomber to the German air defense, planes would fly at a higher altitude and drop heavy loads of bombs to destroy the entire area around targets, including railway stations, factories and mines. The British also developed incendiary bombs, which continued their destruction long after their initial explosion.

But for decades after the war, Germans did not dwell on their losses. Jackson Janes, director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, says the most obvious reason was the enormous pain Nazi Germany caused other people. So, Germans focused on reconstruction and establishing their country as a western democracy.

"That required an enormous distancing from what the Nazis had done. So I think that there was just simply no real national interest in digging this up except for the pockets of activity and the groups that did."

But in recent years, the media, books and public forums have focused more attention on the human tragedy of the massive air raids. Jackson Janes says one reason for the current interest in the allied bombing of Germany is the curiosity of the new generation of Germans, free of the guilt their grandparents might have felt.

"And maybe some German people who do have this sense of, 'We didn't really talk about that dimension ever openly because it was not politically correct.' And now they are beginning to say, 'Is it not politically correct to talk about 50-, 60-, 70-thousand people who were killed in the bombing raids?'"

The problem is that such talk encourages new German nationalists. On the 60th anniversary of Dresden bombing, members of the far-right National Democratic Party denied German guilt and described the allied attack as mass murder and Dresden's Holocaust of bombs. Most analysts agree that Germans are right to re-examine their history, as long as they do it objectively. Historian Dennis Showalter notes that German losses must be studied in the context of Nazi aggression, which resulted in the allied bombing of German cities.

This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus Program. To see more Focus stories click here.