Eberhard Renner was an ordinary twelve-year-old Dresden boy in February 1945. The son of a dentist had a chemistry set, kept white mice as pets and lived with his parents in a large apartment in an elegant, turn-of-the century building in Canalettostrasse in the centre of the city.
Life was relatively easy. His father had wealthy clients including the royal house of Wettin that once ruled Saxony.
But then came February 13 and he grew up overnight.
It was 9.45 p.m. “I woke up to the sound of an air raid warning. That was nothing unusual. There had been alerts almost daily since December 1944.
"Then we heard the drone of the bombers. But the planes usually flew on to bomb Chemnitz or Leipzig. The sky was lit by magnesium flares floating down on parachutes to light up the city. But even then we thought they were just conducting reconnaissance.
“We didn’t realise it was Dresden’s turn until the bombs started falling. We weren’t prepared at all. People in Cologne or Hamburg were accustomed to air raids and knew how to behave. No one here knew how to put out fires.”
“First they dropped explosive bombs to open up the roofs. After that came the incendiary bombs. It was the English strategy. We were sitting in the cellar. We were really scared. One bomb exploded in the garden and blew the door in against me and my mother. But we weren’t hurt.”
Too Fine to Destroy
Until that night, Dresden, the proud capital of Saxony, famous for its baroque palaces and museums, had been spared the bombardment that had razed cities further north and west like Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne.
“It was incredibly naive but the Dresdeners didn’t believe they would get bombed because they thought the English are so cultivated,” Renner, now a retired architect who has lived in Dresden all his life, told reporters at a news conference ahead of next week’s 70th anniversary of the raid.
In fact, Dresden had been on the list of targets from early on in the war. But for a long time, Allied bombers and fighter planes didn’t have the range to reach it.
On February 13, Britain’s Royal Air Force attacked the city in two waves with 800 bombers. The raid was made all the more devastating by the perfect visibility on that cloudless night, and by the dry weather that had turned the city into a tinder box.
The first wave lasted just a quarter of an hour and caused a firestorm. When it was over, Eberhard Renner and his parents ran out of the cellar.
“Our house had been spared but the building next door was in flames. We watched it burn. We didn’t think of helping the people inside. There was no solidarity. I wanted to run upstairs to save my mice, but my mother held me back.”
Then came the second wave. Renner’s house was hit and set on fire. The family stuffed some belongings into a handcart and escaped. “Burning incendiary bombs were sticking out of the tarmac. Bombs were still exploding around us. It was terrifying. That’s when I saw my first dead bodies.”
At midday on February 14, over 300 bombers of the US Air Force hit the city, disrupting efforts to retrieve the dead and wounded. On the morning of February 15, a fourth wave of more than 200 planes returned, again US bombers.
In these four raids, some 2,400 tonnes of explosive bombs and almost 1,500 tonnes of incendiary bombs were dropped on Dresden, turning the city into a wasteland of rubble, smouldering timber and charred corpses.
'Lungs ripped apart'
Eberhard and his parents made their way to his father’s uncle who lived in the small town of Dippodiswalde 20 kilometres south of Dresden. He would spend the next half year there.
“Eight days after the attack we briefly returned to Dresden. The cellar hadn’t collapsed, everything else had. We retrieved Meissen porcelain and silver.
“The streets were covered in rubble, many houses were still burning, the whole city stank of smoke and I had to see many dead people. Some of them hadn’t burned to death, they’d died when their lungs were ripped apart from the shockwaves of the bombs.
“There were also charred corpses. I remember seeing one woman lying crouched on her side on the pavement, all black and burned. Her arm was jutting up and the golden ring on her finger gleamed in the sun. It was chilling image I’ll never forget.
"I also remember seeing the 6,800 corpses laid out on Altmarkt square, ready to be incinerated. There was a danger of disease. The smell of smoke and corpses was simply terrible. It’s amazing what you can cope with as a child.”
Ever since the attack, a debate has raged about whether it was justifiable, and how many people actually died. The Nazi authorities secretly estimated that some 25,000 were killed but released a wildly inflated figure of 200,000 in a propaganda coup that remained stuck in the national psyche.
Under the East German (GDR) regime during the Cold War, Dresden became a convenient symbol of Western military aggression. In schools and at commemoration ceremonies, Germany’s own war guilt was suppressed.
And after 1989, a resurgent neo-Nazi movement seized on the anniversary to demonstrate against what it called the “bombing Holocaust,” a cynical term that seeks to equate the suffering of Germans to that of the six million Jews murdered in concentration camps.
One neo-Nazi march in 2009, on the 64th anniversary, attracted 6,000 people, one of the biggest far-right gatherings since the war.
Such marches are outnumbered by counter-protestors each year, but their presence is a stain on the city, whose reputation has suffered in recent months from anti-immigrant demonstrations by the Pegida movement.
Critics say many in Dresden still have an outdated mindset when it comes to the bombing; that they see themselves and their city as victims of a crime, and still don’t focus enough on Germany’s own culpability.
And in the wake of Pegida, the 70th anniversary looks set to be as politically loaded as it ever was. It will be marked by a painstakingly choreographed central ceremony, one of thirteen events marking the occasion.
United in devastation
The Frauenkirche, destroyed in the raid and rebuilt after the end of the Cold War, will host dignitaries including President Joachim Gauck, the Archbishop of Coventry Justin Welby and representatives from other cities devastated in the Second World War — Coventry, Wroclaw, Rotterdam and St Petersburg.
The mayor of Dresden, Helma Orosz, will speak at 4:23 pm, says the programme distributed by the town hall. It will be Gauck’s turn at 4:37 p.m. Then there will be a human chain around the city centre as a sign of peace and reconciliation.
Nazi-watchers in the city expect some 2,000 neo-Nazis to show up on or around the day, more than last year. One of the groups that has registered a march calls itself “Patriotic Civil Rights Movement for Freedom of Opinion and National Self-Determination.” That could attract Pegida supporters in droves.
“A whole lot of Pegida supporters will show up at the ceremonies because they crave acceptance as part of mainstream society,” said Danilo Starosta, a civil rights campaigner based in Dresden.
People will hold up banners with the “Wir Sind das Volk” (We Are the People) slogan that Pegida controversially took over from the 1989 anti-GDR demonstrators, twisting the meaning into an anti-immigrant slant, Starosta predicted.
“It’s their opportunity to show ‘look we’re not evil, we’re with you, we’re part of you,’” said Starosta, an analyst of far right trends at an NGO called Kulturbüro Sachsen.
He believes official ceremonies to mark the anniversary should be scrapped altogether because they encourage a revisionist view of the past.
“There can only be one conclusion drawn from all this commemoration— that the destruction of Dresden was one of the many consequences of Nazi barbarism.”
Historians puncture propaganda
It is surprising that there was no official attempt to estimate the death toll until 2004, when Dresden appointed a commission of historians to clear up the controversy. They reported in 2010 that 25,000 people at most died, and that the figure was more likely to be around 20,000.
The historians examined records on burials and public registers, scrutinised fire damage reports and interviewed eyewitnesses. They also refuted a dogged rumour that Allied fighter planes had machine-gunned survivors fleeing the burning city. A ground survey found no bullets in open ground along the banks of the Elbe river.
The historians refuted several myths, including the widespread belief that temperatures in the city reached 2,000 degrees in the firestorm — a temperature at which humans turn to ash.
“We were able to prove that wasn’t the case,” said Thomas Wildera of Dresden’s Technical University, a member of the commission. “We disproved the notion that tens of thousands of people disappeared without trace.”
They did so by analysing photos that showed the condition of the brickwork on buildings after the raid. On lower floors, where people were likely to have been sheltering, temperatures rose no higher than 300 to 500, below cremation levels.
Not a soft target
Another myth was that Dresden had no military significance and that its destruction was merely intended to rob Germany of a cultural jewel at a time when the war had already been decided.
“Dresden was the last working centre of the German armaments industry at that point. All other cities had been hit and destroyed. A lot of important war industries had been moved to Saxony during the war,” said Wildera.
“And it was the only working transport hub. So Dresden had always been an important target for the Allies.”
Factories in the city manufactured torpedoes, submarine parts, optical systems for targeting devices, and detonators. Many started working again days after the raid.
“Dresden is only average in terms of destruction,” said Wildera. “Hamburg, Cologne and Pforzheim suffered more destruction. But Dresden was the only city where the intended firestorm worked.”
The bombing indirectly saved Jewish lives. The city's last remaining Jews, over 100 people, were due to be deported to concentration camps on February 16. They managed to escape their fate in the confusion of the bombed-out city.
After the war there was widespread moral unease in Britain about the RAF’s Area Bombing Directive, which was aimed at destroying not only German industry but the morale of the German population.
The campaign cost some 500,000 German lives. The death toll among air crews was staggering. Of 125,000 aircrew who served in the strategic bomber force between 1939 and 1945, 55,000 were killed and another 18,000 wounded or taken prisoner – a casualty rate of 60 per cent.
The misgiving were reflecting in the length of time it took to erect a memorial to the casualties of Bomber Command in London. It wasn’t unveiled until 2012.
"I have to confess that I was ashamed we had sunk to the level of the 'Krauts'," said Harold W. Hall a radio operator serving on American bomber over Dresden, according to the city's military museum.
There, bomb-damaged paving stones from Dresden and the Polish town of Wielun, a civilian target attacked by German bombers on the first day of the war, are on display side-by-side.
'We owe this to Hitler'
For Eberhard Renner, it’s clear who’s to blame for the destruction of Dresden. He said his father had said as much while the bombs were raining down.
“My father wasn’t brave usually but while we were sitting in the cellar he had the courage to say ‘we owe this to this criminal’. He meant Adolf Hitler. And no one contradicted him.”
“The attack was a war crime under the Geneva Convention. But Germany started it and bombed Manchester, Birmingham and Coventry and London and so on. And you can’t expect anyone not to respond with what is after all an effective method of war.”
“The only question is, whether it’s worth saving the lives of a few hundred Allied soldiers by shortening the war if that means sacrificing the lives of 25,000 civilians.”
by David Crossland