On the night of the 13 February 1945, the German city of Dresden was attacked by over 800 bombers from the Royal Air Force, followed by another 500 American planes over the next two days, which dropped a total of 3,900 tonnes of bombs and incendiary explosives on the city. The result of this unrelenting aerial bombardment upon a relatively small urban area was to produce a massive firestorm which, as well as engulfing buildings and their occupants, was so large that it even sucked up all the oxygen, causing those who survived the initial bombing to suffocate to death in the cellars and air raid shelters where they had taken cover. Estimates of those killed in the bombing vary from 25,000 to 200,000 but it is in no doubt that large numbers of people met an agonising death in this city which had little or no real military value and was full of refugees fleeing the Russian advance.
With the advancement of aviation in the 1930s it became readily apparent that any new war would bring about unprecedented aerial attacks on cities and civilian populations. In a total war defined by unprecedented advances in technology there was no longer any safe place. What the effects of this bombing would be, nobody knew. Many predicted that those who survived such attacks would either go insane or else be so horrified that they would rise up against their government and immediately sue for peace with the enemy. What the Second World War showed was that, for the most part, the immediate effect of bombing on survivors did not have as dramatic an effect as predicted and in some ways even helped to unite diverse strands of opinion against a common enemy.
For much of the war, Britain was left isolated from the rest of Europe occupied by the Nazis and the main way to damage the German war machine was to bomb their cities and industry. To do this they invested heavily in building up a massive fleet of long range bombing aircraft which night after night rained British bombs down upon the Reich. Following the American entry into the war, the US began bombing in daylight, giving no respite to either occupied Europe or Nazi Germany. (The Germans were no stranger to the use of carpet-bombing and used it heavily during the early part of the war, most notably over Warsaw and London, but they tended to use it as a precursor to an immediate land invasion.) Based upon the ideas of the 1930s bombing raids were designed to have two purposes; to physically destroy the military capabilities, industry and infrastructure of the enemy and also to produce so much terror within the German populace that it would lose the will to continue the fight. The fact that the war raged on right up to the doorstep of Hitler’s Berlin bunker proves that this particular premise was wrong.
Returning to Dresden, the morality of these attacks has been a subject of much controversy and debate ever since. The fact that the Nazi state was a horrendously vicious regime that murdered vast numbers of people without compunction should not excuse the actions of the Allies. As the philosopher A.C. Grayling has argued, the Allies presented themselves as being engaged in a ‘just war’ in which their actions were contrasted to the amorality of the Nazis. In order to fit into this scheme of a ‘just war’ the bombing of Dresden has to satisfy two criteria; it had to be both proportionate and necessary. On both counts, it fails. The attack was clearly completely disproportionate in nature and, at this late stage in the war, it was unnecessary. The fact that the Nazis were morally bankrupt and evil should not excuse what was a war crime perpetrated by the Allies.
One possible explanation given is that, with the war drawing to an end, the Americans and British wanted to show the Soviets, who would soon occupy the city, the destructive power of their air-power and let them know in no uncertain terms that while it might be Dresden today, it could be Moscow tomorrow. Another possible explanation is that there were internal institutional pressures for the air forces of Britain and America to justify the vast resources and expenses invested in them and results were expected to be delivered. With the war drawing to a close by 1945 the numbers of targets left available to bomb in Germany by these vast aerial armadas was dwindling. I personally think there may have been, in part, a desire by the Allies to see the effectiveness of a massive concentrated attack on a city in order to refine future developments in bombing capabilities. Whatever the true reason, it is in no doubt that the attack on Dresden did little to hasten the German surrender.
Richard Peter, a former press photographer who had fallen foul of the Nazis for his left-wing work with the AIZ, began to document the aftermath of war when he returned from military service in September 1945. He spent the next four years photographing the shattered remains of this once magnificent city which was published as a book in 1949. Undoubtedly his pre-war pedigree and connections would have served him well in getting the book published under the new communist administration of the Soviet occupied zone during a time of severe shortages. The book at first glance appears to present a straightforward documentation of the ruined city and the rebuilding work taking place there. But there are other layers to this work that are informed by the context in which it was made; primarily the tension in representing German people as both perpetrators and victims of this war. Even the title of the book poses a question. To accuse implies that you believe somebody to be guilty. But exactly to whom or what is the camera assigning guilt to? Britain? Hitler? The German people? Fascism? The brutality of war? Mans inhumanity to man??
It is possible to divide the narrative structure of the book into three acts; the fall of the city, the wages of sin and, finally, redemption. The first section of the book depicts the centre of the ruined city, with architectural images of buildings before and after the bombing raids, now reduced to smouldering heaps of brick and stone. It is here that we see the iconic photograph of the stone angel atop the city hall, arm outstretched in mute horror, as it gazes out over a sea of utter desolation. This is one of the few images in the book that gives a sense of the sheer scale of destruction; most other images concentrate on individual buildings or street scenes. People are completely absent from these blasted cityscapes. Peter presents a catalogue of deserted, people-less rubble punctuated by the remains of some architectural feature that has managed to survive the cataclysm. He surveys the aspects of the city; the town hall, the commercial area, industry, the medieval old town and the churches. All have been shattered and reduced to ruins. Here Peter presents us with the remnants of German culture and civilisation, twisted by the Nazis as an instrument of world domination, and now crushed into dust.
About halfway through the book we are presented with a double-page spread which is clearly designed to shock; two full page photographs of bodies unearthed from the cellars in which they had been entombed. The left hand page shows the body of long haired woman, facial features still partly discernable, head downcast in agony, while facing her is a corpse that still wears a swastika armband, whose grinning skull directly confronts the viewer. In another iconic image, Peter shows an anatomical skeleton with a building torn in half in the background. The message is stark; the war didn’t discriminate between the innocent and the guilty. All were mercilessly cut down by the aerial onslaught.
The final section of the book deals with the post-war activity of rebuilding this shattered city. We see people returning home with activity to clear the damage and bring order to the chaos. As this book was published in 1949 under the auspices of what was to become the East German state, this last section produces an abrupt change of tone in the narrative, allowing the book to end on a positive note. Here we are presented with people coming together collectively to rebuild their city, lives and self-respect. The images move swiftly along and after a couple of pages of people sifting through the rubble, Peter presents us with images of newly built apartment blocks, factories and the contented audience of a newly restored concert hall, signalling that German culture had not been destroyed. Germany had lost its way under Hitler but the communists would restore it.
In the second half of the 1940s an ideological battle between capitalism and communism for the hearts, minds and territory of the ruined German state was being waged between the winners of the war and it is no coincidence that the destruction wrought by capitalist Britain and America is being rebuilt by the communists. It is into this vacuum of uncertainty the communists offer a lifeline to the German people; work with us and help to wipe the slate clean of past sins. This book is not just a straightforward depiction of the aftermath of a war crime, although it most certainly is. There are layers to this book that reflect the confused and contradictory state of a traumatised post-war German society struggling to come to terms with the magnitude of what was unleashed upon the world ostensibly in their name and how they should respond to it.
Further information about Richard Peter and his depiction of Dresden can be found here.