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Return to Dresden

Revisiting history is usually invoked as a technique to save us from repeating old mistakes and for better understanding of how those mistakes occurred. War, with its stress and drama, has been a consistently popular theme in film. Return to Dresden is an effective exploitation of traditional themes, the savagery and the futility of war, the rapprochement of those who inflict violence and its victims. What the film cannot do is restore Dresden itself as a treasure house of German Renaissance art, music and architecture, a city of half a million souls. Human memory is inherently partial, selective and intensely personal. Producers of this film will be conscious of the controversy aroused by the Canadian War Museum's attempt to provide a nuanced and balanced treatment of the Allied bomber offensive against Germany and may wish to avoid needless provocation.

The bombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945, remains one of the most controversial Allied operations of the Second World War. Dresden was not a target of obvious military importance like the port of Hamburg or the industrial centres of the Ruhr valley. It was a widely recognized architectural gem with some of the finest Baroque buildings in Germany. Civic pride had banned manufacturing enterprises to the suburban ring around the city. Dresden was also remote from Allied airfields in the United Kingdom. The long approach flight would have entailed heavy losses from the Luftwaffe and its anti-aircraft or flak batteries, much like the heavy losses experienced in long flights to Ploesti in Rumania and to other sites of petroleum supply for the Third Reich. Given the absence of raids, the German air force saw no reason to deploy its scarce resources to Dresden or to divert labour for the construction of shelters for its civilian population.

So why bomb Dresden in February 1945, as the Allies prepared to invade Germany? Some of the answers were almost standard by that end of the Second World War. Bombing cities, according to a leading airpower prophet of the inter-war years, an Italian general, Emilio Douhet, would dissolve civilian morale. Lacking discipline, populations would flee in panic. Douhet's doctrine had inspired the Luftwaffe to crush Warsaw, London, Coventry, Rotterdam and other enemy cities in the early years of the war. Douhet had, in fact, been proved wrong at least in Great Britain, where civilian morale revived and solidified after the so-called "Blitz." Much the same would be found by postwar studies, to have been the case in Germany, Having come to power by the strength of German disillusionment at losing the First World War, the Nazis had been very nervous about bringing the burdens of war again to Germany in 1939. They might well have concluded that Allied strategic bombing was an ally in strengthening civilian morale. Workers who had lost their homes and families to Allied bombing compensated by longer hours at work in munitions factories, conscious that total commitment to the war effort was their sole means of defeating the enemy and avenging their own bitter losses. None of this was known, of course, to Allied leaders and emerged chiefly from the close watch on civilian morale maintained and recorded by the Gestapo.

A further explanation for an assault on Dresden, unlikely to be stressed in a film designed to comfort the DDR, was the advance of the Soviet armies from the East. Not only did the Soviet advance drive thousand of German civilians to seek refuge wherever it might be found, it also encouraged Allied leaders to seek ways in which their participation in the war effort against Hitler's regime might become better known to their powerful but suspicious Soviet allies.

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One way to render the past more interesting and even controversial is to revisit where it happened and perhaps to challenge officially approved doctrines.
Desmond Morton is Hiram Mills Professor of History Emeritus at McGill University. A graduate of the RMC, Oxford University and the London School of Economics, he has published 40 books on Canadian political, military and industrial relations history since 1970. He served for 25 years at the University of Toronto's Erindale College, finishing as principal (1985-1994) when he came to McGill University as founding director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. He is an officer of the Order of Canada, holds the Canadian Forces Decoration and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.