From the History of Western War Crimes: The Dresden Massacre (February 1945)
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 16 Feb , 2024

The Three Men of Slashing

It was in May/September 1945 when WWII ended – the bloodiest and most horrible war ever fought in human history. The war that caused the creation of the UNO in 1945 to protect the world from similar events in the future – a pan-global political-security organization that first issued a legal act was a Charter of the UN which inspired the 1948 Geneva Convention’s definition of genocide.

The Nürembergand Tokyo Trials were organized as “The Last Battles” for justice as the first ever global trials for war criminals and mass murderers including the top-hierarchy statesmen and politicians. However, 78 years after WWII the crucial moral question still needs a satisfactory answer: Have all the WWII war criminals faced justice at the Nürembergand Tokyo Trials? Or at least those who did not escape from public life after the war. Here we will present only one of those cases from WWII which has to be characterized as the genocide followed by the personalities directly responsible for it: The 1945 Dresden Massacre

The 1945 Dresden Raid was surely one of the most destructive airraids during WWII but also in world history of massive military destruction and war crimes against humanity too.[1] The main and most destructive airraid was during the night of February 13th−14th, by the British Bomber Command when 805 bomber aircraft attacked the city of Dresden which up to that time was protected from similar attacks primarily for two reasons:

    • The city was of extreme pan-European cultural and historical importance as one of the most beautiful “open-air museum” places in Europe and probably the city with the most beautiful Baroque architectural inheritance in the world.[2]
    • The lack of the city’s geostrategic, economic, and military importance.

The main air-borne raid was followed by three more similar raids in daylight but now by the U.S. 8th Air Force. The Allied (in fact, the U.K.−U.S.) Supreme Commander-In-Chief the U.S. five-star General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890−1969)[3] was anxious to link the Allied forces with the very fast advancing Soviet Red Army in South Germany. For that reason, Dresden suddenly became to be taken into consideration as a point of high strategic importance as a communication center, at least in the eyes of Eisenhower. However, at that time Dresden was known as a city that was overcrowded by up to 500,000 German refugees from the east. For the U.K.−U.S. Supreme Command Headquarters, it was clear that any massive airbombing of the city would cost many human lives and cause a human catastrophe. That was not primarily only on Eisenhower’s conscience to decide to launch massive air-borne attacks on Dresden or not as we have not to forget that Eisenhower was only a military commander (a strateg in the Greek) but not a politician. Unquestionably, the Dresden question in January−February 1945 was of a political one and of human nature not only of military a one. Therefore, together with a Supreme Commander-In-Chief of the Allied Forces a direct moral and human responsibility for the 1945 Dresden Massacre was on the British PM Winston Churchill (1874−1965) and the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882−1945) too.

These three men, however, finally agreed that the inevitably very high casualties in Dresden might in the end, nevertheless, help to shorten the war, which from a technical point of view was true. During one night and one day of the raids, there were over 30,000 buildings destroyed, and the numbers of those who were killed in the bombing and the ensuing firestorm are still in dispute among historians as the estimations go up to 140,000. Here it has to be noted that if this higher estimated number is taken as correct, it means that during the 1945 Dresden Massacremore people were killed than in the Hiroshima case from August 1945 (around 100,000 or one-third out of the total Hiroshima’s pre-bombing population).

The “Bomber Harris” and the “Atomic Harry”

One person with direct responsibility for transforming Dresden into an open-air crematorium, as the city was bombed by forbidden flammable bombs for massive destruction (Saddam Hussein was attacked in 2003 by the NATO’s alliance under the alleged and finally false accusation of possessing exactly such weapons – WMD) is the “Bomber Harris” – a commander of the British Royal Air-Forces during the Dresden Raid. The “Bomber Harris” was, in fact, Arthur Travers Harris (1892−1984), a Head of the British Bomber Command in 1942−1945. He was born in Cheltenham, and joined the British Royal Flying Corps in 1915, before fighting as a solder in South-West Africa. He became a Commander of the Fifth Group from 1939 till 1942 when he became the Head of this Group (Bomber Command). The point is that it was exactly Arthur Travers Harris who stubbornly required and defended the massive area bombing of Germany under the idea that such practice would bring the destruction of Germany (including civil settlements) that would finally force Germany to surrender without involving the Allied forces into the full-scale overland military invasion. The crucial point is that this “Bomber Harry’s” strategy received full support from the British PM Winston Churchill who, therefore, became the politician who blessed and legitimized massive aerial massacres in the legal form of genocide as it was described in the post-WWII Charter of the UNO and other international documents on protection of human rights (for instance, the 1949 Geneva Conventions). Nevertheless, there wasthe “Bomber Harry”, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin D. Roosevelt,and Winston Churchill who transformed the bombing of selected targets such as transport systems, industrial areas, or oil refineries into the massive aerial destruction of the whole urban settlements with transforming them into the open-air crematoriums like it was done for the first time in history with Dresden – a city with a rare historical heritage (today the pre-war Dresden would be on the UNESCO list of protected places of the world’s heritage) but flattened during one night and one day.[4]

This successful practice became very soon followed by the Allied forces in the cases of other German cities,[5] like Würtzburg – a tightly packed medieval housing city that exploded in a firestorm in March 1945 in one night with 90% of destroyed cityspace which had no strategic importance.[6] However, a strategic bombing of the urban settlements in WWII reached its peak throughthe destruction of  Hiroshima and Nagasaki under the order by the U.S. President (Democrat) Harry Truman – the “Atomic Harry” (1884−1972) who authorized the dropping of the atomic bombs over these two Japanese cities in order to end the war against Japan without further loss of the U.S. military troops, insisting on the unconditional surrender of Japan.[7]

“The Last Battle for Justice” and the “Butchers of Dresden”

Surely, one of the most obvious results of WWII was “its unparalleled destructiveness. It was most visible in the devastated cities of Germany and Japan, where mass aerial bombing, one of the major innovations of the Second World War, proved much more costly to life and buildings than had been the bombing of Spanish cities in the Spanish civil war”.[8] For that and other reasons, we believe that many Allied militaries and civil top decision-making personalities from WWII had to face justice at the Nüremberg and Tokyo Trials together with Hitler, Eichmann, Pavelić, and many others. However, it is an old truth that the winners are writing history and re-writing historiography. Therefore, instead, to see Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), Harry Truman, or Arthur Travers Harris at the Nüremberg and Tokyo Trials’ courtrooms as indicted on such charges as crimes against humanity and genocide as were the German Nazi defendants, who included the NSDAP’s officials and high-ranking military officers along with the German industrialists, lawmen, and doctors, we are even 73 years after the WWII reading and learning politically whitewashed and embellished biographies of those war criminals who destroyed Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki as national heroes, freedom fighters and democracy protectors.[9] For instance, in any official biography of Winston Churchill is not written that he is responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the German civilians in 1945 but we know that the British PM clearly promised the Poles to get after the war ethnically cleansed territory from the Germans.[10]

If the Nüremberg Trial, 1945−1949 was “The Last Battle” for justice,[11] then it was incomplete.Moreover, two of the most ardent killers of Dresden – Churchill, and Eisenhower were granted after the war the second premiership and double-term presidentship, respectively,in their countries.[12]


[1] On this issue, see more in [L. B. Kennett, A History of Strategic Bombing: From the First Hot-AirBaloons to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Scribner, 1982].

[2] On Dresden’s history and architecture, see [W. Hädecke, Dresden: Eine Geschichte von Glanz, Katastrophe und Aufbruch, Carl Hanser Verlag, München−Vien, 2006; J. Vetter (ed.), Beautiful Dresden, Ljubljana: MKT Print, 2007].

[3] He was born in Denison, Texas but grew up in Kansas and graduated from the Military Academy in West Point in 1915. During the Great War he commanded a tank-training unit and had numerous assignments between two word wars. In 1942 General George Marshall selected him to be commander of U.S. troops in Europe. As a lieutenant-general D. Eisenhower went on to command Operation Torch in November 1942, the Allied landing in North Africa. In December 1943 he was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. It ment that as such he became responsible for the planning and execution of the D-Day landings (summer 1944) and following military campaigns in West Europe against the Nazi-German troops.

[4] On the case of firebombing of Dresden, see more in [P. Addison, J. A. Crang (eds.), Firestorm. The Bombing of Dresden, 1945, Ivan R. Dee, 2006; M. D. Bruhl, Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden, New York: Random House, 2006; D. Irving, Apocalypse 1945: The Destruction of Dresden, Focal Point Publications, 2007; F. Taylor, Dresden. Tuesday, February 13, 1945, HarpenCollins e-books, 2009; Charler River Editors, The Firebombing of Dresden: The History and Legacy of the Allies’ Most Controversial Attack on Germany, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014].

[5] On this issue, see more in [J. Friedrich, The Bombing of Germany 1940−1945, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006; R. S. Hansen, Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942−1945, New York: Penguin Group/New American Library, 2009].

[6] On Würtzburg’s case, see [H. Knell, To Destroy a City: Strategic Bombing and its Human Consequences in World War II, Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press/Pireus Books Group, 2003].

[7] On this issue, see more in [C. C. Crane, Bombs, Cities, & Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War II, Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1993; A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, New York: Walker & Company, 2007].

[8] J. M. Roberts, The New Penguin History of the World, Fourth Edition, London: Allien Lane an imprint of the Penguin Press, 2002, p. 965.

[9] See, for instance [R. Dallek, Harry S. Truman, New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2008; J. E. Smith, FDR, New York: Random House, 2008; S. E. Ambrose, The Supreme Commander: The War Years of Dwight D. Eisenhover, New York: Anchor Books A Division of Random House, Inc., 2012; A. D. Donald, Citizen Soldier: A Life of Harry S. Truman, New York: Basic Books, 2012; W. Manchester, P. Reid, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940−1965, New York: Penguin Random House Company, 2013; B. Johnson, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 2014; B. Harper, Roosevelt, New York City, Inc., 2014; P. Johnson, Eisenhower: A Life, New York: Viking/Penguin Group, 2014].

[10] T. Snyder, KruvinosŽemės. Europa tarp Hitlerio ir Stalino, Vilnius: Tyto alba, 2011, p. 348 (original title: T. Snyder, Bloodlands. Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, New York: Basic Books, 2010).

[11] D. Irving, Nuremberg: The Last Battle, World War II Books, 1996.

[12] Dwight Eisenhower after WWII was in November 1952 elected U.S. 34th President (1953−1961) as Republican with Richard Nixon as Vice-President. In July 1953 he fulfilled his promise to seek an end to the Korean War by signing an armistice. He was the first Republican President since 1933. In 1957 he used federal troops to quell segregationist violence at Little Rock, Arkansas. 

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill wrote his six-volume The Second World War (1948−1954), for which he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 (in fact, very much whitewashed his own role as the British leader in WWII). Nevertheless, he returned as the British PM in 1951, by now with falling health. He devoted most of his energy to keep extraordinary relationship with the U.S.A. He received from the U.S.A. honorary U.S. citizenship. However, despite his political-patriotic rhetoric of the British glory, he, in fact, led the U.K. during the British demise as a world great power. Like Eisenhower, Churchill was never accused for any committed war crimes against humanity (either in Europe or British colonies).

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr. Vladislav B. Sotirovic

Ex-University Professor, Research Fellow at Centre for Geostrategic Studies, Belgrade, Serbia

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