I’m incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to visit Dresden with a group of friends last autumn. On the quest to visit the town where my friend was born, we had quite the adventure as a group wandering the streets (and festival foods) of Dresden.
Embracing my inner book (and history) nerd, Dresden has always been one of the cities I hoped to visit while in Europe. Get ready for #allthethings Kurt Vonnegut and WWII debates (or just keep scrolling).
Where are we?
Dresden is the capital of Saxony, a state in Eastern Germany. The first settlement in the area is thought to have been established in 7500 BC by Slavic people, then grew due to the an influx of Germanic populations. The name Dresden (Drežďany) is Old Sorbian and translates to “people of the forest”.
The landscape and population of the city drastically changed during WWII. From 1935-1945, the Jewish community fell from over 6,000 to 41 due to Nazi persecution and migration. Yeah, you read that correctly: 41. By the time of the US and UK bombing in 1945, the city housed over 600,000 refugees, nearly half their population.
Between February 13th and 15th 1945, British and American forces dropped 1,181 tons of incendiary bombs and 1,477 tons of high explosive bombs on the civilian city of Dresden. The combination of the bombs both damaged the city’s buildings while also burning their wooden structures; the historic inner city was destroyed and scholars estimate that 25,000-35,000 civilians were killed:
“Victor Gregg, a British para captured at Arnhem, was a prisoner of war in Dresden that night who was ordered to help with the clear up. In a 2014 BBC interview he recalled the hunt for survivors after the apocalyptic firestorm. In one incident, it took his team seven hours to get into a 1,000-person air-raid shelter in the Altstadt. Once inside, they found no survivors or corpses: just a green-brown liquid with bones sticking out of it. The cowering people had all melted. In areas further from the town centre there were legions of adults shrivelled to three feet in length. Children under the age of three had simply been vaporised.”
Even today, seventy years after the bombing, many argue whether the event constitutes a war crime by the Allies: the city held no military significance, caused thousands of civilian casualties, and had no real impact on the war. Kurt Vonnegut, an American POW who survived the bombing and later based the novel Slaughterhouse Five on his experience stated in an interview:
“VONNEGUT: . . . Only one person on the entire planet benefited from the raid, which must have cost tens of millions of dollars. The raid didn’t shorten the war by half a second, didn’t weaken a German defense or attack anywhere, didn’t free a single person from a death camp. Only one person ‘benefited’ — not two or five or ten. Just one.
INTERVIEWER: And who was that?
VONNEGUT: Me, I got three dollard for each person killed. Imagine that.”
Regardless of how you align in the debate, the bombing did impact the way we define “legitimate use of violence” in war. The history, culture, and rebuilding of Dresden are truly incredible. Our few days wasn’t nearly enough to explore everything.
Dresden Farmers Market:
Brunch at Cafe Toscana was amazing and the perfect way to start our trip to Bayreuth. I ordered an omelet with homemade vegipan, a seeded bread that is perfect with butter and coffee. Thankfully, a friend and I went halfsies on porridge and it was one of the best ones yet.
German and Hungarian Festival:
How lucky are we that a German and Hungarian fall food festival was taking place while we were visiting? We ate here at least twice and the food was amazing.
Technically this should be listed under “sites” and it certainly is, but my love of the book requires me to give Vonnegut his own section. Slaughterhouse Five inspired me to study history and political science.
I first read the novel in middle school and was immediately enthralled with the structure and writing of the story. The life of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier during WWII, is described by the narrator non-linearly, jumping back and forth in time (and space as Pilgrim is abducted by aliens). Pilgrim (and Vonnegut) survive the bombing of Dresden by taking cover in Schlachthof-fünf, or Slaughterhouse Five, an underground meat locker.
The first description is described as:
“The Americans arrived in Dresden at five in the afternoon. The boxcar doors were opened, and the doorways framed the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen. The skyline was intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd. It looked like a Sunday school picture of Heaven to Billy Pilgrim.”
I can second the loveliness of Dresden. The landscape and buildings are absolutely gorgeous to the point where you can imagine the cast of a Disney movie stepping onto the stone walkways. Pilgrim later emerges from the locker and found the previously “heavenly” skyline to look like “the surface of the moon… the entire city was gone.”
Today, there is a small Google Maps marker for the location of Vonnegut’s shelter. Completely destroyed during the bombing, the site is now a sports complex on top of the former underground meat locker. The basement houses a small memorial to Vonnegut.
Slaughterhouse Five is a novel and very much so. The point of the book isn’t the number of bombs dropped on the city or the number of people who died. The point is that the destruction of Dresden is just another massacre. It’s not the first, it certainly wasn’t going to be the last. One of the greatest aspects of the novel is simply the humanity of it.
Reading: The Souls of Yellow Folks (Wesley Yang)
Watching: Outlander Season 2 (Netflix)
Check out my girl Kristin’s beautiful photography (so many photos featured here!) on her site.
Overy, Richard. 2006. “The Post-War Debate.” in Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945. (editors: Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Craig). Ivan R. Dee: Chicago. 123-142.
Taylor, Ann. 2015. “Remembering Dresden: 70 Years After the Firebombing.” The Atlantic. Available here.