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From the Monitor archives: Allies firebomb Dresden in WWII

The firebombing of Dresden, which killed tens of thousands and left most of the city leveled, was one of the most controversial city attacks of World War II. The Christian Science Monitor reported as it happened, seventy years ago today.

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    The combination of two photos shows August Schreitmueller's sandstone sculpture "The Goodness" from the Rathausturm (Townhall Tower) overlooking the destroyed city of Dresden, eastern Germany, in 1945, and on Feb. 12, 2015. British and US bombers destroyed Dresden's centuries-old Baroque city center on Feb. 13 and 14, 1945.
    ADN (l.), Jens Meyer (r.)/AP
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The following articles originally ran in The Christian Science Monitor on Feb. 15, 1945, and on Apr. 13, 1971.

The first article offers the initial reports of what was to become one of the most controversial bombings of World War II. On Feb. 13, 1945, US and British bombers launched a massive two-day firebombing campaign against Dresden, leveling much of the city and killing thousands of civilians. Estimates of the death toll have ranged from tens of thousands to half a million, though a recent historical study in Germany estimates that the total dead was no more than 25,000.

Regardless of the final tally, Dresden's value as a bombing target was debatable, as the city was not involved in war production or major industry. Allied forces claimed that the attack was necessary to disrupt German communications as Soviet forces advanced from the east. But critics say the strikes against the city were acts of vengeance rather than military practicality.

The second article, from 1971, offers an account of East Germany's efforts to rebuild Dresden. Even decades after the war's end, parts of the city still lay ruined from the bombing.

The attack's scars, both physical and psychological, last to this day, not least as neo-Nazis have held marches on the anniversary of the bombing since the 1990s.

Feb. 15, 1945

Allied Bombs Aid Soviet Drive on Dresden

Canadian Push Near Rhine; War Told by Fall of Capitals

Developments On Battle Fronts

By the War Editor of The Christian Science Monitor; From Associated Press, Reuters, and other direct news dispatches

Smashing American and British air attacks on Dresden, 68 miles from the Russian advance into Saxony, show the close co-operation between Western and Eastern Allies at this stage of the war.

Eight hundred RAF bombers attacked the city during the night. Some 2,250 American bombers and fighters followed during the day.

Simultaneously 500 fighter-escorted bombers from Italy attacked Vienna and Graz.

Main Russian advance was reported above the Czechoslovak border, where [Soviet General Ivan] Konev was reported to have crossed the Bober River and reached Sorau [now Żary, Poland], 83 miles southeast of Berlin. ...

Air Over Europe: U.S. and British Batter Dresden

More than 2,250 United States bombers and fighters struck Germany in widespread attacks today, delivering a main blow at Dresden which already was burning from a night assault by 800 heavy RAF bombers.

Dresden is only 68 miles or less from advancing Russian troops, and is a center of Nazi defenses in central Germany. The day-and-night air blows were in direct and co-ordinated support of Marshal Ivan Konev's First Ukrainian Army.

The RAF bombed Dresden twice in attacks three hours apart. Announcing the night operations, the British Air Ministry declared:

"As the center of a railway network and a great industrial town Dresden has become of the greatest value for conducting any defense the Germans may organize against Marshal Konev’s armies."

Altogether the RAF dispatched 11,400 aircraft to Germany during the night. Other targets were a synthetic oil plant at Bohlen, south of Leipzig, objectives at Magdeburg, 75 miles southwest of Berlin, and the railroad towns of Nuremberg, Bonn, and Dortmund. All the night operations were at a cost of 16 bombers missing.

Soon after breakfast the German Radio began interrupting its programs every few minutes to warn listeners to take cover from approaching planes. At noon United States Army Air Forces announced officially its bombers were over Germany.

The British blow against Dresden, Germany’s seventh city, was the first major attack ever made there. A striking feature was the lack of antiaircraft fire.

When the first wave hit about 10 p.m., clouds obscured the target. When the second arrived three hours later, the sky was clear. The crews said fires could be seen for 200 miles.

Dresden is 90 miles south of Berlin, and is overflowing with refugees fleeing ahead of the Russians. Some German Government offices are said to have been shifted there.

Apr. 13, 1971

New Dresden's socialist mien to replace 'Renaissance past'

By Harry B. Ellis, Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

DRESDEN, GERMANY – “Dresden,” said the pretty young woman, “is a city of modern heavy industry, a center for science and technology, and a center of socialist art and culture.”

Dresden, she added firmly, no longer is an “art city,” a “baroque treasure-house,” or the "Florence of Germany."

That is true enough. In two nights of fire bombing in February, 1945, American and British aircraft forever destroyed the Dresden of baroque and Renaissance architecture.

At least 35,000 persons, mostly women and children, were killed. Of the city’s 220,000 dwelling units, 75,000 were destroyed. The inner city, in which churches, palaces, museums, and theaters stood cheek by jowl, was obliterated.

After the war there was neither money nor materials to duplicate the old Dresden, even had the city’s Communist planners so desired. But they did not want to reproduce the old.

Rebuilt Dresden was to become a “socialist city,” its viability based on heavy industry, its art and architecture reflecting the ascendancy of the working class.

Awesome tasks

The new Dresden was to be built by the people, for the people. So awesome were the tasks of reconstruction, however, that six years ago, when I first visited Dresden, the center of the city still was largely a huge hummocky expanse of emptiness, in which green things struggled to grow.

Today, standing in that same spot, I was surrounded by new buildings, with giant construction cranes swinging slowly above the rooftops in every direction.

Thanks to city factories turning out chemicals, machinery, building materials, and electronic equipment, the amount of money allocated to the rebuilding of the shattered city has risen from $4 million in 1962 to $50 million this year.

“First postwar priority,” continued the young woman, an official involved in city planning, “was to build new housing for the homeless."

Sixty percent of Dresden had been ruined by bombing, compared with 37 percent for Berlin and 25 percent for Leipzig. More new housing had to be provided in Dresden than in any other' city of East Germany.

A majority of Dresden’s citizens still live in prewar dwellings. But perhaps 100,000 Dresdeners have been housed in postwar flats, with a total of 56,000 new housing units scheduled to be built in the city by 1980.

More green space

The first efforts at postwar mass housing – blocks of identical flats, stretching like military barracks – now are giving way to the “Hochhaus” (skyscraper) concept, explained another Dresden city planner.

“Ground space,” the official continued, is scarce. So we are building higher houses of more varied design, with more green space between them."

Dresden’s ultimate plan is to construct a wide pedestrian mall, lined with shops, apartment houses, hotels, restaurants, and theaters, stretching for miles through the heart of the city, across the Elbe River, and into the “new city” being built on the east bank.

Part and parcel of this scheme is the diversion of through traffic from the center of Dresden, by building a circumferential highway around the city.

Prager Street, the new pedestrian mall, already is well advanced, though it will be 1980, at least, before the mall can be carried across the Georgi Dimitroff Bridge to the new city on the other side.

“At first,” declared another city official, “when we started to rebuild the Altmarkt [old market place], we tried to incorporate modified baroque features, to preserve old traditions.” This was abandoned, he explained, in favor of a lighter, airier type of architecture."

Eventually, it is hoped, some baroque cultural monuments will be restored.

Zeal and effort

In any case, officials made clear, the “socialist” character of the new Dresden would take precedence over the baroque and Renaissance past.

The visitor can admire the sweeping conception which Dresden’s architects and engineers have of their city’s future, as well as the zeal and effort they are devoting to bring their plans to pass.

Given the magnitude of ruin into which the war plunged Dresden, this city is perhaps farther along the road toward renovation than most other East German industrial centers.

But the problem lies in the lack of quality building materials. Structures such as Dresden is putting up, making major use of concrete, aluminum, glass, steel, marble, and plastics, demand the finest materials, if the buildings are to remain durably handsome.

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