Of the more than 14,000 major military conflicts in recorded history, World War II set a record for fatalities at 60 million lives. Also for the first time, civilian deaths far outnumbered those of soldiers: 41 million civilian to 19 million military deaths.
The major reason for this disparity was the weapon of choice in that war: aerial bombing. As World War II began, and land, sea, and air combat spread throughout Western Europe, explosive and fire bombs took millions of lives. Grim stories were told of the Luftwaffe assaults on Rotterdam, Coventry, and London. Such places were not considered by the Allies to be "legitimate" targets in wartime. They were seen by many as wanton killings of innocent people. But when the British and Americans took to the skies over Germany and German-held territory just a few months before the war ended, the vengefulness of the Allies was soon unleashed on civilian populations there as well.
One of the most memorable of enemy victim-cities was Dresden, capital of Saxony, located in the southern corner of Germany. Known as the "Florence on the Elbe," it is home of the famous porcelains and "Dresden china."
Frederick Taylor, a translator of Goebbels's diaries, decided to look into the controversy swirling around the devastating concussion- and fire-bombing of this beautiful city on Feb. 13-14, 1945. The assault, he writes, was traditionally regarded as a "great blot on the Allies' war record, the one that could not be explained."
Taylor plowed through all the many books and articles written since World War II about the bombing - the RAF's attacks on the night of Feb. 13 and the USAF daylight raid the next day. He visited Dresden several times, especially on anniversaries of the attack.
He interviewed survivors, visited cemeteries, attended memorial services, listened to speeches by eyewitnesses and German dignitaries, all of whom sought to put the bombings in perspective. Raucous protesters were also on the scene.
The author faced the unenviable task of winnowing truth from the chaff of propaganda. Since the war, two camps of interpreters of the Dresden bombings had formed. Neo-Nazi extremists exploited the raids to heap scorn upon the Allied victors.
A second group, also showing up at the anniversary commemorations, included leftists and outright apologists for the former Communist regime in East Germany. Both made exaggerated claims, Taylor discovered, about the number of civilian victims and the dark motives for attacking the city.
But the official military records and bomber logs that Taylor examined showed that the stories concocted by the extremists were not true. For instance, there was no evidence that British fighters, accompanying the Lancaster long-range bombers, had descended to lower altitudes in order to strafe innocent citizens.
But why was this "virgin city" attacked?
Critics have long held that the Allies had no legitimate reason for their devastating bombardment. (This reviewer found that the Soviet Military Encyclopedia- Dictionary claimed that Dresden "had no military significance.") But as Taylor pursued this nagging question further, he discovered plenty of evidence of Dresden's military importance.
He learned that it was the Russians, advancing into German territory by 1945, who had initially urged the Allies to "take care of" Dresden. It was the Soviets who named the intended raids, "Operation Thunderclap" (Operatsiya Groza). The Soviet commanders knew, as did the Allies, that this city of one-half million was a major railroad and communications center. Military intelligence had determined that there were covert munitions factories located within the city. Also, Wehrmacht troops were known to be concentrated there in considerable numbers. Finally, Dresden, far to the south, was considered to be along a possible route by which the Germans could decide to retreat in order to establish a last-ditch, defensive "redoubt."
Taylor himself finally determined that between 25,000 and 35,000 lives were lost in the raids, not the hundreds of thousands claimed by neo-Nazi and leftist sources.
The 59th anniversary this year will again undoubtedly be a major event commemorated in Dresden. Having attended these affairs in past years, Taylor writes poignantly: "It is a dignified affair in the center of town. The scene in front of the Frauenkirche - which later merges into a prayer vigil in the renovated crypt of the church - is middle-class, calm, but with a deep undertow of emotion. Candles have been placed in the hundreds by the perimeter of the building site.... People appear at microphones and tell their stories. They are simple but unbearable. Unbearable, perhaps, precisely because of their simplicity. Films are shown, including one of Coventry, which has become Dresden's sister town in the intervening years."
This resourceful researcher and writer develops a thoroughgoing, objective study throughout these sobering 500 pages. His book makes a major contribution to the story of Dresden.
• Albert Weeks is the author of 'Stalin's Other War: Soviet Grand Strategy 1939-1941' (Rowman & Littlefield).