The Fire and the Darkness
The Bombing of Dresden, 1945
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2020, 400 pages
Book Review published on: March 6, 2020
In the context of World War II, the mere mention of the “Dresden” evokes images of devastation and the horrors visited upon this jewel of a city as part of total war. There is an iconic photograph associated with the firebombing; the statue of a benign, almost angelic figure overlooks a panorama of charred ruins and skeletal husks of a city once known as “Florence on the Elbe.” In popular culture, Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the bombing from “slaughterhouse five” while a prisoner of war, made this event a central theme in his novel of the same name. More recently, Dresden is central to the German film Werk ohne Autor (“Work without Author,” in English, “Never Look Away” ), as the protagonist must deal with personal loss associated with the firebombing of Dresden, along with its postwar aftermath. Why does Dresden stand out as a particularly heinous event even today, seventy-five years after its occurrence? In a new book, The Fire and the Darkness: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945, Sinclair McKay provides new insight and a fresh perspective that addresses this question.
McKay organizes the book chronologically in three parts, portraying Dresden before, during, and after the devastating allied bombing attacks of 13-14 February 1945. His approach is multifaceted; while military aspects come to the foreground, the author includes first-person narratives that highlight a number of other domains—social, cultural, economic, and moral/ethical—to name a few. In the first section, for example, McKay effectively depicts Dresden as an intellectual and cultural center of Germany, a source of international recognition that would almost condemn its destruction as a moral and ethical outrage. At the same time, McKay notes that Dresden was thoroughly “Nazified,” replete with all the repression the Third Reich visited on its own citizens, let alone the horrific treatment of its Jewish population. There is an almost subliminal question—did Dresden deserve its eventual fate?
The second and most graphic section of the book is aptly titled “Schreckensnacht,” or “night of horrors.” Here, McKay is at his most visceral in depicting both the physical and psychological effects of the firestorm that ensued after three successive bombing raids—two by the British on the night of 13 February, and a third the next day by American air forces. All told, the three waves encompassed 1,107 bombers using incendiary munitions designed purposely to create a fire tornado; McKay’s eyewitness accounts of the ensuing maelstrom are stark and devastating. McKay is also effective in detailing the Allies’ rationale for “Florence on the Elbe,” a city with little military value. While the British targeted the city to create havoc and confusion in order to forestall the German response to the fast approaching Red Army, American leaders focused on destroying the railyards in the center of Dresden. Of course, none of this mattered to the tens of thousands of Dresdeners who perished in horrific ways during the attacks.
In the book’s third and final part, two themes stand out—the international outcry and self-reflection on the firebombing of Dresden on the part of civilian and military leaders, and the resurrection of the city itself in the decades following the war. Dresden quickly became the symbol of total war and the annihilation of innocents; it took on greater meaning due to its relative “innocence,” its aesthetic and cultural beauty, and its questionable military significance. Winston Churchill himself questioned his own air force leadership on the morality and ethics of attacking such a city, along with many others. That discussion continues to this day. As McKay eloquently details, Dresden has largely recovered its former beauty and cultural significance. However, its rebirth resulted from a long, tough process, and was incomplete until years after Germany’s reunification. In its totality, The Fire and the Darkness is the remarkable story of a city’s resilience and its citizens in the aftermath of utter devastation.
There are only very minor issues with the book: McKay refers to airpower theorist Giulio Douhet as “French” (he was Italian), and there are some small typographical errors. Substantively, one recommendation for the author is to reconcile the difference between the initial and final death counts from Dresden—250,000 versus 25,000. How were these figures initially calculated and why were they revised? The author could provide additional insight into the narrative behind these once controversial figures.
The Fire and the Darkness is well worth the time invested. Articulately written in a literary style, it will keep the reader engaged due to its multifaceted approach and riveting eyewitness accounts. The book will be of great interest to students of the law of armed conflict, the allied strategic bombing campaign, and World War II in the European theater. McKay’s account of one of the most horrific events of the Second World War is highly recommended.
Book Review written by: Mark Montesclaros, Fort Gordon, Georgia