[Paleopsych] Theodore Dalrymple: The Specters Haunting Dresden

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Theodore Dalrymple: The Specters Haunting Dresden
City Journal Winter 2005

    The foundations of Hitler's bunker were uncovered during the building
    frenzy in Berlin that followed the reunification of Germany. An
    anguished debate ensued about what to do with the site, for in Germany
    both memory and amnesia are dangerous, each with its moral hazards. To
    mark the bunker's site might turn it into a place of pilgrimage for
    neo-Nazis, resurgent in the East; not to mark it might be regarded as
    an attempt to deny the past. In the end, anonymous burial was deemed
    the better, which is to say the safer, option.

    Nowhere in the world (except, perhaps, in Israel or Russia) does
    history weigh as heavily, as palpably, upon ordinary people as in
    Germany. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, the
    disaster of Nazism is still unmistak- ably and inescapably inscribed
    upon almost every town and cityscape, in whichever direction you look.
    The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once
    among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy's, is now
    a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless
    and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease,
    with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do
    nothing to dispel. Well-stocked shops do not supply meaning or
    purpose. Beauty, at least in its man-made form, has left the land for
    good; and such remnants of past glories as remain serve only as a
    constant, nagging reminder of what has been lost, destroyed, utterly
    and irretrievably smashed up.

    Nor are the comforts of victimhood available to the Germans as they
    survey the devastation of their homeland. Walking with the widow of a
    banker through the one small square in Frankfurt that has been
    restored to its medieval splendor, I remarked how beautiful a city
    Frankfurt must once have been, and how terrible it was that such
    beauty should have been lost forever.

    "We started it," she said. "We got what we deserved."

    But who was this "we" of whom she spoke? She was not of an age to have
    helped or even to have supported the Nazis, and therefore (if justice
    requires that each should get his desert) it was unjust that she
    should bear the guilty burden of the past. And Germans far younger
    than she still bear it. I went to dinner with a young businessman,
    born 20 years after the end of the war, who told me that the forestry
    company for which he worked, and which had interests in Britain, had
    decided that it needed a mission statement. A meeting ensued, and
    someone suggested Holz mit Stolz ("wood with pride"), whereupon a
    two-hour discussion erupted among the employees of the company as to
    whether pride in anything was permitted to the Germans, or whether it
    was the beginning of the slippery slope that led to . . . well,
    everyone knew where. The businessman found this all perfectly normal,
    part of being a contemporary German.

    Collective pride is denied the Germans because, if pride is taken in
    the achievements of one's national ancestors, it follows that shame
    for what they have done must also be accepted. And the shame of German
    history is greater than any cultural achievement, not because that
    achievement fails to balance the shame, but because it is more recent
    than any achievement, and furthermore was committed by a generation
    either still living or still existent well within living memory.

    The moral impossibility of patriotism worries Germans of conservative
    instinct or temperament. Upon what in their historical tradition can
    they safely look back as a guide or a help? One young German
    conservative historian I met took refuge in Anglophilia--his England,
    of course, being an England of the past. He needed a refuge, because
    Hitler and Nazism had besmirched everything in his own land. The
    historiography that sees in German history nothing but a prelude to
    Hitler and Nazism may be intellectually unjustified, the product of
    the historian's bogus authorial omniscience, but it has emo- tional
    and psychological force nonetheless, precisely because the willingness
    to take pride in the past implies a preparedness to accept the shame
    of it. Thus Bach and Beethoven can be celebrated, but not as Germans;
    otherwise they would be tainted. The young German historian worked for
    a publishing house with a history lasting almost four centuries, but
    its failure to go out of business during the 12 years of the Third
    Reich cast a shadow both forward and backward, like a spectral
    presence that haunts a great mansion.

    The impossibility of patriotism does not extinguish the need to
    belong, however. No man is, or can be, an island; everyone, no matter
    how egotistical, needs to belong to a collectivity larger than
    himself. A young German once said to me, "I don't feel German, I feel
    European." This sounded false to my ears: it had the same effect upon
    me as the squeal of chalk on a blackboard, and sent a shiver down my
    spine. One might as well say, "I don't feel human, I feel mammalian."
    We do not, and cannot, feel all that we are: so that while we who live
    in Europe are European, we don't feel European.

    In any case, can a German feel European unilaterally, without the
    Portuguese (for example) similarly and reciprocally feeling European
    rather than Portuguese? From my observations of the French, they still
    feel French, indeed quite strongly so. Nearly half a century after the
    Treaty of Rome, they can't be said to like the Germans; to think
    otherwise is to mistake a marriage of convenience for the passion of
    Romeo and Juliet.

    A common European identity therefore has to be forged deliberately and
    artificially; and one of the imperatives for attempting to do so is
    the need of Germans for an identity that is not German (the other,
    which dovetails neatly, is the French drive to recover world power).
    And since the Germans are very powerful in Europe, by weight of their
    economy, their need to escape from themselves by absorbing everyone
    into a new collective identity will sooner or later be perceived in
    the rest of Europe as the need to impose themselves-- as a return to
    their bad old habits. New identities can indeed be forged, but usually
    in the crucible of war or at least of social upheaval: not, in the
    context, an inviting prospect.

    On no city does history weigh heavier than on Dresden. It is 60 years
    in February 2005 since the bombing that forever changed the basis of
    the city's renown. Overnight, the Florence of the Elbe became a
    perpetual monument to destruction from the air, famed for its rubble
    and its corpses rather than its baroque architecture and its devotion
    to art. And then came communism.

    You meet people in Dresden who, until a few years ago, knew nothing
    but life under Hitler, Ulbricht, and Honecker. Truly the sins of their
    fathers were visited upon them, for they brought neither the Nazis nor
    the communists to power, and there was nothing they could do to escape
    them. For such people, the sudden change in 1990 was both liberation
    and burden. Avid to see a world that was previously forbidden them,
    they took immediate advantage of their new freedom to visit the
    farthest corners of the globe, the more exotic the better. But the
    liberation brought with it a heightened awareness of the man-made
    desert of their own pasts, seven-eighths of their lives, truly an
    expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Never was Joy's grape burst
    more decisively against veil'd Melancholy's palate fine.

    A decade and a half, and untold billions of deutsche marks and euros
    later, Dresden is still incompletely Westernized. Its unemployment
    rate is three times that of Germany as a whole, so high in fact that
    all the city dwellers I met believed the official figures to be
    manipulated downward, for propaganda purposes: it being inconceivable
    to them, as the result of long and incontrovertible experience, that
    any government would tell the truth about anything. And while some
    parts of the city have taken on the feverish vulgarity that for so
    many people in the modern world is the manifestation, prerequisite,
    and only meaning and value of freedom, others still have that
    disintegrating deadness peculiar to communism, where paint flakes and
    stucco crumbles, where stale smells always linger in stairwells, and
    electric light casts a yellowing gloom the color of cheap paper that
    has aged.

    Not all Dresden was bombed, of course; on the banks of the Elbe there
    are still the magnificent villas of the haute bourgeoisie. Some of
    them have been bought and restored by rich "Wessis," as the
    inhabitants of the former West Germany are still, not altogether
    affectionately, known; but others remain unrestored, uninhabited, and
    deteriorating, at night appearing unlit, like the set of a Gothic
    horror movie. One expects bats or vampires to emerge. For more than 40
    years, they were the homes of Dresden "workers of the brain" (to use
    communist terminology), but such was their dilapidation that,
    immediately after reunification, they were declared unfit for
    habitation according to the standards of the West, and their residents
    moved elsewhere.

    To the moral complications of a Nazi past were added those of a
    communist past, the greatest of which was an awareness of just how
    widespread the practice of denunciation had been. On some estimates, a
    sixth of the population of the former German Democratic Republic were
    Mitarbeiter--collaborators with the secret police, the Stasi--and had
    spied upon and denounced their neighbors, friends, relatives, and even
    spouses. Once the archives opened and people could read their security
    dossiers for themselves, they discovered in many cases that those to
    whom they had relayed their private thoughts had relayed them in turn
    to the Stasi, in return, practically, for nothing except the
    informer's satisfaction of being on the right side of the powerful.
    Those whom people had thought were their best friends turned out to be
    the very ones whose denunciation had resulted in their otherwise
    inexplicable failure to gain promotion in their work, sometimes for
    decades. Such discoveries were not conducive to a favorable or
    optimistic view of human nature or the trust upon which a secure
    social life is built. The GDR, founded on a political theory that made
    a fetish of human solidarity, turned everyone into an atom in the
    asocial ether.

    The destruction of Dresden on the night of February 13, 1945, by the
    Royal Air Force, and on the following two days by the U.S. Army
    Forces, necessitated the rebuilding of the city, with only a small
    area around the famous Zwinger restored to its former glory. Dresden
    had been all but destroyed once before, by the armies of Frederick the
    Great (if Frederick was enlightened, give me obscurantism); but at
    least he replaced the Renaissance city recorded in the canvases of
    Bellotto by a baroque one, not by a wilderness of totalitarian
    functionalism whose purpose was to stamp out all sense of
    individuality and to emphasize the omnipresent might of the state. The
    bombing of Dresden was a convenient pretext to do what communists (and
    some others) like to do in any case: the systematization of Bucharest
    during Ceausescu's rule, or the replacement of the medieval city of
    Ales, 25 miles from my house in France, by mass housing of hideous
    inhumanity on the orders of the communist city council, being but two
    cases in point.

    Despite this, the communists made use of the destruction of Dresden
    for propaganda purposes throughout the four decades of their rule. The
    church bells of the city tolled on every anniversary of the bombing,
    for the 20 minutes that it took the RAF to unload the explosives that
    created the firestorm that turned the Florence of the Elbe into a
    smoking ruin as archaeological as Pompeii. "See what the capitalist
    barbarians did," was the message, "and what they would do again if
    they had the chance and if we did not arm ourselves to the teeth."
    Needless to say, the rapine of the Red Army went strictly unmentioned.

    But the bombing caused some unease in Britain even at the time. Was it
    justified? The issue of the war, after all, was by then hardly in
    doubt; and, in any case, both the ethics and efficacy of bombing
    civilian areas had been questioned, not only by left-wing politicians
    and George Bell, bishop of Chichester, but by the air-force commanders
    themselves. A debate has simmered ever since, occasionally coming to a
    boil, as when a statue commemorating the head of the RAF's Bomber
    Command, Arthur Harris, was unveiled in London in 1992 or, more
    recently, when the Queen paid a state visit to Germany and failed to
    utter an apology for the bombing.

    I don't think any decent, civilized person can look at pictures of
    Dresden after the bombing without being overcome by a sense of shock.
    The jagged ruins of walls emerging from fields of rubble, as far as
    the eye can see or the camera record, are a testament, of a kind, to
    human ingenuity. Only the long development of science and knowledge
    could have achieved this. As for the funeral pyres of bodies, piled up
    with their legs and arms emerging from the mass, or the corpses of the
    people boiled alive in the fountains in which they had taken refuge .
    . . one averts not only one's eyes, but one's thoughts.

    Yet the idea sometimes propounded by those who seek to condemn the
    bombing as an atrocity equal to, and counterbalancing, Nazi
    atrocities--that Dresden was some kind of city of the innocents,
    concerned only with the arts and having nothing to do with the war
    effort, cut off from and morally superior to the rest of Nazi
    Germany--is clearly absurd. It is in the nature of totalitarian
    regimes that no such innocence should persist anywhere; and it
    certainly didn't in Dresden in 1945. For example, the Zeiss-Ikon
    optical group alone employed 10,000 workers (and some forced labor),
    all engaged--of course--in war work. Nor had Dresden's record been
    very different from the rest of Germany's. Its synagogue was burned
    down during the orchestrated Kristallnacht of November 1938; the
    Gauleiter of Saxony, who had his seat in Dresden, was the notoriously
    brutal and corrupt Martin Mutschmann. The bombing saved the life of at
    least one man, the famous diarist Victor Klemperer, one of the 197
    Jews still alive in the city (out of a former population of several
    thousand). He and the handful of remaining Jews had been marked down
    for deportation and death two days after the bombing; in the chaos
    after the bombing, he was able to escape and tear the yellow star from
    his coat.

    Eighteen years after the end of the war, in 1963, the pro-Nazi
    historian David Irving published his first book, The Destruction of
    Dresden. In those days, he was either less pro-Nazi than he later
    became or more circumspect--the memory of the war still being
    fresh--but it was probably not entirely a coincidence that he devoted
    his first attention to an event that Churchill suspected might be a
    blot on the British escutcheon. However, Irving--later a leading
    Holocaust denier, who lost a famous libel suit against a historian who
    exposed him as such--clearly accepted in 1963 that there had been a
    Nazi genocide against the Jews, and he ended his book with an
    admission that the bombing (which he called "the biggest single
    massacre in European history") was "carried out in the cause of
    bringing to their knees a people who, corrupted by Nazism, had
    committed the greatest crimes against humanity in recorded time."

    There were faint signs of Irving's later acceptance of the Nazi
    worldview in this book, though they probably went unnoticed at the
    time. Describing the state of medical services in Dresden after the
    bombing, he mentioned that "a vast euthanasia-hospital for mentally
    incurables" was transformed into a hospital for the wounded, without
    any remark upon the very concept of a "euthanasia-hospital for
    mentally incurables": an institution that by itself would be
    sufficient to negate one meaning of his ambiguous description of
    Dresden in a chapter heading as "The Virgin Target." (Did he mean that
    it had never yet been attacked, or that the city was an innocent

    Of course, it would be absurd to pretend that the bombing of Dresden
    was conducted in order to put an end to the evil of its
    "euthanasia-hospital," however vast, or to rescue Victor Klemperer
    from certain death. Among other motives for bombing, no doubt, was the
    need to demonstrate to the advancing Russians the tremendous firepower
    of the West, despite its relative weakness in land armies.

    Irving's book was influential, however, precisely because he hid, or
    had not yet fully developed, his Nazi sympathies. It achieved its
    greatest influence through Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut's famous
    countercultural antiwar novel, published six years later, which makes
    grateful acknowledgment of Irving's book, whose inflated estimate of
    the death toll of the bombing it unquestioningly accepts. Vonnegut, an
    American soldier who was a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time of
    the bombing, having been captured during the land offensive in the
    west, writes of the war and the bombing itself as if it took place in
    no context, as if it were just an arbitrary and absurd quarrel between
    rivals, between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, with no internal content or
    moral meaning-- a quarrel that nevertheless resulted in one of the
    rivals cruelly and thoughtlessly destroying a beautiful city of the

    But Vonnegut, to whom it did not occur that his subject matter was
    uniquely unsuited to facetious, adolescent literary experimentation,
    was writing an antiwar tract in the form of a postmodern novel, not a
    historical reexamination of the bombing of Dresden or of Germany as a
    whole. The problem that has bedeviled any such re-examination is fear
    that sympathy for the victims, or regret that so much of aesthetic and
    cultural value was destroyed, might be taken as sympathy for Nazism
    itself. The difficulty of disentangling individual from collective
    responsibility for the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime is
    unresolved even now, and perhaps is inherently unresolvable.

    True, Hitler was immensely popular; on the other hand, he never won a
    majority of the votes in anything that resembled a free election, and
    public enthusiasm in dictatorships cannot be taken entirely at face
    value (in his diaries, Klemperer himself veers between thinking that
    most Germans were Nazis and that the enthusiasm was bogus and more or
    less forced). The Germans entered into the spirit of violence and
    denunciation with a will, but on the other hand intimidation was
    everywhere. A witness to the burning of the Dresden synagogue on
    Kristallnacht who was overheard publicly to liken it to the worst
    times of the Middle Ages was seized by the Gestapo and taken away: an
    object lesson to all those who saw or learned about his fate. And
    those who say that Nazism was the inevitable consummation of German
    history, inherent in all that had gone before, must explain why so
    many German Jews (my grandfather among them, a major in the imperial
    German army during the Great War) were deeply and patriotically
    attached to both the country and its culture, and why so many of them
    were so blind for so long. Their lack of foresight is surely as
    eloquent as the historian's hindsight.

    By the end of the war, 600,000 Germans had been killed by the bombing
    campaign, and a third of the population rendered homeless. Yet when
    the war was over, none among the many millions affected could express
    his grief and despair openly, for to have done so would have rendered
    him open to the charge of Nazi sympathies. The East Germans could toll
    the bells for Dresden each anniversary of the bombing only because the
    government enforced the myth that all the Nazis originated from, and
    were now located in, West Germany. But normal, personal, unideological
    grief was not permitted.

    W. G. Sebald, an expatriate German author who lived in England, where
    he died in a car crash in 2001, pointed out a curious lacuna in German
    literature of memoirs or fictional accounts of the bombing and its
    aftereffects. Millions suffered terribly, yet there is hardly a memoir
    or a novel to record it. Anything other than silence about what they
    experienced would have seemed, and still would seem, indecent and
    highly suspect, an attempt to establish a moral equivalence between
    the victims and perpetrators of Nazism.

    Foreigners, such as the Swedish writer Stig Dagerman, could write
    about the sufferings of the Germans immediately after the war, but not
    the Germans themselves. Victor Gollancz, a British publisher of
    Polish-Jewish origin who could not be suspected in the slightest of
    Nazi sympathies and who had spent the entire 1930s publishing books
    warning the world of the Nazi peril, wrote and published a book in the
    immediate aftermath of the war called In Darkest Germany, in which he
    drew attention to the plight of the Germans living (and starving)
    among the ruins, which he observed on a visit there. To the charge
    that the Germans had brought it all on themselves and deserved no
    less, he replied with a three-word question: "And the children?" His
    book was furnished with many affecting pictures, perhaps the most
    poignant among them that of the comfortably attired Gollancz lifting
    the foot of a little German boy to demonstrate his pitiful footwear to
    the camera.

    But for several decades, it was impermissible for Germans to allude
    publicly to their own sufferings of the period, much of which must
    have been innocent, unless it be considered that all Germans were
    equally guilty ex officio, as it were. No doubt the impermissibility
    of publicly expressed complaint, and therefore of resentment, was a
    powerful stimulus of the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle, into
    which the Germans in the West threw their potentially resentful
    energies after the war, for lack of anywhere else to direct them. But
    this left a legacy of deep emptiness that all the reflective Germans I
    have met seem to feel. Perhaps it explains also the German longing to
    travel, greater than that of any other nation I know.

    In the last few years, best-selling books have begun to appear in
    Germany to record the suffering of the Germans during and after the
    war. Is this dangerous self-pity an implicit national
    self-exculpation? Or is it a sign of health, that at last Germans can
    approach their own past unencumbered by the psychological complexes
    bequeathed to them by their parents and grandparents?

    As I walked through Dresden, I lamented the loss of an incomparable
    city, while thinking how difficult it must be to be a German, for whom
    neither memory nor amnesia can provide consolation.

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