Gert Jan Kocken

Depictions of Dresden 1933-1945

Depictions of Dresden 1933-1945

“Dresden Is a Pearl”

“Dresden is a pearl, and National Socialism will give it a new setting,” Hitler told the people assembled on Dresden’s Thearterplatz in 1932. It had been two years since he last visited the city and addressed a crowd of 100,000 as part of his presidential campaign. That campaign cumulated in him establishing totalitarian control over Germany in the first months of 1933. The “resetting” of Dresden started shortly after. On the political side, Martin Mutschmann, a NSDAP member from the very beginning, was appointed as the new Reich governor of Saxon. Mutschmann, who was known as the Saxon Mussolini, immediately cracked down on the NSDAP’s main enemies: the communists, the social democrats and the Jews. Political opponents were harassed or send to an early concentration camp south-east of Dresden, where heavy labour, torture and murder were common. In a few months’ time, all other parties were abolished and the Reichstag itself dissolved. Victor Klemperer, a Jewish professor of linguistics at Dresden Technical University, described life in Nazi Germany in his diaries, which became well known after the war. On 10 March 1933 he wrote: Again it’s astounding how easily everything collapses… complete revolution and party dictatorship. And all the opposing forces as if disappeared from the face of the earth… No one dares say anything anymore. Everyone is afraid. Dresden, also known as Florence on the Elbe, was to be embody Nazi ideology on an artistic level. Shortly after Hitler’s 1932 speech, books that didn’t conform to the Nazis’ ideas were burned in front of the conservatory. In September 1933 the director of the Dresden Academy staged an exhibition titled Reflections of Decay in Art, with works of modern artists such as Otto Dix, George Grogz and Oskar Kokoschka. The show impressed Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, and was expanded and moved to Munich in 1937. It then toured the country as the Exhibition of Degenerate Art. On 1 September 1939, the same day German troops invaded Poland, Mutschmann appointed Hitler’s brother- in-law, Hermann Hammitzsch, as head of the Implementation Office for the Reshaping of the City of Dresden. Hammitzsch’ mission was to reshape the city of Dresden in accordance to the vision of Hitler and his leading architect, Albert Speer. Central to this vision was Speer’s Ruinenwerttheorie (ruin value theory). This theory held that the buildings of the thousand-year Third Reich had be designed so that they would leave behind lasting, aesthetically pleasing ruins when they eventually collapsed. Hammitzsch proposed to build several new suburbs in a traditional Germanic style and an enormous Nazi Party conference hall and headquarters called the Gauforum. Building the Gauforum would require the demolishment of hundreds of houses in the city centre and parts of the municipal park. Furthermore, to accommodate the expected increases in motor traffic, 2,600 units in the oldest part of Dresden had to make way. War prevented the implementation of these plans.

First Actions Against Jews

In 1933 Dresden was home to 6,000 Jews, or 7,100 according to the Nazis’ definitions. Mutschmann ordered a one-day boycott of Jewish shops and businesses, effective on 1 April that year. Shortly before the boycott many non-Jewish shops had put up signs saying “Recognized German-Christian Enterprise” to make sure they wouldn’t be targeted. On the day of the boycott the brownshirts were all over town. SA troops blocked the entrances to Jewish shops and the Justice Building, where Jewish lawyers were beaten and dragged out into the streets. Soon after, a division of the Gestapo was set up to oversee actions against the Dresden Jews. In the next few years more signs followed, such as “The Jews are our misfortune” and “He who buys from Jews is a traitor to the Volk.” In the following years sign appeared that said “Jews live in this building” or “In this building live no Jews”. Similarly, Jewish businesses were required to have a sign that identified them as such. Eventually Jews were banned from spas and buses and forced to wear a yellow Star of David. In March 1938 around a hundred anti-Semitic meetings were held in the Dresden district. Mutschmann and other prominent Nazis addressed the crowds at two large venues. The speakers were rewarded with a Meissen porcelain plaque inscribed with a Hitler quotation: “In warding off the Jews, I fight for the Work of the Lord.” In the night of 27-28October, 724 mainly Polish Jews were arrested by the Dresden police. They were put on guarded trains and thrown out at a place just across the Polish-German border. Many of these people had to wait for weeks before the Polish government granted them entry. The whipped-up antisemitism cumulated in the so-called Kristallnacht of 9-10 November 1938. Following Goebbels’ directions from Munich, the Dresden Nazi party organised open-air protests and inflammatory speeches. After nightfall, 151 Jewish men were taken from their homes and shipped off to camp Buchenwald. Meanwhile, mobs destroyed Jewish shops and businesses. SA men broke into the Semper Synagogue and set it on fire with gasoline. When the firefighters arrived, SA and SS thugs allowed them to safe only the surrounding buildings, not the synagogue itself. When the synagogue had burned, down a Nazi major declared: “The symbol of the hereditary racial enemy has finally been extinguished.” Hammitzsch wrote: The synagogues that caught fire during the night of 9/10 November 1938 are a danger to public safety, spoil the immediate street scene and the wider urban landscape and are provoking public anger. In the light of this, and of early indications of their dilapidation, these ruins and any surviving sections of the buildings are to be cleared immediately, since the granting of permission for the reconstruction of the synagogues on the same sites is out of the question. The ruins of the synagogue were dynamited and the area cleared. Footage of the process was used as an instructional film on proper debris removal. The city government decided that the Jewish community had to cover the costs of the clearing.


Mental Hospital Sonnestein was a venerable institution established in 1811. It was located in Sonnestein Castle, 17 kilometre south-east of Dresden. The director, Hermann Paul Nitsche, was a professor of psychiatry and a NSDAP member. He was an early supporter of the concept of “life unworthy of life” and introduced a starvation diet for his patients in order to reduce the public cost of “ballast lives”. The use of this diet was extended to other Saxon care facilities in 1939. In late 1939 Nitsche was transferred to a hospital in Leipzig. There he became involved in Aktion T4, the Nazis’ secret euthanasia programme. Nitsche developed the first medicine-based procedure for killing mentally ill patient, which was soon replaced by gassing. Sonnestein was converted into one of the six extermination intuitions of Aktion T4. 13,720 mentally disabled and psychiatric patients were executed in its gas chambers before Hitler officially shut down the programme in August 1941. The reason for this was a catholic protest movement led by Bishop Celements von Galen. The Holy See was clear on the matter and declared that the “direct killing of an innocent person because of mental or physical defects is not allowed” and against divine law. Still, another 1,013 inmates from overflowing concentration camps were send to Sonnestein Euthanasia Centre to be gassed before it was truly closed. When the institute was dissolved in 1942, a third of the personnel was transferred to work at extermination camps in Poland. The building was briefly used as a military hospital after all traces of its former purpose were carefully removed.

Forced Labour and Deportations

The deportations of Jews from Dresden started in January 1942. 224 people were transported in unheated boxcars to concentration camps such as Belzec and Auschwitz. In November the nearly 300 remaining Jews in Dresden were taken to the City Disinfection Institution. There, city employees subjected them to a humiliating delousing procedure watched over by Gestapo officers. Afterward they were forced to walk to Judenlager Hellerberg, a camp located on the northern outskirts of the city. After this the Nazis considered to be practically judenrein (clean of Jews). The Hellerberg Jews were called Rüstungsjuden (armament Jews) because they were employed in nearby factories. Between Novmber 1942 and March 1943 many were forcefully employed by Zeiss Ikon. Some of the most important products were bomb-aimed apparatuses for the Luftwaffe. Victor Klemperer, one of the workers who survived, wrote: It is quite deplorable that this imprisonment is already considered to be halfway good fortune. It is not Poland; it is not a concentration camp! One does not quite ear one’s fill, but one does not starve. One has not yet been beaten. Etc. etc. The Nazis were split on the fate of the Rüstungsjuden. Some leader stressed their use value, while others were bent on their extermination. Mutschmann belonged to the latter camp and wanted to send them to concentration camps. Moreover, Goebbels, while aware of their use value, insisted that they were not “indispensable” and that the Führer was very clear on this point. In February 1943 new central guidelines were issued, which stipulated that Jews involved in the war industry were no longer exempt from deportation to concentration camps. This sealed the fate of the Rüstungsjuden. On 3 March 1943 all 300 Jews from Hellerberg were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most of them were killed soon after their arrival. As the Jews were being deported, other workers were brought to Dresden to work in the factories and on the railways. By the end of 1943 12,500 foreign workers were employed in Dresden’s railway industry. Germany’s eastward expansion made Dresden a major transit point connecting the Reich’s north-south and east-west axes. In the second half of 1944 nearly 20,000 troops passed through the cities every day.

The Advent of Carpet Bombing

In the night of 28-29 August 1940 Dresden’s air alarms wailed for the first time. It proved to be a false alarm, as it would many times that year. Seemingly safe from British air raids coming from the west, the city was excluded when Hitler ordered 81 cities to begin constructing bombproof shelters in response to the raids on Berlin. Indeed the RAF’s attacks were hardly effective in the first years of the war. Between 12.5 and 21 percent of the aircraft sent over Germany were destroyed while doing relatively little damage. More aircrew were lost over Germany than civilians killed on the ground. Rather than scaling down, however, a much larger force of heavy bombers was built in the hope that this would lead to better results. Another factor was that the prestige and the propaganda value of Bomber Command were at stake. Tactics changed as well. On Valentine’s Day 1942 Bomber Command was instructed to recommence night raids against Germany. “Precision” strikes were to be replaced by the “area bombing” of cities. Civilian casualties were acceptable as long as the German war effort was damaged: It has been decided that the primary object of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civilian population and, in particular, of the industrial workers. Later that month Arthur “Bomber” Harris became the head of Bomber Command. Under his direction RAF bombers encroached parts of Germany previously thought to be out of reach. The first victim was the city of Lübeck, an important industrial hub in the north of Germany with a medieval city centre made of flammable material. In March 1942 234 planes the city, killing 320 people and destroying a third of its build-up area. Harris noted: On the night of 28/29 March the first German city went up in flames. … However, the main object of the attack was to learn to what extent a first wave of aircraft could guide a second wave to the aiming point by starting a conflagration: I ordered a half an hour interval between the two waves in order to allow the fired to get a good hold before the second wave arrived. The so-called double blow technique employed by Harris caused greater chaos and destruction not only because targeting was easier after the initial raid, but also because firefighters had to avoid being bombed themselves while trying to control the fires. The effectiveness of this technique would become particularly clear in the attacks on Dresden. Germany used similar techniques against England. Goebbels said: The Führer declares that he now intends to repeat such attacks, night after night. He completely shares my opinion that we must now attack cultural centres, spas, and towns where the middle classes live; there the psychological effect will be much stronger, and at the moment the psychological effect is the most important thing of all… In late April 1942 the Luftwaffe unleashed over 400 explosive bombs and more than 4,000 incendiary bombs on the town of Bath, killing 400 civilians. Meanwhile the RAF had started mapping the population and building density of major towns to aid the area bombing of Germany. Their maps showed the locations of public buildings, but hospitals were left unmarked when area bombing became the norm. As the reach of the bombers increased, Dresden became a feasible target. Its air sirens warned more and more frequently of nearby bombers: 52 times in 1943 and 144 times in 1944. The city, which for years had been far removed from the theatre of war, was still short on bomb shelters and anti-air defences. In 1943 still only Nazi officials had access to proper aid raid protection. For instance, the chief of police and the NSDAP’s Local Air Raid Leadership shared a bunker beneath the Albertinum. Such privileges led to resentment. When Mutchmann ordered the construction of a bunker in the garden of his villa, Dresden’s SS commander wrote a letter of protest to Himmler: I do not dispute that such a bunker is necessary. I even believe that it is based on an order from the Führer. However, I do not think it right that such a bunker be installed in the Gauleiter’s garden, of all places, because the greatest part of the population still has no access even to a properly constituted air raid shelter…

First Strike

In February 1943 the British-American Combined Chiefs of Staff had issued the Casablanca Directive to Harris: Your primary object will be the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened. The directive was based on lessons British military planners had drawn from the bombing of Coventry: damaging a city’s general infrastructure causes more and longer-lasting damage to its war output than concentrating on its industries. Dresden first felt the effects of these efforts on 24 August 1944, when 78 B-17s of the USAAF attacked a town just southwest of Dresden. There were several casualties, in part because the bomb shelters were often no more than fragile dugouts and plans to evacuate the city’s children were mismanaged.
The German government kept neglecting the protection of Dresden’s citizens. In September 1944 the local authorities were informed that the new definition of “total war” meant that all resources were to be used for the war effort rather than protecting civilians. Factories that had been producing consumer goods were converted to contribute to the war effort. On top of that, Dresden was secretly designated as a Verteidigungsbereich (military strongpoint) because it lay close to the line were generals projected a clash between German troops and the Red Army. As a result tens of thousands of soldiers gathered in and around the city in the last months of 1944. Regardless, Nazi leadership ordered Dresden’s anti-air defences to be moved east in effort to create a defensive line against the invading Russian Army, leaving the city vulnerate against air attacks.

Dresden: Secondary Target

From September 1944 on the RAF and the USAAF (based in England) worked together to destroy Germany’s supply of oil and oil products. While Dresden was not a primary target, is was a feasible alternative when cities such as Berlin and Leipzig proved difficult to reach. A RAF memo read: Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany … is also the largest unbombed builtup area the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westward and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium, not only to give shelter to workers, refugees, and troops alike, but to house the administrative services displaced from other areas. At one time well known for its china, Dresden has developed into an industrial city of first- class importance. ... The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front... and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do. On 7 October the USAAF launched a massive assault on Germany’s synthetic fuel supplies. 1,422 bombers and over 700 escorting fighters went on their way to targets in central and eastern Germany. As usual, the final target cities were chosen at the last possible moment, depending on weather conditions and as to keep the defenders guessing. The thirty B-17s of the 303 rd group, nicknamed Hell’s Angels, targeted Dresden’s military installations and railway facilities. The attack was the first on the city proper and lasted only few minutes. It killed around 270 people and destroyed over fifty buildings. Klemperer described the experience: Then there was anti-aircraft fire, then we heard clear loud explosions, evidently bombs, then the light went out, then there was a swelling rumbling and rushing in the air (bombs falling a short distance away). I could not suppress violent palpitations, but retained my composure… The local authorities, however, acted as if the bombing had not occurred. All news about it was suppressed and death notices of the victims cited unremarkable causes such as “a hard blow to the face”. Mutschmann only hinted at the new reality in a speech soon after the bombing: No one should live in the illusion that the place where he lives, his town, will not be attacked… There are no islands of peace in Germany. Klemperer offered a more sober picture of what was in store for Dresden. On 17 October 1944 he noted: [Now that Hungary is eliminated] Dresden may become a transport junction behind the front which is most threatened, and that in a very short time. Then we shall get very air attacks… there will be an evacuation and at the same time the mixed marriages will be separated and the Jewish parties gassed… Dresden was bombed again on 16 January 1945. The 44 th group was unable to reach their primary targets near Leipzig and opted for Dresden instead. Its 133 B-24s dropped 321 tons of bombs on a large section of the city, destroying railways, fuel storages, industrial facilities and built-up areas. There was hardly any counter-fire: the American crews reported “non-existent to weak and extremely inaccurate” flak. 376 people were killed in theattack, and this time the authorities acknowledged the cause. During a mourning ceremony Dresden’s district leader told those present: “Life is granted to us only so that we may give it to Germany.”

The Bombing of Dresden

In early February 1945 Dresden was still considered a relatively safe city. It harboured around 200,000 refugees from other parts of Germany and thousands of prisoners of war. On the 12 th the few Jews that remained in the city were instructed to report in four days for “a work detail outside Dresden”. Everyone understood what this meant. But the next day, February 13, the first of a series of raids known as the Bombing of Dresden overturned everything, and the deportation never took place. The first phase of the attack was carried out by the RAF. A group of British planes dropped parachute flares over the city to guide the bombers following them. The Local Air Raid Leadership, hiding in their bunker beneath the Albertinum, realised that a large raid was eminent. In the evening nearly 250 bombers dropped explosives and incendiary bombs on Dresden in the span of a few minutes. After midnight a second wave of over 550 bombers reached the city, which was now burning with thousands of fires. Because the firestorm’s smoke rose as high as 4,600 meter, they dropped their bombs around it, thus expanding the destruction. A bomb aimer described the sight: Although we were forty miles From Dresden, fires were reddening the sky ahead. … Six miles from the target, Lancasters were clearly visibly; their silhouettes black in the rosy glow. The streets of the city were a fantastic latticework of fire. It was as though one was looking down at the fiery outlines of a crossword puzzle; blazing streets stretched from east to west, from north to south, in a gigantic saturation of flame. I was completely awed by the spectacle. The next morning the USAAF started the second phase of the attack. 431 B-17s escorted by 784 fighters were ordered to bomb Dresden. They reached their target around noon and dropped nearly 140,000 bombs on and around the city’s centre. The combined raids destroyed over ninety percent of the city centre, including the famous Frauenkirche. Except for an army command post, relatively few military targets were damaged, but 12,000 houses and close to a 1,000 commercial buildings had been destroyed. The first comprehensive assessment reported 18,375 dead, 2,212 people injured and 350,000 homeless. 2,000 soldiers, 1,000 prisoners of war (including Kurt Vonnegut) and teams of specialists from neighbouring cities immediately went to work on rescue, clearance and restoration. Railways in particular were quickly repaired. The thousands of corpses were initially buried in mass graves, then burned in pyres of five hundred on the Altmarkt to hasten the process and prevent the outbreak of diseases. These cremations were supervised by SS experts who had worked at extermination camps.

Battle of Sentiments

The news of Dresden’s destruction infuriated the Nazi leadership. Goebbels was reportedly shaking with anger and suggested the execution of tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war, to match the number of civilians killed in the raids. According to Speer he considered using the opportunity to abandon the Geneva Convention. On the other hand, some NSDAP leaders took a positive approach. In an article titled Without Baggage, trade union leader Robert Ley wrote: After the destruction of beautiful Dresden, we almost breathe a sigh of relief. It is over now. In focusing on our struggle and victory we are no longer distracted by concerns for the monuments of German culture … Now we march toward the German victory without any superfluous ballast and without the heavy spiritual and material bourgeois baggage.
Goebbels believed the death toll to be 20,200 but multiplied all official figures by ten (first to 202,000 and later to 250,000) in order to bolster hatred against the Allies. The total number of dead is now widely believed to have been between 25,000 and 40,000. However, the inflated figures are still cited by those trying to promote the idea that the Allies orchestrated a ‘German holocaust’. German propagandists such as Goebbels were aided by the RAF’s mishandling of reports about the raids. After a RAF official had stated that Dresden and similar cities were being bombed to destroy German communications and “what was left of German morale”, the phrase terror bombing made it into American and British newspapers. As one newspaper executive put it: “This is entirely horrifying… it gives official proof for everything Goebbels ever said on the subject…” The Allied authorities tried to rectify the situation and sent a wire: The Dresden raid was … designed to cripple communications and prevent shuttling troops from eastern to the front and vice versa. The fact that the city was crowded with refugees at the time of the attack was coincidental and took the form of a bonus. Meanwhile the bombing of Germany continued. In March 1945 the RAF dropped 67,000 tons of bombs on German targets, the greatest tonnage of any single month between 1939 and 1945 and more than the entire tonnage dropped during the first three years of the war. Germany was now in full retreat and had fired it last V2 rocket at London. Despite condoning the carpet bombing strategy and personally insisting on raids against east Germany, Churchill had shown misgiving about these acts. When he saw a film of the destruction of the Ruhr in the summer of 1943, he wept and asked his staff, “Are we beasts that we should do such things? Are we taking this too far?” On 28 March, with the end of the war in sight and feeling the pressure of British public’s discontent about bombing civilians, Churchill changed course. In a memo that baffled his General Staff, he wrote: It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. …. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objects must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interest rather than that of the enemy. … I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives … rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive. Like many, Harris was furious when news of the memo reached him. He considered the allegation of terror bombing an insult to the work of Bomber Command and insisted that Germany’s war effort had been crippled by the bombing of its industrial cities. The whole of the remaining cities of Germany, he said, were not “worth the bones of one British grenadier.” He considered sympathy for Dresden misguided: The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden could be easily explained by a psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdess. Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation centre. It is now none of those things. After deliberation Churchill sent a revised memo to the General Staff. It said: “We must see to it that our attacks do not do more harm to ourselves in the long run that they do to the enemy’s immediate war effort.” There was no longer any mention of Dresden or terror.

Final Raid and Aftermath

Near the end of the war Dresden provided one of the last north-south connections within the Reich, and therefore was of strategic importance. On 17 April 1945 nearly 600 USAAF B-17s dropped 1,500 tonnes of bombs on railway targets in the city. Although it was a precision strike, between 400 and 500 civilians died in the attack.

Nearly two weeks later, on 30 April, Hitler shot himself in his Führerbunker in Berlin. When the news reached Dresden, Mutschmann issued a defiant declaration and ordered an indefinite period of public mourning. A young cleric described the resulting scenery: Dresden was the only city that experienced eight days of National Socialism without Hitler. Here in Dresden the Nazis were still in power from 1 May and there was an order that all public buildings … there were hardly any because they had been destroyed … should be draped in black because the Führer had died “at the head of his troops”. And the boats that still sailed on the Elbe also carried the flag – the Nazi flag – at half-mast for eight days. That was unique in Germany… On May 8, VE-Day, the Red Army captured what was left of Dresden without any fighting. A year after the bombing of 13-14 February 1944, Dresden’s Communist authorities made sure that the Nazis, rather than the Allies, got all the blame for the cities destruction. An article in the Daily Newspaper for the German Population said: It was [Mutschmann] who, together with Hitler, turned Dresden into one of Germany’s armouries, into a powder keg, that is a source of reinforcements, which supplied the material for the annihilation of peace- loving peoples … His playing with fire rebounded –though not directly on Mutschmann, who possessed a personal bunker made of ferro-concrete… During the Cold War the Soviets continued to exploit the Bombing of Dresden for its propaganda value, but shifted to blame onto the US. The tone of articles of the Communist-controlled press changed accordingly: The days of horror that were 13 h and 14 February are at the same time an indictment of the Anglo-American conduct of the war, which through this deed covered itself not with glory but with dishonour … The horrific annihilation of Dresden could not be justified by reference to the final defeat of the fascist army, for this army had totally ceased to exist as a serious opponent… The ruins of the Frauenkirche were left untouched and framed as a symbol of American aggression.