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Home > Culture and Society

Dresden: The other German-themed non-apology of the week

18 February 2005

This week the old question of whether we should apologise for the bombing of Dresden cropped up yet again, as though saying 'Sorry' would somehow be of comfort to the thousands of people blown up, burned and suffocated. Maybe we could send them some chocolates - or a big nylon teddy bear in a T-shirt saying 'SORRY ABOUT THE FIRESTORM'. That should do the trick.

As it turned out, no-one apologised for Dresden. The British ambassador to Germany, Sir Peter Torry, expressed regret at Dresden remembrance events, but stopped short of actually apologising. And we can't help but feel he was right.

It's an interesting business, this historical apologising. At one level it's errant nonsense to apologise for something that was nothing to do with you - the most meaningless of civilised gestures. Apologising for Dresden would be so easy - and deeply self-serving. Whoever apologises for Dresden can feel like a magnanimous man (or woman) of peace, while conveniently ignoring the historical context, ie. the fact that when Dresden was bombed, it was far from certain that the war would soon be over.

But there's a more interesting aspect to the Dresden non-apology. Leaving aside the fact that the raid on Dresden took place in the context of total war, and that the city did have some strategic significance in terms of its industrial output, there's something that few people are willing to admit about Dresden.

It's the fact that many Brits feel that razing Dresden was fitting revenge for the bombing of London, Coventry and other cities.

Sixty years on, this is a rather unhealthy way of thinking. Most of us have no idea of what it must have been like to live through the war. It's almost literally beyond our imaginations: quite apart from the death and destruction, it's incredibly hard to imagine a whole nation geared to war, with rationing, compulsory military service and so on. It's not really our place to comment.

Many of the people who actually bombed Dresden don't seem to have taken the view that Dresden was fitting revenge (although some did). They saw it as a job that had to be done so that life could get back to normal. Above all they wanted to stop facing a gruesome death on a regular basis.

But there is a slightly less bloodthirsty reason for not apologising for Dresden than revenge. It's a complex moral concept best described as 'Well, what did you expect?' In the context of total war things are going to happen that don't fit into neat moral categories. Dresden was one of them, and there were thousands more, like the allies liberating France by killing thousands of French civilians in necessary bombing raids.

The concept of 'What did you expect?' can be applied surprisingly widely. The Tony Martin case springs to mind, as does blowback from the Iraq war, and even not being very mature about relationship break-ups. Maybe philosophers should look into it.

In the context of 'What did you expect?', apologising for horrors like Dresden seems utterly pointless, and, frankly, just a bit of self-aggrandisement on the part of apologists, who are trying to take the moral high ground on an issue where normal morality wasn't operating. Remember the horror, by all means (Dresden is aptly twinned with Coventry) but maybe it's time to let the war just be history.

Unless, of course, you're Ken Livingstone...

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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