Thursday, March 29, 2012

Slaughterhouse Five and Being Duped About Dresden

As an occasional reader of Dangerous Minds, I took interest when contributor Paul Gallagher posted the following video taken from an interview of Kurt Vonnegut by BBC news presenter James Naughtie for a 2005 episode of This Week that commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Allied Forces' bombing of Dresden.

Vonnegut's experience of the bombing of Dresden, which he survived while being kept in an underground meat locker as a prisoner of war, famously informs what is arguably his most celebrated novel, Slaughterhouse Five.

Note that in the interview, he gives the death toll of the bombing of Dresden as 135,000. This is consistent with the 1969 novel. It is also consistent with the autobiographical note from the introduction of Mother Night:

Everything was gone but the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men. So we were put to work as corpse miners, breaking into shelters, bringing bodies out.

During the 1960s, when he was researching his novel, not much was known by the general American or British public regarding the bombing, and so he relied on what appeared to be the most authoritative account available: David Irving's The Destruction of Dresden. The original 1963 edition of The Destruction of Dresden claimed that the raids by the United States Army Air Force and Royal Air Force are "estimated authoritatively to have killed more than 135,000 of the population" of Dresden. There are several problems with this figure, not only have historians subsequently shown that the figure is much smaller, but Irving, going against all scholarly protocols, relied on a single source for this figure of 135,000–– namely the testimony of Hans Voigt. Voigt had been an assistant schoolmaster in Dresden who had been placed in charge of a dead persons department by the Saxon Ministry of the Interior. Voigt's office identified approximately 40,000 victims, but Voigt told Irving that the dead were likely 135,000. This statement was Irving's only evidence for that figure. Voigt, however, was not a simple former schoolmaster who had an unpleasantly morbid wartime job: By the time he was in touch with Irving in 1961, he was under observation by local authorities for fascist activities. Irving, taking this figure of 135,000 to be authoritative also gives an estimate of a death toll as high as 250,000 (derived entirely from Nazi propaganda.)

In subsequent years, Irving would come to revise his earlier estimate, but as late as 1993 still estimated that that more than 100,000 people had died in the bombing.

David Irving is no longer taken seriously as a historian. Over a career spanning decades, he became more and more associated with Holocaust denial and Nazi apologetics. As each new book came under increased scrutiny, numerous reviewers had noted that Irving was unscrupulous with historical evidence, routinely manipulating the evidence to promote a pro-Hitler agenda. In 1993, Deborah Lipstadt wrote in her book, Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory:

A review of [Irving's] recent book, Churchill's War, which appeared in New York Review of Books, accurately analyzed his practice of applying a double standard of evidence. He demands "absolute documentary proof" when it comes to proving the Germans guilty, but he relies on highly circumstantial evidence to condemn the Allies. This is an accurate description not only of Irving's tactics, but of those of [Holocaust] deniers in general.

In 1996 Irving filed a libel suit against Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin Books. Richard J. Evans, a historian who had been hired by the defense to analyze Irving's writings and handling of the evidence, was able to substantially demonstrate in his testimony that Irving, in fact, consistently manipulated evidence in order, if not to cast Nazi Germany and the Allies as moral equivalents, to portray Germany as the victim and the Allies as villains of World War II. (Note: While Evans' testimony addressed the entirety of Irving's published works, we are focussed on Irving's claims about Dresden. Evans recounted his work as an expert witness in Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, And The David Irving Trial which was published in 2001; the UK edition is titled Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial.)

Even before the trial, Irving's figures were already widely discredited amongst WWII historians and were largely contradicted by documentary evidence. A "Final Report" issued by the Dresden Police on March 15, 1945 placed the death toll at 18,375. The police report was classified as "secret" and suppressed by the local party. Most official reports of the time give death tolls ranging from 20,000 to 22,000. A 2008 study commissioned by the city of Dresden, entitled “Dresden Commission of Historians for the Ascertainment of the Number of Victims of the Air Raids on the City of Dresden on 13/14 February 1945” gives an estimate of 18,000. While other historians had before that point proposed higher figures, up until the 2008 report. Quite simply, no serious investigation of the bombing of Dresden on February 13th and 14th 1945 has proposed a death toll higher than 25,000.

The point is that over the course of his career Vonnegut had many opportunities to learn that the figure of 135,000 dead from the bombing of Dresden was not backed up by evidence, especially as his main source had been repeatedly discredited-- not merely in scholarly publications but in a high profile court decision that was issued in April of 2000–– five years before the BBC interview. As Vonnegut's fiction and non-fiction essays are arguably the most persistent manner by which the bombing of Dresden has entered into the popular consciousness within the Anglophone world, it strains credulity that no one had attempted to contact Vonnegut about his repeated misstatement. If Vonnegut were understandably reluctant to alter the text of his novels, it still seems odd that he would not issue a correction in the introductions or postscripts of subsequent printings, or at least a clarification in an interview. It is even more disturbing that neither James Naughtie nor any other BBC staff working on a story about the bombing of Dresden attempted to correct Vonnegut during the interview, or edit out a misstatement of fact.

Vonnegut is not the only artist who may have been duped by David Irving. As I have noted elsewhere, British playwright Michael Frayn, while researching Copenhagen, his 1998 play about Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and the nuclear bomb, similarly relied upon Irving's writings, citing Irving's 1967 book, The Virus House (published the following year in the U.S. as The German Atomic Bomb.) Also citing correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and David Irving in his postscript to the play.) Frayn similarly draws a false moral equivalence between his two physicists, making much of Heisenberg's anguish at the bombing of German cities while downplaying not just the horrors that Germany visited from the air, but portraying Bohr as morally aloof, ignoring his humanitarian efforts that helped save the Jews of Denmark from extermination (Frayn's also play insinuates that Heisenberg had an indirect role in the rescue.) While Frayn is hardly the Nazi-apologist that Irving is, he too obscures historical facts in such a way as to present a story of German victimhood (though in a "Post-Postscript" of which I was not previously aware he defends himself from this criticism merely by stating that German war crimes are well enough known to the general public.)

These numbers become even more problematic for Vonnegut because he makes a direct comparison between Dresden bombing and the Holocaust noting that the exaggerated death-toll "is between two and three percent of the number of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust." (The 2% to 3% figure results in either the impossibly low figure of 4,455,000 to the high estimate of 6,750,000–– but we must not fault Vonnegut for not using decimals in an interview.) Even as David Irving is reviled within the field of World War II history as a fraud and a Holocaust denier, by duping Vonnegut, he has successfully mythologized Dresden in the popular consciousness, thus enlisting many a self-identified humanist in an effort to draw a false moral equivalence between the Third Reich and the Allies–– precisely what Hitler apologists try to do, even as they deny or attempt minimize the scale or significance of the Holocaust.

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