February 2015 saw the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, a contentious and highly debated element of the British and American war campaign. The deaths of 25,000 civilians and the destruction of the medieval city of Dresden known as the “Jewel of the Elbe” was without doubt one of the low points in the British military strategy.
On 13th February this year Germany held one of their rare commemorations for their own dead. It started with a service in the re-built Frauenkirche / Church of our Lady and continued later in the streets when up to 10,000 people formed a human chain along Dresden’s riverfront, holding hands to commemorate the dead and call for peace.
With my on-going interest in World War commemorations, this was of course a significant one, for two reasons really. On the one hand it remembers German victims of war and on the other it remembers an event that many people see as a British war crime.
On the evenings of 13th and 14th February 1945, 1,200 RAF and USAAF bombers dropped 3,900 tons of explosives and incendiary bombs on the city. The fires consolidated into an inferno both suffocating people as the blaze sucked oxygen from the air and quite literally “melting” them. 13 square miles of the city were destroyed. Some estimates were that 250,000 were killed in the raids but it’s probably closer to 25,000, most of them civilians and refugees fleeing the Soviet army.
Critics claim there was no military justification for the destruction. Others argue that Dresden was an important supply centre for the Germans as they fought the approaching Soviet Army. Above all, the bombings were intended to break the German population’s morale.
Reading the coverage of the Commemoration service I was once again struck by the huge difference between the British and German attitudes to the war. Even on this occasion Germany’s approach was apologetic, inclusive and instructive. It is clear that Germany’s horrendous past has left them genuinely wanting to learn the lessons of history and avoid all future wars. German President Joachim Gauck assured dignitaries from Britain and other former Allied nations: “You should know that we bear no lasting grudge… We are fully aware of who started that murderous war. Though we are remembering the German victims here today, we will never forget the victims of Germany’s belligerence.” And Dresden Mayor Helma Orosz warned “War, hatred and violence begin in peoples’ minds. We must resist any attempt at once again categorizing people based on their origin and skin color.”
In Britain the majority of coverage of the event did not ask searching questions. In fact one article was dedicated to an adamant denial that the Archbishop of Canterbury had apologised for the bombing. You can read the full article on the link below but this is a part of what he said: “… Much debate surrounds this most controversial raid of the Allied bombing campaign. Whatever the arguments, events here 70 years ago left a deep wound and diminished all our humanity. So as a follower of Jesus I stand here among you with a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow.”
Later in a BBC 5 Live interview a spokesman had to reassure that he was not apologizing. “Any suggestion that the Archbishop was apologising is manifestly false. The Archbishop’s comments were a reflection in a solemn ceremony on the tragedy of war. They very carefully avoided apologising, and those present, including the president of Germany, recognised the difference.”
I have to say, I find this extraordinary. Could we not on this one occasion just open our hearts and apologise? Could we not offer the one tiny but hugely healing word ‘Sorry’ if only for the huge cost of human life and what was clearly a devastating act, regardless of whether it was justified or not by some military strategy? Germany hasn’t stopped saying sorry and admitting its guilt, for decades now and for absolutely everything they did. It took us 38 years to admit wrongdoing and apologise for Bloody Sunday and yet that was all that was wanted. Germany isn’t in any way asking for an apology but couldn’t we not have the – what is it? – the balls? the kindness? the honesty? the moral strength? the humanity to just say ‘sorry’ anyway. It won’t detract from our victory, our honour and glory. Nor will it lessen the memory of our brave men and women who fought the enemy. We weren’t clean or blameless in every aspect of warfare so in this of all years, can we not find the strength to admit openly that we too caused incredible suffering and destruction for which we are simply ‘sorry’?