Wartime Ethics: The Bombing of Dresden

Updated on January 26, 2018
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ata1515 is a student of history, focusing on the modern, medieval, and ancient histories of Europe.

The city of Dresden, 1910
The city of Dresden, 1910

War, Ethics, and Situations

Throughout history the definition of what is legal and what is right has changed. Changing technology, social norms, and economic mechanisms have combined to alter the way in which people view warfare. What is legal and what is right are not always the same, but the 20th century saw an acceleration of international laws aimed at bridging the gap between the two.

Leading up to the 20th Century European states had increasingly carried out conventions aimed at normalizing laws across the continent to lessen the burden on civilIans caught in the war. At the outbreak of World War II these laws had not caught up to the technology of the time, and air power would have a devastating effect on the people of Dresden.

Allied bomber
Allied bomber

The Bombing of Dresden

Dresden was a German city on the edge of the Elbe, capital city of the Free State of Saxony. During World War II the city was an industrial center with factories and railroads. It also sported a military headquarters and was part of the German air defense.

The Soviet Empire was advancing from the east on the German homeland, driving refugees before them, and at the time of the bombing there were many refugees hosted at Dresden. It was largely a quaint cultural site with a little modernization.

Allied commanders claimed to have targeted the German railroads, military forces, and factories in an attempt to quell the German war machine as the Soviet’s approached. A nighttime raid of nearly one thousand aircraft bombed Dresden with fire bombs, creating a massive firestorm that destroyed much of the city.

Dresden after the bombing, 90% of the city structure destroyed
Dresden after the bombing, 90% of the city structure destroyed

Ethical Concerns

Casualties from the bombing totaled near 25,000. The cities infrastructure was largely damaged, though the military forces had not been targeted on the periphery. Refugee camps had been destroyed, and people trapped as the Red Army approached. These are the facts on the ground, but they do not answer the questions of purpose, which is necessary to determine the ethical nature of the bombing.

Allied forces claimed that the military targets had been the target, but poor intelligence had led to the city taking more damage than the intended target. They claimed that the infrastructure was necessary for the German war effort, and that it was a vital communication post.

Detractors to the bombing claim it was an attempt to terrorize the German people to break morale. They claim that the firebombing of a cultural site at the closing of the war was retribution for the bombing of London and Russian cities. They also claim that the bombing was disproportionate to the cities actual contribution to the war effort.

Just War, Consequentialism, and Absolutism

Though there are many theories that apply to wartime ethics the actions that precluded this scenario focus on three. Just War Theory is the idea that a flexible series of rules allow a state to engage and fight enemies will provide the best outcome for the largest number of people. Consequentialism is the theory best summed up by the phrase ”the ends justify the means” and it’s adherents believe their actions will result in the best outcome for their society. Absolutism is the idea that there are specific things that should never be done regardless of the situation.

The Dresden Bombing was carried out under the concept of the Just War Theory, specifically Jus In Bello (right conduct in war.) Generals and politicians presented Dresden as a legitimate military target, they claimed to be minimizing casualties, that their force was proportionate to what they had received, and that it was a military necessity.

Some scholars and politicians at the time argued from a consequentialist position. To them the casualties were irrelevant, the destruction of a culturally site was unimportant, and the terror caused by the bombing was a boon rather than a bane. With the city destroyed the war was won and victory justified any amount of destruction to the enemy.

Apologists and some journalists at the time argued from an absolutionist point of view. For them the loss of life was unacceptable. Bombing of civilian targets is simply something that should not be done, and no amount of collatoral damage is acceptable.

Memorial to the victims of the Dresden bombing
Memorial to the victims of the Dresden bombing

Peace Without Victory

World War II was a tragedy, but failing to understand the motives and results of the actions of the past would only compound the tragic results for the future. History will only know what actually happened, not what could of been, and so must use the lessons of the past to better the future.

Further Reading

Addison, Paul Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden 1945

Irving, David The Destruction of Dresden

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    • ata1515 profile image
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      ata1515 3 weeks ago from Buffalo, New York.

      That’s true K S Lane. The question of who knew what when is one of the hardest to answer and yet the most important when looking at ethics on the battlefield.

    • K S Lane profile image

      K S Lane 3 weeks ago from Melbourne, Australia

      Great Hub. I just reread Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-5, in which he claims that troops were happy to be stationed in Dresden precisely because it wasn't a viable or worthwhile target for bombing so they thought they'd be safe there. I'm not sure if that's true, but if it is then it's a pretty big hole in the 'Just War' principles that the bombing of the city was defended under.

    • ata1515 profile image
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      ata1515 3 weeks ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Thanks! I’m glad your enjoying them.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a thought-provoking article, ata1515. I can see that I'm going to learn a lot about history by reading your hubs.

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