Just Finished Slaughterhouse Five
My first exposure to it was in college: My freshman year, my boyfriend Peter and I took a Winterim class (one month) called Science Fiction for the Fun of It. Along with reading a book of short stories, every class period, we watched a movie. One of them was Slaughterhouse Five.
Over the years, I completely forgot what was in the movie or what it was about. I forgot there was such a city as Dresden.
I may have learned about the firebombing in school, since I see references to the raids on German cities in my old German and History textbooks. I do remember learning something about the bombing in German class, and feeling appalled at the destruction of historic architecture.
But I don’t remember hearing about how many civilians died in these bombings. Maybe I thought they had evacuated; I don’t remember. I may have learned something about it in school, but it’s been more than 20 years since I graduated college (argh), so I forgot about it.
Fast-forward to 2015: While researching my novel about a Nazi time-traveler, I stumbled across some webpages which I thought were Wikipedia, but were actually some neo-Nazi site, and learned about the bombings, including Dresden.
Cross-referencing through various other sources has proven that while the site may have given me some faulty or one-sided info about the war, it is correct about the bombings. Of course, it doesn’t give the other side, how the Germans bombed European cities and ravaged civilians deemed “subhuman,” such as Jews, Russians, Poles, gypsies, homosexuals, etc. etc. But yes, the bombings really did happen.
In the course of my research, I discovered that Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut is about the bombing of Dresden. So I bought the book with birthday money and, these past couple of weeks, read it. It’s such an easy read, and so short, that it only took two weeks.
Kurt Vonnegut not only hid in a meat locker with other prisoners during the bombing of Dresden, but had to help clean up the carnage afterwards. Before the bombing, the beautiful city looked like Oz to him. He saw the people there, with their translucent skin from having nothing to eat for years but potatoes, just trying to get here and there, go to work and home again.
He became a pacifist. It took him more than 20 years to finally write about the experience, despite wanting to for so long. He tried to find information for research, but they told him it was still secret. Vonnegut writes that the government kept the extent of the Dresden bombing secret from the American public for many years, afraid of the backlash.
Because yes, there were many who would object to the bombing of civilians. Even back then, before the 60s and the peace movement. Even though today I find–in the comment section of Youtube videos and blogs–people complaining about modern generations who aren’t willing to recognize what had to be done to win the war.
Really? Must we–in order to fight an enemy, no matter how evil–do the same things the enemy does? Because that’s what Nazi Germany did: firebombed cities.
Must we look on an entire city–whichever city–as full of evil people, just as evil as their government? Especially in a totalitarian, fascist government which suppresses all opposition?
There was no organized, wide-scale movement against the government in Germany, because everyone who tried was killed or severely punished. But I keep finding accounts and interviews of people who lived during that time; they keep saying, “My father was against the government, but he had to keep it very quiet or they’d take him away.”
Especially in 1945 when the war was clearly lost, and refugees fled the bombings of other cities and the advance of the Russians, how many of those people honestly still supported the government? How many just wanted the war to end and sanity to regain control of the country?
But the Allied bombings didn’t just kill civilians of the Axis countries. According to For You the War is Over by David A. Foy, the relentless bombings of civilians put the Allied POWs in Germany in serious danger, especially after Dresden: The POWs could sometimes be victims in air attacks on cities or trains. Germans began calling the airmen “Luftgangsters,” believing they were deliberately chosen from the American mob to inflict death on women and children.
In the latter part of the war, any airman who was shot down over Germany was actually safer in the hands of enemy soldiers than of the civilians. Civilians were in such a frenzy of anger and revenge that our boys could get lynched. Angry guards in POW camps could become trigger-happy after their families were bombed.
And Hitler made things more difficult for POWs, so attempted escapes were more likely to lead to death instead of a stint in the cooler. Only Eva’s influence kept Hitler from ordering the deaths of all Allied air force POWs after Dresden. According to one POW, Stalag Luft I was very nearly wiped out in retaliation for an attack on a refugee train. The POW claimed that SS troops were sent to do this, but the Kommandant’s troops surrounded them and refused to let them do it.
I see a lot of extreme thinking about these bombings: One side ignores the atrocities of the Nazis, even explains them away or says the Holocaust is a hoax. They say there’s an Illuminati; they say Hitler and the Nazis were just misunderstood. They say the Jews really are a problem and that xenophobia is not a sin. They say the Allied leaders were war criminals.
The other side says the bombings were absolutely necessary. They scold the people who say we shouldn’t have done this. They say there was no other way to win the war.
But maybe there’s a middle way: recognize that while we had to beat the Nazis, that doesn’t mean our side was always correct in its actions. We do the same in looking at American history with various groups, such as Native Americans and black slaves, recognizing when our government committed crimes against them; why not with World War II?
Yes, the governments we were fighting were evil, but that doesn’t mean all the people were. And it doesn’t mean our leaders were saints who could do no wrong. We can celebrate our leaders for winning the war, but realize that they were still human beings with faults, not gods.
And remember, going forward, that we can change how we do things. Vonnegut taught his sons to never rejoice over a massacre of their enemies, and to not participate in one, or even work for a company which makes massacre machinery.
He also wrote that it’s our babies who are sent to fight these wars. These kids are 18, 19, 20, and getting sent off to kill or be killed. Even his criminally insane character Lazzaro considers the bombing of German cities, and says that back home he never killed anyone who didn’t have it coming.
After decades of trying but failing to write his book on Dresden, Vonnegut finally settled on something that worked: science fiction/satire. In the midst of a silly story about a guy coming “unstuck in time,” captured by aliens and put in a zoo, and mated with a porn star, is a profound story about the evils of war. Apparently this was the only way Vonnegut could truly deal with the trauma. And he does it brilliantly.