There is a longstanding myth from the Second World War that the Allies killed hundreds of thousands of civilians by the sudden and shameless aerial bombing of Dresden, a beautiful city remarkable for its history and culture. That the bombing was a shameful war crime against innocent civilian German non-combatants was told by Kurt Vonnegut in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. He personally survived the bombing, present in a nearby POW camp. His tale, endlessly repeated as though true, seemed an unjustified blot on Allied war history. But like historians of the period, Vonnegut lacked access to the official East German records. He had not heard the contrary stories of other survivors unwilling to risk offending communist authorities perpetuating damaging propaganda about the West.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 provided German historians access to previously restricted East German records relevant to the Allied bombing of Nazi targets in Dresden, Germany. Frederick Taylor, a bilingual scholar, read several German accounts, yet untranslated into English, that dispelled the myth. He began a three-year investigation, reviewing new sources and having insightful consultations with German historians knowledgeable about the fateful day of the bombing on February 13, 1945. His book is a significant achievement, providing new insights and critically important data. The historical record corrects the myth that must now be put to rest.
Taylor found that Dresden was “by the standards of its time a legitimate military target.” After an examination of official records and all other available sources, including a review of the official count of bodies and ashes of incinerated victims buried, he thinks the fairest estimate of the number of deaths due to the bombing is in a range between twenty-five thousand and forty thousand. This documented and verifiable number corrects the propaganda that soon gratuitously added a zero. Nevertheless, the loss of life in Dresden was a terrible result of war:
None of this is to minimize the appalling reality of such a vast number of dead, so horribly snatched from this life within the space of a few hours, or to forget that most of them were women, children, and the elderly. Wild guesstimates — especially those exploited for political gain — neither dignify nor do justice to what must account, by any standards, as one of the most terrible single actions of the Second World War.
Taylor’s book is timely as questions are being raised today about how the law of international warfare might apply to combatants who intentionally hide in, behind, and under civilian populations. For example, Hamas risks civilian lives by placing its military headquarters and armaments in residential areas. Photographs now show Hamas positioned military arms and tunnels under civilian hospitals. When they fired unguided rockets from a pre-school or residential buildings, they claimed that the retaliatory response by their enemy with a precisely targeted guided missile strike, was an atrocious war crime against civilians.
Taylor finds the loss of life and damage to property due to the war against Germany abhorrent. He does not blame the Allies. Just as evil perpetuated by the Nazis was ended along with horrific loss of life, so it appears that the evil committed by Hamas against Israel will end along with a sad and grievous cost to human life. There is a stunning difference, however. In World War II, the Allies struck by surprise. By contrast, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have dropped leaflets by air to warn civilians below of what was coming, urging them to move to safer areas. The IDF is at war with Hamas, not Palestinian civilians.
The current situation in Gaza provides a telling contrast to the bombing of Dresden. It should provoke the Arab world into shame and condemnation. There is no justification for Arab silence in the face of Hamas’s cowardice, now on full display before the world. Hamas claims the IDF killed doctors, when the facts are that the IDF brought doctors to Gazan hospitals to help save lives. The brutality of the situation is plain: Hamas has taken the Palestinian population of Gaza hostage—not just 240 Israelis and migrant workers. The report that Hamas killed some Palestinian civilians moving south to safety rings true because Hamas values the propaganda value of civilian deaths. The death toll is further inflated by counting military casualties. Hamas hopes to be saved by an international outrage and intervention that believes the lies. But the Gaza’s Palestinian blood is on Hamas’s hands. Their barbaric, inhumane acts have been shamefully exposed, while their spokesman objects to the subhuman identity and lack of sympathy that Hamas deserves. Israel’s primary war aim is and ought to be the completely destruction of Hamas, leaving it buried forever along with the sad collateral damage for which Hamas alone will be responsible.
Taylor’s story of Dresden reminds us that the United States and its Allies were unwilling to negotiate a truce, observe a ceasefire, or even a fighting pause as a path to peace with Nazi Germany. The Nazi threat was so evil that it had to be completely eradicated so that the Nazis could neither govern Germany nor win the war. Victory in war against Nazi Germany meant the Allies had to make difficult moral decisions, like the necessity of bombing military targets hidden within civilian areas despite the cost in human life. It was a cost well familiar to the Americans, as 81,000 American soldiers died fighting in the Ardennes in December, 1944. War was hell then and war is hell now. Hamas must be stopped. Its naive, unemployable apologists on campus should be warned that Never Again means Never Again.
 Citations to Taylor’s book are abbreviated: Taylor, xiii. Taylor notes that the 1944 handbook of the German Army High Command’s Weapon Office identified 127 factories in Dresden manufacturing material for the Nazi regime. Taylor details Nazi efforts to hide the fact that the publicly identified civilian products were actually made in small quantities to disguise the mass production of war material. 147-148.
 Taylor, 448.
 Taylor, 172.
Photo by Jim Forest — Flickr