Dresden historical commission publishes final report
Up to 25,000 citizens lost their lives during Allied bombing raids in February 1945
The »Historical Commission on the Aerial Bombing of Dresden between 13th and 15th February 1945« brought its investigations on behalf of the City of Dresden to a close on 17th March 2010 with the publishing of a final report. Following the presentation to Mayor Helma Orosz, the report was on the same day made available to the general public both in book form and via the city's website.
The Commission was established in November 2004 by Ingolf Roßberg, the mayor of the city at that time, as an outcome of discussions among local citizens concerning the culture of remembrance in Dresden. At the end of a series of controversial debates, it was confirmed by the Dresden City Council in January 2007 and endowed with the necessary research budget. At the same time, the council resolution extended and detailed the tasks of the Commission.
Investigation of the number of persons killed in Dresden in February 1945
The task of the Commission was to be to »determine the current status of research regarding the number of persons killed as a result of the aerial bombing of Dresden in February 1945«. This aspect of the historical events has remained a topic of contentious discussion through to the present day: The span of the purported figures is particularly wide, ranging from approx. 20,000 to 500,000, and in individual cases even up to one million fatalities: Remembrance surrounding the Allied air raids on Dresden - addressed symbolically by way of the anniversary date 13th February - continues to possess topical importance in socio-political disputes over historical images, concepts of society and identities. Within the context of this discourse, the number of persons killed in the air raids on Dresden has long since become a central argument bundling subjective valuations and standpoints.
It was not a feasible objective of the investigations to determine each individual person killed in Dresden in February 1945 with any degree of certainty. It was rather the intention to establish the order of the total figure, in other words to determine the number of deaths within a significantly narrower range than that to be derived from the current debate. This was accomplished successfully by the Commission. Essential characteristics of the research work were both the extraordinarily broad interdisciplinary approach and intensive use of the possibilities offered by electronic information processing.
Following a critical assessment of the records in German and foreign archives, the involved experts decided to attempt a wholly new calculation of the number of deaths resulting from the aerial bombing of Dresden. Three different approaches were taken: Initially, it was planned to establish population balances for Dresden before and after the air raids of February 1945, but this proved impracticable due to the lack of coherent evidence. It was possible, on the other hand, to determine the number of people killed in Dresden in February 1945 both from the gathering of individual documentary records in respect of the recovery, registration and burial of those killed in the Dresden air raids and, independently thereof, by way of an analysis of official records kept by the city's register offices.
Over the course of intensive research in archives, the records of cemeteries both in and outside Dresden and the files of the register offices and local courts, almost 60,000 data records were acquired in an electronic database. In the majority of cases, several records referred to one and the same person. The data gathered related to both identified persons and unidentified remains. It was subsequently possible, on the basis of this data, to essentially reconstruct the processes of recovery, registration and burial after the bombing. The analysis of official records in the Dresden register offices first sought to determine the number of deaths recorded in connection with the air raids in February 1945. Parallel to this, all official declarations of death relating to persons killed in the Dresden air raids which had been recorded nationwide since 1945 were similarly analysed. As an outcome of these two analyses, the Commission was able to conclude that the air raids on Dresden between 13th and 15th February 1945 caused up to 25,000 deaths. This corroborates official figures issued by the responsible authorities in 1945 and 1946.
The plausibility of the newly determined figure was tested in several further phases of study. Neither the documentary records, nor the numerous contentions and narratives to be found in literature and the media revealed sustainable arguments which placed the result in doubt.
The Commission investigated in particular numerous personal witness accounts and showed that only a small minority of the eyewitnesses are willing and able to give information on the total number of air raid deaths in Dresden. Frequently cited reminiscences which report a significantly higher number of deaths on the basis of supposedly authorised sources were sampled for further analysis by the Commission and deemed to be speculative.
The Commission gave consideration to the number of refugees killed in Dresden from several perspectives; their number is frequently assumed to be very high. The analysis of individual records, however, revealed clearly that the proportion of refugees among those killed during the aerial bombing of Dresden was actually only small. This conclusion was also confirmed by a statistical evaluation of the records of nationally active tracing services.
The popular assumption that the remains of many of those killed in Dresden were not recovered was similarly shown to be untrue. On the basis of both a spatial analysis of the recovery work and an analysis of archaeological investigations in central areas of the city, it can be excluded that any significant number of deaths went unrecorded in this manner. There was equally no evidence found to support the widespread belief that recovery and burial were documented so incompletely that correct determination of the number of persons killed must be impossible. It is true that the responsible authorities were required to improvise in many cases, given the extent of the catastrophe and the pressures of time, but the Commission is nevertheless convinced that at least the numbers of persons killed were recorded in an essentially orderly manner. This applies both to the persons recovered up to the end of the war and to the work of the subsequent years. At the same time, the Commission investigated whether a significant number of persons could have been burned to ashes in the firestorms of the night of 13th/14th February to such an extent that registration would have been impossible. From the results of material science and archaeological investigations, it became clear that the necessary prerequisites were met at most at isolated points.
In a further approach to its studies, the Commission placed the number of persons killed in the aerial bombing of Dresden in the overall historical context of the Second World War - both in terms of the military course of the strategic war in the air and with reference to the total balance of civilian casualties. A six-figure number of deaths in Dresden alone is not reconcilable with either perspective. All the aforementioned investigation perspectives support the determined result conclusively.
Investigations pertaining to strafing attacks on Dresden between 13th and 15th February 1945
As an extension of the original task, the City Council asked the Commission to clarify whether low-flying aircraft were used in the Allied air raids of February 1945 and whether there had been any strafing of the local population with onboard weapons.
As a result of the studies of military and civilian documents from German and Allied sources, it can be excluded that the city of Dresden was a target of strafing attacks between 13th and 15th February 1945. A broad analysis of eyewitness reports produced a contradictory picture: While strafing attacks play no role in the majority of accounts, a few eyewitnesses report such attacks by single or a small number of planes. On the basis of such reports, the Commission carried out archaeological investigations in several parts of the city, but was unable to find any evidence for the use of aircraft cannons.
Investigation of the memories of citizens of Dresden
The collection and evaluation of subjective reminiscences represented an indispensable aspect of the investigations, particularly as a means by which to structure the subject matter of parallel research efforts and as a basis for critical analysis of their results. In accordance with an explicit demand of the Dresden City Council, the Commission gathered or recorded the subjective accounts of 1,314 persons from the generation which actually experienced the wartime period, including 90 biographical interviews. The analysis of these witness testimonies gave a clear illustration of their great value for explorations of »experienced history«. Specific examples permitted confirmation of the scientific knowledge regarding the correlations between memories and our reconstruction of the past.
Through its evaluations of controversial memories and interpretations, the Commission showed that popular assignments of particular narrative images to the whole group of contemporary witnesses (for example the adherence to an extremely high number of deaths in the aerial bombing of Dresden) are to be viewed as impermissible generalisations. At the same time, the studies demonstrated the influences of collective opinion, public debate, etc. on personal memories.
Through its intensive treatment of the memories of eyewitnesses, the Commission was once more able to reconstruct the human dimension of the Dresden catastrophe of February 1945 in particularly vivid form. The personally specific records in the electronic database, too, permit a view beyond bare figures and bring to light the individual suffering of those affected. The Commission understands its work as a contribution to a scientific portrayal of historical events and to responsible remembrance of the fate of those who lost their lives in Dresden.