By John D. Alexander

On February 4, 1944, a prominent Anglican bishop addressed Britain’s House of Lords. He deplored the devastation wrought by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in nighttime raids on dozens of German cities: Lübeck, Rostock, Cologne, Hamburg, and Berlin, among others.  His name was George Kennedy Allen Bell of Chichester.

Bishop Bell warned that not just military and industrial targets, but museums, libraries, churches, hospitals, schools, and architectural monuments were being destroyed indiscriminately along with residential areas. While apartment blocks could be rebuilt, cultural treasures were being lost forever that would be needed for the Germans’ cultural renewal after the war.

He mentioned cities that had not yet been bombed: “Dresden, Augsburg, Munich are among the larger towns….” He hoped that RAF Bomber Command would restrict future attacks to the military installations and arms factories generally situated in such cities’ outskirts, while avoiding town centers full of cultural monuments.

Biblical scholars remind us that “prophecy” involves much more than just foretelling the future. But Bell was speaking prophetically at multiple levels. All the cities he mentioned were eventually subject to devastating air raids before war’s end. Dresden’s bombing, in a series of attacks on February 13-15, 1945, has become infamous.

Bell was neither a pacifist nor a sentimentalist. He had been a committed anti-Nazi since the early 1930s. He fully supported the Allied war against Hitler even as his extensive ecumenical friendships with Germans such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer made him draw a crucial distinction between the Nazi regime and the German people.

Nor was Bell militarily naïve. In preparing his speech he relied on the advice and assistance of his friend Captain B. F. Liddell Hart, the noted military historian and strategist. Bell accepted the necessity of air raids on Germany, provided that they were directed at targets like military bases, airfields, arms factories, railroad yards, naval docks, radio stations, radar installations, and oil refineries.

However, in 1942, responding to effective German air defenses and limitations in navigation and targeting technology, Bomber Command adopted a policy of “area” or “obliteration” bombing. Instead of aiming at specific targets, the strategy was to mass as many bombers as possible over an urban area by night and to drop as many bombs as possible. The hope was that at least some assets of military, industrial, or administrative significance would be engulfed in the general devastation below. The violence was indiscriminate. In each raid, vast residential areas were destroyed, and thousands of civilians were killed.

Bell understood that this policy violated the Christian just war tradition’s jus in bello norms of discrimination, noncombatant immunity, and proportionality. He granted that unintended civilian casualties were inescapable in necessary raids against military targets. But the sheer extent of noncombatant suffering and death caused by area bombing was entirely out of proportion.

“I fully realize,” Bell declared, “that in attacks on centers of war industry and transport the killing of civilians when it is the result of bona-fide military activity is inevitable. But there must be a fair balance between the means employed and the purpose achieved. To obliterate a whole town because certain portions contain military and industrial establishments is to reject the balance.”

By early 1944, technological innovations and Allied air supremacy could have made a switch to “precision bombing” feasible. But under Sir Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris’ obstinate leadership, the RAF continued area bombing through the war’s end. Bell’s speech had not the slightest effect on military policy. But some suggest it cost him any prospect of becoming Archbishop of Canterbury when William Temple died suddenly eight months later.

The speech’s real value lay in putting a statement of prophetic Christian witness on record. Future generations could look back to see a clear voice of conscience raised to protest this immoral strategy.

The bombing’s 75th anniversary raises the question of why the name “Dresden” has taken on iconic significance. Using the same strategy, Bomber Command undertook similar attacks over a four-year period against dozens and dozens of enemy cities.

True, the Dresden raid was horrific. Swollen with refugees fleeing advancing Soviet armies on the Eastern Front 80 miles away, the city was largely undefended, with inadequate air-raid shelters. The RAF’s aiming point was the town center, where the ancient timbers of medieval buildings quickly caught fire when pummeled by high-explosive “blockbuster” bombs and a rain of incendiary devices. The resulting firestorm killed an estimated 25,000 civilians.

It was, however, neither the first, last, nor deadliest raid of the war. The British bombing of Hamburg on July 27, 1943 caused a similar firestorm, killing about 42,000 civilians. Less than a month after Dresden, the American firebombing of Tokyo (March 9, 1945), killed about 100,000 and left over a million homeless. It was the single most destructive bombing raid in human history. Then came the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What may be special about Dresden, however, is that it was the first city whose destruction awakened significant numbers of consciences on the Allied side. The Nazi propaganda machine disseminated hundreds of photographs documenting the carnage, which soon appeared in British and American newspapers.

Public revulsion ensued, heightened by Dresden’s cultural significance as home to a vast collection of artistic treasures, and led to widespread questioning of the city bombing. Bishop Bell’s House of Lords speech of a year earlier may have sown seeds of conscientious doubt that began to blossom.

The questioning reached the highest levels of government. In a memo of March 28, 1945, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote: “It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into possession of an utterly ruined land. … The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.” After vehement RAF objections to the word “terror” as the bombing’s objective, Churchill removed the offending phrase in a revised draft. By then, however, the point was moot with the European war almost over.

Historians and ethicists continue to debate whether the Dresden raid was militarily and morally justified. Some defend it as a legitimate attack against a vital center of administration, communications, transportation, and industry crucial to the enemy’s efforts to resupply the Eastern Front. Others condemn it as a moral outrage that killed tens of thousands of civilians for negligible military gains.

In the years since, the Dresden bombing has become something of a political football. Until 1989, the city was located in Communist East Germany, whose government pointed to the city’s destruction as an instance of Anglo-American terrorism. Since German reunification, far-right and neo-Nazi groups have appropriated that rhetoric, using the controversial and offensive term Bombenholocaust (holocaust by bombing) to describe the conflagration. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, German Antifa groups annually celebrate Bomber Harris for killing hundreds of thousands of Germans that they regard as complicit in Nazi crimes.

In today’s polarized political discourse, the memory of Dresden all too easily becomes a symbol and catalyst of division. A more hopeful and ultimately Christian approach looks instead to its potential as a signpost of reconciliation.

One of the most beautiful buildings destroyed in the Dresden firestorm was the baroque Frauenkirche — the Lutheran Church of Our Lady. For 60 years following 1945, its ruins stood in silent witness to the war’s devastation. But in 2005 it was painstakingly reconstructed and returned to service as a home for a worshiping community.

The gold orb and cross on the church’s dome were forged by Alan Smith, a London goldsmith whose father participated in the RAF raid on Dresden. On the main altar stands a cross of nails given by Coventry Cathedral in England — itself destroyed by the Luftwaffe on November 14, 1940 and rebuilt after the war. In the past 15 years, the Dresden Frauenkirche has become a center of worldwide ecumenical pilgrimage, hosting, among others, Catholic groups from neighboring Czech Republic and Poland, early victims of German wartime aggression.

Such symbolic gestures of repentance, reconciliation, and forgiveness testify to shared hope for a future free from such mass atrocities. In a world where war itself is unlikely to be abolished anytime soon, the urgent work continues of trying to limit noncombatant suffering and death as far as possible. Bishop Bell would approve.

The Rev. John D. Alexander, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, is writing a book on the Church of England in the Second World War.