A Coming Anniversary

January 27, 2013 at 11:59 pm (By Tim)

Several things, musical and otherwise, have lately reminded me of the city of Dresden. I know it’s early, but it is getting close enough to the 68th anniversary of the firebombing of that city on 13-15 February, 1945. So, I thought I’d cheer the blog a bit with these observations.

The bombing remains a hugely controversial event. I was reminded of that by mentioning it on the Althouse blog a few years ago, which got me into a flame war of my own. At the time, I commented it was a shame “lovely, Baroque Dresden” had been wrecked in The War (as us Boomers learned to refer to it: The War). I don’t know what led me to write something like that, except pure obliviousness. The words, “lovely, Baroque” set off a nutcase commenter, who, not having been anywhere near the military himself, never met a bomb he didn’t like. Things quickly turned ugly. What did I expect?

The world remains divided between those who think bombing Dresden was a War Crime, essentially because Anglo-Saxon Capitalists did it, and those who think it was totally justified, again, because brave, Anglo-Saxon Warriors did it, serving those awful Huns right for the Blitz. Mix Soviet Marxist-Lenninism and German nationalism in the caldron, and you have a witches’ brew that has poisoned any hint of dispassion on the subject since it happened. Some say 250,000 perished, others, a mere 25,000. For my own part, I am extremely sad the Silbermann organ in the Frauenkirche was destroyed (along with the rest of that edifice). I could go on and on about the burnt symbols of Christian Civilization, and what they mean, yada, yada. Others might be more upset about the poor circus horses, fresh off a performance with flaming costumes on their backs, running terrified through the exploding streets. Burn the damn place down in 45 minutes during a random evening in February, and it does make for gripping stories.

And then there are the more exotic appreciations of the event, such as that of the habitual Althouse commenter who, as an artist, seems to have viewed it with a Brutalist sensibility. The drone of the bombers, the burning Zwinger, the collapsing Frauenkirche, the scream of people trying to escape the flames in “lovely Baroque” fountains while boiling to death, the terrified horses and the exploding circus, why, all this was a Gesamtkunstwerk beyond imagining, and the greatest thing the Anglo-American Air Forces ever did. At least that’s the logical conclusion I drew from his remarks. We all know the internet is full of such people.

I also should mention Kurt Vonnegut, another artist, albeit a much better literary one. You ought to read him. He really put this event in front of Americans. But I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to think, as I am not selling any particular normative take on this (or hardly anything else), nor do I want to be a literary critic. Vonnegut did unhinge Dresden from time in the course of Slaughterhouse Five, but that was a device dreamt up after the fact for the story. It was a made-up, literary unhinging. The picture that’s the subject of this post is made-up as well, but it was made-up well before the event, and so qualifies as that rare and deeper thing than literature: genuine prophecy. Prophecy, by definition, disjoints time—strikingly, if it’s good enough. I think this is damn good.

So, here’s the painting, done in a kind of German Expressionist style by Hans Grundig, a Communist hack, who had a long career creating otherwise drab art appropriate to celebrate Stalin’s social handiwork. I believe every person with a creative spark, no matter how pedestrian otherwise, has the possibility of genius. This is Hans Grundig’s one inspired work. To give it its proper Socialist label, it’s really in a New Objectivist style, but who’s picking art-historical nits?

The picture shows the destruction of Dresden from simultaneous multiple perspectives. The bent cross atop the dome of the Frauenkirche and the cupola of the Zwinger Palace are visible among the flames and smashed buildings. Waves of bombers are overhead in the lurid night pierced by searchlights, while the population is literally “buried” in the wrecked city, some with gas masks as useless protection against what proved to be an effective mix of incendiary and high-explosive bombs.

Yes, a striking picture of the events of February, 1945.

Odd thing, it was painted in 1936

Go figure.



  1. Annie Gottlieb said,


    By the way, whatever you may think about Vonnegut, he put the destruction of Dresden on the map for me and I suspect many people. That was his best book, IMO.

  2. chickelit said,

    Tim, With all due respect, am I allowed to say that you sound a little personally obsessed with Dresden? I write that having as much respect for anyone aware of the events–maybe more because I actually lived among the Germans.


    I was/am personally obsessed with the Titanic: I wrote numerous blog posts about it last year and just tonight I wrote a comment on Althouse which made reference to the Titanic.

    Here’s another coincidence like your artist one:

    …a struggling author named Morgan Robertson concocted a novel about a fabulous Atlantic liner, far larger than any that had ever been built. Robertson loaded his ship with the rich and complacent and then wrecked it one cold April night on an iceberg. This somehow showed the futility of everything, and in fact, the book was called Futility when it appeared in 1898, published by the firm of M F. Mansfield.

    Fourteen years later, a British shipping company named the White Star Line built a steamer remarkably like the one in Robertson’s novel. The new liner was 66,000 tons displacement; Robertson’s was 70,000 tons. The real ship was 882.5 feet long; the fictional one was 800 feet. Both vessels were were triple screw and could make 24-5 knots. Both could carry about 3,000 people, and both had enough lifeboats for only a fraction of this number. But, then, this didn’t seem to matter because both were labelled ‘unsinkable.’
    Robertson called his ship the Titan; the White Star Line called its ship the Titanic.

    Thanks for the link and the photo. I always learn from your stuff.

  3. T.T. Burnett said,

    I think the logic of what was possible and implied by 20th century technology was obvious to some. It’s fascinating to me that there were those with this kind of vision. And, in fact, the title of the above painting is “Vision,” the centerpiece in a triptych called “The Thousand-Year Reich.” I also once worked for Germans who were, even more than I may be, obsessed with Dresden and what a crime they thought it to be. I am particularly obsessed, but as a musician and as a Christian, with the idea that Johann Sebastian Bach, regarded at the time as the greatest organist in Germany, played the dedicatory recital on the new Silbermann organ in the Frauenkirche in 1734, and that it was burnt to nothing in the 20th century, which I was told as a child was the epitome of Science and Progress. Go figure.

  4. Icepick said,

    As an American, I say the fire bombing of Dresden wasn’t a war crime because our side won. I’m pretty sure such luminaries as Curtis Lemay and Chuck Yeager would agree with me.

  5. LouiseM said,

    Yes, gripping and haunting, a powerful picture and story of life and death, construction and destruction. I wasn’t familiar with the artist or the picture, and value the introduction. To regard it as vision, opens another door. I cannot look at the painting picture for long without feeling overwhelmed by the colors, the depth of the holes, the ladders that do not reach far enough, the sky full of “birds” and the earth embodied souls of those who participated in the reality of this vision.

    I’m reminded of the words the Creator spoke to his Created in the book of Genesis, after their expressed desire to be like God and know good and evil was acted on and fulfilled.

    “What is this you have done? he asks.

  6. wj said,

    The hardest part of dealing with something like the firebombing of Dresden is wrapping your head around the situation half a century and more ago. What war-related industry was in Dresden? Where in the city was it (concentrated, or scattered widely around the city)? How much accuracy was really available to hit a specific target in those days?

    For those who may not be aware, “precision bombing” then was anything but. (And still leaves a lot to be desired. Although missile-carrying drones are beginnng to approach something that could be labeled “precision” without the quotes.) So unless you had a target which was both concentrated and subject to destruction if any part of it was destroyed, you were pretty much reduced to levelling everything in a half mile radius. If you were really good, and had top-of-the-line technology for the time. The Americans tried it when they could. The British, not having the Norden bombsight (average error over 1,200 feet, for all that it was the best thing going at the time), went with carpet bombing.

    Yes, Dresden did terrible damage. But anyone who thinks it was the wrong thing to have done has to come up with a workable alternative. Workable at the time, and with the technology of the time. Not an easy task.

  7. LouiseM said,

    But anyone who thinks it was the wrong thing to have done has to come up with a workable alternative. Workable at the time, and with the technology of the time. Not an easy task..

    That combined with this: Prophecy, by definition, disjoints time, strikingly, if it’s good enough. brings time into the matter.

    To function within time and sort through a situation with the awareness available at that time is not an easy task. Here the vision preceded the lived reality by 9 years, yet there was no certainty of when or if it would actually come to pass.

    For me the “What is this you have done?” question seems more an invitation to look with open eyes than a gotcha. It asks for an honest accounting of factors, intent and outcome. With limited awareness and a myriad of motives involved, conflict is often the result of competing visions and ideas about what is right and what is wrong. This question reminds me of the “What is my part?” question used in recovery and conflict work. Both sides, whether they involve two people, two groups, or one individual with divided interests, usually have a part and a vested interest in preserving or maintaining something.

    The ability to fly was an amazing advance, as was the ability to harness energy and use it for lighting and fire power. The “birds” in the sky, the beautifully erected buildings dedicated to better living, worship of a higher power and celebration of music and art, the many ladders reaching from the ground up in response to mankind’s desire to build and create something more: All this reflects the imaginations and vision of creatures imbued with the power to create and destroy.

    I’m intrigued with this pictured vision. Sixty eight years later it’s still being looked at, talked about and found relevant, with the question of what is this you have done being considered and looked at from different angles.

    Thank you for posting it.

  8. TT Burnett said,

    Louise: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. There is nothing to add or detract, except to say how much I appreciate such insightful writing.

  9. LouiseM said,

    I got tangled with the numbers. The painted Vision is 77 years old, reproduced a lifetime ago.

    This week, a book I’d ordered for 1 cent plus 3.99 shipping arrived. I’d paid a penny for thoughts which turned out to be wordier than I prefer and somewhat beyond me, but intriguing nonetheless. The book, One Taste by K. Wilber, was a referral from another author, and the copy I ordered was supposed to be “clean” with no markings, and it was until I got to page 87. There on the margin in tiny, tidy pencil letters were the words “Spiritual Materialism” written vertically, nothing more for pages in either direction. Life is weird.

    One of the parts that interested me had to do with the author’s description of the eyes with which he believes we see.

    All of us possess the eye of flesh, the eye of mind, and the eye of spirit. We can classify art in terms of which eye it mostly relies on. Realism and naturalism, for example, rely mostly on the eye of flesh; abstract, conceptual, and surrealistic art rely mostly on the eye of mind; and certain great works of spiritual are rely on the eye of contemplation, the eye of spirit. Each of these eyes sees a different world–the world of material objects, of mental idea, of spiritual realities…rare are the artists who paint with the eye of contemplation, the eye of spirit. This type of art is not symbolic or metaphorical; it is a direct depiction of realities, but realities that cannot be seen with the eye of flesh or the eye of the mind, only with the eye of the spirit. And the point of this art is not simple viewing but transformation: it represents high or deeper realities available to all of us if we continue to grow and evolve. And that is why the purpose of truly transcendent art is to express something you are not yet, but that you can become.”

    I’m wondering if his description is complete. This painting by Grundig seems to represent a fourth way of seeing, the eye of vision, which seems to take into account all three, flesh, mind and spirit, to create something I’d call “invitational”.

  10. TT Burnett said,

    Ken Wilber is someone I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I looked into One Taste, a bit, and it is obviously a work of some insight. Whether I can deal with its diary format is a question, but mainly one of taste. From the bits and pieces I’ve read of his otherwise, I find he and I may also be in some fundamental disagreement. I am a Catholic, and Wilber is someone who calls Christianity and Islam, “mythical,” while maintaining, as far as I understand, the superiority of Buddhism and perhaps Vedantic practice. I’ve given a great deal of thought to all this, and while I would be interested to read his specific arguments, I’m afraid I’m all too familiar with these quasi-spiritual discussions. I’ve have come to seemingly opposite conclusions. I say, “seemingly,” because I haven’t read enough to be sure. There is one witty quote of his, though, that may sum it all up: “All religions are the same, especially Buddhism.”

    So, for me, Wilber may be someone like Emerson: A great writer and brilliant essayist, a fine source of inspiration and high-mindedness, who is, when all is said and done, full of beans.

    Full of whatever as Wilbur may be, that is an appropriate, thought-provoking and Emerson-like quote, and I want to thank Louise again for such things. When I wrote this post, I never expected comments of such quality, and, I swear, you’re all restoring my faith in the internet.

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