On this day, 75 years ago, the firebombing of Dresden began.
Dresden was Germany’s seventh largest city, and until the raid, the largest city to escape any serious Allied bombing. All that changed in a series of raids which began on the evening of the 13th and lasted for two days. Over 1,000 British and American bombers, escorted by another 700+ American fighters, attacked the city, destroying over 1,600 acres in the city center, and killing an estimated 25,000 people.
At least one American POW in Dresden that night survived the attack, and witnessed firsthand the aftermath.
Infantry scout Kurt Vonnegut, age 22, of the 106th Infantry Division,* was captured, along with another 6,000 Americans in the division, in mid-December 1944, during the height of the Battle of the Bulge. He was taken to Dresden and housed in a Schlachthof [slaughterhouse]. Vonnegut survived the attack by hiding in a meat locker three levels between the street.
Vonnegut not only survived the attack, he was eventually liberated and repatriated to the United States. He married, started a family, and began a conventional career with GE. But we wanted to write—he had been the editor of his high school and college newspapers, and felt writing came easy to him. His first magazine article appeared in February 1950, and less than a year later he quit his day job and took up writing full time. Despite publishing a number of novels, and many magazine articles, in the ensuing years, Vonnegut met with neither commercial nor critical success; his writing income barely kept the family afloat.
What haunted Vonnegut was his war experience. He tried and tried—by his own admission he had written five thousand pages about Dresden—and thrown them all away. He seemed unable to find an appropriate means to express himself.
Finally, in 1969, Vonnegut published his sixth novel: Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children’s Crusade. The book skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, turning Vonnegut into an icon overnight, a status that he never lost for the rest of his life. The book has remained on numerous “100 best books” lists ever since. Vonnegut died in 2007, age 84.
Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of a hapless GI named Billy Pilgrim, who likewise ends up in Dresden and survives the bombing. Portions of the novel are clearly autobiographical (although it is doubtful that Vonnegut could time-travel, or that he currently resides on the planet Tralfamadore in the company of Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack, as Billy does).
Vonnegut’s book is unusual in many respects, including his fascination with Tralfamadore. For example, he describes quite early (p. 5) an actual wartime event which he plans to write about: “I think the climax of the book will be the execution of Edgar Derby. . . . The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American footsoldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. . . . [A]nd then he’s shot by a firing squad.”
It is not known whether Odd Nansen, who died in 1973, ever had the chance to read Slaughterhouse Five in the remaining four years of his life. It is unlikely, but not impossible: the number of literary and biblical allusions that pepper Nansen’s WWII diary attest to a broad and well-read mind.
If Odd Nansen had read Vonnegut’s work, he might well have identified with Vonnegut’s experience—he witnessed an event much like the fate of Billy Pilgrim’s friend, Edgar Derby, himself.
Writing on March 23, 1944, almost a full year before Dresden, Nansen describes the ever-increasing Allied bombing campaign against Germany. Oranienburg, the city where Sachsenhausen was located, was also an administrative headquarters of the Schutzstaffel (SS), and the site of many its workshops, and thus the camp was hardly immune from stray Allied bombs landing in its midst.
Here’s what Nansen writes, continuing an earlier entry that describes the results of one such bombing:
“Bombs also fell on the prison camp. Half of one hut was burned down, otherwise only minor damage. They say that one man was killed and four taken to the[infirmary] with serious injuries. What is certain is that a prisoner was shot for stealing from the ruins. He was caught in the act and shot then and there. No one sees anything strange in that. Served him right, is all they say, with a shrug of the shoulders. The SS and the prisoners appear to be of one mind on this form of justice. I think however that most Norwegians still react against such things. The man shot was a wretched, starving Ukrainian, who saw a loaf that would have burnt up in any case.”
Yes, Odd Nansen would have been right at home with Slaughterhouse Five.
*I have previously written about another important member of the 106th Infantry Division who was captured around the same time as Vonnegut—Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds (here).