Posted by: Drew | March 13, 2009

135,000 Dead in Dresden*

That number – 135,000* – boggles my mind. What boggles it further is the fact that I knew really nothing of the senseless slaughter at Dresden during World War II until I read Slaughterhouse-Five. I do not recall it mentioned in history books. Maybe there’s a mention in there somewhere, but it cannot be very long or detailed. It isn’t exactly boasting material right there, the slaughter of well over so many civilians. When you have Hiroshima and Nagasaki on your conscience, maybe selectively ignoring Dresden is the response.


“‘You needn’t worry about bombs, by the way. Dresden is an open city. It is undefended, and contains no war industries or troop concentrations of any importance.’” (p. 186)


So says one of the Englishmen at Billy Pilgrim’s prison camp in Vonnegut’s novel. That was not Dresden’s fate, however. Instead, a city without any strategic importance was leveled for the sake of ending WWII quickly. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.


Looking at the headlines that come out of the war in Afghanistan, a typical one might detail the death of 4 U.S. soldiers or 18 Afghan civilians. An article written by Pir Zubair Shah from the New York Times today tells of the death of 21 Taliban militants in Pakistan suffered from U.S. missiles. I don’t want to downplay the loss of 21 people (and they are combatants rather than civilians, after all), but 21 is not 135,000*.


This just brings up how much has changed since WWII. The kind of warfare has been scaled back today. The media coverage is a totally different story today. Can you imagine the stories that would’ve come out if WWII was covered like present wars? Stories such as: “Estimates of 100,000 dead in Dresden,” “Search for Bodies Continues as Many Are Torched,” etc.?


No, the American public did not even learn of Dresden for a few years. It was kept a secret. Such a thing could not be pulled off today, but I bet that if the military or government tried to hide the deaths of even 100 Afghan or Iraqi civilians, the U.S. public would be infuriated. That is nothing compared to 135,000* dead in a city that was not strategically important whatsoever.


Billy Pilgrim speaks to Professor Rumfoord, a military man retired from the Air Force, in a Vermont hospital near the end of Slaughterhouse-Five (p. 253):


“It had to be done,” Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.

“I know,” said Billy.

“That’s war.”


135,000* civilians dead is not war. The Holocaust was not war and neither was Dresden.



*I should’ve poked around a bit first to get estimates other than the one in Slaughterhouse-Five. According to Wikipedia (yay Wikipedia research!), estimates of the casualties in Dresden greatly vary, and might be as low as 25,000 to 40,000…. but come on, that does not make it any less catastrophic.




  1. Interesting observation, Drew. 135000 sounds outrageously crazy–not war but a horrifying massacre. Thankfully these are not the type of massacres that happen everyday or else the world’s population would have been reduced to nothing. Nonetheless, even today, the media hides too much from the public. Many talk about more than 1000000 Iraqis killed. UK medical journal, the Lancet, reported at the end of 2006 more than 650000 Iraqi deaths-the study relys on different method to count the dead—as it is very dangerous and not reliable to just count the bodies. You can read the BBC article
    rise’ in Iraqi death tolls

    The injured aren’t any less. I often notice that the US military rarely ever talks about its injured and they are definitely by far more than the dead. In fact, many (and this is something you would only hear from someone in the Middle East) say that there are way more than 4000 US troops dead in Iraq but they hide it, because disclosing the real amount of casualties would negatively influence the war, making soldiers more fearful, pessimistic and would encourage the enemy to go on with its attacks. You would wonder how, and I say this is so easy in such a huge country, where the mass media is widely controlled by lobbyists. In fact, at the beginning of the war, I took on myself to count the official number of dead that the media declares and at the end of the month, the official number was less than what I had counted from the news. It is strange, but it happens. My point is that until today, when war isn’t the type of WWII; it is more like nontraditional war–fighting militias on and off and yet, many are being killed, and nobody ever counts how many have been killed in these wars Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia since 2003 until today. We may sometimes listen to the official number of how many of our troops get killed, but never to the number of civilians (or ‘militants’) and when we do, we hear it but never think about it and the number quickly leaves our mind to think of something else. I’m afraid that the future generations would say the same things about us as we do today about the Nazis.
    -Moe Fawaz

  2. Hey Drew, I was looking at youtube tonight, not really paying attention to the time and I came across a Canadian news feed dealing with Fox News and the War in Iraq. What really caught my attention and the link to your article was the fact they were talking about numbers and war casualties. Fox News was being its usual self, spouting controversial statements like questioning whether Canada was really in the war or not, or just flat out making light of their sacrifices for our former president’s cause. What struck me was that this all came out a couple days after Canada had lost four soldiers.

    I know that all lives are important and that even one can be too much, but in comparison to the innocents lost on a day-to-day basis this is just “a loss” for Canada. Bah, I’m starting to trail-off, Dresden goes under reported but Canada throws fists specifically when 4 soldiers are killed. I think it was bad reporting on both parts, Fox News has no right to insult the integrity of an entire nation while the Canadian news team could’ve gotten some better figures… if that doesn’t sound cold I dont know what does.

    Here’s the link!

  3. […] April 14, 2009 by John Smalley Comment 1 […]

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