New book finds why Dresden and Hiroshima remain in public memory

Allied bombing of Dresden destroyed 90% of the city centre (Picture by Bundesarchiv)

DEVASTATING events like the destruction of Dresden and Hiroshima are powerful global emblems of war trauma decades after they happened, in part because they remain disputed, a new book has found.

Allied bombing raids killed more people in other German cities during World War II, but it is Dresden that has become a global icon of the gratuitousness of warfare.

In her new book, After the Dresden Bombing, Pathways of Memory 1945 to the Present, Professor Anne Fuchs of the University of St Andrews, explores why it remains in the public consciousness while similar events have slipped from public memory.

Professor Fuchs, professor of German, said: “What I am interested in, is explaining why places like Dresden or Hiroshima or Nagasaki have remained as such big incidents in a global cultural memory?

“Dresden is remembered to this day, because there is now a huge awareness of the consequences of the trauma of warfare.

“At the same time this memory would not exist without the prominent role of the media who keep it alive by transmitting and recycling it.”


For her book she examined a wide range of media, from the time of the bombing of Dresden nearly 70 years ago, up to present day from photography, news articles, TV dramas and documentaries, fiction, diaries, archival documents, to poetry and fine art.

Kurt Vonnegurt’s seminal novel Slaughterhouse 5 and children’s book: An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpurgo, examined in the book, exemplify the global reach of Dresden.

On the other hand, photographs of the destroyed city published as serialised photo books in the aftermath of the event helped the German people come to terms with the trauma of defeat by allowing them to quietly mourn their losses.

The book also suggests films and books touching on the subject were a way of passing on to the next generation the obligation to remember.

This means history is only alive as long as the images and stories that communicated traumatic events have emotional resonance.

The final chapter examines how those who experienced the destruction of the city – both the elderly survivors and Allied pilots – still have irretrievably divided views but can now empathise with each other.

Places like Dresden, Hiroshima and Vietnam are powerful emblems precisely because they voice irreconcilable historical experiences but also make room for a mutual recognition of suffering.

Professor Fuchs says in the book: “The events in Dresden on 13 February 2010 underline the prominence of Dresden in global collective memory.

“Together with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it belongs to a handful of global icons that capture the destructiveness of warfare in the twentieth century.

“Immediately recognisable these icons are endowed with a powerful symbolism that cannot be explained with reference to historical cause and effect alone.”

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  1. Memory is indeed very strange. We remember Dresden because of the success of Nazi and Soviet propaganda – probably twice as many were killed in the Hamburg firestorm. Probably four times as many were killed in the Tokyo fire raid, but collective memory seems to have erased that more or less completely.

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