Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Slaughterhouse Lies

With President Obama making a trip to Hiroshima later this month, the old debate about whether the US should apologize for the atomic bombing has erupted once more, and the America Can Do No Wrong contingent is out in force with the familiar arguments for why mass murder is morally justified when committed from forty thousand feet. One of their favorite tactics is to minimize the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by pointing out that the Air Corps killed more people with conventional bombing raids on Tokyo and Dresden.

This is a pernicious argument on multiple levels. It ignores the long-term effects of radiation exposure. It assumes that strategic bombing was morally justified. But what I find most irksome is that it's based upon a lie. While it's true that some 100,000 people died in the firebombings of Tokyo, the figure for Dresden is only 20-25,000, less than a third of that for Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Horrible to be sure, but nowhere close to the 140,000 figure that's often bandied about.

The false number comes from David Irving's book The Destruction of Dresden. When it was first published in 1963, Irving was a Young Turk historian challenging the conventional wisdom of the day, and historians, laboring under the fantasy that popular histories are actually fact checked before being published, accepted Irving's figure without question. But over the next two decades as Irving published more books on Nazi Germany, people started noticing that his "challenging the conventional wisdom" was often indistinguishable from Holocaust denial. In particular, his biography of Hermann Goering was noted for its claims that Goering tried to halt Kristallnacht and helped Jews escape, and in Hitler's War he argued that Hitler hadn't realized that people were putting his "exterminate the Jews" rhetoric into action. Still, historians generally viewed Irving as somebody who had slid into wingnuttery rather than being that way from the get-go, and so they continued to accept his casualty figures for Dresden.

All that changed after Deborah Lipstadt published her book, Denying the Holocaust, in which she grouped Irving with other Neo-Nazi revisionists. Irving sued for libel, and Lipstadt's lawyers hired Richard Evans as an expert to go through and fact check Irving's books. Most of Evans' work focused on Irving's later work, but he decided for the sake of thoroughness to look into The Destruction of Dresden as well. He located the paper where Irving had gotten the 140,000 figure, but when he looked at it, he found that the number typewritten on the page was 40,000 and somebody, probably in the Ministry of Propaganda, had written a "1" in front of the number. Next Evans contacted officials from Dresden whom Irving had cited as additional sources, but when he talked to them they told him that Irving had outright lied about what they told him. They confirmed that their initial casualty estimate had been 40,000, but once missing persons were accounted for, the figure had fallen to 20-25,000.

The results of Evans' investigation have been known for some fifteen years now. He's even published a book on the subject. But Irving's figures were so widely repeated in reputable sources that they're difficult to eradicate. However, the real lasting damage comes not from any history but a novel. When Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five, he relied on Irving's book for the factual details about the Dresden bombing, and as such repeated Irving's figure. Every year thousands of high school students learn about Dresden from Vonnegut's work, and they come away believing that 140,000 people died there. This is no fault of Vonnegut -- he had no way of knowing in 1969 that Irving was a whackjob -- but to allow the lie to get repeated in subsequent editions of the book is a crime against history. If his estate and publisher don't want to change the actual text of the book to reflect the lower casualty numbers, at the very least they should include a note explaining that the figure is inaccurate. If they don't, people will continue to use Irving's inflated figures to argue that Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren't that bad by comparison, something that I can't imagine Vonnegut would much like.

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