February 13

Overlooking Dresden

When I first visited Dresden in the mid-1990’s, to my eyes it looked like the city had just stepped out of World War II, even though, in retrospect, it must have undergone a great deal of renovation by that time.

Dresden miraculously survived the first five years of World War II intact, having dodged the Allied bombings that destroyed much of Berlin, Hamburg, and other German cities. Many Germans felt that the city had developed a de facto immunity, perhaps because of Dresden’s cultural significance, the beauty of its historic buildings, churches, and neighborhoods, and its diminished value as a military target.

For this reason, in early 1945 refugees streamed into the safe haven of Dresden from all directions. By February of that year, things were looking bleak for Germany; the Russians were closing in from the East, the British and Americans from the West. As stories of Russian atrocities filtered in from refugees from the East, Erika Dienel, a 20 year-old typist in Dresden, recalled the feeling on February 13:

“[W]ith a small ration of red wine, we brewed a hot punch and talked about where we would go should the Russians overrun us. But the Americans were also not too far away, and we only hoped they would come first.

World War II: The Allied Counteroffensive, 1942-1945

The Americans did come first, but hardly in the way the residents of Dresden could have imagined.

When the air-raid sirens began that night at ten minutes to nine, Erika and her family headed down to the cellar.

25 minutes later, approximately 250 British and U.S. planes unleashed over 800 tons of explosives and incendiaries. The largest bombs weighed two tons and were called “block-busters” because of their capacity to take out a city block.

When Dresden residents came out of the basements to see their city in flames, they thought the worst was over. They were wrong.

Around 1:20 am, just as crews were trying to put out the flames, a second wave of over 500 bombers arrived, dropping 1,800 more tons of explosives on the city. Because the first bombs had destroyed the city’s air-raid siren system, most received no warning of the attack.

By the morning of February 14 the entire center of the city was engulfed in a firestorm. Waves of bombers continued. Just when survivors would think the bombings had ceased, they would begin again. The temperature in the center of the city reached 1600 degrees Fahrenheit. Thousands of families who sought shelter in their cellars suffocated to death as the oxygen was sucked up by the massive fires.

The bombings continued until February 15. Erika Dienel survived like many others by diving into the Elbe River:

“Dresden was to burn for seven nights and days…In the centre there was no escape. The town was a mass of flames. People, burning like torches, jumped into the Elbe on this cold February night…

Every house we passed stood in flames; under our feet there were bodies, nothing but bodies.”

Kurt Vonnegut was an American POW in Dresden during the attack. His experiences there inspired the novel Slaughterhouse V in which the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is part of a squad of prisoners whose job is to remove countless corpses from destroyed buildings and shelters.

The Dresden death toll will never be known because the city at the time housed hundreds of thousands of uncounted refugees. The lowest estimates are in the tens of thousands. The highest are around a quarter million

The following year Dresden residents held memorial ceremonies on February 13, but the Soviet-occupied territory was under strict supervision:

“Anything that makes 13 February appear as a day of mourning is to be avoided…It is the mayor’s opinion that if a false note is struck when 13 February is commemorated, this could very easily lead to expressions of anti-Allied opinion. This is to be avoided under all circumstances.”

Dresden, Tuesday, February 13, 1945

Now however, Germans young and old gather in Dresden on the evening of February 13 and remember the lives lost here, known and unknown.

I was in Germany in March 2003, with a friend from East Germany, and learned Dresden was again a cultural landmark, “Paris of Germany” they called it, rebuilt like a Phoenix, except for the Dresden Church that remains as a reminder of the bombing.

That evening we turned on the TV see another city on fire. U.S. planes had just begun bombing the city of Baghdad.

My friend translated the reporter:

“Shock and awe.”

Armed Forces Day – Romania

October 25

“Over the centuries you will be remembered and praised, you, the officers and soldiers who have freed Transylvania.”

–General Gheorghe Avramescu, October 29, 1944

On this day in 1944 Romanian troops liberated Carei, the last German-occupied city in Romania. It is also the birthday of Romania’s last king, Michael I. (Pre-emptive answer: No, I don’t know why the there is a “I” if there won’t be a second.)

King Michael, or Mihai, became heir apparent of Romania at age 4 after his father Crown Prince Carol II abandoned his claim to the throne to elope with his mistress. When his grandfather, King Ferdinand died, the 6 year-old boy became king.

However in 1930, Carol II returned to the throne, becoming perhaps the only European king to have succeeded his own son.

In 1940, Carol II refused to go along with pro-Nazi Romanian leaders. He was forced to abdicate the throne for his son, 18 year-old Michael, who was expected to rule as a puppet monarch for a fascist Romanian government allied with Hitler.

There are conflicting stories of Michael’s motivations for turning against Germany in 1944. Some portray him as a hero whose daring fight against fascist leaders hastened the Nazi defeat, thus saving tens of thousands of lives. Others claim he was a pragmatist who had no choice but to switch once it became clear the Soviets were winning.

According to future Soviet leader Nikita Khurshchev…

In 1944, as we approached Bessarabia and fighting broke out on its territory, and then as we approached the borders of Romania itself, it became evident that the pointer on the scale had tipped strongly in the direction of victory for our side…Then a coup occurred in Romania. The young King Michael took part it it…In Romania a situation took shape in which the sympathies of the people moved to the left, the authority of the Communist Party rose, and the king decided the Communists should participate in the new government that was being formed…The question of whether Romania would take the socialist path did not come up at the time.”

–Memoirs of Nikita Khruschchev

The U.S. awarded King Michael the Legion of Merit for his bravery, and the Soviets awarded him the Order of Victory. But proof that no good deed goes unpunished, the Romanian Communist government abolished the monarchy in January 1948 and forced Michael to leave the country. According to Khrushchev, Michael was told, “he could take everything with him that he considered necessary, but he had to leave his kingdom.”

In exile, he married Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma with whom he raised 5 daughters in Switzerland. The former king worked for an aircraft company training European pilots to fly with American instruments.

The former king once said:

“Though many people think that not to be allowed back into your country is easier to bear than not to be allowed out of it, this is not true. The feeling of powerlessness and loss of liberty is associated with both.

Michael of Romania: The King and the Country

King Michael was invited to return briefly to Romania in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He is one of the last surviving heads of state from World War II.

October 25: Romanian Armed Forces Day

A Survivor: Romania’s Lucky Enough King

Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev

Romanian Flag Day

United Nations Day

October 24

“Millions of tongues record thee, and anew
Their children’s lips shall echo them, and say—
‘Here where the sword united nations drew,
Our countrymen were warring on that day!”

–Lord George Gordon Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

In 2009 the UN turned 63, the same age its leading proponent was when he died in April 1945, a month shy of Germany’s surrender.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had spent his 63rd birthday (January 30, 1945) aboard the USS Quincy on route to meet Churchill and Stalin in the Crimea. Stalin had refused to travel far “on doctor’s orders”, so FDR, stricken with polio and two months from death, trekked halfway across the world. Churchill once said of Yalta, “We could not have found a worse place if we had spent ten years on research.”

At Yalta, Churchill and Roosevelt lost on the issue of future democratic elections in Soviet-controlled Poland. But they got one thing from Stalin. They settled the “veto issue” that had halted the negotiations of the formation of the “United Nations”, an international organization that would curb future territorial aggression.

[Previous to this, the term “United Nations” referred to an alliance of countries fighting against the Axis Powers in World War II. The January 1, 1942 Declaration by United Nations had stated that “Each Government pledges itself to employ its full resources, military or economic, against those members of the Tripartite Pact and its adherents with which such government is at war.“]

On April 12, 1945, hours after FDR’s death, the new VP Harry Truman was sworn in as President of the United States, inheriting a World War and an atomic bomb project so secret that the Soviets had known of its existence before he did. Truman’s first decision as President, immediately after taking the oath, was to carry on with the scheduled UN conference in San Francisco. “It was what Roosevelt wanted,” he said.

Two weeks later, representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco to forge the Charter of the United Nations, based on negotiations between the US, UK, USSR and China.

Twenty five years earlier a similar organization, the League of Nations, had stumbled in its infancy when Woodrow Wilson, who had pushed the idea of the League of Nations to the rest of the world, failed to gain enough support from his own Congress to join it.

This time, with the hindsight of WWII, the U.S. Senate approved the charter, 89 to 2. On August 8, two days after Truman dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and one day before Nagasaki, the U.S. became the first country to submit its formal documents to the United Nations.

It was an ominous moment of gestation for a world peace organization, and a foretelling one. The power of all the countries of the world would be eclipsed by the atomic weapons of the two most powerful. And thus for most of its life, the UN’s influence was secondary to the Cold War tug-of-war between the U.S.-led NATO and the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact.

Founding of UN
Founding of the U.N.

The UN first convened on October 24, now observed as United Nations Day.

Today, if there is one thing that unites all the contradictory and warring countries of the earth, it may be universal disappointment at the United Nations, seen as a tool of the U.S. by much of the West, and as a tool of the West by the rest of the world. While in the U.S., as conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly once told War Crimes Ambassador David Scheffer, “I’m not going to make an excuse for the U.S. government. Our intelligence agencies obviously have been troubled. But you are making an excuse for the United Nations, which I think is so impotent there isn’t enough Viagra in the world.”

Still, for all its faults, this year the United Nations is technically older than most governments on earth. That means over 100 nations have gained their independence since its formation, and most of these were subjugated colonies and satellites of the Big Five in charge. Even if the UN isn’t directly responsible for all these births, it has created a forum in which the countries of the earth are forced, for a brief moment, to see themselves through their neighbors’ eyes. And in a world this small, that may prove to be the most powerful negotiation tool of all.

United Nations: The First 50 Years – Stanley Meisler