How does the film “Dresden – The Inferno” reconstruct life in Dresden and represent the trauma suffered by victims of the 1945 Dresden bombing?

Joanna Molloy, Macquarie University

During the aerial war suffered by Germany at the end of World War II, two million tons of bombs were dropped, over 400,000 civilians died and every major city and many minor cities were destroyed.[1] The destroyed cities also needed to cope with the influx of millions of Germans who were expelled from German provinces such as Silesia, East Prussia, and the Sudetenland, as well as those who needed to flee from Soviet troops.[2] However, these traumatic events experienced by German citizens seem to have had little impact on contemporary narratives of the horrors of World War II. Memory of German trauma has been formed by what came next: Germany was defeated and politically divided; West Germany underwent a process of de-Nazification and was rehabilitated as a global power; East Germany focused on its non-Nazi credentials and the Cold War built on ideological divisions. After reunification, Germany put post-war differences in political ideology and post-war experiences to one side, in order to build the new Germany.

The force of historiography can be seen in the way that the Holocaust now dominates our sense of the Second World War. Our focus on the horrors of the Holocaust has made it difficult to remember other groups who also suffered, especially the ‘ordinary’ German citizens for whom any acknowledgement of German trauma or victimhood has been seen primarily as an act of self-pity or even as something that was deserved.[3]

In this paper I will examine the film “Dresden – The Inferno” (2006) and assess how it represents and reconstructs life in Dresden and the bombing of Dresden in 1945. I will also investigate how far this film can be seen as confronting wartime suffering and dealing with ‘taboos’ about the past. [4]

The film’s publicity suggests that up until now Germans have not been able to confront their experiences of the bombing of Dresden.[5] There are two main reasons why individuals and societies may not be able to confront traumatic events. On an individual level, victims may suffer ‘temporal delay’ and repression, and feel dislocated from traumatic events.[6] However, not all violent acts necessarily result in this kind of repression. Victims and survivors can also be willing to speak of their experiences, but find others unwilling to listen.[7]

On a cultural level, events may become taboo if they do not fit within an accepted political and cultural narrative.[8] Simply to describe an event as ‘taboo’ does not clearly articulate where that taboo may lie. The film’s publicity and title seem to suggest that it will address the human trauma of the intense fires that swept Dresden as a result of the bombing and caused the ‘inferno’, rather than a taboo imposed by political and cultural silence. However, the film focuses on neither of these possible causes of taboo. Instead, the film-makers construct a film that seeks to equalise guilt and sees almost everyone as a victim, and reflects and contributes to the post-war narrative of reconciliation.

Before turning to the film I will consider a number of previous representations of the bombing of Dresden and seek to establish what kinds of taboos may have existed in post-war Germany.

Despite the film-makers’ assertions that their film is the first to represent the traumas of the Dresden bombing, studies of the bombing of Germany and its collective memory identify a number of memory projects from immediately after the war. According to Moeller, the memory of the bombing campaign was a constant theme in post-war Germany.[9] Some of the early Trümmerfilm (Rubble films) focused on private grief, but many framed the physical destruction of German cities and focused on political renewal and reconstruction.[10] Pinkert argues that these early films harnessed traumatic loss into transformative post-war narratives.[11] While these examples suggest that there was no early taboo regarding the Dresden bombing, they also suggest that the human trauma was subsumed by the need for urban and political reconstruction. Many of the projects in West Germany were under Allied censorship and although they represented loss of life and therefore alluded to the trauma of loss, their main objective was to work towards redemption and political renewal.

Subsequent generations were confronted by a public inability to be victims. Firstly, in the wake of increased knowledge of the Holocaust and secondly, by a sense of right-wing authority over any narrative that allowed Germans to be represented as victims.[12] Even where collective memories exist they can only shape the national narrative once they are compatible with social and political objectives.[13]

The East German state memorialised German victimisation in a way that supported the anti-fascist ideals of their new state. They commemorated Jews and Socialists alike; those who had been victimised by National Socialism in the anti-fascist struggle, and made ‘anti-fascism’ their ‘foundational ideology’.[14] In West Germany, Chancellor Adenauer acknowledged German losses, as well as ‘the immeasurable suffering that was brought upon the Jews in Germany’.[15] Within less than a decade, East and West Germany had established memorials to the bombing raids. The Ehrenhain Memorial to the victims of the Dresden bombing was established in 1948, and in 1952 a memorial was dedicated to the victims of the Hamburg bombings.[16] However, it is important to differentiate between public commemoration and its role in the building of new East and West German identities and the real recognition of personal and collective loss. This need to differentiate is supported by Kansteiner’s suggestion that traumatic experiences lose their traumatic quality if they become successful collective memories.[17]

In West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, any acknowledgement of German victimhood and trauma was challenged by new understandings of National Socialism. Stories of German loss and trauma were rewritten to accommodate the historiography of the Holocaust.[18] There is some conflict of ideas here in that this period was also a time of active Vergangenheitsbewältigung (overcoming the past) influenced by the historiographical methodology of history from below and the inclusion of Alltagsgeschichte (the history of everyday life).[19] In 1967 the Mitscherlichs extended psychoanalytical findings, applicable to individuals and extrapolated to society in general. They argued that the German nation had suppressed the war and their own complicity and guilt to allow for post-war regeneration. [20] Wielenga, on the other hand, argued that there was no total repression or denial of the past.[21] However, Wielenga points to trends in the discussion of the Holocaust, in that the less graphic or detailed accounts were more acceptable.[22] This could also be true of accounts of German suffering caused by the Allied aerial war, as greater emphasis has been extended to urban destruction over human destruction.

In 1999, German author W.G. Sebald wrote that post-war society and literature had suppressed knowledge of the destruction of German cities by Allied bombing and that the destruction was only present in German history ‘in the form of vague generalisations’ and that ‘it seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the collective consciousness’.[23] These conclusions partly reinforce the repression view made popular by the Mitscherlichs in the 1970s[24], but do not recognise distinctions between individual or collected trauma, and collective memory.[25]

Sebald’s essay was widely discussed in the German media and in 2002 Jörg Friedrich’s controversial book “The Fire” (Der Brand) also fuelled public debate.[26] Friedrich’s book presented the Dresden bombing from a German civilian point of view. However, it is important to note that the controversy surrounding this book was caused not only by Friedrich’s recognition of Germans as victims, but also by the way in which he seemed to equate bombing and Holocaust victims.[27] Nevertheless, these books and a number of popular histories, as well as documentaries and historical films produced for television and cinema, serve as examples of the reappearance of a German victim discourse.[28] The large audiences for historical film and television productions mean that their versions of the past are widely accepted into collective memory and contribute to German Vergangenheitsbewältugung (overcoming the past).[29]

By the 2000s the victim narrative had been released both from Cold War divisions and by ‘an established framework of contrition’, meaning that it was now possible to appraise personal loss.[30] In this context it is less surprising that a new generation of Germans were willing to believe the films publicity material that the bombing of Dresden had once been a taboo subject, and that the film would deal with the personal trauma caused by the bombings.

The film “Dresden – The Inferno” (2006) was produced by the German ZDF television network and was aired over two evenings on primetime TV. The previous year, the rebuilding of the famous Dresden landmark the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) had been completed with world wide financial assistance, and had been re-consecrated.[31] Since 1982 when a small group of East Germans stood in silence outside the church, the Frauenkirche has been framed as an international symbol of loss and reconciliation.[32] Consequently, any film set in Dresden and made in 2006 was likely to invoke the Frauenkirche and its reconciliatory role in post-unification German politics.[33]

That the film was watched by almost a third of the population speaks to the public interest in this project and the likely impact it would have on collective memory.[34] It deals with the memory of the events leading up to the Dresden bombings, the life and behaviour of a mainly privileged group of Germans living in Dresden, and the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Dresden. The film-maker’s stated objectives draw our attention to the historiographical issues that they sought to address. They wanted to show Nazi guilt, how the victims of the bombing had suffered, and to contradict the historiographical argument that Dresden had no strategic importance. They also wanted to show Germans both as perpetrators and victims. The story is told from a German-English perspective, so as to avoid being classified as reactionary or being hijacked by the political right.[35]

In his analysis of the film, Crew suggests that “Dresden – The Inferno” (2006) encourages its German viewers to believe that the time has come to reclaim their emotional past, to feel the suffering of past generations and talk openly without being seen as right wing.[36] Despite the suggestion in the film’s title, the film-makers do not deal with issues of individual trauma, or the German victims and German loss caused by the bombing and the fire storm.

The use of the word ‘inferno’ in the film title is a bold assertion of the consequences of the Allied bombing of Dresden. The film starts with text that positions the era and events and segues into black and white archival footage of Dresden. These images are accompanied by the unmistakable voice of Hitler and the cheers of the crowd in response to Hitler’s plans to bomb Britain. Next from the archive is the British voice of RAF Commander Harris, explaining his plans to bomb German cities. From there the film moves to its fictional storyline. The main female character is a German nurse called Anna, who is from a wealthy family. The viewer is able to juxtapose her gentle, privileged home life with the human destruction that she confronts at the hospital. She helps, and consequently falls in love with, a British pilot. Although this plot is unrealistic, it is set within a framework of everyday life in Dresden before the bombing.

The film moves between shots of British aircrews as they prepare for their bombing mission and everyday life in Dresden, making the audience always aware of the dangers that are coming. The hospital scenes allow the film-makers to show the humanity of the German doctors and nurses, as they work to save soldiers injured in a previous bombing or combat. This humanity is balanced against issues of profiteering from the theft of medicines. There is a scene in a cinema when Anna sees news of the bombing in London. This establishes that it was not only the Allies who dropped bombs. Many in the cinema cheer, but Anna distances herself from them by leaving. Anna’s home life seems affluent and untouched by the war, other than that her sister wears her Jungmädelbund (the Hitler Youth for girls) uniform to breakfast. However, by turning away from her family and their complicity with National Socialism, into the arms of the British pilot, Anna seems to symbolically turn away from the Nazi past and towards reconciliation.

The complexity of the film is often in the background images; the children taunting a Jewish man in the street that goes unchecked by the adults around, a man’s body hanging from a lamp post with a sign around his neck accusing him of Rassenschände (racial defilements), and the humiliation of the woman concerned, standing barefoot in the snow, head shaved and wearing only a petticoat.[37] There is a minor story thread of a Jewish man, married to one of the German nurses, who is about to be deported, which captures the argument that the bombing was justified, because it stopped the deportation of Jews. The survival of the couple represents nascent post-war multiculturalism.[38] After the bombing, Anna and the British pilot stagger around the streets. They survive so they can witness the destruction for the audience. Again, it is the background imagery that adds to the complexity of the story. Jewish prisoners are commanded to clear bodies and German soldiers treat German citizens harshly, thus identifying them as victims of National Socialism too.

Despite the title of the film and images of burnt bodies in the streets and cellars full of dead civilians, this film did little to address the trauma caused by the bombings. There is little sense of the magnitude of the numbers of dead and injured. W.G. Sebald claimed that literary representations are too inadequate to allow later generations to imagine the scale and consequences of the destruction.[39] This also seems to be the case in this film. The lasting imagery is of architectural destruction, not human destruction, and as with many narratives, it is a narrative of survival. Anna stands and looks out over the destroyed city as her voice over tells the audience of the subsequent death of her British pilot. The title alludes to the bombing destruction, but the film does not directly portray the bombing. That is not to say that the comparative shots of Dresden both before and after the bombing do not clearly show the extent of the physical destruction, but that the human loss is glossed over in the fictionalised story of romance, survival, and a final focus on the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche and peaceful cooperation. It does not seek to erase questions of complicity but to allow for a multiplicity of position in the same way that Hanson suggested when he wrote that it is necessary to go beyond categories that define victim and perpetrator as mutually exclusive, as it is possible both to suffer and cause suffering.[40]

I suggest that the film-maker’s preferred meaning, the story which will be retained by the viewers, is the narrative of reconciliation, rather than any sense of loss or trauma. Anna’s survival and Dresden’s renaissance limits the audience’s engagement with the traumatic loss of life. This surprising lack of trauma in recent memory projects suggests that German memory culture is still not addressing German losses. Only when Germans are free to discuss the very real trauma caused through loss of life, family, possessions, status, home and identity that individuals suffered, will we start to feel the sense of trauma that still seems buried beneath this event. All the film does is position German civilians as victims too, and that is really only the start of the conversation. The concluding focus on the newly rebuilt Frauenkirche, seems to firmly place the message of the film in a reconciliatory present, and seems to negate the very real trauma suffered by Germans.

[1] R. Hanson, ‘War, Suffering and Modern German History,’ German History Vol. 29, No. 3, (2011), 373.

[2] E. Langenbacher, ‘Still the Unmasterable Past? The Impact of History and Memory in the Federal Republic of Germany,’ German Politics, Vol. 19, No. 1, (March 2010), 33.

[3] E. Langenbacher, ‘The Mastered Past: Collective Memory Trends in Germany since Unification,’ German Politics and Society, Vol. 28, No. 28, (2010), 50.

[4]Movie about Dresden Bombing Confronts Taboos,’ Deutsche Welle.

[5] Ibid., 1.

[6] In psychoanalytical scholarship ‘temporal delay’ is identified as a way to survive trauma, a way of carrying the individual beyond traumatic shock. See Cathy Caruth, ‘Introduction,’ in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1995), 10.

[7] Wulf Kansteiner, In Pursuit of German Memory: History, Television, and Politics after Auschwitz, (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006), 11.

[8] Anselma Gallinat, ‘Memory Matters and Contexts: Remembering for Past, Present and Future,’ in Remembering and Rethinking the GDR: Multiple Perspectives and Plural Authenticities, ed. Anna Saunders and Debbie Pinfold, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 160.

[9] Anne Fuchs, After the Dresden Bombing: Pathways of Memory, 1949 to the Present, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 196.

[10] Ibid., 196-197 and 203.

[11] Ibid., 198.

[12] R.G. Moeller, ‘War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany,’ American Historical Review, (Oct 1996), 10.

[13] Kansteiner, In Pursuit of German Memory: History, Television, and Politics after Auschwitz, 18.

[14] Ibid., 153-154.

[15] R. G Moeller, ‘Germans as Victims? Thoughts on a Post-Cold War History of World War II’s Legacies,’ History and Memory Vol. 17, No. 1, (2005), 157.

[16] Susanne Vees-Gulani, ‘The Politics of New Beginnings: The Continued Exclusion of the Nazi Past in Dresden’s City Scape,’ in Beyond Berlin: Twelve German Cities Confront the Nazi Past, ed. Gavriel David Rosenfeld and Paul B. Jaskot, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 32; G Moeller, ‘Germans as Victims? Thoughts on a Post-Cold War History of World War II’s Legacies,’ 159.

[17] Kansteiner, In Pursuit of German Memory: History, Television, and Politics after Auschwitz,, 18.

[18] Ibid., 41.

[19] Ibid., 69.

[20] Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, ‘The Inability to Mourn,’ in Explorations in Psychohistory – The Wellfleet Papers, ed. Robert Lifton and Eric Olson, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), 260.

[21] F. Wielenga, ‘An inability to mourn? The German Federal Republic and the Nazi Past,’ European Review Vol. 11, No. 4, (2003), 555.

[22] Ibid., 559.

[23] Anne Fuchs, ‘A Heimat in Ruins and the Ruins of Heimat: W.G. Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur,’ in German Memory Contests: The Quest for Identity in Literature, Film, and Discourse Since 1990, ed. Anne Fuchs, Mary Cosgrove, and Georg Grote, (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2006), 287.

[24] Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, ‘The Inability to Mourn,’ 257-270.

[25] Kansteiner, In Pursuit of German Memory: History, Television, and Politics after Auschwitz, 17.

[26] R. Hanson, ‘War, Suffering and Modern German History,’ German History Vol. 29, No. 3, (2011), 374.

[27]The Fire by Jörg Friedrich – The inferno that still blazes,’ David Cesarani, The Independent.

[28] Fuchs, After the Dresden Bombing: Pathways of Memory, 1949 to the Present, 207.

[29] Matthias Fiedler, ‘German Crossroads: Visions of the Past in German Cinema after Reunification,’ in German Memory Contests: The Quest for Identity in Literature, Film, and Discourse Since 1990, ed. Anne Fuchs, Mary Cosgrove, and Georg Grote, (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2006), 128.

Kansteiner, In Pursuit of German Memory: History, Television, and Politics after Auschwitz, 111.

[30] Fuchs, After the Dresden Bombing: Pathways of Memory, 1949 to the Present, 173.

[31] Tony Joel, ‘Reconstruction over ruins: rebuilding Dresden’s Frauenkirche,’ in The Heritage of War, ed. Martin Gegner and Bart Ziino, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 208.

[32]Memorial and Symbol of the Peace Movement,’.

[33] The Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) is an eighteenth century Baroque church in the centre of Dresden. It was destroyed in 1945 and its ruins served as a war memorial. Rebuilding started in 1994 and was completed in 2004.

[34] The first part was seen by and 32.6% of the population and the second part by 31.2%.

[35]Movie about Dresden Bombing Confronts Taboos,’ Deutsche Welle.

[36] D.F. Crew, ‘Sleeping with the Enemy? A Fictional Film for German Television about the Bombing of Dresden,’ Central European History, Vol. 40, (2007), 128.

[37] The Rassenschande (race pollution) laws prohibited sexual relations between Germans and Jews so as to avoid the contamination of Aryan blood. S. Banwell, ‘Rassenchande, Genocide and the Reproductive Jewish Body: examining the use of rape and sexualized violence against Jewish women during the Holocaust?’ Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2, (2016), 208.

[38] Anne Fuchs, After the Dresden Bombing: Pathways of Memory, 1949 to the Present, 206.

[39] Anne Fuchs, ‘A Heimat in Ruins and the Ruins as Heimat: W.G. Sebald’s Luftkrieg and Literatur,’ 288.

[40] R. Hanson, ‘War, Suffering and Modern German History,’ 379.