The Bombing of Dresden in 1945


The purpose of this easy was to determine the extent to which the bombing of Dresden in 1945 qualifies to be a war crime. In this regard, the paper focused on evaluating the justification for the attack.

The evaluation was done with the aid of the just war theory. The question that was answered is: can it be said that the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945 constitutes a war crime? The findings reveal that the Allied forces using aircrafts and highly explosive bombs attacked Dresden during the World War II. Consequently, the damage was enormous. In particular, the attack led to the destruction of property worth millions of dollars.

Furthermore, nearly 35,000 civilians lost their lives during the attack (Taylor 2005, p. 31). The objective of the attack was to weaken Germany’s military. Dresden was a significant industrial center in which, various companies produced several weapons and military supplies. Moreover, the city had functioning transport and communication infrastructure.

The Allied forces believed that these infrastructural facilities and the industrial production in Dresden supported Germany’s military operations (Addison & Crang 2006, p 88). Thus, destroying the city was inevitable. However, the analysis of the factors that led to the attack reveals that there was no significant justification to warrant the raid.

The Allies did not have a just cause to attack the city. This is because their raid was based on assumed rather than imminent aggression. The consequences of the attack were also not proportionate to the military benefits. Contrary to the popular believe, the Allies did not fully achieve the objective of the attack. Their air strikes had extensive damage on non-military targets. However, they had little impact on Germany’s military capability. These findings indicate that the bombing of Dresden was essentially a war crime.


The bombing of Dresden in 1945 is one of the most significant events that occurred during the World War II. Dresden was the seventh largest city in Germany, and it was located in the eastern part of the country.

It was a cultural center that boasted of elegant museums and historic buildings. It was also an industrial center, which had several factories and commercial buildings (Hisper & Schurr 2011, p. 67). By 1945, a large number of the refugees who were fleeing from the Red Army had moved into the city. Between 1939 and 1944, Dresden was one of the few cities that escaped the invasion of the Allied forces.

However, in February 1945 the Allies invaded the city through devastating air strikes. The American and the British military forces attacked the city with over 3,900 tons of highly explosive bombs. There were four rounds of attack on the first day. However, the Allies continued to carryout sporadic attacks for approximately two months.

The attack led to the death of between 25,000 and 35,000 civilians. Additionally, it led to the destruction of nearly 23% of the city and property worth millions of dollars (Benda-Beckmann 2012, p. 93). The attack is one of the most controversial events in the World War II. This is because some scholars believe that the attack was unjustified, whereas the Allies believe that they had a legitimate reason to attack Dresden.

This paper will focus on the justification of the bombing of Dresden. In this regard, it will answer the question: can it be said that the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945 constitutes a war crime? In order to answer this question, the just war theory will facilitate the analysis of the factors that led to attack.

Factors that Led to the Attack

Several factors or reasons led to the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War The Allied forces used these reasons to justify their military action in Dresden. By analyzing the factors that led to the attack, we can judge whether the raid was justified or not. Some of the reasons that led to the attack include the following.

First, the US military compiled a report, which indicated that the attack had legitimate ends. Besides, they had a high chance of conducting the attack successfully. The main objective of the attack was to weaken Germany’s military so that it could not defeat Marshal Konev’s troops (Baldoli, Overy & Knapp 2011, p. 41). Dresden was an important target of the Allied forces due to its transport and communication infrastructure.

In particular, the city had functional rail systems, as well as, communication facilities. The Allies believed that Germany was capable of using these facilities to coordinate attacks on Russian or British targets. Thus, destroying the transport and communication infrastructure in Dresden was inevitable. Dresden was also located at an important traffic route that linked the east and the west, as well as, the northern and the southern parts of the country.

Additionally, three major trunks of the Reich railway system, which was an important traffic route, converged in Dresden. In this regard, Dresden was a strategic location through which the Nazi Germany could easily attack its targets. Hence, destroying the city and its railway system was a way of weakening Germany’s military.

Second, the Allies attacked Dresden because the city was a significant industrial base that supported Germany’s military. The city had over one hundred manufacturing plants, and workshops that produced ammunitions at the time of the attack.

Approximately, 50,000 people worked in these manufacturing plants (Spielvogel 2011, 342). The main weapons and materials that were produced included fuses, poison gas, gears, and various types of guns. Furthermore, some of the factories were key suppliers of the aircraft components that were vital to Germany’s air force.

Zeiss-Ikon, which was one of the major manufacturers in Dresden, produced instruments that were important during the World War II (Biddle 2008, pp. 413-449). Such instruments included lenses, camera, and bombsights. Some companies such as Seidel and Naumann shifted their production from consumer goods to ammunitions. Recent studies indicate that Dresden was home to a large number of war-related industries.

According to Martel (2004, p. 123) the production of weapons and war-related supplies in Dresden made the city a target of military action. In particular, the Allies had to destroy the factories that produced the weapons in order to reduce the capability of Germany’s military.

According to the US military, the Justification of area bombing was based on the need to destroy communication systems and to stop the production of ammunitions. The presence of military units around Dresden also justified the attacks. In this regard, the Allies claimed that Dresden was not an undefended city. Hence, attacking it did not contravene the legal provisions (Hague Conventions) that prohibit attacks on undefended cities.

Third, the loopholes in the Hague Convention led to the air strikes in Dresden. The Hague Conventions that define the acceptable ethical conduct during wartime, initially, covered only land and sea attacks. Air attacks were not included because the use of aircrafts in wars started after the adoption of the conventions (Crawford & Foster 2008, p. 72).

The international community did not manage to amend the Hague Conventions by including aerial warfare. In this regard, countries were free to use their air force facilities to attack their enemies without legal restrictions. It is against this backdrop that the Allies used highly explosive bombs to destroy Dresden. Since the conventions did not regulate air strikes, the Allied forces claimed that they did not use extraordinary means in the attack.

According to the Allies, the attack was not strange because it was comparable to similar raids that had occurred in other regions. In this context, the Allies compared the Dresden attack with the bombing of Pforzheim, which also took place in 1945. This raid led to the death of approximately 20,000 civilians.

The Allies carried out a similar attack in Tokyo, which led to the death of more than 100,000 civilians (Brown 2000, p. 324). The allies used more or less the same weapons and methodologies in these attacks. Consequently, the Dresden attack was not an isolated case.

Fourth, international political intrigues played an integral role in the Dresden attack. The allied forces were committed to supporting each other during the World War II. Concisely, Churchill who was Britain’s prime minister during the war, was eager to support Russia. In 1944, the Nazi Germany attacked Russia.

Consequently, Churchill promised to support Russian troops in order to defeat the Germans. In 1945, Churchill demonstrated his support to the Russians by ordering his troops to participate in the Dresden attack (Black 2003, p. 119).

Churchill’s perception of war and military strategy also contributed to the attack. Churchill always sought for an opportunity to launch an offensive attack against the Germans. Generally, he was dissatisfied with a defensive war. However, the British and American military forces were not capable of initiating a direct attack on Germany before 1944. Thus, the 1945 bombing of Dresden gave Churchill a perfect opportunity and a formidable means of weakening the enemy.

Finally, the first and the second world wars led to the exhaustion of the Allied forces’ human and financial resources. By 1945, the Second World War tended to accelerate rather than to reduce.

Most European leaders focused on intensifying their military attacks in order to bring the long and costly war to an end. The wars had already caused so many deaths in Europe and America. Consequently, both America and Britain were not able to double the size of their troops. In this regard, using strategic bombers was the only viable alternative at the disposal of the Allies.

Concisely, the Allies believed that strategic bombers would help them to prevent the war from lasting until 1946. However, the Allies were aware of the fact that using strategic bombers in Dresden would have severe consequences. In particular, heavy air strikes were expected to “cause great confusion in civilian evacuation from the east and to hamper movement of reinforcements from other fronts” (Biddle 2008, pp. 413-449).

Thus, attacking Dresden would help the Allies to create a barrier “between the advancing Russian troops and the Wehrmacht supplies and reinforcements” (Biddle 2008, pp. 413-449). Human beings were to be part of this barrier or obstruction. This means that the Allies intended to use the large number of refugees in Dresden to prevent Germany from conducting efficient maneuver warfare.

Analysis of the Factors that Led to the Attack of Dresden

According to the just theory, a military attack is only permissible if there is a just cause (Ramsey 2002, p. 213). This implies that engaging in acts of aggression is unjust and the person who bears the consequences of the damages that might result from such acts has a just cause or a right to self-defense.

Thus, a country has a right to use military action to protect its boundaries. In this context, self-defense should be the only justification for a war. In the contemporary world, the interpretation of self-defense includes anticipation of possible acts of aggression and helping other nations to resist internal or external security threats.

It is against this backdrop that the Allied forces attacked Dresden in order to avert any aggression from the Nazi Germany. Additionally, they intended to assist each other to overcome external attacks, especially, from the Germans. Based on these perspectives, the Allies believed that they had a just reason to attack Dresden since their intention was to preempt an anticipated war.

The arguments for preemption can be misleading because initiating an act of aggression in order to avoid a future war is not always an ethical solution. This is because preemptive strikes normally occur due to assumed rather than imminent aggression.

Thus, preemptive attacks contravene the “moral principle that an agent is presumed innocent” (Fotion 2007, p. 67). Concisely, the purpose of acts of aggression is to retaliate against offenses that have already been committed rather than those that might occur in future. Production of weapons was one of the reasons that led to the attack of Dresden.

This is not a just reason because the Allies assumed that the weapons would enable Germany to attack other nations. However, the act of producing weapons does not always result into aggression. Besides, producing weapons or ammunitions is not always a security threat to neighbors. Thus, attacking a country or a city merely because of weapon production is wrong and unacceptable.

Even though the objective of the preemptive war policy is to avert future aggression, it can actually destabilize peace. This is because such policies enable countries to act in their self-interest at the expense of other nations. For instance, the Allies attacked Dresden in order to fulfill their interests, which included showing their military might to their enemies and maintaining their control of the region.

According to the just war theory, a military attack should always be the last resort (Fiala 2008, p. 83). Countries must always explore all possible alternatives to settle their differences before resorting to warfare. International security agencies such as the United Nations Security Council support this view because wars usually result into undesirable outcomes.

For instance, in Dresden the air strikes killed thousands of innocent civilians and led to the destruction of property worth millions of dollars. Despite being aware of these consequences, the Allies did not make any attempt to end their differences with Germany through peaceful means. They did not attempt to engage the Germans in peaceful negotiations in order to end their differences.

The bombing of Dresden lacks merit because it focused on civilian targets rather than military ones. To begin with, the military barracks that were the main targets of the attack were located far away from the city. Most of the military facilities were in the northern part of the city.

However, the Allies did not attack most of these facilities. On the contrary, they intensified their attacks on civilian targets, thereby causing too much destruction of property and human beings. According to Levine (2002, p. 77), some of the camps that were bombed by the Allies were occupied by refugees and not the military. According to just war theory, an indiscriminate attack is unjust and unfair.

Armed attacks should target combatants rather than civilians. This is because the activities of the civilians or their presence in a targeted location are often not the essence of the war. Consequently, they have immunity from armed attacks. However, the attack of Dresden ignored the principle of distinction because the British and the US forces bombed areas that were occupied by the civilians (Zupan 2004, p. 83).

In this context, the attack lacks justification and the casualties that occurred are essentially war offenses. Some scholars argue that transport infrastructure such as rail systems were not included in the Allies’ maps that identified the targets of the attack. According to Friedrich (2008, p. 418), the Allied forces did not have accurate maps of the city. Consequently, they had little knowledge of the city, and their ability to identify the right targets for the attack was limited.

Weinberg (2005, p. 567) supports this view by asserting that the Allies were merely interested in densely populated and built-up areas in which they could easily cause massive destruction through air strikes. Weinberg’s view confirms the claim that the Allies had the intension of attacking civilians in order to cause confusion in Dresden.

The resulting public outcry would then put pressure on Germany’s government to stop its military action. This strategy does not meet the criteria for a just attack or war. According to the just war theory, the aggressor must have the right intension. However, the Allies’ intention was not right because their aim was to harm innocent civilians in order to achieve their self-interests.

One of the factors that boosted the Allies’ confidence during the attack was their military might. The combined resources of the British and American military forces exceeded those of their German counterparts. Consequently, the Allies had a high chance of defeating the Germans.

This is in line with the just war principle, which states that the aggressor must predict reasonable success before attacking its enemy (Mattox 2006, p. 91). According to the US military, the bombing of Dresden was legitimate because they successfully destroyed the city and the factories that produced ammunitions.

However, the possibility of achieving reasonable success in a war is not always a just reason for initiating an act of aggression. Even though the Allies managed to achieve their objective of stopping the production of ammunition in Dresden, their attack was associated with unjust cause and wrong intensions. Additionally, the costs of the attack outweighed its benefits. In a nutshell, the damage caused by the attack does not commensurate with the military gains that the Allied forces achieved in Dresden.

The innocent lives that were lost during the attack are permanent damages that cannot be reversed through any amount of compensation. In 1949, the international community tried to use the Fourth Geneva Convention to prohibit bombing of civilians during wars. However, the UK and the US were reluctant to accept these conventions. This indicates that the two countries were determined to cover the war crimes that they committed in Dresden.

The attack also interfered with several business activities in the city. The tourism industry was one of the most affected sectors because a significant number of tourist sites were destroyed during the attack. These damages represent war crimes that were committed during the attack of Dresden.

Most of the scholars who support the view that the bombing of Dresden was a war crime believe that the Allies ignored the principle of proportionality. The British and the US forces were fully aware of the magnitude of the damage that would occur due to the attack. In particular, they strategically planned to attack the civilians in order to stop the advancement of Germany’s military.

As stated earlier, the objective of the Allies was to take advantage of the large number of refugees in order to create confusion in Dresden. The resulting disorder would then enable them to avert any significant attacks from Germany’s military. According to Evans (2005, p. 121) a legitimate war or military attack should not be launched if the aggressors are aware that the casualties would be clearly excessive. Furthermore, the aggressors must not use excessive force to defeat its enemy.

However, the Allies used excessive force by attacking Dresden with the aid of several tons of highly explosive bombs. The British prime minister ordered the use of the deadly weapons because he was determined to protect the UK at all costs during the World War II (Spielvogel 2011, 362).

Hence, carrying out area bombing in industrial cities was one of the UK’s plans to protect its territories at all costs. Even though the first phase of the attack damaged the city extensively, the Allies continued to carryout sporadic attacks. Hence, the level of the damage became more extensive. It is apparent that comparing the level of the damage and the casualties that occurred in Dresden with similar attacks is not a logical way of justifying the raid.

The fact that the damage was comparable to those that occurred in other raids does not mean that the harm was proportional to the military advantage of the attack. Each military attack is unique in terms of the casualties and the methodologies that are associated with it. Thus, using previous attacks to justify the bombing of Dresden is a fallacy.

Finally, it is worth evaluating the Allies’ conception of the principle of reasonable chance of success in a war in order to understand the justification of their attack in Dresden. According to their original plan, the Americans intended to strike specific industrial targets using high altitude bombers. However, they had underestimated the possible effects of the weather on their attack. Consequently, the Americans and the British military forces had to make significant amendments to their pre-war bombing doctrine.

The northern part of Europe had a cloudy weather, which prevented the use of the Norden bombsight. Consequently, the Americans were not able to launch their attacks with the planned precision. Recent studies show that 42% of the missiles that were launched by the US military missed their targets by at least five miles (Biddle 2008, pp. 413-449).

This failure is attributed to the heavy cloud that covered most parts of Europe including Dresden. In response to this failure, the Allies resorted to bombing large visible targets in the city. These targets included rail systems and communication facilities. According to Spielvogel (2011, p. 371) the Allies used aircrafts to indiscriminately bomb targets that were unseen and unverifiable.

Most of the air strikes were basically area raids because the military forces could not identify any specific target to destroy on the ground. This led to the destruction of several non-military targets and the death of thousands of civilians. Even though the Americans had failed to launch their targets accurately, they continued to describe the attack as “precision bombing of specific military targets” (Biddle 2008, pp. 413-449).

This assertion, illustrates the USA’s sensitivity to the ethical questions that emerged concerning their use of air strikes in Dresden city. According to Friedrich (2008, p. 431), the aerial bombing had little impact on Germany’s military. This is because the Germans continued to advance despite the air strikes in Dresden.

Generally, the Allies did not manage to achieve their military objective of incapacitating the Germans. In this regard, the Allies did not properly calculate the possibility of achieving a reasonable success. Moreover, there was only partial achievement of the objectives of the attack.

This implies that the attack had no justification. Thus, the causalities and the damages that occurred are essentially the results of a war crime rather than a just war.


The bombing of Dresden in 1945 is one of the most condemned events that occurred during the World War II. The Allied forces carried out the bombing, which involved the use of aircrafts and highly explosive materials. The objective of the attack was to reduce Germany’s ability to sustain its attacks during the World War II (Biddle 2008, pp. 413-449).

Dresden was one of the few cities that had not been destroyed during the war. It had a few industries that produced ammunitions for Germany’s military. Additionally, it had functioning transport and communication infrastructure that facilitated deployment of troops from Germany. Thus, destroying the city would help in weakening the capability of Germany’s military.

The attack caused extensive damage in the city. In particular, it destroyed several buildings, as well as, transport and communication infrastructure. Furthermore, thousands of innocent civilians lost their lives (Biddle 2008, pp. 413-449). The analysis of the factors that led to the attack indicates that the Allies did not have a just cause to bomb the city. The attack occurred as a result of assumed rather than imminent aggression.

Contrary to the just war principles, the Allies used excessive force during the raid. Furthermore, they indiscriminately attacked the city, thereby destroying several non-military targets. These findings indicate that there was no substantial justification for the attack. In this regard, the bombing of Dresden city was a war crime.


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