When we study history we often encounter many one sided or inaccurate descriptions of the events that we are trying to learn about. This is in large part because the people writing about these events, historians were not actually there when history was being made. They attempt to piece together a history from primary sources of the time period they are studying.
Unfortunately these primary sources were often biased themselves. This is a topic that is discussed heavily by Patricia Nelson Limerick in her analysis of the real west in Empire of Innocence. She comes to the conclusion that history is never absolute and complete. Although this is not the only topic which she discusses, it best describes the topic which I will be looking at. Limerick points out to us that one main reason for the inaccuracies of history is that things are often left out of the generally accepted history because most Americans have that idea in their minds that we were always the innocent ones. She brings up the example of a missionary named Narcissa Whitman who was killed by the Cayuses Indians. Most Americans believe that things like this prove that the Indians were savages.
Since there are no accounts of this by the Cayuses Indians it is hard to see their point of view. If we investigate closely we see that in the short amount of time between her arrival and death, diseases that the missionaries never died from decimated the Indian population. The evidence pointed at the missionaries as the reason for the Indian suffering. This better helps us to understand why they would react so violently to the missionaries. This is a perfect example of how history has been corrupted to make the writers of it look innocent.
Limericks idea on how history is written in a very biased manner holds true for almost all historical events and is especially true of the descriptions of the World War II firebombing of Dresden. When we look at accounts of the bombing of Dresden it is easy to come to the same conclusions as Limerick. There are essentially only a few facts concerning the bombing that are indisputable. They are as follows. On The fourteenth of February 1945, the British Royal Air Force using high explosives, reducing the city to a bunch of glowing embers, heavily bombed the city of Dresden. The following day the United States Army Air Corps (the predecessor to the air force) bombed the city again using incendiary bombs.
A giant fireball resulted, which burned to death, or suffocated many of the residents of the city. Nearly everything else concerning the bombing has wildly different accounts. Accepted estimates of the death toll range from 35,000 (the number generally seen in most records), to 135,000 (the figure given by most modern conservative historians), to a quarter of a million (the Russian estimate).
Different people give different reasons as to why the city was bombed. Those in support of the bombing claim that it was an important strategical target, while those against the bombing claim that it was a purely an act of hatred against the German population. Two excellent examples of varying accounts are the USAF account, and Kurt Vonneguts description of the bombing in Slaughterhouse-five. The USAF account is a cold war response to the communists, who were with increasing frequency and by means of distortion and falsification using the February 1945 Allied bombings of Dresden as a basis for disseminating anti-western and anti-American propaganda They were concerned at the time because as they stated From time to time there appears in letters of inquiry to the United States Air Force evidence that American Nationals are themselves being taken in by the communist propaganda line concerning the February 1945 bombings of Dresden (USAF).
This account gives mostly the air forces justifications for the bombing, and a scaled down description of the devastation. The air force points out that this was one of the Germanys largest cities and therefore contained many factories vital to the German war effort. It also claims that one of the main reasons for the bombing was to help the Russian war effort. In this document the estimated number of German deaths is said to be between 8,200 and 16,400, and most of the people are said to have died due to the British Royal Air Force attack, not the American bombing. This document I believe can be seen as pure propaganda.
It is not factual information but is based on a particular sides opinion. Most historians would laugh much of what is said to be fact, at, but since it is pro-American, for much of the cold war it was accepted as the true history of the bombing. It was not until many years after the bombing that other accounts began to surface. Some of the more widely believed accounts are those of allied POWs who were interned in Dresden at the time of the bombing. Perhaps the most famous of these accounts is Kurt Vonneguts Slaughterhouse Five.
Although this story is about a fictional Dresden survivor, Billy Pilgrim who travels through time, survives plane crashes on Vermont ski mountains, and visits with aliens, it does give us a first hand account of the Dresden bombing by the author, Vonnegut, who was living in the ill fated city at that time. Vonnegut describes the city as one of virtually no importance in the war effort. He claims that there were no factories producing anything related to the war, and he himself was working in a factory making baby formula. Vonnegut uses the more accepted figure of 135,000 German deaths. He describes in full horrific detail the results of the bombing, and his discovering of the charred remains of humans in bomb shelters turned catacombs. He later goes on to describe his duties as a POW in disposing of the bodies. We are inclined to accept Vonneguts description as absolute truth.
Vonnegut was an American soldier. Most peoples in his position would make America look justified in the bombing. He was taken prisoner by the Germans and most people in that position would make it seem like the jerrys got what they deserved. The fact that he says the opposite makes us think that he must be telling the truth. Also, this book is one of the classics of the twentieth century, so it must be accurate.
Unfortunately, if we give it further consideration, we realize that he has good reason to have a biased view. He lived through an incredibly traumatizing experience that caused the death of many of his friends. He is essentially a bitter old man. Although his account is far more accurate than the air forces propaganda, we must accept that this cannot possibly be the complete and absolute truth.So what are we supposed to do? None of our primary sources can be considered completely unbiased. How are we to determine what the true reasons were for the bombing? If we rely on too heavily on either side we will end up with a heavily biased description. If we attempt to find the truth by taking pieces from each description, we may only end up with a collection of lies.
Limerick claimed that when we acknowledged the moral complexity of a tale it would lead to tales of deeper meaning. We will not debunk history, but enrich it. This is true, but often we are still left with an incomplete history, that we cannot fully understand.
The history that we are inclined to accept none of is often invaluable. Accounts that we know to be almost completely false, such as the air force account of the bombing of Dresden, can still tell us much about history. The people who wrote this report probably truly believed at least some of its content. Although the bombing of the Dresden may not have caused the war to end any earlier, reading accounts such as these can help us understand why the allies thought that it might. The lengths that they were willing to go to stop the war sooner can help us see the true horrors of world war II, and the desperation that continued six years after it.
When we are attempting to study, or write history, we must me extremely critical of all of our sources. But just as we must not be too quick to believe that something is absolute truth, we must also not be too quick to believe that an account is useless because it is biased. Every primary source that we encounter can tell us something about the history we are trying to learn about. Only by analyzing everything, and accepting that there is always more to learn, can we get the best possible understanding of a historical event.Bibliography: