To declare that a book may be the last word on a subject of bitter contention for more than half a century is to take a great risk. There is a good chance that Frederick Taylor's Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 will prove to be just that. I had been led to believe that the author had set out to vindicate the RAF for the mass killing of German civilians, as exemplified by the Dresden firestorm that, in one night of horror, incinerated between 25,000 and 40,000 people. However, this well-written, scholarly account does nothing of the kind. It tells a terrible story from the British and German perspectives. Taylor makes no judgment, military or moral. He leaves that to the reader.
Taylor's narrative helps address truths that disturb both sides. "Why open old wounds?" some will ask. Because reconciliation needs to be built on truth.
It will surprise British readers that a publicly funded exhibition documenting the crimes of Hitler's army is now touring Germany. Many surviving veterans are furious. "To drag the SS and the Gestapo through the mud is fine, but not our heroes who bravely defended the Fatherland." Their fury is misplaced; the exhibition does no more than admit that even in an honourable army, dishonourable things happen.
The truth that it never was an honourable army is evaded. Every soldier from the much admired Field Marshall Rommel to the lowliest recruit - and every cheering civilian - was party to a criminal conspiracy: the almost successful attempt to enslave Europe. Today, even in a remarkably repentant Germany that has Europe's most pacifist population, there are no memorials to the heroic few who refused to fight and were killed as traitors. Not one bishop defended them.
To destroy cities from the air - Warsaw, Rotterdam, Belgrade and Coventry - was part of the conspiracy. After the destruction of this centre of Britain's armaments industry, Göring declared that his Luftwaffe would proceed to "Coventrate" - his word - Britain's cities. Nearly a thousand people had died. Here was proof, the British media cried, of German depravity. In contrast, the words "Father Forgive" were engraved in the ruins of Coventry's cathedral by the provost, and after the war, he proved that he meant it.