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The ways in which Britain’s Blitz, the bombing raid on Dresden and the atomic attack on Hiroshima have been remembered and commemorated are all predominantly different, however do have similarities in a few cases. The use of photographs to create a narrative became a way of remembering each of the cases. The label of being a victim and the use of memorials as a commemoration are also similarities in these cases. In this essay, I shall investigate the three cases and then compare the three bombing raids and differentiate any differences between the three.
The Blitz was the name used by the British press to describe the heavy air raids carried out over Britain in 1940 and 1941. The Blitz was a German air offensive which concentrated and aimed at the direct bombing of industrial targets and civilian centres. The Blitz were raids on British towns and cities over 127 large-scale night raids where over 100 tons of bombs were dropped, with London suffering from 71 raids.
The Blitz created over “40,000 civilian”l fatalities in the United Kingdom and destroyed more than two million homes, “Nine out of ten houses in central and Eastern London had been destroyed or damaged, 60% of Hull”. The ability for the people to maintain a pattern in daily life and keep morale high is what is most remembered. Britain’s Blitz has always been remembered as a symbolic event which shows the strength of the British people during the heavy bombing. The traditional view of the Blitz is that the people of Britain faced unprecedented danger with remarkable courage and composure, the morale stayed high and Britain would not be beaten.
Communities were uniting together with solidarity, defiance, and resilience to overcome the threat of invasion from Nazi Germany. The community spirit of the people during the Blitz has become a part of British national war memory. This traditional view of the Blitz which has become a part of the popular culture of Britain has been challenged in recent years. Angus Calder challenged this traditional view and introduced the concept of the myth of the Blitz which was a highly selective story about Britain’s war effort in 1940 and 1941, created at that time by the national media in conjunction with the Ministry of Information. It emphasised certain features of the war effort. And it downplayed factors that contradicted the desired narrative, such as the internment of enemy aliens and signs of panic and defeatism after air raids. Calder states “none of the incidents and public reactions which Mass-Observation described contradicted the Big Facts that British society and its institutions remained intact”), he argues that London’s courage was scripted, filmed, and virtually invented by the wartime propagandists for domestic and American consumption. He believes that the post-war generation mistook this propaganda myth for historical truth and created it into popular belief.
The way the Blitz has been remembered has been effected by the wartime myth which you either believed or “relapsed into scepticism and fears”4. Another way in which the Blitz is remembered is through photographs which were taken at the height of the Blitz. One of the most published images of the Blitz was a photo taken by Herbert Mason of St Pauls Cathedral on the 29th December 1940. The picture displays an untouched St Pauls Cathedral surrounded by the fire and smoke of the Blitz. The picture demonstrates the stereotypical and traditional view of the Blitz that Britain and its people are standing strong and won’t be defeated. However, this picture and the article which was published in the Daily Mail on the 29th December 1940 also feeds into Calder’s view of the myth of the Blitz. The mail allowed Mason to write the article for the picture where he admits it is a “admitted construction”5, the picture shows how we have remembered the Blitz as its dubbed the ‘wars greatest photograph’, however it also shows us how the myth was being created at the time and how we have also fallen into believing the myth of the Blitz. The Blitz is commemorated across London and the United Kingdom through the erection of memorials. Memorials help us commemorate the men and woman involved in the certain events throughout the blitz, like the firefighters battling the blaze and the battle of Britain memorial. However, the use of memorials to help us commemorate has been challenged by James Young who argues whether they help us to remember or to forget the events. Young states “For once we assign monumental form to memory, we have to some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember”, This points to the notion that commemorating an event leads us to forget and argues whether the function of memorials is at all useful to remembering. Whether we remember the Blitz as the myth or otherwise, it has become a symbol of British popular war memory.
The bombing raid on Dresden was an aerial bombing attack on the city of Dresden by the British and American air forces. The raid on the 13th and 14th of February 1945 saw RAF Bomber Command fly two raids over Dresden at 10pm and 1.30am. In the two raids 768 Aircraft dropped 2646 tons of high explosives, incendiaries, and flares. The resulting firestorm destroyed 13 square miles of the city. Shortly after midday on the 14th February, 316 US bombers returned for a third attack where they dropped 782 tons of bombs. The raids are estimated to have killed 25,000 people, mostly from carbon monoxide poisoning. Dresden had almost no air defences, bombers were able to fly low over target and the weather conditions favoured attackers. The second raid destroyed Dresden’s fire service, so the city burned. The bombing raids on Dresden have been remembered by many as an act of Total War.
The bombing of Dresden has had to be justified on many occasions in the post-war period. However, the city was an administrative and communications centre for Germany’s eastern front and disrupted the flow of men and materials for war against USSR. British war planners ranked Dresden 20th among Germany’s leading industrial cities, thus making it a legitimate target for bombing. Dresden also had a night fighter airfield, rail marshalling yards, chemical works, submarine engine works and many munitions factories. He ethics of the bombing of Dresden is a major factor in the remembrance. Alan Russell believes “All nations have their blind spots” of not wanting to remember certain events. For example, the Germans with the holocaust and the British with their extermination of indigenous people. Nations don’t want to remember events which make them look bad. Despite these many factors, many still remember Dresden as a potential War crime. Historian Donald Bloxham is one of those who argue the Bombing of Dresden was a War crime. Bloxham argues that Dresden wasn’t proportionate and civilian deaths weren’t justified by target’s military importance.
The Dresden raid only targeted refugees in the city who were already demoralised and disoriented. Bloxham cites the 1923 Hague Rules of Aerial Warfare which prohibited bombing of non-combatants and raids which terrorised civilians and states with the “aim of ‘dehousing’, demoralising and inevitably, killing the workforce upon which the industries depended” the bombing raids on Dresden breached these rules. The International law recognised general principles of elementary considerations of humanity. These laws were used by prosecutors at Nuremburg against Nazis. Dresden breached these principles but no trail against Dresden was ever looked at. Similar to the Blitz, photographs were also a key part of remembering the bombing of Dresden. A photo by Richard Peter known as “Bonitas’ has come to be the most iconic picture of Germany’s ruination. The photo evoked many different meanings but mostly claimed “German collective desire for exculpation by way of a displacement of their guilt”9, Peter’s photo narrative was very popular in Germany as it allowed people to contemplate and mourn a collective loss, the book encouraged the German people to contemplate the enormity of their losses. Peter’s book was also void of any historical context and blamed no one, however Germans still saw it as reaffirming their victim status. Although viewed differently, photographs were a key area of memory in each case.
Commemorations of the bombings of Dresden have changed significantly in the post war period and had a bearing effect in the wider political context. During the cold war the soviet ruled state would hold annual commemorations conveying an “anti-imperialist message”l0 and pro-soviet messages. Dresden’s 750th anniversary as a city was an important commemoration for the new-socialist state. Dresden’s role as a centre of “architecture, literature and the fine arts” showed it was a city driving itself from destruction into a new forward thinking city. This shows the shift in the memory of the bombing had begun to change and the commemorations were changing too.
The atomic attack on Hiroshima by the United States on the 6th August 1945 killed an estimated 80,000 people as an immediate result but is widely acknowledged to be higher as by the end of December 1945, an estimated “140,000”ll had died from the effects of the bomb. The atomic bomb created a blast which set an explosion of 13,000 tons of TNT. The blast stripped people of their clothing, tore of burned skin and ruptured the internal organs of several victims. The war is remembered as the bomb that ended World War 2 and saved many American lives. President Truman argued after the war that the attack might have saved over 500,000 US lives due to not having to invade Japan. However, the need for an atomic bomb is often debated with a US Strategic Bombing Survey official report after war concluding that Japan would have surrendered some time in 1945, without the use of an atomic bomb, the USSR entry to the war or the US invasion of Japan. In Cook’s Japan at War, an Oral history, Yamaoko Michiko describes her memories of the day of the blast and the resulting years after. She remembers the horrors of what the blast did to her and her friends and family.
She stated, “Nobody there looked like human beings”, this exemplifying the horrors of what the blast created and how the Japanese people remember the atomic attack. She goes onto mention how she was invited to the United States by civilian led support groups for help with her injuries and how the government opposed of this. This explains how the government felt in the post war years and how they didn’t want to be seen to be admitting a mistake by dropping the bomb. The Japanese had a deep hatred of America due to the atomic bomb. Similar to the Blitz and the bombing of Dresden, photographs also play a key part in remembering and commemorating the atomic attack on Hiroshima. Today we use pictures as a way of viewing the past and seeing how life was lived back then. We use them to remember memories good and bad. Military reporter Matsushige Yoshito took five photos on the day of the atomic blast and they appeared in a newspaper a year later, despite the horrors within the photographs he recalled he was told “it was all right to print those things, as they were fact”12. Photographs are perceived and interpreted by different nations and used to remember by others in different ways but have an important role in the way we use memory within history. The atomic attack on Hiroshima is also remembered by the Japanese as being the victim. The status of victimhood became a label many nations pinned on themselves in the post-war years.
Despite being an aggressor in World War 2 for many years “most Japanese came to see themselves as the victims of World War 2″13 as they had been had been the victim of the atomic bomb. Japan had been caught up in the persuasive blame culture which had grasped a hold of the contributors of World War 2. As Jeffrey Olick states, post-war leaders “characterized victimhood as universal”14, thus attempting to claim that every nation was a victim of World War 2. Self-victimisation and blame culture impacted national war memories in the post-war period. The extensive and pervasive phenomenon of the blame culture completely reshaped the memories of citizens in the long post-war period and still shapes the way we remember the atomic attack on Hiroshima, the Blitz, or the bombings in Dresden. The way we commemorate subjects like bombings must be very cautious in planning. Contending interpretations of attack on Hiroshima caused political controversy for the Smithsonian Museum in 1995, who planned a 50th anniversary exhibition on Hiroshima. The exhibition was focused around the ‘Enola Gay’, the B-59 which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Many saw this as a symbol of atomic carnage, whereas for others it was a peacemaker. Many believed that the exhibit focused too much attention on the Japanese casualties inflicted by the nuclear bomb, rather than on the motivations for the bombing or the discussion of the bomb’s role in ending the conflict with Japan.
One critic Kai Bird wrote in the New York Times that curators increased the number of casualties that Truman and others expected from an allied invasion of Japan, he stated there was “no evidence of upward of a million casualties”15. The exhibit brought to national attention many long-standing academic and political issues related to retrospective views of the bombings and subsequently was drastically changed.
In conclusion, the ways in which Britain’s Blitz, the bombing raid on Dresden and the atomic attack on Hiroshima have been remembered and commemorated differ in many ways. However, similarities do occur. Pictures are a key way of remembering, in each case photographs ae used as a way of remembering, but are interpreted differently. The Blitz photo feeds into the myth, the picture of ‘Bonitas’ conveys the loss and mourning and Hiroshima was used as a news source. The commemorations of the three cases are different though all have memorials and museum exhibitions. In the early post-war years, the status of being the victim was conveyed by all. Overall the Blitz, the bombing raid on Dresden and the atomic attack on Hiroshima are all remembered in similar ways and with comparable memory techniques but with unique stories.
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