Friday, December 30, 2011

A Parting Quote for 2011


"Dresden, royal residence of dukes and kings of Saxony since the Middle Ages, whose Baroque skyline had inspired painters such as Canaletto, where Friedrich Schiller had written 'Ode to Joy' and which Napoleon had seized for his imperial command, greeted the 150 POWs trudging into the city on January 12, 1945, with a billboard proclaiming TRINK COCA-COLA."

From Charles Shields's new biography of Kurt Vonnegut, And So It Goes (New York, 2011), p. 62. The sentence above is a good sample of Shields' prose, which is lively, perceptive, and humorous. The biography as a whole is first-rate, and doesn't pull any punches.

Vonnegut's experiences as a prisoner-of-war, particularly his witnessing the firebombing of Dresden, shaped the author's most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. For all that book's strengths (and it is a masterpiece), Vonnegut was a novelist, not a historian, and his account of the Dresden bombing is not the most accurate. His famous summary of the attack, to the effect that it only benefited one person and that person was Vonnegut - and that "one way or another, I made five bucks for every person killed" - is doubly incorrect. The author's sardonic estimate of the profit he made from the dead assumes that 135,000 people died in the attack, an assumption based on David Irving's 1963 book on Dresden. Irving has a habit, shall we say, of playing fast and loose with the truth, and he overstated German casualties by at least 75,000.

Vonnegut's other observation, that he was the only beneficiary of the Dresden raid, is also untrue, though few people know the truth of the matter: that the attack on Dresden saved the city's tiny surviving Jewish population from deportation to the death camps, which was originally scheduled to take place three days after the raid. Among the survivors was Victor Klemperer, whose harrowing diary remains one of the best primary sources on Jews' experiences in Germany during the war.

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Happy New Year, everyone.

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