The Arty Semite

Repeating Nazi Propaganda, From Kurt Vonnegut to NPR

By Raphael Mostel

  • Print
  • Share Share
Richard Peter

Mark Twain’s astute observation that “a lie well-told is immortal” keeps coming to mind on the subject of the Dresden firebombing. As I was preparing in May for my first trip to Dresden, I was startled to hear a report by Tom Vitale on National Public Radio in which he repeated the propaganda of Josef Goebbels as fact.

Granted, Vitale was merely repeating what Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his best-selling book set in Dresden, “Slaughter House Five,” which had just been reprinted as part of the Library of America series. But surely he should have noticed that in the book Vonnegut named the discredited, holocaust-denying “historian” David Irving as his source.

To be fair to Vonnegut, at the time he wrote the book he didn’t know Irving was repeating Goebbels’s propaganda, intended to rally the faithful to the then-failing Nazi cause, and was more concerned with how much the book spoke to what Vitale called the “war-weary.” But Vonnegut certainly knew after David Irving sued historian and Forward columnist Deborah Lipstadt for libel on this point — and lost. To his eternal shame, Vonnegut refused to add a correction to his book to point out its historical failings. The best one can say about Vonnegut is that as someone who personally witnessed the firebombing (he was there as a P.O.W.), he was too concerned with the unacceptability of all war to worry about whether repeating falsehoods would aid neo-Nazis.

What we had with Tom Vitale’s report on NPR was a classic failure of research on this notorious issue, which has motivated neo-Nazis the world over. No one disputes that Dresden was (and now is once again) a spectacularly beautiful city and that there was huge loss of life in the firebombing. But there were two lies here.

The first was the number of those killed in the firebombing. This is the easier one to correct, as the city of Dresden itself recently commissioned a study which determined that the maximum number killed was under 25,000 (which was what the Allies estimated at the time) and not, as Goebbels, Irving, Vonnegut, Vitale and neo-Nazis claim, over four times that number.

The second lie is more complicated. Was the firebombing legitimate warfare or a savage act of vengeance? Vonnegut firmly held the second view, frequently pointing out that Dresden had no military significance. Although with Vonnegut’s unwitting help the Nazi propaganda has largely triumphed on this point, this view was definitively put to shame by the courageous British historian Frederick Taylor in his book “Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945.”

Taylor does not minimize the horror of the firebombing, but he also proves the importance of Dresden from a military standpoint, particularly as a center for precision manufacturing essential to the Nazi war machine. Moreover, he goes on to show that the firebombing of Dresden was not the unique event the propaganda made it out to be, but part of a rational (as much as war can be rational) and legitimate military plan.

It should be noted that the bombing saved lives as well. One such person was Victor Klemperer, a professor of literature who was born Jewish but converted to Protestantism in 1912, and who became famous after German reunification for his posthumously published 12-year diary recording the day-by-day enslavement under the Nazis. He had been scheduled to report for transport at a place destroyed in the bombing. Ripping off his yellow star, he hid until after the war ended.

NPR issued a correction on the first point, citing the victim total determined by the city of Dresden study. But they declined to issue a correction, or even refer to, the second point.

For some reason, even NPR’s reluctant on-air correction on the first point does not appear on its online list of corrections. Worse, as of this writing, the transcript of the piece still repeats Goebbels’s lie, uncorrected.

When, in Dresden, I mentioned this NPR broadcast to Hannes Heer, the historian behind the “Silenced Voices” exhibition, he was shocked. But, as Mark Twain sadly realized, “the lofty sounding maxim that ‘Truth is mighty and will prevail’ — the most majestic compound fracture of fact which any of woman born has yet achieved.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Raphael Mostel, Slaughterhouse Five, National Public Radio, NPR, Kurt Vonnegut, Josef Goebbels, Dresden, Deborah Lipstadt, David Irving, Tom Vitale

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.