‘The city crackles with vitality,’ – historian Sinclair McKay on the Dresden bombing and how writing about death often means writing about life

McKay’s new book, Dresden, retells the story of the city, recounting that terrible night minute-by-minute from the perspective of the people that were there.

If you pass the Kreuzkirche on the old market square in the German city of Dresden and linger for a second, waiting, you might hear the voices of the Kreuzchor, the old choir, rehearsing inside. Members of the Kreuzchor have sung since the 13th century; through the city’s cultural revolution, through scientific enlightenment, through the waves of Nazisim. Through the night of Tuesday 13th February 1945 when British bomber planes dropped over 900 tonnes of high explosives on the city, killing 25,000 people in one night.

‘The voices are piercing,’ says historian Sinclair McKay. ‘For a moment you become sort of out of time. It’s such a dislocating and wonderful thing. The night of absolute horror is one thing but, on either side of that is a city crackling with all kinds of energy and vitality.’

McKay’s new book, Dresden, retells the story of the city, recounting that terrible night minute-by-minute from the perspective of the people that were there. He dips into the points of view of doctors, operating while their own homes were in ruins, air-raid wardens trying to regain order, the prisoners of war that were safer than their Nazi counterparts, billeted in slaughterhouses with concrete foundations.

‘The people whose diaries I read were not infused with Nazism,’ McKay tells me. ‘There was a fifteen-year-old boy who had been conscripted into the Hitler Youth but he was very bookish and he was just obsessed with stamp-collecting. He sounds, actually, a bit like Adrian Mole. There’s this incredibly sweet voice that comes through. He talks about the uniform – the aggression of the uniform. He was helping refugees that night, rural refugees, guiding them to billets in the city. He wasn’t being aggressive, he wasn’t menacing anyone. There’s always that glint of humanity.’

McKay has come to Lincoln to talk about his book to a crammed auditorium. It escapes no one that it was from Lincoln, from the bases scattered about the county, that the bombers flew.

‘I think it’s very, very important to balance the story of what the people of Dresden went through with what the young bomber crews went through,’ says McKay. ‘These young men who had all volunteered, who flew out on all these missions, deep into the darkness of enemy territory again and again, knowing there was every chance they wouldn’t be coming back, knowing there was every chance they would be consumed in molten explosions, having seen so many of their friends killed, having returned to air bases with empty beds… they were doing it because they believed it was the way to stop the Nazis, the way to stop Hitler. The sacrifices they made were beyond calculation. Plus: the courage. I cannot imagine what it must have taken to climb into a Lancaster bomber, to know you’re making a four-hour flight into the heart of enemy territory, being fired upon the whole time, and then the flight back. Quite apart from all the ramifications of bombing, seeing it from above… people may have come back safe but they didn’t come back happy. The legacy of it runs deep.’

McKay is considered and charismatic: erudite to the extreme. His answers arrive in exquisitely-formed sentences; you can almost see the semi-colons. He cuts straight to the heart of the matter, finds the pulse behind the facts. There can be no condemnation, he seems to suggest, until you climb into the cockpit with these young men, until you fly with them into certain death, the inferno. The people on the ground, looking up: even their story is complicated. Pre-war, the Jewish population in Dresden was around six-thousand. On the night of the bombing, there were only 198, rounded up and contained within ‘Jew Houses.’ Now, the houses still standing bear plaques.

This level of nuance, however, this understanding and acceptance of humanity and its complexity is perhaps a luxury we take for granted on this side of history. McKay relays telling a German journalist exactly the same story he told me, about the stamp-collecting boy, earlier in the day.

‘When I told her that, about his humanity, she went pale and said, ’You’re talking about Nazis – you’re still talking about Nazis.’ So, like I say, there are these layers and layers. At the moment, there are lots of political difficulties over there with the far-right. Extremists from outside the city want to hijack the history of bombing and say: ‘We were all victims too – this is our holocaust.’ You really, really can’t do that – you can’t go down that road.’

But most people don’t. Though the subject seems dark and unimaginably gruesome, the most moving moments of our discussion are the times when McKay mentions people doing good. It’s amazing how much of the interview we spend smiling. One of the prisoners of war held captive in Dresden was American writer Kurt Vonnegut. His novel Slaughterhouse Five is so-called because he was billeted in slaughterhouse five. During his imprisonment, he was made to work in a malt syrup factory with female civilian colleagues.

‘He was treated abominably by his Nazi captors,’ says McKay. ‘There was violence, there was brutality, practically no rations at all and they were all forbidden to touch the malt syrup. The temptation was so intense. One day, he just plunged his hand into the vat and sucked his fingers greedily. As he did so, he looked up and caught the eye of a female co-worker. He thought, ‘That’s it – I’m going to be denounced and punished terribly.’ But then, the women smiled, winked and they carried on from there. It’s tiny moments like that – the unexpected – that show the other side of the story.’

Ordinary people doing good; the source of so much pride, our own shame. At a recent memorial service to commemorate the bombing, McKay was at the cathedral in Dresden sitting in a pew next to an elderly woman, listening to the music.

‘I don’t know how she knew I was English,’ he said, ‘But she turned to me and said, ‘This is for Coventry too.”

Dresden is twinned with Coventry, which fell victim to German bombing raids in 1940.

‘In the 1950s, young people were going over from Dresden to Coventry with artworks,’ says McKay. ‘People were going from Coventry to Dresden to help clear rubble. This was even when it was behind the Iron Curtain, so there was an extra dimension.’

McKay has written a book about death – about 25,000 deaths – but also a book about life. Dresden: a place of art, culture, music and science. The place where mouthwash was invented in 1895 by Karl Ligner, who was disgusted by the local habit of swilling out mouths with brandy first thing in the morning. A place that can thrive, be torn apart and re-stitch its seams. A place that can recover its old cosmopolitan soul, even in the face of far-right extremists. A place where you can walk, remember the past, be thankful for your present.

Where you can even hear the singing.

Nothing in the Rulebook editor, Ellen Lavelle, is a graduate of the University of Warwick’s prestigious Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s working on a novel and interviews authors for her blog – you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter. She is currently commissioning features for Nothing in the Rulebook and can be reached via the email address.

With thanks to Gill and Sasha at Lindum books and Olivia at Penguin Random House

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