The Allied firebombing of the eastern German city of Dresden in 1945 killed no more than 25,000 people — far fewer than scholars' previous estimates running as high as 135,000 — a special commission has found.
The team of a dozen experts, including university professors, archivists and military historians, said Wednesday that four years of research so far has confirmed 18,000 deaths and showed that police and city administrators at the time believed there were about 25,000 victims of the bombing.
Since the end of World War II, scholars have varied in their tally of people killed by waves of British and U.S. bombers on Feb. 13-14, 1945. Some estimates have run to 135,000 or more. In his 2005 book on the bombing, British historian Frederick Taylor argued the real toll was between 25,000 and 40,000.
The high civilian death toll in Dresden and the devastation of the centuries-old city center have been a source of controversy for decades — as has the dispute over whether the Allies were justified in targeting the refugee-choked city. The Allies hoped the bombing would hurt the Nazis where they would feel it most, and help force their capitulation.
Recently, neo-Nazis in Germany have talked of 500,000 to 1 million victims, calling the raid a "bombing Holocaust" and comparing it to Adolf Hitler's murder of 6 million Jews. They accused Britain and the United States of committing mass murder.
It was after the far-right NPD party won seats in Saxony's parliament in 2004 and gave greater voice to these claims that state officials decided a commission was needed to put the matter to rest.
"The commission, in this preliminary report, believes there were a maximum of 25,000 people who died during the February aerial attack," a team statement said Wednesday. The research is to continue until 2009.
Cowering in basements
Nazi authorities had failed to provide adequate air raid shelters for Dresden. That left people cowering in basements where many were asphyxiated or buried by collapsing buildings. The town's anti-aircraft guns had been removed for use against the approaching Soviets, letting the bomber crews take undisturbed and deadly aim.
The fire made superheated air rise rapidly, creating a vacuum at ground level that produced winds strong enough to uproot trees and suck people into the flames. Some who managed to get through the blinding sparks and fiery debris staggered into the Grosser Garden park, where many were killed by a second bomber wave.
But the exact death toll has always been a question.
Nazi propaganda from 1945 put the toll at some 200,000. Under communist East Germany, authorities agreed upon 35,000. The neo-Nazis offered a sharply inflated figure.
The team of experts has pored through more than 2,600 linear feet (800 linear meters) of files in the Dresden state archives and interviewed dozens of witnesses.
The commission has also consulted studies on aerial attacks, rescue operations, firefighting, and archaeological evidence.
Despite the chaos during the final days of the war and the devastation of the bombing, they said they found that records of the recovery and burial of the dead from the raid was "remarkably orderly."
"Through this work of the commission the victims get a face and a name," said Dresden Mayor Helma Orosz. "Behind every single victim is ... suffering and we should remember this."