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.
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