Invoking Dresden is not a good way to morally defend the Israeli offensive

Is Israel justified in its military offensive against Gaza? I do not know. Make no mistake: what Hamas did on October 7 is despicable and deserves strong condemnation. A state that has suffered a terrorist attack has a right to self-defense, and some retaliation is acceptable.

But has Israel gone too far? This matter is debatable. The number of killed civilians in Gaza (especially children) is disturbing, and there comes a point when we ought to say: enough is enough. When do we reach that point? Again, I do not know. Perhaps Israeli authorities are right when they claim that no peace is possible until Hamas is wiped out and that this objective is feasible; perhaps critics of the current Israeli offensive are right when they claim, as Michael Cook does, that “bombing Hamas out of existence is no more possible than bombing a virus.”

But even if one were to defend Israel’s actions, there are good and bad ways of doing it.

Israeli authorities have long claimed the higher moral ground by arguing that they take all the necessary steps to avoid killing civilians, and when civilians do die, it is only as collateral damage of actions that aim at military targets; in contrast, Hamas directly targets civilians. This is a plausible defense, although there are still doubts about the proportionality of Israeli attacks, given that in Gaza the number of civilians killed is far higher than the number of Hamas terrorists killed.

It is usually claimed that Israel has lost the higher moral ground because the number of Palestinians killed is higher than the number of Israelis killed. This is a very bad argument. In a debate at Oxford, Ben Shapiro asked: “if based on the numbers, more Germans died than Brits in World War II, did that mean the British were wrong in World War II?” His point is a valid one: a country does not lose the higher moral ground simply because it has fewer casualties in the conflict.

Shapiro’s counterpart in the debate— a young Muslim lady— retorted: “Britain wasn’t bombing civilians.” The audience laughed because it is firmly established that Great Britain did bomb civilians, and Shapiro’s facial expression suggests that he believes that those attacks on civilians were morally acceptable.

Indeed, various supporters of the Israeli offensive are now saying that if Churchill was justified in bombing Dresden to defeat Nazism, then Israel must do the same in Gaza in order to defeat Hamas. For example, Tzipi Hotovely— Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom—told Piers Morgan: “There were many, many civilians [that] got attacked from your attacks on German cities… Dresden was a symbol, but you attacked Hamburg, you attacked other cities, and altogether it was over 600,000 civilian Germans that got killed… Was it worth it in order to defeat Nazi Germany? And the answer was yes.”



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This is a terrible argument. The bombing of Dresden was a major moral failure, if not a war crime. In February 1945, 25,000 civilians were killed in the bombing of a city with no military strategic value. The rationale of that attack was to force German surrender by targeting civilians. This is morally unacceptable, and it is precisely the sort of action that renders Hamas as terrorists.

Moral philosopher Michael Walzer has long been a Zionist, and he defends Israel’s current offensive. Yet, he would probably strongly rebuke those who invoke Dresden in order to justify the assault on Gaza. In his seminal book Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer writes: “The greater number by far of the German civilians killed by terror bombing were killed without moral (and probably also without military) reason.”

More enlightened defenders of the Israeli offensive may claim that the assault on Gaza is justified, precisely because it is different from the bombing of Dresden. After all, Hamas has its base of operations in Gaza itself, whereas Dresden was of no military importance to Nazis. Israel’s purported goal is not to kill civilians; at least on an official level, the IDF is not seeking to force Hamas’ surrender by killing Palestinian children. In that regard, the assault on Gaza may be more akin to the D-Day invasion, in which many German civilians died as a result of the Allies’ military action, but they were not directly targeted.

Agreeing that there was no moral justification for the bombing of Dresden does not entail sympathizing with Nazism. In philosophical parlance, there is a difference between ius ad bellum and ius in bello. The justice of a war has two dimensions: there must be justice in the decision to begin a war, but there must also be justice in how the war is conducted. Britain was morally right in deciding to wage war against the Nazis, but Britain was not right in bombing Dresden.

In our times, comparing anything we do not like to Nazism has become a cliché. In fact, for decades there has been talk of the so-called Godwin’s Law, according to which, “the longer an internet argument goes on, the higher the probability becomes that something or someone will be compared to Adolf Hitler.” This is bad enough, but it is made even worse if, in order to justify some action, we appeal to any deed —no matter how immoral— that was used to defeat Hitler.  

Gabriel Andrade is a university professor originally from Venezuela. He writes about politics, philosophy, history, religion, and psychology.

Image credits: Dresden after the 1945 fire-bombing / German Federal Archive 


Showing 5 reactions

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  • Debora
    commented 2023-12-21 11:00:05 +1100
    To be clear, I usually disagree with Ben Shapiro. I think, based on the premise of the article, that the author of this article is viewing Ben Shapiro in the correct context to best assess what happened in this debate. the woman/student in the hijab was speaking on terms of Palestinians as victims of Israeli bombing and that is why Palestinians are right or deserve protection. He took that argument and applied it to a subject she was unprepared to argue. As a device to win a debate against a person who clearly did not know about the bombing of Dresden, helped him throw off his debating opponent. Dresden in 1945 might have had 600,000 inhabitants and they were not blocked off from leaving like the people of Gaza who were 2.2 million people. the other thing that is not comparable is that bombing Dresden did not have a military purpose. The bombing of Gaza may only be similar because it is tragic for the people. No one is or should be arguing that attacking Gaza has no military significance to attack Hamas. The only reason Ben Shapiro brought up Dresden to make the very next point that he makes after she screwed up, and said that [England] wasn’t bombing civilians. Ben said at wars end, who is pointing to England and saying that they committed a war crime for exactly that, bombing civilians. That is the only reason he brought up the bombing of Dresden. To say, that, in the end we are fighting a total war with Hamas/Nazis, after we neutralize Hamas who will blame Israel for how many Palestinians are killed. The point that everyone should be making is that while Hamas is not the Nazis, Israel is and never will be judged the same way England is or has been judged. Israel is not the biggest human rights abuser, well until this war but there is no other country which comes close to how many UN counsel resolutions are brought against Israel. Israel is not innocent. It like every other country should be judged. maybe this example of Dresden is a great one to see how unfairly each country is judged compared to others. Maybe it sows how little history we know that even those in an esteemed university can not know about the bombing of Dresden?

    The infamous clip of the debate in question:
  • Debora
    commented 2023-12-21 09:02:07 +1100
  • mrscracker
    Hello Mr. Jürgen. Thank you for sharing your comments.
    I’m much more of a pacifist than anything else but I believe in self-defense & it is a legitimate right per Catholic teaching. I’m pretty sure Americans & Europeans alike would not have put up with next door terrorist infiltration in the way Israel has up until now.
    A great number of historic military actions could be seen as war crimes from a 21st century perspective. War is a terrible thing & almost always can be avoided. Even self-defense can and sometimes should be avoided. Human life is a precious thing.
  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2023-11-28 18:21:38 +1100
    There is no need to analyze what happens in Gaza by comparing it to some other war, including WWII.

    But I understand why it is done, and the reason is to destroy the legal position of the other side before the discussion has even begun. Like: why should evil Nazis or evil Arab terrorist have any rights at all?

    So let us ask a few questions:

    Did Hamas as the authority in Gaza, that had won elections, have a right to start another war against Israel?

    If yes, did they follow the law of the Geneva convention on wars?

    Is it actually a war between states or rather a war between an oppressed nation against its oppressor and would the same rules apply?

    Should Israel follow the international conventions on war?

    Does Israel really want peace between itself and a sovereign Arab Gaza state or is its real strategy to rather just continue to oppress the population to force the survivors to emigrate to Egypt or Europe?

    The current war is not the first one and has a history of 70 years before.

    Just some food for thought.

    P.s.: bombing Dresden, that was full of refugees from Silesia fleeing the approaching Soviets, who had decided to clear Silesia from Germans (another crime) was clearly a crime. And it was totally useless from a military point of view. And I bet that there were many more than the 20 something thousand civilian deaths in Dresden.

    But: Although Germany surrendered unconditionally it took many Germans from Silesia decades to really accept the loss of their home. Now it is just history, and if a German wants, he could go to Poland and just buy his grandparents home and live there. Not expensive, only a few do, and I hear that they are actually welcome there.
  • mrscracker
    Defeating Hamas could be compared to defeating Hitler I suppose, but I think a comparison to defeating ISIS would be more accurate.
    Hamas isn’t the Third Reich, They’re just a criminal mercenary cartel for Iran or the highest payer.