Dresden after the bombing in February 1945. By Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-041-07 / Unknown
CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia
World War II left great devastation in the major countries of Europe. Wartime decisions to attack or not to attack, to bomb or not to bomb, to fire or not to fire were taken by individual political and military men who were in charge. Two contrasting personalities of the period had a significant impact – in opposite ways – as the “Great War” unfolded. One was British, the other German.
The somewhat more familiar story concerns the utter destruction of Dresden, Germany. The other story unfolded in the completely unscathed town of Assisi in central Italy.
Dresden was known as the Florence of Germany due to its immense artistic and architectural patrimony that included the magnificent Frauenkirche Cathedral, dedicated to Mary the Mother of God.
In early 1945, during the late stages of the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorized the bombing of Dresden despite its low strategic value and the fact that some 45 of the 60 main German cities had already been destroyed. Many had taken refuge in the city swelling the local population of 600,000.
The actual bombing orders were strategized and carried out by Arthur Harris, Marshall of the British Royal Air Force (RAF). On the night of February 13, 1945, 245 bomber planes, mostly British but some American too, dropped some 3,000 high explosive bombs and 400,000 incendiary bombs on Dresden that turned that precious city into an untold inferno, destroying the Cathedral and most other significant structures and monuments, taking at least 25,000 lives all at once.
The execution that came through Marshall Harris begs the question: What manner of man would carry out such devastation? History tells us that Harris was known at the time as “Bomber Harris” in the British press and, perhaps more aptly, “Butcher Harris” within the RAF rank and file. One account summarized his character as one who had: “No hobbies. Never read a book. Didn’t like music. Lived for his job.”
As an air force officer, Harris had honed his skills prior to World War II as a bomber pilot and wing commander in aerial bombing missions in Pakistan and Iraq. He apparently enjoyed dropping incendiary bombs from his plane, then taking pleasure at watching the readily inflammable straw huts below burning quickly and voraciously.
Dresden, although it had some connecting rail lines, strategically was considered too far east. Its utter destruction was not so much an Allied victory but a “gift,” as it were, to the Soviets who soon afterwards took over Dresden, as well as all of Eastern Germany, without requiring too much of their own military intervention.
After the War, “Butcher Harris” became Sir Arthur Harris and a grateful British government erected his proud statue which still stands today, prominently, on the Strand in central London.
In another part of Europe, German troops advanced in Italy after their erstwhile partner surrendered to the Allies on September 8, 1943. For the next year, Italy experienced its worst period of the War. The enraged and betrayed Nazis let loose their military prowess on innocent Italians as they fled northwards, pursued by Allied forces advancing up the peninsula.
It was during this period that the Nazis took it upon themselves to round up Italian and other Jews for deportation as they were disillusioned that their Fascist allies were unable or unwilling to have done so. Indeed, many northern European Jews had taken refuge in Italy believing there they would be safe.
During this period one small Italian town in central Italy had a rather unusual experience with a totally positive outcome, aided by a different kind of military leadership compared with the Harris experience of the United Kingdom.
The German occupying forces in Italy placed Colonel Valentin Müller, a trained medical doctor, in charge in Assisi, the city of St. Francis. Realizing the importance of the place where he was, and given his medical background, Colonel Müller sought and obtained permission to turn Assisi into a field hospital city to treat German casualties as a way of warding off belligerencies.
In early 1943 Assisi had a population of around 5,000 which more or less doubled quickly as refugees, including many Jews who were being pursued by the Nazis in northern Italy, poured into the town. It is not clear why so many came to Assisi seeking safety, although some historians speculate that the motto of St. Francis “Pax et Bonum” may have been an inspiration.
The bishop of Assisi, Giuseppe Nicolini, had received a letter from Pope Pius XII with orders to take in and hide refugees, especially Jews, and authorizing the bishop to use all religious properties, including convents and monasteries, to house and shelter them. Hundreds were given refuge as the bishop worked clandestinely despite having to be concerned about evading the local German military occupation.
Memorial for colonel Valentin Müller in Assisi. Photo: Gunnar Bach Pedersen, via Wikimedia
However, Colonel Müller, who had previously served in World War I and was recalled for the next big war, was a fervent Catholic from Bavaria who attended mass daily. He kept his troops under control and it is still unknown if he realized or overlooked the clandestine activity that was transpiring all around him.
When orders came from a defeated Germany to evacuate from Assisi in late 1944, the Colonel ordered his troops to retreat peacefully, unlike what was happening in many other Italian towns, and not a shot was fired. Before Colonel Müller departed, he donated all his remaining medical supplies and equipment to Bishop Nicolini to use as he saw fit.
No lives were lost in Assisi during 1943-44. All the Jews who sought refuge there were saved. A few even stayed behind to live there.
There is no statue to Colonel Müller in Germany or in Italy. In grateful Assisi, however, a street was named after him and a commemorative plaque was placed at a major thoroughfare.
Colonel Müller returned to Assisi in 1950 for the Holy Year and he was given a hero’s welcome. A year later he died of lung cancer.
In 1982, the year that marked the 800th anniversary of St. Francis’ birth, a delegation from Assisi went to the small town of Eichstätt, where Colonel Müller was buried, to visit his grave, bringing with them olive branches from the local countryside. There in the cemetery they discovered that, carved on the Colonel’s tombstone, was the outline of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.
Unlike Marshall Harris who was lauded for his destructive capacities and was honored with a lifeless statue, Colonel Müller, as his final act, rendered homage to the special town he sheltered – and obviously loved.
Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.