Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Haiti and Dresden – what can we learn from history?

The destruction of Port au Prince is unbelievable. It brings to my mind pictures from bombed, German cities during World War II. Many cities, like Berlin, Hamburg and Dresden were completely destroyed, just like Port au Prince. There are similarities and differences. The conditions in Port au Prince are terrible and so was the situation after the allied carpet bombing 1945. - In any case, the details are horrible.

The biggest difference is the political structure when disaster arrived. Society in Haiti was in decomposition and more or less lawless. The nation was the poorest in the northern hemisphere, with 70% of the population living at less than 1$ per day and the civil services like medical care, schools and communal activities practically non existent. Soaring criminality, centre of drug trading and a galloping corruption has undermined society in an incredible way.

Society in Germany during the war was a complete dictatorship, corrupt, but efficient. Germany was at war with laws of civil emergency, supported by the iron fist of the Nazi regime in form of the police, Gestapo, the army and all the different party organisations. The civil defence was outstanding with years of experience from massive bomb attacks from the allied forces. Whatever happened, survivors of bomb attacks and firestorms could be fed and treated, even if hospitals were in ruins. Survivors were mostly evacuated to the countryside.

What to do first

In Germany, during the war, the population was prepared for the bombing by massive information and many were assigned to various tasks to full fill in case of attack. After an attack the first priority was to clear the streets and roads so ambulances, fire engines and heavy equipment could get through to start helping people stuck in the ruins, at least were it was not burning.

In Haiti, though it is placed directly on a fault line, no one was prepared for the quake. Neither the civil defence (if it ever existed), army, police or the population itself. It is understandable since they had a hard time to survive the day. In the reports following the disaster, the great problem seems to be the infrastructure, clearing streets and repairing roads to get the help through. It is important for the morale when people see that action is taking place.

In Haiti police and army has been invisible and violence and looting is commonplace. In Germany, during the war, the police and other officials were omnipresent. A looter was shot at the spot.

What to do with the dead

At present, the big problems in Port au Prince are the thousands of dead bodies, quickly decomposing in the tropical heat. I have seen pictures of bodies lying in heaps and spread all over streets and parking lots. There are few cars working to transport the dead, no petrol and no one to organize the effort. The cemeteries are overwhelmed and nobody seems to know what to do. Another disaster is looming. Some have, though, been brought to mass graves.

Four days after the attack and following firestorm of Dresden the 13 – 14 February 1945, the German authorities, with the Nazi Gauleiter Martin Mutschmann on top, decided to burn all the dead bodies they found. The reason was the public health, they were afraid of epidemics. They probably had the same lack of transport after the raid as in Haiti, after the quake. So they started by burning 6 865 bodies in the central market place, Altmarkt, in Dresden, which was a fairly central place. Later over 20 000 bodies was put in mass graves in the Heidefriedhof outside town, by means of horse drawn carts and a few trucks. The lack of petrol was probably the same as in Haiti.
Both the allied forces and the Nazis played down the number of causalities and said it could be between 25 and 50 000, but the German chancellor Conrad Adenauer later said in a speech in 1955 that the number of victims could have been up to 500 000.

Horrible know-how

It is not easy to burn a dead body and certainly not thousands of them. But the Nazi regime had the know-how. They had made elaborate tests on how to burn the 700.000 Jews buried in the pits of Treblinka. Himmler visited Treblinka in 1943 and did not like the idea to leave so many proofs of his crimes for the after world, so he ordered that all the victims should be brought up and burned. And so they did. A few Jews of the so called Sonderkommandos, who did the hard work and survived the war have witnessed about the burning.

The SS men created enormous roasters, like a gigantic barbeque, made of railway rails, put on concrete pillars, with a distance to the ground, so wood and bushes could be put there, to create a fire. On the bottom of the roaster they put fat women who were thought to burn better, then layer after layer of bodies, all doused with petrol. Between 2 000 and 3 000 could be burnt at the same time. The fire was going on day and night and the flames reached up to 10 meters.. All buried corpses were finally burnt, including newly gassed Jews arriving every day.

The Altmarkt burning

The large majority of the victims of the allied attack the 13th and 14th February 1945 simply disappeared in the gigantic firestorm. The bodies that still were intact were found suffocated in the air raid shelters. Many of these shelters, filled with dead people, were discovered years after the firestorm.

When it was decided that they had to burn a lot of dead bodies, experts were called in and according to witnesses, they were the SS troops that had been at work in Treblinka and Sobibor. They brought along Ukrainian help troops to do the dirty work of piling up the dead bodies on the roaster, the same type as in Treblinka, but smaller, they could only get place for a couple of hundreds bodies at same time. One can see a little of the construction at the picture. The SS carefully piled up the victims crosswise, like they did in Treblinka, to ensure that they would burn better. Many children were dressed in carnival costumes they had at Mardi Gras parties in the evening of the 13th.

During three weeks, with start in the end of February, this big barbeque was burning in the centre of Dresden. The Altmarkt was condoned off and the public had no access, this was to be a secret operation. For some reason a photographer, Walter Hahn, was let in to take pictures. So the terrible event was documented.
It is estimated that the ashes from these, nearly 7 000 victimes, weighed over 340 tons, which was transported out by horse drawn carts ot to the Heidefriedhof and was put to rest in specially dug pits.

Should they do the same thing in Haiti?

So part of the victims from Dresden was burned and the ashes buried in pits. The rest, about 20 000 victims, were buried in mass graves, like it is done now in Haiti.
The question is if they should burn the dead from the quake in Haiti? Reason says that it is the most hygienic and best way to avoid epidemics. With the slow pace, that the Haitian authorities are burying the thousands of dead today, the situation will be unbearable in the long run.
But the ethical side is disturbing. Should UN or the Americans burn big piles of dead, with black clouds of smoke and the stench of burnt flesh, while the world media looks on? The idea in Dresden was that they could get rid of the dead bodies in a central place, since streets and roads also were blocked.
An other interesting idea is that, if they decided to make mass burnings, would they use the same, efficient technique, as the SS did in Treblinka and Dresden?
The burning has already started in Port au Prince, people set fire to ruined houses in order to get rid of the stench from dead people inside the ruins. But what if someone is alive? How will it end?

Written by Erik Edelstam
Destruction in Port au Prince -
Dresden destroyed –
Dead in Port au Prince –
Cleaning up in Dresden -
The Altmarkt burning –
Source; Holocaust Controversies