Revisiting the History of Dresden Massacre in the Slaughterhouse-Five

The research topic: Revisiting the History of Dresden Massacre in the Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s anti-war novel, where he tries to rework on the history of Dresden Massacre to give justice to those people who have become the victim of war, to expose and to de-glorify the war phenomenon. In Revisiting the History of Dresden Massacre in the Slaughterhouse-Five, the researcher seeks the ways to challenge the traditional canonical history and to outlet his own traumatic war experiences during the Second World War in a darkly comical way. To support these claims the researcher will be using some of the theoretical concepts from the Linda Hutcheon’s historiographic meta-fiction and Foucauldian notion of history.

One of the main objects of Revisiting the History of Dresden Massacre in the Slaughterhouse-Five is to reconstruct the history of Second World War, particularly about the Dresden firebombing, where the writer was sent forcefully there as an American soldier. In the Dresden firebombing and Massacre, there was a huge loss of human life, the beautiful city was destroyed, survivors suffer from hunger, mental and physical diseases, girls were raped and most of the survivors become homeless. When Billy was in his hospital and asked for the first patient to send his room for a checkup he saw a 12 years old boy with his widowed mother and “Billy asked them a little about themselves, learned that the boy’s father had been killed in Vietnam-in the famous five-day battle”(61). The situation was very horrible, disastrous and inhuman the Dresden. This very inhuman act was done by the Allied forces. They destroyed the historical city of German in order to show their power and bravery to the others.  Here, Vonnegut tries to dismantle the very notion of power by rewriting and revisiting the history of the Dresden Massacre. He explains those incidents which have been overshadowed by the American government. He tries to tell about the reality of war by showing the reality of American soldiers. When Billy was in a zoo, somebody asked him about the most valuable thing he had learned in the Tralfamadore and he replied:

How the inhabitants of a whole planet can live in peace I as you know, I am from a planet that has been engaged in senseless slaughter since the beginning of time. I myself have seen the bodies of schoolgirls who were boiled alive in a water tower by my own countrymen, who were proud of fighting pure evil at the time . . . And I have lit my way in a prison at night with candles from the fat of human beings who were butchered by the brothers and fathers of those school girls who were boiled. (52)

He shows his anti-war attitude by presenting the heart-wrenching experiences of war. They did not even expose about the brutal death of one hundred and thirty-five thousand people (including innocent children, young girls, soldiers, and common people) in order to save the dignity of America. The dreadful incidents of war were excluded from the official history. Therefore here, in this novel writer Vonnegut, one of the survivors of the Dresden Massacre tries to give justice to those thousands of people who have lost their lives without any reason.

The writer Vonnegut tries to recreate the history of the Dresden Massacre with the help of fictional character Billy Pilgrim to release the unspeakable, unimaginable experience of war.  Linda Hutcheon, a Canadian historiographer in her work, has coined a term “historiographic metafiction which is usefully coined to point out the self-reflexive commentary on the means and a possibility of historical representation . . .” (16). In the beginning and at the end of this fiction too, we can see the self-reflexivity of writer where he shares about his war experiences and plans to write about the anti-war novel and also gives credit to Mary O’Hary. At the beginning of his autobiographical section, he says that “I wrote the Air Force back then, asking for details about the raid on Dresden, who ordered it, how many planes did it, why they did it, what desirable results there had been . . . he said that he was sorry, but that the information was top secret still” (7). This shows that how the mainstream has tactfully played with the history of the Dresden massacre. They even did not take their responsibility to show the true account of that incident where numerous people lost their lives. Here, the writer sees many loopholes in the official history, therefore, as a witness of that very incident of the Dresden massacre and firebombing. He also tries to fill those gaps by recreating the history of the Dresden massacre and bombing through his fictional character Billy Pilgrim (an American soldier and Dresden Massacre and bombing survivor like Vonnegut).

Furthermore, another new historian, Michel Foucault also talks about the history and its relation with a power. He jeopardizes the traditional notion of history. For him, “traditional history systematically works to suppress evidence of discontinuities, disjunctions, and struggles between rival regimes of knowledge, because its overriding goal is to portray the present as the product of a clear and rational development” (19). He claims that the official, conventional history is created by the will of those people who are in power. Those people who are in power always try to glorify their great deeds, suppressing the history of the minor group in a society. In the selected interviews of Foucault he says that “a whole set of knowledge that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated . . . such as that of the psychiatric patient, of the ill person, of the nurse, of the doctor-parallel and marginal as they are to the knowledge of medicine . . .” (82).  In the novel, when a Harvard history professor Rumfoord talked to his wife Lily about the bombing of Dresden, Billy heard their conversation that the official history does not have to give space to the Dresden massacre and bombing in their book. These lines:

. . . his one-volume history of the Army Air Force in the Second World War was supposed to be a readable condensation of the twenty-seven-volume Official History of the Army Air Force in World War Two . . . there was almost nothing in the twenty-seven volumes about the Dresden raid . . . had been kept a secret for many years . . . (85).

explicitly show that how the mainstream history has sidelined the history of Dresden massacre where one hundred thirty-five thousand people were massacred within an hour, the whole beautiful city was totally destroyed and turned into the hell on the night of February 13, 1945 Thus, the writer, Vonnegut tries to challenge the notion of conventional history by speaking on the behalf of those people who are in margin. He gives voice to voiceless people like Billy Pilgrim a shell-shocked veteran who was the prisoner in Germany during the Second World War. To expose the hidden history he has taken help of his fictional character. He gives certain comic features to the Billy Pilgrim, like; coward, unskilled, unprepared for war. The following lines:

. . . he had no helmet, no overcoat, no weapon, and no boots. On his feet were cheap, low-cut civilian shoes which had bought for his father’s funeral . . . had lost a heel, which made him bob up-and-down, up-and-down . . . He didn’t look like a soldier at all. He looked like a filthy flamingo (16).

show that how he was sent to the war without any weapon, any proper soldier’s dress, he even does not have the boot in his feet while he was in the battlefield. This is a black humor, where we see very emotional scene embedded with humor. The writer here tries to show the side of those people who were like Pilgrim and are neglected by those people who are in power.

Many reviewers have reviewed the Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse – Five. They have presented different view regarding the Dresden firebombing. One of the reviewers, Jonathan Creasy, an editor-in-chief at New Dublin Press has discussed the Dresden bombing and how it is presented in a history by official historians. And he admires the work of Vonnegut for presenting the fact into fiction. The lines  “Vonnegut notes several times, “It was the fastest killing of large numbers of people — one hundred and thirty-five thousand people in a matter of hours.” Here is where fiction is intruded upon by actual fact” explain about the history of the Dresden massacre.

Furthermore, another reviewer, Matteo Pericoli also has reviewed this novel. He also appreciates the Vonnegut’s work for blending fact and fiction together.  He also praises this work because of the self-reflexivity of the writer himself  “Within Billy’s absurd story, we find many references to the historical and personal events Vonnegut mentioned in the beginning; we even meet the writer who, like a movie extra, appears here and there as a casual supporting element. “That was I. That was me”. However, another reviewer, he has tried to present his idea differently. He has analyzed this Vonnegut’s novel not only from a historical perspective but also from the psychological impact on the people. He states that “. . . Vonnegut’s famous book about Dresden is less about Dresden than it is about the impact of Dresden on one man’s sensibilities” (236). He tries to convey to us that this book has tried to project about the psychological aspect of human’s life. In the novel, when Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time, he was going to and fro breaking the linearity of in order to reveal his innermost experience of the Dresden massacre and bombing. When the historian Rumford asked him about the Dresden war he was unwilling to talk about the war to him, because to him that incident of Dresden was too horrific and it was so hard to tell about that incident.

To wrap up, the researcher in Revisiting the History of Dresden Massacre in the Slaughterhouse-Five finds the writer; Vonnegut successfully revisiting the historical account of the Dresden Massacre. He presents the history of Dresden massacre and bombing through self-reflexivity and the use of different fictional characters like Billy Pilgrim, Professor Rumfoord, Lily, his wife Montana and other various characters in order to correct the official history the of war and to give justice to those people who have lost their lives in that horrific incident. He has dared to expose the unspeakable, traumatic experience of war to outlet his trauma. He revisits the history of Dresden firebombing and challenges the canonical history which was written by Americans and British historians and provides alternative history to the people.


Works Cited

Creasy, Jonathan. “Revisiting Slaughterhouse-five”. The Los Angeles Review of Books, March,6, 2015.

Harris, Charles B. “Time, Uncertainty, and Kurt Vonnegut, JR: A Reading of Slaughterhouse-     Five”. The Centennial Review, vol. 20, no. 3, Michigan State University Press, 1976, pp.        236.

Morrison, Jago. Contemporary Fiction. Routledge , 2003, pp. 19-20.

Pericoli, Metteo. “Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughter House-Five”, The Paris Review, July 25, 2016.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children’s Crusade. Delacorte press, 1969.

Revisiting the History of Dresden Massacre in the Slaughterhouse-Five 

Written by Deepa Bhatt


1 Comment

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