Sixty-five years after the conclusion of World War Two its history is still being written, and the reckoning is still taking place. Facts are being unearthed, interpreted and debated, and individual stories are being told. A new contribution to what may be the most thoroughly documented event in world history is “In the Neighborhood of Zero” by William V. Spanos.
In general outline, the story may resemble millions of others: a son of Greek immigrants who grew up in a small town in New England was drafted into the U.S. Army, sent through military training and into combat. He was taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans, forced to do hard labor until the final decisive battles drove his captors into disarray and he was repatriated. The soldier returned home and resumed his life and studies, finding success and admiration in his profession. William Spanos is now a Distinguished Professor of English and comparative literature at Binghamton University.
Reading the detail of those events makes “In the Neighborhood of Zero” an especially powerful and disturbing slice of history. As a member of an ethnic minority, William Spanos felt like something of an outsider in American society. He was a good soldier but not enthusiastic about military service. Assigned to an antitank unit in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, Spanos was taken prisoner after only about two weeks and shipped to a labor camp near Dresden. It is amazing that he survived. He became one of the last people to see the old city of Dresden.
Its beauty was awesome. The spires and domes of cathedrals and governmental and cultural buildings against a sky enflamed by a falling sun and the river winding through the city were breathtaking. The buildings were constructed of rust-colored stones, and their hybrid architecture was a combination of baroque, rococo and eighteenth-century classical styles, all of which conveyed the aura of an old and venerable but lively city that was defiantly indestructable, immune to the ravages of time and history.
— from “In the Neighborhood of Zero”
Within days “the Florence on the Elbe” would cease to exist. It had remained intact after years of war because it wasn’t considered of military importance, even though it was a transportation hub with some defense industries. Germans fleeing the advance of allied forces from both east and west had streamed into Dresden for safety. On 13-14 February 1945 more than 800 bombers pelted the city with incendiary bombs. The death toll from the fire-bombing of Dresden is still debated, but the slaughter that William Spanos witnessed he called “a calculated act of terror perpetrated by the Allies on an utterly unsuspecting and defenseless population of civilians.” Three months later the Nazis surrendered.
The cessation of fighting seemed to Spanos “a time of de-creation”. He and a fellow former POW took off on their own to find their way around a despoiled land fallen into anarchy. They find a cold shower and hot food at an abandoned German barracks, are almost taken into custody by Soviet soldiers, then receive the hospitality and physical comforting of two forlorn German women. Those days “were devoid of any logic and thus resist being reduced to a story.” Nonetheless, “In the Neighborhood of Zero” is a powerful memoir of the absurdity of war.
Spanos chose not to not speak about his wartime experiences for many years, but was influenced by Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse Five”. Vonnegut was also a POW in Dresden at the time of the bombing raids. Though sympathetic to his fellow survivor, Spanos believes “Slaughterhouse Five” misses the broader historical implications and the “horrific singular reality” of the destruction of Dresden.