American author Kurt Vonnegut wrote his seminal novel Slaughterhouse Five after surviving the bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war.

kurt vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s literary career spanned over 50 years, and many of his works have received worldwide recognition. His most influential work is Slaughterhouse 5, a complex anti-war novel about the bitter lives of American soldiers captured by the Nazis and surviving the Allied bombing of Dresden.

The book is filled with dark humor, satire, and scenes of violence – it was inspired by Vonnegut’s own experiences during the war.


At the start of World War II, Vonnegut dropped out of Cornell University. He knew he was going to be drafted into the United States Army, so he volunteered for the Army in 1943. He was initially stationed at Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh, Indiana, where infantry was trained for the D-Day invasion.

Camp Atterbury was close to the Vonnegut family home, so he visited his mother on the weekends and was allowed by his superiors to use the family car. A difficult period in his life began when his mother committed suicide in May 1944. Just three months after the tragic event, he was sent to Europe as a scout in the 106th Infantry Division.

wartime portrait

The 106th Infantry Division was mostly made up of inexperienced soldiers who were surprised by the ferocity of the German forces in the Battle of the Bulge. 500 soldiers were killed, but Vonnegut survived the battle and was sent to Dresden as a prisoner of war, along with another 6,000 captured American soldiers.

Dresden was a city without a military industry. Vonnegut worked in a malt syrup factory and lived in a slaughterhouse. The Germans never expected Dresden to be bombed by the Allied forces, and only a few small bomb shelters were scattered throughout the city.

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However, on February 13, 1945, the Allied forces bombed Dresden, killing almost 25,000 people in an air raid.

bombed out dresden

Vonnegut survived by hiding in the underground butchery of the slaughterhouse that was his temporary home. Immediately after the air raid, he and other American prisoners were sent to the ruins of Dresden to excavate dead bodies and search for survivors. He was rescued after US troops captured Leipzig and was returned to the United States. When he returned, he was 22 years old and continued to serve in the army for several months.

After the war, he was awarded the Purple Heart, which he felt was unnecessary because he was a prisoner and did little to win the Allies. However, the war left its mark on him, and for the rest of his life he was an outspoken anti-militarist.

ruins of dresden

Slaughterhouse 5 is also famous for Vonnegut’s most memorable quote: “So it Goes.” It has been used throughout the novel to comment on the inevitability of death and the inability of man to change the course of history. Today, this phrase is praised as one of the most witty comments on the absurdity of life.

The horrific experiences of slaughter, cold and forced labor found their way into Vonnegut’s most famous novel, but his other works are also imbued with strong anti-war sentiment.

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