Dresden, the Baroque Phoenix of Saxony

Dresden, Germany – October 2015

“I was a prisoner of war held in Dresden. At about 10.30pm that night, the air raid sirens started their mournful wailing and because this happened every night no notice was taken. The people of Dresden believed that as long as the Luftwaffe kept away from Oxford, Dresden would be spared. The sirens stopped and after a short period of silence the first wave of pathfinders were over the city dropping their target flares.
As the incendiaries fell, the phosphorus clung to the bodies of those below, turning them into human torches. The screaming of those who were being burned alive was added to the cries of those not yet hit. There was no need for flares to lead the second wave of bombers to their target, as the whole city had become a gigantic torch. It must have been visible to the pilots from a hundred miles away. Dresden had no defences, no anti-aircraft guns, no searchlights, nothing.”
― Victor Gregg, author of Dresden: A Survivor’s Story, writing in The Guardian

I took a trip to Germany several years ago to visit my friend in Hamburg and spent a few days sightseeing before meeting him. I spent a few days in Berlin then hopped on the Deutsche Bahn bound for Dresden.

Dresden, situated on the river Elbe, is the capital of Saxony, a German state in the east bordering the Czech Republic and Poland. It was once the royal residence of the kings of Saxony and was known throughout Europe for its baroque architecture. Near the end of the Second World War it was so heavily bombed by the Allies that almost none of its famed baroque architectural masterpieces were left standing. A series of raids by the British and American air forces in February 1945 dropped nearly 4000 tonnes of explosive and incendiary bombs, killing around 25,000 people.

The reasons for the devastating attack remain controversial. Why Dresden? It was an undefended civilian town with little military significance, many claimed. Some have suggested that the bombing was to destroy German morale by traumatising (incinerating) civilians and obliterating cultural treasures. Others have countered that Dresden was actually a strategic transport hub, from which the German army sent troops to meet the Russians. The Allies maintained it was a legitimate military target containing not just architectural jewels, but also factories churning out weapons and equipment.

The timing of the attack has been questioned. The bombs were dropped late in the final months of the war, as the Russians were advancing on Berlin from the east and the Allies from the west; it appeared that the war was coming to an end anyway. The city had been spared from attack up until that point, and Dresden had seen an influx of refugees from Berlin escaping the Red Army. Some point out this meant there were even more civilians present than ever. It has also been claimed the bombing was meant to warn the Russians by showing what the Allies could do.

In any case, ruined and blackened Dresden in the aftermath became a focus for anti-war sentiment, peace demonstrations, and for some, a German sense of victimhood.

After the war, much of the city remained rubble for decades as initially the Russians opted to expend their efforts on rebuilding Russia, and then the Communist East German regime that succeeded them chose to rebuild areas of the city in a modern socialist fashion. In fact, some royal ruins and bombed-out churches were razed by the Soviets and East German authorities, in preference to costly repairs. (Fun fact: Vladimir Putin was based in Dresden when he was a KGB agent.)

Eventually restoration projects brought Dresden’s former glory back to life, and the city underwent particularly dramatic changes after the reunification of Germany in the early 1990s. These days walking through the town you might never appreciate the landscape of rubble it would have been 70 years ago. And yet some things do not seem quite as they should be – as aged, perhaps? The sandstone is a bit too bright, the facades a bit too clean. All the reconstruction has somehow lent Dresden an odd sense of being both old and new at the same time.

I had not planned any particular activities for my day in Dresden but I saw a lady in the main square holding an umbrella advertising one of those free walking tours and decided to join in there and then. This turned out to be a brilliant decision on my part.

We spent half a day sauntering around the city centre, escorted by our knowledgeable local guide who told many stories and kept us otherwise entertained for tips. There were a number of landmarks (all reconstructions) on the tour but a couple have stayed with me, even after all these years.

The Dresden Frauenkirche, meaning Church of Our Lady, is a Lutheran (Protestant) church built on the site of a Catholic church dating from the 11th century, which became a Protestant church during the Reformation, which was then torn down in the 1700s and rebuilt as a Protestant church by Saxony’s Catholic ruler who had converted from Protestantism but wanted to reassure his Protestant subjects that he was still down with Protestants (because people usually killed each other over that kind of thing).

Got all that?

During the bombing 300 people sought refuge in the crypt and the church managed to survive two days and nights before collapsing from the heat of the incendiary bombs. It had withstood previous attacks, including 1000 cannonballs (quaint) during the Seven Years’ War, but the Allied firebombs generated temperatures of up to 1000 degrees Celsius, causing the dome to cave in and the stone pillars to literally glow bright red and then explode. The charred ruins were left in a pile for another 45 years under Communist rule.

Rebuilding began after German reunification in 1994 with privately raised funds, and was completed in time for Dresden’s 800th anniversary. Dresden’s residents had salvaged parts of the destroyed church after the war with the hope that it would one day be rebuilt and these pieces were incorporated into the reconstruction. You can see the dark patina (word of the day) on the original stones that survived the firebombs, starkly contrasting with the newer, lighter sandstone.

High atop the apex of the church sits a gold cross, a gift from “the British people and the House of Windsor”. We were told a nice ending to the Frauenkirche story by our guide: the main craftsman of the cross, a British goldsmith called Alan Smith, was the son of one of the RAF bomber pilots involved in the original church’s destruction. (I checked this out, it’s true. The bomber’s name was Frank.) The cross that originally topped the dome before the bombing now stands twisted and charred next to the new altar inside the church. Frauenkirche, which had represented the suffering of Germany civilians in the decades after the war, was consecrated in 2005 as a symbol of reconciliation.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for some sweet city views so I headed up the winding staircase to the top of Frauenkirche. Once through the little trapdoor, I was treated to a stunning 360 degree aerial view of Dresden and the Elbe river. The ornate spires and the still hazy air imparted a kind of unreal quality, made more so by the tiny people going about their afternoons in the squares and streets far below.

Later in the tour, we came across a prime example of Dresden’s baroque architecture, the Semper Opera House, originally built by and named after architect Gottfried Semper, but absolutely gutted by a fire in the late 1800s. Gottfried’s son Manfred rebuilt it according to his father’s plans at the insistence of Dresden’s citizens. This building was largely destroyed in the Allied firebombing and rebuilt as an almost exact replica in 1985, reopening with the very same opera that had been performed on the eve of its destruction 40 years before.

Our guide pointed out a screen above one of the entrances and explained it was playing a pro-refugee video featuring members of the opera and orchestra. The background to this was a flourishing anti-immigration movement that was really hitting its stride that year, the same year that Chancellor Merkel welcomed almost 1 million refugees into the country.

Every Monday, the guide said, thousands of Germans met in front of the opera house to rally against Muslims. The group leading these protests was called PEGIDA, an acronym for “Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes” (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident”). PEGIDA was founded by a former criminal and began life as a closed Facebook group. Its first few rallies in October 2014 drew only a few hundred people. By January 2015, however, 25,000 people were out in force at an anti-Islamisation rally in Dresden, galvanised by fear and hate in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks in Paris.

There were similar demonstrations in other German cities but none were as popular as those in Dresden, a city with barely any Muslims (and few foreigners in general). Muslims only make up about 0.1% of Saxony’s population. But much has already been written on how xenophobia can prosper where so-called natives have little or no contact with the objects of their fear.

So it was that after months of these Monday anti-immigration rallies, pro-immigration counter-protests started up on Tuesdays. And perhaps the Semper Opera felt like it needed to weigh in or make some kind of a stand on the subject, given it was the backdrop to this weekly to-and-fro. As well as the video screen, I also saw a banner draped across one facade bearing a slogan which our guide translated as “Eyes Open, Hearts Open, Doors Open”.

It was interesting to me and perhaps a little sad that a city known through the latter half of the 20th century for peace demonstrations and stories of reconciliation like the rebuilding of Frauenkirche would once again become a political and idealogical battleground over an issue that goes to the heart of German identity in the 21st century. This debate has certainly not gone away and has shaped politics in Germany for many years now, as it has in many other countries, European or otherwise. To this day, protests and counter-protests continue in Dresden over this issue.

Post-script: in the course of my Internet research on PEGIDA (what, you thought I just knew all that off the top of my head?) I found out that Sir Arthur Harris, the RAF chief of Bomber Command who green-lit the firebombing of Dresden, had become an internet meme. “Bomber Harris” went viral after an activist protesting the rise in intolerance at an anti-PEGIDA rally invited British bombers to repeat the destruction of February 1945 – by painting “Bomber Harris Do it Again” across her naked chest.

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