Dresden is Germany’s phoenix, rising from the ashes and rubble of World War II in all its former baroque splendour.
For us Brits it’s an uncomfortable reminder of perhaps our most heinous wartime act, the bombing of a city packed full of civilians and refugees fleeing the chaos of the disintegrating Eastern Front and which contained no obviously strategic targets.
The city will not let you leave it unaware of the devastation wrought by the allied bombings on February 13th – 15th, 1945.
Black and white photographs of Dresden in the immediate and horrific aftermath are blown up in high resolution around key sites, and tour guides carry folders full of the images of shells of historic buildings, smouldering piles of rubble and burnt wooden buildings.
In four raids, 722 heavy bombers of the RAF and 527 of the US Air Force dropped more than 3,900 tons of bombs and incendiary devices on the city. The bombing, together with a resulting firestorm, destroyed the majority of the historic centre.
The death toll has been controversial, initially inflated by Nazi propagandists howling with moral outrage at the act, but it has proved hard to fix on a figure precisely because the city was swollen with refugees fleeing the Red Army’s advance from the East. The city authorities at the times estimated 25,000 deaths, which has since been supported by post war research.
There’s no excusing the act and although it had nothing to do with us directly, we couldn’t shake a sense of shame.
It’s fair to say that Dresden is trading on the notion of its own reconstruction. After the war ended the city was absorbed by the DDR, and the Eastern Bloc.
Work began on some churches, the historic Zwinger and the famous Semper Opera House. However, large areas were rebuilt in a socialist modern style, partly as it was cheaper, but also to break from Dresden’s past as the royal capital of Saxony and stronghold of German bourgeoisie – notions repugnant to communism. Many damaged churches, palaces and royal buildings were simply demolished in the 1950s – 60s and new buildings erected in their place.
Today’s massive construction work, highly visible around the historic centre is doubtlessly traceable back to the bombings but is also the current initiative to demolish unwanted socialist era buildings and create ultra-modern and architecturally sympathetic housing, hotels and entertainment venues, particularly around the central Neumarkt.
Tourists happily move their way around the dust and construction fences, whilst being shown images of how the square looked in 1945. The slogans on the scaffolding proclaimed, “Our beautiful Dresden”.
The remarkable Frauen Kirche, the baroque jewel in the city’s crown, was rebuilt after the reunification of Germany from 1994. It was consecrated in 2005 and 250,000 people celebrated a festival over its first three days of opening, amongst them the incoming Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It is truly beautiful and a faithful rendering of the original, with added improvements in its structural engineering. The church collapsed two days after the bombings, in a firestorm, when its supporting columns exploded and its foundations gave way.
The tragedy of 1945 is utilised very effectively in the marketing of Dresden’s ‘reconstruction’ which in turn encourages visitors to smile ruefully at the noise and dust rather than complain about the inconvenience of the works.
A commonly heard remark (it has to be said by Americans) is on the filthy black colouring of the sandstone centre; “That must be smoke damage from the bombing”, we heard time and again. Actually, it’s a natural accumulation of urban dirt and weathering which for whatever reason Dresden hasn’t seen as important to clean up. Rather the authorities furnish blackened sites, like the Zwinger, with shiny new concrete and plaster statuary. It’s odd.
Dresden has a long history as the capital of Saxony and its Kings and Electors furnished it with cultural and artistic splendour.
In return, they were immortalised in the Fűrstenzug, ‘the procession of princes’, a large painted mural of 335 feet showing the rulers of the House of Wettin between 1127 and 1904. In the early 1900s the mural was replaced with more than 23,000 porcelain tiles and it is known as the largest porcelain artwork in the world. It survived the bombings fully intact.
We strolled along Brühlsche Terrasse enjoying views of the waters and across to Neustadt. Groups from river cruise boats were gathered, taking their first views and being shown black and white images from 1945.
We ducked in to the Albertinum museum, where I especially enjoyed wandering amongst the collection of German Romantic paintings of the Elbe region by Caspar Friedrich David.
The Zwinger is one of Germany’s best baroque buildings, created as a place of entertainment and amusement for the court. The bizarre name reflects its location as a part of the city’s original fortifications.
A series of pavilions and galleries around a central courtyard and orangery, it is now home to two art galleries, the best of which is the Alte Meister gallery, where we saw paintings by the Dutch and Flemish Masters, as well as some Italian Renaissance works.
Walking across the building site on the famous stone ‘Augustusbrűcke’ – busily running with trams but for some confused visitors ‘still being rebuilt’ – we learned that the neighbouring traffic bridge cost Dresden its UNESCO world heritage status title in 2009.
Musing over a view of the city’s skyline, we both concluded that a project to rebuild an historical centre in a city with modern needs, and with a thriving tourism industry, is necessarily fraught with difficulty.
Bureaucracy and arguments about architectural authenticity aside, the sheer logistics of managing more than 4million overnight stays every year on a permanent building site is mind boggling.
I suppose if anyone is going to make a success of it, the Germans will, but it’s also fair to suggest that the ‘reconstruction’ project is given a lot of good grace by the multitudes of paying visitors who don’t look too far below the surface veneer of the tragedy of 1945. It’s wonderful that the phoenix is rising again, and it’s deserving of a little help from some smoke and mirrors.