For years, the right wing in Germany has been trying to instrumentalize the World War II destruction of Dresden. With the 75th anniversary of the bombing now here, many in the city are fed up with the debate.
Rubble. Everywhere. And the remnants of bombed-out buildings, as far as the eye can see. Only the corner towers remain of the once-majestic cathedral known as the Frauenkirche. Smoke, both black and white, is rising from the destruction, with a few fires still burning here and there. There’s a destroyed streetcar and, if you look closely enough, you can see people wandering through the rubble, most with their shoulders slumped. A mother dragging her two sons behind her passes a bench on which a dead couple is slumped. Two swastika flags hang from a building.
The music is atmospheric and the sound of the wind can be heard. Night falls, before then once again giving way to daylight – a blood-red sun, as though mortally wounded.
The images are from an overpowering representation of Dresden following the bombing raids on the city that took place on Feb. 13-15, 1945. It is a trip back in time on 3,000 square meters of polyester, created by the artist Yadegar Asisi. The circular, dark panorama is 107 meters long, 27 meters high and can be seen in the old Dresden gasometer.
According to the artist, the panorama shows a city “at its nadir, at a moment of paralysis, the zero hour.” Asisi assembled his depiction of destroyed Dresden using old photos and film clips after having sent out an appeal to the population to send him material.
The panorama was inaugurated five years ago, on the 70th anniversary of Dresden’s annihilation. It was, from today’s perspective, a different era.
Back then, it seemed as though the vast majority of Germans had found a way to remember the Nazi era and the vast carnage of World War II their ancestors had triggered. It looked like they had managed to internalize the pain of Germany’s guilt and to recognize that Dresden’s destruction was a consequence of that culpability. The logical conclusion born from that approach to the city’s World War II history was clear: Never again. No Nazis. No war.
Even then, though, the anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, was consistently misappropriated by right-wing extremists to portray the residents of Dresden as the victims of Anglo-American “terror,” just as the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, did in the final months of the war. After the initial waves of British bombers, the Americans then showed up on Feb. 14 and 15. Around the turn of the millennium, a right-wing group called for a march on behalf of the victims, a protest that became something of an annual tradition. Indeed, according to German domestic security officials, the demonstrations developed into “one of the most important right-wing extremist events in Germany.” In 2009, there were 6,500 participants, making it one of the largest gatherings of Nazis in all of Europe.
But a self-assured Dresden populace pushed back and made sure that the whole story was told on the day of commemoration – namely that Dresden wasn’t quite as innocent as the right-wing extremists wanted to believe.
Historian Mike Schmeitzner points out that the city was a stronghold for National Socialism in the state of Saxony, with 20,000 political functionaries working in Dresden by 1935. Moreover, “racial hygiene” had already been introduced as an academic field in Dresden by 1920, says Schmeitzner.
Without the crimes of the Nazis, there would have been no bombs and Dresden would not have been destroyed. Which means that the two significant anniversaries in the first weeks of this year – the Jan. 27 anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the commemoration of the bombing of Dresden – are intimately linked.
As he did for the Auschwitz anniversary, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is planning a speech to mark the Dresden commemoration. The challenge, just as it has been for presidents before him, will be that of finding the right tone – of recognizing the suffering of the victims while also acknowledging Germany’s guilt. No matter what, though, his speech will be just the next round in the ongoing battle for the historical interpretation of what happened in Dresden.
The city used to be one of the most beautiful in the world. In his childhood memoir “When I Was a Little Boy,” author Erich Kästner wrote about his hometown: “If it just so happens that I not only recognize what is bad and ugly, but also know what is beautiful, it is because I had the good fortune to grow up in Dresden. I did not have to learn about beauty from books, not in school and not at the university. I was able to inhale beauty the way a forester’s children breathe the woodland air.”
“Through Sodom and Gomorrah”
After the destruction of his beloved city, he wrote: “That which we previously understood to be Dresden no longer exists. One walks through the ruins, as though one were walking in a dream through Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Thousands of civilians died in the hail of bombs, that is undeniable. And it also makes remembrance so challenging – legitimate pain combined with deep culpability. The result is an equally complex approach to mourning.
That complexity can be illustrated using two examples: That of a politician from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and that of a poet.
For AfD co-leader Tino Chrupalla, 44, Feb. 13 is an important day. “I don’t need to put it in my calendar. The appointment is inside me,” he says, briefly pressing his right hand to his heart. Both his grandmother and father experienced the bombardment in person and spoke of it frequently, he says. Chrupalla says his family had fled to Dresden from Silesia, which is today part of Poland, and they spent the night of the bombardment cowering under a bridge. And they survived. His father was just five years old at the time, but still had memories of that night.
Chrupalla would like more to be done to remember the destruction of Dresden. “A special place of remembrance in Dresden is needed to commemorate the victims,” he says. Thus far, there is merely a plaque in the ground. “I don’t think that’s enough,” Chrupalla says, adding that he isn’t planning on going to the event at which Steinmeier is speaking. He suspects the German president will use the ceremony to attack the AfD. “I would like to be allowed to speak so I could present our view of things.”
Chrupalla says he’s surprised that the number of victims has been adjusted downward in the past decades, with experts now believing that 25,000 people died in the bombings. He thinks that number is way off. “I believe there were around 100,000 victims,” he says. The Red Cross wrote of 278,000 dead in 1948, he says. “My grandmother, my father and other witnesses told me that the streets were full before the attack and that there were mountains of corpses after that night,” Chrupalla says. None of them believe the newer number of 25,000 dead, he says, which is why he has his doubts as well.
So the AfD has planned its own commemoration ceremony, complete with the laying of a wreath and an information stand organized by the party’s Dresden chapter to inform people “of the true occurrences of that day,” as Chrupalla puts it.
For the poet Durs Grünbein, who was born in Dresden in 1962, the bombing raids are also an important focus in his life. He has written essays on the event and in 1992, he began a volume of poetry called “Porcelain – A Poem on the Downfall of My City.” The right-wing sees him as an opponent.
Last Monday, Grünbein seemed just as friendly as ever on the telephone, but he also sounded a bit exhausted. He said he was in Düsseldorf administering examinations at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, adding that he knew what would happen if he once again commented on the bombing of Dresden: The right-wing would go on the attack yet again.
The 75th anniversary, he says, is different from the 70th, with Germany’s recent slide to the right having changed things. In 2019, he says, he gave a speech at Oxford about the relationship Germans have with their history. He said he found it interesting to discuss the issue in front of a British audience, given that the first bombing sorties on Feb. 13, 1945, had been flown by the Royal Air Force.
He says he spoke of the “phantom pain” that many people “in subsequent generations,” such as himself, continue to feel. He says it’s like he can feel the fear of his grandmother, who was lying in a Dresden hospital during the bombing raids with scarlet fever. And then, Grünbein says the decisive sentence that leads him directly into the present-day conflict and reveals his deep contrast to the AfD politician Chrupalla: “That’s what makes it all the more difficult to accept that the mourning for this city’s destruction is being instrumentalized. The revisionists are appropriating our mourning with their malicious reading of history.”
In light of the conflict over the correct reading of history, it is useful to visit actual witnesses to the bombing – not just those from “subsequent generations,” as Grünbein calls them, but those who were there. Heidi Kraut, 80 years old today, was five in February 1945. She lived with her parents and siblings in Pappritz, a district in the eastern part of the city on a rise above the Elbe River eight kilometers from the city center. Kraut remembers waiting at the window for her father to return, who was participating in an air-raid drill at the Semperoper opera house.
She still has clear memories of the droning of the approaching planes, and then the sudden red light that bathed the city center. Even the sky glowed red, she says. “I couldn’t understand that the buildings were burning. It looked like a sunset.” During the second wave of bombings, a window in their home shattered. A warm wind wafteed up from the Elbe, she says, blowing scraps of paper into Pappritz. “I still remember today the pages of notes that were flying through the air.”
When she was able to return to the city center after the attacks, she says she hardly recognized it any longer. “You could see all the way to the royal palace from the train station. Everything was destroyed.” Feb. 13, Kraut says, has been with her ever since. Every year, she says, she listens for the ringing of the bells and makes her way to the Frauenkirche. “It hasn’t been forgotten.”
A Cellar Full of Death
For Ursula Elsner, 89, Feb. 13, 1945, began with confetti, streamers and whistles. It was fasching, the city’s carnival celebrations. Elsner was 14 at the time and had dressed up as a flower girl, her six-year-old brother went as a native American. The Elsner family lived right next to the Frauenkirche, at Neumarkt Square 3.
On Feb. 13, the children covered the statue of old Luther in front of the church with confetti before returning to the third-floor apartment, where the party with friends continued. Zarah Leander was playing on the radio: “That Won’t Be the End of the World.” But by the time the sirens started blaring at 9:40 p.m., the children had long since gone to bed. “Our mother had a hard time waking us up again. We were exhausted.”
The suitcases had long since been packed and the mother rushed down into the air raid shelter with the children. The vault was considered fireproof and had a heavy steel door. And it was full, with people sitting close together, side-by-side. “We heard the humming of the planes, and then right afterwards, the first strikes.” After 30 minutes, it grew quieter, she says. “Helpers kept bringing in the wounded on stretchers. Until the cellar was crammed full.” She says a woman died right in front of her. “I can still hear rattled breathing.” She says she started crying and wanted to get out.
They went briefly upstairs to their apartment, where all of the windows had been shattered and the curtains were hanging out into the night. The bedding and their dolls were covered in holes from burning embers. They then rushed back down to the shelter.
After two or three hours, the local air raid warden came by and said a new wave of attacks was on the way, but the sirens had been destroyed. He told them not to leave the shelter. “The light flickered, there was a popping and hissing above our heads.” A solder in the shelter yelled: “Open your mouths and cover your ears!”
“There was hissing, booms and bangs,” Elsner says. A bomb hit their building and plaster began raining down from the ceiling. Dust was everywhere and their eyes burned. Elsner says her mother grew desperate, saying: “We’re going to die here. We’ll never get out of here.” Ursula Elsner recalls a vision she had of an angel who winked at her.
The air raid warden came and said the building was on fire and they all had to leave. But nobody moved. “Nobody wanted to go into the hell up above,” Elsner says. One of them started pounding through the thin wall with a hammer into the neighboring cellar. The group then climbed through two cellars full of dead people on the benches. “Nobody had survived. Rows and rows of dead people.”
The mother decided to go up with the children, past burning beams that almost blocked the door. Buildings on Neumarkt Square above were on fire and flames were shooting out of the Frauenkirche. Elsner said they were hit by a strong wind as they came out, the infamous firestorm. It pulled them back and forth, others were pulled directly into the fire. The family, she says, spent hours clinging to a lamp post with other survivors. At some point, the storm abated and they sat down exhausted on the pavement. Their coats caught fire, singing their skin.
Joining a chain of 10 or 12 people, Elsner says, the family ran to the Elbe, past mountains of rubble, and was saved. But their home had disappeared and nobody in the air raid shelter had survived. On Feb. 15, the Frauenkirche collapsed.
Ursula Elsner is planning to be present in the Palace of Culture when Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivers his speech on Thursday. She hopes for a commemoration ceremony that acts as a warning against the horrors of war. Hate, she says, must be combatted. And she would also like to see a nice monument to the victims. “This day belongs to us,” she says.
But how many people actually died in the bombing raids? Arriving at a number in Dresden is just as difficult as agreeing on the proper form of commemoration. The numbers are subject to manipulation – just as they have been from the very beginning.
On March 15, 1945, the SS in Dresden reported to Berlin that 18,375 victims had been counted up to that point and that the final number was likely to rise to 25,000. A short time later, though, the Propaganda Ministry released new numbers to back up the idea of a “monstrous terror attack” on civilians, as the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter would have it. Correspondents from neutral countries were not allowed to visit Dresden, but just days after the air raids, fantastical numbers, likely from Goebbels’ team, began making the rounds.
Citing trusted sources in Berlin, the Svenska Morgonbladet in Stockholm reported 100,000 deaths on Feb. 17, with the Svenska Dagbladet reporting eight days later that the number was “closer to 200,000 than 100,000,” citing official “Third Reich” sources.
The success of the propaganda campaign was astounding, as historian Matthias Neutzner has determined. By summer 1945, a significant share of both the German and Western public believed that there had been “several hundred thousand victims.” That would have meant that more people were killed in Dresden than in the detonation of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, where 80,000 lost their lives in the initial blast.
A falsified document was even in circulation, Daily Order No. 47 from the SS in Dresden, issued on March 22, 1945. It stated that there had been 202,040 victims, with the final total expected to rise to 250,000. Later, though, it was found that someone had added an extra zero to both numbers.
But the debate continued nonetheless. A number of theories were offered up to explain how so many people could have died in a city with a population of less than 600,000. Dresden was full of refugees from the east; the fire was so hot that many people were incinerated without a trace; in the chaos following the firestorm, huge numbers of bodies were secretly buried or interned in the ruins.
Dresden, though, was misappropriated by both the left and the right. Those seeking to criticize the U.S. for its reliance on air power, whether in Vietnam in the late 1960s or in Iraq in 2003, were more than happy to refer to Dresden as an example. The peace movement was likewise fond of citing the Dresden inferno in their Cold War protests against the nuclear arms race.
To others, meanwhile, Dresden seemed perfectly suited to counter Allied efforts at passing judgment on the crimes committed by Germany in postwar courtrooms. Others saw it as a way of relativizing German guilt for the Holocaust. The firestorm could be cited to show that the victors of World War II were no better than the losers. In 1964, the influential German weekly Die Zeit wrote that the attack on Dresden was “probably the largest mass murder in the history of humanity.”
A Monument to the Future
DER SPIEGEL also jumped into the Dresden debate and in 1963, promoted the ideas of historical revisionist David Irving, who was later revealed to be a Holocaust denier. He called the bombing of Dresden a “senseless act of terror” and DER SPIEGEL also printed the inaccurate numbers he provided. Such absurd statistics found their way into the newsmagazine on several occasions, with the victim total of 200,000 still being printed as late as 2003. Other media outlets did the same.
By 2004, the mayor of Dresden, Ingolf Roßberg, had had enough of the debate over the victim numbers and the way the right-wing was increasingly using the uncertainty for its own purposes. He put together a commission of historians under the leadership of Rolf-Dieter Müller, with the group’s final report being issued six years later. The academics had followed every possible lead in their effort to find the truth and had even tracked down the names of most of the victims. Their verdict: Up to 25,000 people had died in the Dresden air raids from Feb. 13-15, 1945. It is that number that the AfD politician Chrupalla contests.
It is a huge number, to be sure. Mourning is not dependent on statistics. Grief is grief. And yet: Is there an acceptable way to consider this number in light of German guilt?
Dresden sought to ease its pain by rebuilding the Frauenkirche, the central building in the city’s once famous baroque skyline. The reconstruction cost a total of 180 million euros and it was dedicated in 2005. The late Martin Roth, then director of the Dresden State Art Collections, said at the time that the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche was more an expression of optimism than of retrograde mourning. “It isn’t just a memorial and a warning, it is a monument to the future,” he said.
The Jewish banker Henry Arnhold, who fled Nazi Germany to the U.S. in 1942, was among the largest donors. His family had been dispossessed by the Nazis before they emigrated. It was quite a gesture: A man who had every right to feel like a victim wanted to help ease the pain of the descendants of those who, while they doubtlessly suffered greatly, had contributed to their own city’s destruction. Arnhold died two years ago in New York at age 96.
But the hope felt back then that the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche might heal the Dresden trauma has proven to be in vain. In the decade-and-a-half since the reopening of the city landmark, the poison of distrust and spite has seeped ever deeper into Dresden. The anti-Muslim group Pegida began marching here even before the 2015 refugee crisis.
As such, reflection is vital. As is listening to those who lived through the bombing and their descendants. We should not give up on this city of arts, but see what it still has to offer: The rebuilt Frauenkirche, the Dresden Cathedral, the Semperoper, which was rebuilt by East Germany. The city’s State Art Collections include 15 museums with several million objects.
Even if resentment is a significant element of today’s Dresden, there is also a different Dresden.
It is this different Dresden that will build a human chain through the city center on Thursday, just as it has for the last 10 years. The organizer is called Arbeitsgruppe Feb. 13, a discussion group that includes leaders from the worlds of politics, religion, business and civil society. Since 2013, the moderator has been Joachim Klose, who is in charge of the Saxony state chapter of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is associated with the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Klose, 55, studied nuclear physics in in Dresden and philosophy at Harvard. As a Catholic in East Germany, though, he was automatically suspected of disloyalty, which meant he was unable to work in academia, pushing him into a career as a heater repairman. He is one of those who refuses to sacrifice the city and its memory to the right wing, which is why he joined AG Feb. 13.
Early on, some of the centrists in the group had trouble cooperating with some leftists because the far-left refused to rule out violence in the fight against right-wing extremists. But they stayed together and continued to work toward using research and education to eradicate the myth of a blameless city attacked for no reason.
Klose has registered a demonstration for Feb. 15, the same day that right-wing extremists intend to march through the city. The demonstrators and the counterdemonstrators are sure to cross paths. The fight for the city’s memory is not over yet.