Grainy black-and-white photos of Dresden, Germany, as an ash-covered, bombed-out city with piles of burned corpses in the streets are all that remains of the days and years of annihilation that followed after the WWII bombings in early 1945. Or are they?
I write this on February 13, 2017, Dresden’s Memorial Day, on which the city commemorates February 13, 1945, the day the British and American allies began the bombing of this historic city, sometimes called “Florence of the Elbe River” because its church domes, spires, and ornate palaces and opera house are reminiscent of Florence, Italy.
The bombing turned much of the historic Old City to rubble. Few structures withstood either the bombs or the ensuing inferno generated by about 650,000 incendiary bombs the Allies dropped on the city within 48 hours. The human toll was about 25,000 people, mostly civilians.
Some say Dresden was an “innocent” city with no Nazi ammunition factories or tactical advantage for the war.
Others, including my guide for the “Slaughterhouse Five” tour (more about that in my next post), point out that in 1934, Dresden welcomed Hitler with open arms when he attended an opera at the Semper Opera House in the Theatreplatz. In honor of the fuhrer, Dresdeners renamed their theater square as “Adolf-Hitler-Platz.”
In addition, there seem to have been some logistical centers located in Dresden during the war. Apparently, armaments were stored there, and military training was done in or near the city. These may have been for defense of the city—in times of war, it’s always difficult to know where to draw the line. And after almost six years of the war, the Allies were desperate to finish it, although Dresden’s destruction may not have played much of a part, other than as a display of terrorism.
The Symbolism of the Church of Our Lady
The primary symbol of Dresden’s destruction is the Lutheran Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), which had one of the largest domes in Europe. Several hundred people took shelter from the bombs in the church’s underground vaults and crypts.
The church withstood the bombing for two days, but ultimately, the dome collapsed on the morning of February 15 from extreme heat; the temperature surrounding the church was estimated at 1,830°F. Reports say the church pillars became red-hot and exploded and that the outer walls shattered. More than 5,000 tons of stone plummeted to earth. The people in the basement evacuated just in time, only to succumb to the firestorm outside.
For decades, Dresden remained a city of rubble. The East German communist government cleared the streets of tons and tons of rubble, and decided to leave the two pieces of wall that stood as a memorial to war. After German Reunification, plans began to rebuild the Frauenkirche. In 1993, archaeologists numbered every stone in the Frauenkirche ruins and photographed each stone’s location before clearing the area for reconstruction. “Rebuilding by replacing every stone that still existed into its original place became the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle,” says Grit Jandura, PR manager for Frauenkirche Dresden.
The church was completed and re-consecrated on October 30, 2005. It now stands as regally as ever, dominating the Neumarkt Square, with the statue of Martin Luther in front standing upright again. (During the bombing, he was “knocked out of his shoes” as the German expression says; only his feet on the pedestal were intact.)
War and Peace
The rebuilt church is now a monument to peace and reconciliation after the horror of war; perhaps the wounds have healed, yet the painful scars from the bombing still exist, says Jandura. I found a number of stories about the church’s resurrection to be especially touching. For instance, on the altar is a cross made from three iron nails taken from the ruins of England’s Coventry Cathedral, which the Germans blitzed in November of 1940. Both Dresden and Coventry suffered a similar tragedy during WWII, and with this gift, they are forever linked.
Also, the tower cross that crowned the Frauenkirche’s dome was bent and melted after it fell. It is now displayed inside the sanctuary as a reminder of the destruction, but the new tower cross atop the church was donated by the people of the United Kingdom, the country that dropped the first bombs. The Englishman who insisted on crafting the metalwork for that cross, free of charge, turned out to be the son of one of the pilots who bombed Dresden.
There are those who say that the restored Church of Our Lady is lovely, but it’s no longer a harsh reminder of wartime attrocities. “Many wonder how they can teach children the cruelty of war now that the Frauenkirche is whole again,” says Jandura.
Outside the Frauenkirche during my February 2017 visit was a temporary art installation of upended buses by Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni that serves as a monument to contemporary wars. In Aleppo, people have been using buses as barricades against sniper bullets.
The bus art installation—raw, mechanical, and titled “Monument”—was quite controversial, yet it was a new testament to war’s horrors. In Dresden, where the Frauenkirche has returned to “normal,” it’s unsettling to remember that the world is still filled with violence and hatred, and that wars rage on.
—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor