“Dresden was no innocent city!” The city’s mayor Helma Orosz is haranguing her citizens in the street. “When we remember the catastrophe which befell the city in 1945, we should think of German bombing of Coventry and Rotterdam. Remember the millions whom Germans slaughtered in Poland, the forced labourers, the destruction of the Jewish synagogue in Dresden, the deportations. There were many Nazis in Dresden and people knew what was going on.”
Where else in the world, I wonder, does a political leader castigate the fathers and grandfathers of her voters so harshly?
But her audience laps it up. It is the 69th anniversary of the British bombing of February 1945 which killed over 20,000 people and destroyed the heart of one of Europe’s most beautiful historical cities. They are not sorry for themselves. I had come a little apprehensively as a Trustee of Britain’s Dresden Trust, set up to further reconciliation and help rebuild the ruined Church of Our Lady. Would they be hoping that I express regret, I wondered?
Not at all. When I tell a young journalist that for all the need to defeat Hitler, I felt the attack was not justified, she crisply retorts: “Why not? It was a military target.”
Well yes, in a way. But by my judgment the firestorms which Britain’s Bomber Command created in German cities were immoral. First they dropped high explosives to crack the buildings open, then thousands of incendiaries to light fires which, if the wind was right, came together in a fiery whirlwind that nobody could escape. They targeted town centres, where the old houses packed together burned better than the military targets located on the outskirts. That these houses were inhabited by civilian old men, women and children, they cared not at all. Indeed the plan was to break civilian morale (it did not work).
The British commander of the raid circling overhead radioed to an incoming wave of bombers, “It’s coming up quite nicely now,” as if he were talking of a bonfire at the bottom of his garden.
But Dresdners don’t have this on their minds today. They want to prevent neo-Nazis from streaming in from all over Germany, to rampage and demonstrate – trying to depict the British attack as a war crime relieving Germans of guilt for Auschwitz. Thousands of neo-Nazis used to come, giving the city a shameful reputation.
Now Dresdners have seized their commemoration back from the fanatics: Mayor Orosz calls on us to join a human chain around the historic centre as a symbolic barrier against the neo-Nazis. I can scarcely find space. 10,000 people last year, 11,000 this year.
It works. Although a few hundred neo-Nazis parade with burning torches the day before, none appear on the anniversary. There is no fighting, no disruption. The crowd clap. They may care little about politics otherwise, but they have done what Germans precisely did NOT do when Hitler was pushing his way to power. They have stood up en masse for normal, decent human values.
Actors, musicians and writers read texts at various points of the old centre. They too are doing what German intellectuals failed to do when the Nazis emerged in the 1930s. They are assuming responsibility for influencing hearts and minds.
I head for the magnificent Semper opera house, painstakingly rebuilt over several decades. The choir launches resoundingly into Verdi’s Requiem evoking the Day of Judgment when nobody can escape God’s fearful reckoning. Another tough choice: Dresdners certainly underwent their punishment by hellfire. After the soloists conclude by pleading God to forgive the sins of the dead and let them rest in peace, the conductor drops his baton, the musicians and audience of 3,000 rise to their feet, and for four or five minutes intense silence reigns. The cathartic emotions bursting to find relief in applause are turned inwards in silent contemplation.
As we file quietly out, the bells of Dresden peal out at 21.40 hours, the time when the first bombs fell on 13th February 1945. Some deep and funereal, others such as those of the Church of Our Lady higher in tone, suggesting life and joy after death and destruction.
In the square outside, hundreds of people stand with candles. At 22.00, the bells fall silent and we troop into the church. A choir chants Dona Nobis Pacem, and teenagers read texts they have written themselves. The pastor is expecting me and asks me to read a piece. It’s Jesus’s invocation to love thine enemy. That puts me on the spot. He says I can add a few words of my own.
When it’s my turn in the pulpit, I read my text and add (in German): “I have come here to represent the Dresden Trust of Britain in a spirit of reconciliation. My mother was German. She was anti-Nazi and was thrown out of her school. My father was English and fought in the British Army. My uncle was a bomber pilot, shot down and killed over Cologne in 1942.
“Immediately after the war, my mother insisted we go to Germany to renew contacts with her German family, even though some had been Nazis. From my German mother, who just died at the age of 101, I learned: after war should come peace.”
The pastor shakes my hand and says he is moved. So am I, and how. I stay in the dimmed splendour of the church till after midnight. When I slip out, Dresden’s teenagers are still going up to the pulpit, one after the other, humbly acknowledging their nation’s past and the terrible chastisement which followed.