Quite by happenstance, we find ourselves in Dresden on the 73rd anniversary of its devastating bombing by Allied forces.
In four separate raids, British and American forces dropped more that 3,900 tons of bombs and incendiary devices on this city, resulting in approximately 25,000 deaths. The attack destroyed about 75% of the historical center, making the city a firebombed shell.
Before the war, the city was quite special. Under Augustus the Strong at the peak of its power in the 18th century, Dresden competed with the excesses of Louis XIV, filling the city with Baroque buildings and lavish jewels and artwork. It was filled with architectural confections and a dedication to culture.
What remains in modern Dresden? It is rather astonishing. Having survived the war, the Soviet occupation and the traumas of reunification, Dresden determined to come to life again. Twenty years ago, where we would have seen piles of rubble, there are now complete recreations of the most important buildings in the city.
It’s very difficult to believe that so many buildings have been completely rebuilt, but that’s the truth. The local sandstone turns very sooty after about 50 years, contributing to their disguise as much older buildings. The city has done a brilliant job of recreating their past, and completely avoiding the Disneyland effect. It’s impossible to tell what’s mostly old or mostly new.
My favorite moment was our visit to the Parade of Nobles. This mural survived the bombing, and is made of 24,000 Meissen porcelain tiles. It is longer than a football field – for those who measure distance by this metric – and it illustrates seven centuries of Saxon royalty, after Saxony became part of Germany in 1871.
It is just spectacular to follow along. How wonderful that it survived.
The most amazing risen-from-the-ashes story belongs to the Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady. This landmark Lutheran church was destroyed in 1945, and the ruins sat for decades. Rebuilding began in 1992, and the church was reopened in 2005. The work to be done was enormous, particularly as so many pieces of the original were fitted together like a puzzle, with about a third of the original stones replaced – in their original location.
It is easy to be overwhelmed with remorse about what our side did to this city, as represented by this church. But then, the story takes a twist. Dresden has a sister city – Coventry, in England. What could be better to unite two cities than a shared fate each enacted on the other? What a perfect pairing.
Inside the Frauenkirche is a twisted cross, which fell 300 feet from the top of the church and was found in 1993, where it stands today. An English coppersmith, whose father had dropped bombs on the church on that terrible night, crafted a replica of the original, which now crowns the new church.
There can’t be any better way to tell the story of modern Dresden.
Later: This article was just published in the New York Times. What an eerie mirror of what we have seen and experienced here in Germany.