On Sunday, Dresden commemorates the 60th anniversary of the bomb attacks that reduced the city to rubble. The far-right hopes to capitalize on the tragedy to spread its own message while others focus on reconciliation.
Right-wingers call the bombing a war crime against Germans
No one denies that the near total destruction of this beautiful, Baroque city -- once called the Florence on the Elbe -- was a calamity. But a debate has now been ignited by the right wing about whether it should be primarily seen as a catastrophe Germany brought upon itself, or as the wanton, senseless killing of civilians by enemies of the German state.
B-17 Flying Fortresses of the U.S. Eighth Air Force's Third Air Division bomb German Communications at Chemnitz Marshalling yard near Dresden, Germany, on Feb. 6, 1945 during World War II. Cutting off the rail lines here aided in shutting off the flow of supplies to the German Front. Thirteen hundred B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators bombed this and many other industrial and rail targets throughout central Germany.
The massive bombing raids carried out from Feb. 13 to 14 by Anglo-American forces turned around 85 percent of a city once considered one of the world's most beautiful into a smoldering heap of ashes. Estimates of those killed range between 35,000 and 135,000, yet the attacks, carried out when German forces were already on the retreat and the nation destined for defeat, achieved little militarily.
The high numbers of dead civilians and the seeming pointlessness of the destruction enable right-wing extremists in Germany to spread their xenophobic, revisionist message on the anniversary.
Members of the far right are threatening to upstage the official commemoration on Sunday with demonstrations that could include up to 7,000 of their supporters. German media have said the neo-Nazi march, organized by the country's strongest extreme-right party, the National Democratic Party (NPD), could be the largest since the end of the war.
It comes at a time when the nation as a whole is debating what to do about a recent upswing in the far-right's political fortunes and visibility.
"One thing German politicians do not want are images to be broadcast around the world of neo-Nazis marching during commemorations of important war-time events," said Ulrich Battis, a professor of law at Berlin's Humboldt University who studies the country's far-right movement. Fears are high that banner-waving men with shaved heads taking over Dresden's old town on Sunday as television cameras roll.
Officials worried about right-wingers stealing the spotlight have asked city residents to show their opposition to the far right and turn the occasion from a symbol of victimhood, to one of tyranny of Nazi rule and the destruction it brought on its own citizens. The city has asked people to wear a white rose in their lapel and to gather at Theater Square for a giant candlelit vigil on Sunday night.
The Frauenkirche, shortly before the completion of restoration work
The main nave of the Frauenkirche (photo), Dresden's central cathedral, which was destroyed in the bombings and whose painstaking reconstruction was just completed last year, will be open to visitors for the first time, eight months before its consecration.
Officials hope it will serve as a symbol of reconciliation and forgiveness, and attract media attention away from the right-wingers. They have been at pains to emphasize the fact that the cross on the church's cupola was crafted by a silversmith from Coventry, England, the son of a British pilot who took part in the bombing of the city.
Germany as victim
While Dresden was a city firmly behind the Nazis during World War II and was run by a party member, Martin Mutschmann, renowned for his brutality, the far right plans to focus only on the German victims during the rally. Some are worried that their portrayal of Germany as victim will be an attractive message to many.
"There are many more people today who subscribe to a very simple theory of victimhood and the NPD is able to connect with these people," said Friedemann Bringt, a project manager of the Culture Bureau of Saxony, a group which organizes initiatives to stop the rise of the far right. He said the "mourning marches" that right-wing extremists have held over the past five years on this anniversary have been increasingly well attended.
"The number of older, 'normal' citizens taking part is growing," he said. "It's not just a march of neo-Nazis and skinheads anymore."
According to Bukart Lutz, a sociology professor at the Center for Social Research at the Martin Luther University in Halle, the NPD has been successful in capitalizing on two narratives, both having to do with victimhood, coursing through eastern Germany now.
One has to do with the bombing of a beautiful city with little strategic importance, and the images of charred corpses of women and children in piled in the streets. An NPD member of the state parliament last month called the attack a "bombing Holocaust," much to the horror of Jewish leaders and mainstream politicians.
The other is more contemporary. Eastern Germany is the country's poorest region, with unemployment surpassing 20 percent in some places and the outlook bleak for improvement in the near future. Young people have been especially hard hit. With jobs in scarce supply, many have left for greener pastures in the west.
A group of right-wingers celebrate a flag parade during a neo-Nazi rally in the eastern German city of Leipzig.
Those who have remained, often alienated and with much hope, have proven fertile ground for those recruiting new adherents to the right-wing movement.
Add to that painful welfare and labor market reforms that are being particularly felt in the east, by people of all ages, and the message of victimhood the NPD stresses starts to get through.
Officials are worried about possible violence on Sunday as opposing groups try to get their own interpretation and political points of view across. A loose coalition of left-wingers calling itself "No Tears for Krauts" has said it would "attack the Nazis and the revisionism of the bourgeois mob." Police say they expect some 1,000 anarchists to face around 5,000 far-right extremists, with up to 100,000 visitors to the official ceremonies in the middle.
Semper Opera House in Dresden
Although the topic of Dresden is a sensitive one, according to sociologist Lutz, for the right wing, it is not the unique symbol for their movement. For the extremists, he said Dresden is just a good occasion to continue sowing seeds on fertile ground.
"It's not a problem that is specific to Dresden, rather a problem of East Germany," he said. "It could be something completely different tomorrow. But they are using this to take advantage of what I call as latent explosive potential that exists in the region. The country has to seriously address that, if it's not already too late."