Commemorating the legacy of the WWII bombing of Dresden | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 12.02.2020

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Commemorating the legacy of the WWII bombing of Dresden

At the end of World War II, Allied forces destroyed the baroque German city on the Elbe. Debate continues about whether the raids were morally or militarily justified. But 75 years on Dresdeners are debunking Nazi myths.

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Bombing of Dresden: A survivor looks back 75 years later

Victor Klemperer was an eyewitness to the Dresden bombings at the end of World War II, on February 13 and 14, 1945. The renowned scholar wrote the most vivid description of the events:

We very soon heard the ever deeper and louder humming of approaching squadrons, the light went out, an explosion nearby. ... Pause in which we caught our breath, we knelt head down between the chairs, in some groups there was whimpering and weeping — approaching aircraft once again, deadly danger once again, explosion once again. I do not know how often it was repeated.

Klemperer, a linguist and Romance scholar, was a Jew who had converted to Christianity. The tragic events in Dresden happened just in time to save his life: He was scheduled to be deported to a concentration camp. His diaries from 1933-1944 are now to be found in the Saxon State and University Library Dresden, one of the largest research libraries in Germany.

Victor Klemperer

Klemperer survived the bombing raid in Dresden out of pure luck

That Klemperer survived was pure luck. He documented what he thought were his final thoughts before death:

In front of me lay a large, unrecognizable open space in the middle of it an enormous crater. Bangs, as light as day, explosions. I had no thoughts, I was not even afraid, I was simply tremendously exhausted, I think I was expecting the end.

Nazi apologist 'mecca'

There has been much debate about whether the Allied bombing of Dresden was a justifiable military attack on a strategic target and necessary to hasten the end of the war or an exaggerated act intended to demoralize the German population and impress the approaching Soviet troops. The fate of Dresden, which retained some of its beauty despite the large-scale destruction, is a prime example for how history is interpreted and twisted, how legends and myths are created. It also shows how difficult it is to debunk even the phoniest tales.

Read more: Dresden commemorates 1945 Allied area bombing with human chain

To this day, propaganda portrays the population of Dresden as the innocent victims of an unjustifiable war crime. The Nazis manipulated casualty reports, inflated the number of dead to more than 200,000 — even half a million. Doing so established a moral equivalency between the killing of civilians in Dresden and the killing of millions of innocent people by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Read more: Should May 8 be a public holiday celebrating Germany's WWII surrender?

In 2005, Dresden's city council commissioned historians to establish the truth. After five years of scrupulously examining documents, they put the casualty figure at 18,000-25,000. Speculation that hundreds of thousands of unregistered refugees may have lost their lives in the attack is completely unfounded, Thomas Widera, of the Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies, who participated in the study, told DW. He said scientific analysis had debunked the claim that a firestorm that tore through the city could have reached temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees Celsius (3,600F), cremating tens of thousands of bodies without a trace.

Most of the victims were buried in the days and weeks after the bombing raids. The systematic clearance work, which began in the late 1940s, did not uncover a high number of human remains.

Read more: To understand Saxony, look at its history

Dresden is located in Germany's east, in the territory that was part of the Soviet-aligned German Democratic Republic (GDR), which existed from 1949 to 1990. During that time the official casualty figure for the bombing was 35,000.

Since the fall of the GDR, the far-right has seen a revival in Germany's eastern regions, with Dresden emerging as a bastion of neo-Nazi sentiment. A record 6,000 extremists took to the streets there to mark the anniversary of the bombings in 2009.

"From 2009 to 2011, Dresden turned into something like the mecca of Europe's far right," said Joachim Klose, a participant in the Working Group for February 13th, which since 2010 has brought together members of Dresden's Jewish community, trade unions, Christian churches, left-wing groups and artists to form a human chain to turn back the far-right demonstrations.

Dresden: neo-Nazis marching in 2011

Thousand of demonstrators take to Dresden's streets on the anniversary of the bombings

Potential for conflict

Klose said residents were initially uncertain about how to react to the aggressive neo-Nazi demonstration, which took the guise of a "march of mourning." In 2010, however, about 7,000 people turned out to peacefully commemorate both the victims of the Allied bombings and the victims of Nazi atrocities.

Read more: Germany far-right extremists handed hefty jail terms

Some groups have called for demonstrators to more directly confront the extremists. Dresden Nazifrei (Nazi-Free Dresden) is urging acts of "civil disobedience" that go beyond "symbolism."

Dresden Nazifrei

Thousands have also staged anti-Nazi demonstrations on the anniversary

Klose fears that many people will stay home out of concerns about the potential for violence at the demonstrations this year. But, he said, he believes that they understand the need to take a stand against neo-Nazi militarism. He said taking a constructive and inclusive approach to dealing with the tragic events would help shape the future.

Widera said determining such a path remained difficult: "It is still a very emotional issue." He sees parallels between the Nazi era and contemporary Germany, in which the nationalist Alternative for Germany party and the xenophobic PEGIDA movement have substantial support in Dresden.

Read more: Bus driver sacked for displaying 'I am German' sign

Events such as the 75th anniversary of the bombardment of Dresden should center commemoration and mourning, Widera said: "Everything else would be inappropriate."

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