Seventy years ago, Allied bombers attacked Dresden, killing tens of thousands of people, the majority of them civilians and refugees. Every year, the East German city remembers its dead. DW's Naomi Conrad was on hand.
As the tram trundled through Dresden's drab suburbs on Friday morning, a prim, elderly woman suddenly turned to her friend sitting on the seat beside her: "You know, my mother never told me about the bombings." She shrugged, then, after a moment's pause, continued. "It must have been such unspeakable hell that she just couldn't talk about it," the woman said. She was referring to February 13, 1945 - the morning, exactly 70 years ago, when Allied bombers swooped down on an unsuspecting city famous for its baroque architecture and that, until that point, had survived the war mostly unscathed.
That was to change in the course of three dreadful days: As the bombs rained down on the city, its churches and palaces were turned to rubble. Up to 25,000 people - many of them refugees fleeing the advancing Soviet Red Army - died in the inferno that raged in the city for days. "There was nothing left, nothing," a frail, bent man with a checkered cap recalled, "just rubble and death."
He was leaning on the balustrade of a viewing platform in Dresden's old gasometer, staring down at the 360-degree painting by the Iranian-German artist Yadegar Asisi; sirens howled from hidden speakers and strobe lighting illuminated the ruined churches and black smoke billowing from the burnt skeletons that were once buildings. The man swallowed, his voice hoarse, barely audible: "It's so hard being here." The soundtrack and images, he said, "bring back too many memories."
'So, so many dead'
He was 15, he recalled, working on a school essay when the sirens began to wail. He never finished the essay. Instead, he ran for shelter with his family. When they returned home three days later, the roof had been blown off, the windows smashed. "But we were lucky: We survived," he said. "There were so, so many dead." His voice broke and, muttering an apology, he shuffled off.
The bombings were intended to break the German population's morale - a decision that to many was incomprehensible, given that the war had long been decided and Dresden's economic and strategic importance was relatively minimal. Consequently, the death and destruction wreaked by the Allied bombers quickly became a tool, first for the Nazi propagandists in the last months of the war, then by the East German regime for its anti-West propaganda, and then later by neo-Nazi groups, who traditionally congregate on February 13.
Even today, "the debate continues about guilt and innocence, even about the exact number of victims," Dresden Mayor Helma Orosz told a packed audience, including delegations from abroad, gathered for a memorial service in the city's Frauenkirche, which in 2005 was rebuilt with the help of private donations after Germany's reunification, many of them from the United States and Great Britain.
Call for peace
"War, hatred and violence begin in people's minds," Orosz said. "We must resist any attempt at once again categorizing people based on their origin and skin color," she added, referring to what has often been described as a right-wing catchall movement called PEGIDA, generally translated as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, which has taken to the streets in Dresden since October.
Later, on a platform overlooking thousands of people, many of them wearing white roses as a sign of peace while bracing the icy cold outside the church, Orosz called on Dresden to remember every victim of the Nazi terror - a plea that was reiterated by German President Joachim Gauck when he took to the microphone: “We don't want the pain that people suffered here to be misused by others.” Behind him, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who, back in the Frauenkirche, had talked of the “miracle that peace in Europe represents,” leaned in closer to his interpreter.
Then, as evening fell over Dresden and church bells tolled, thousands - possibly as many as 10,000, according to the city's press office - lined up along Dresden's riverfront, holding hands to commemorate the dead and call for peace as police men dressed in black riot gear looked on.
"I can remember it all," Siegfriede Leonhard, a vivacious woman in her late 70s said. She was 7 when the bombs fell, she said, and had been coming to the commemorations in Dresden "for at least 60 years." Sometimes, she said, stomping her feet to keep warm, she wondered whether she shouldn't remember at home, alone. "But then I think of all the people who've misused this event - and I decide to come." She smiled.