President Frank-Walter Steinmeier did his best to balance German aggression and victimhood at the 75th anniversary of the Dresden bombing, one of the most politically difficult events from the end of World War II.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier chose his words carefully on Thursday as he marked what is perhaps the most difficult of this year's anniversaries linked to the end of World War II — the bombing of Dresden.
"When we remember the history of the bombing war in our country today, then we remember both: the suffering of the people in German cities, and the suffering that Germans inflicted on others," he said his speech at Dresden's Kulturpalast concert hall, part of a ceremony attended by Britain's Prince Edward and a host of Saxon politicians.
"We don't forget," Steinmeier continued. "It was Germans who started this horrific war, and by the end it was millions of Germans who carried it out — not all, but then many out of conviction."
The president also acknowledged the Allies' responsibility for the Dresden bombings while couching the issue in a wider context. "The question of Allied guilt leads down wrong detours if they're asked in order to relativize German guilt," he said.
At the same time, he warned against "trivializing" the suffering of the Germans who were bombed. "Those who present the bombardment as 'just punishment' or ridicule gestures of power, they too do not do justice to history, they too mock victims."
A city in a firestorm
Some 25,000 people lost their lives over the initial three days of the attack, in which many people burned to death in the thousands of fires that burned throughout the city. The first bombings were carried out in two waves, three hours apart to hamper those trying to put out the fires. "There must have been tons of human bone meal in the ground," Kurt Vonnegut, a witness to the bombing as a US prisoner of war, wrote in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
Another witness was Christoph Adam, an 89-year-old who attended Thursday's event in the Kulturpalast. "I was in the cellar of a big building with 40 other people," he told DW. "In the second attack I was on the street, and my family and I couldn't find anywhere to hide. The buildings were shut, the gardens were shut. I saw it for about three quarters of an hour. The whole street was on fire."
Now Adam, who has himself interviewed historians about the bombing, thinks the only solution is total disarmament.
"War is always terror, it escalates on both sides," he said. "We can't make any accusations against others, but we lived through this. Germany should now set an example: disarmament, banning the arms trade, banning military missions."
An alternative vigil
Dresden's official mourning ceremonies on February 13 always take place under a cloud of wariness. As dignitaries gather in churches and halls to listen to speeches and solemn organ music, so too does the country's far-right scene, which has turned the 1945 Dresden bombings into a symbol of how the Allies rewrote the history of World War II.
For many years, there was a bitter debate about the true death toll of the attack. Using inflated numbers first propagated by the Nazi regime, neo-Nazis still portray the bombing as a war crime that murdered up to 300,000 people. A 2010 historical investigation commissioned by the city, which established that 25,000 were killed over the three nights, has done little to assuage the day's fraught atmosphere in the city, which has become a locus of far-right sentiment.
Far-right demos have become a regular feature of the Dresden anniversary, an event that in recent years has been taken over by the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Another neo-Nazi group is also planning to gather in the city on Saturday. To counter the far-right processions and reclaim the commemorations, the city has organized a "human chain" through the city for the past decade.
Members of the AfD, Germany's most successful far-right party since the war, were on hand on Thursday. They set up an "info-point" on Dresden's Altmarkt Square ahead of a vigil in the evening, a nationalist parallel to the official commemorations.
"We decided not to talk about the numbers at all this year," one AfD member told DW guardedly, referring to the procession. "It doesn't matter how many it was."
"The other events try to relativize this devastating bombing of Dresden, and put it into the context of what happened around the world," Jörg Urban, head of the AfD in Saxony, told DW. "They talk about the civil wars that happen around the world, saying that this kind of thing happens everywhere, and forget that we as a city had an individual fate. For Dresdeners, commemorating the victims has always been an identity-forming event. We want to keep it as a local Dresden event."
This did not impress Nora Lang, another survivor of the bombing who took part in Thursday's ceremony. "I've had enough of National Socialism. It stole 13 years of my life," she said. "Anyone who propagates that ideology has no good intentions. I regret that so many people vote for this party."