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German city of Dresden commemorates WWII bombing

February 14, 2024

Residents of the eastern German city formed a human chain to remember the victims of the 1945 Allied bombing. This year's commemoration came amid fears of rising far-right popularity.

Several thousand people form a human chain around the Old Town for ten minutes with the chimes of the Dresden churches at 6 pm on February 13, 2024.
The human chain through much of the city center has been an annual fixture in the commemorations since 2014Image: Matthias Rietschel/dpa/picture alliance

Residents of Germany's eastern city of Dresden gathered in the city center on Tuesday evening to commemorate the city's destruction by Allied bombing in World War II 79 years ago.

Thousands of people formed a human chain at 6 p.m. local time (1700 GMT), observing a moment of silence as the city's church bells rang out.

On February 13, 1945, an allied bombing attack leveled the city to the ground, leaving an estimate of 25,000 killed. It was designed as a way for British and American planes to assist the Red Army's advance on Berlin from the East. 

But participants in the human chain were also remembering the victims of those killed in the German bombing of Coventry, Dresden's English twin city, in 1940.

Why is this year's commemoration especially different?

The human chain was this year meant to send a signal for peace and democracy.

Commemorations had long been tense in Dresden, with the issue and past memorials frequently a magnet for the far-right, who would often drastically overstate estimated casualty figures or to try to depict Germany as more of a victim than a perpetrator in World War II. 

In 2014, the idea of forming a massive human chain each year to symoblically reclaim the city from far-right demonstrations on January 13 was first established — and became an annual tradition. 

People form a large candle with their lights on Neumarkt square on February, 13, 2024.
Candles and messages of peace were placed in a display on the Neumarkt (New Market) squareImage: Matthias Rietschel/dpa/picture alliance

This gained added significance this year, as the demonstration took place as the AfD fares strongly in the polls, particularly in the state of Saxony that Dresden is capital of, and as many Germans have begun regularly protesting against their increased support. 

The motto for this year's human chain was "vigilant together."

When addressing the crowd, Dresden's mayor alluded both to recent crimes targeting asylum seekers in the city and to an increase in crimes thought to be motivated by anti-Semitism in the aftermath of Hamas' attack on Israel and its subsequent military retalliation in Gaza. 

"Racism and inhumane world views are on the rise in our society," Dresden Mayor Dirk Hilbert said. "Anti-Semitism is being openly flaunted again. Houses are also being set on fire in our city to prevent people who have a right to a fair asylum procedure from moving in."

A large crowd of people gathered and singing in front of Dresden's Palace of Culture on the 79th anniversary of the city being heavily bombed in World War II. February 13, 2024.
Thousands of people observed a moment of silence as the city's church bells rang outImage: Matthias Rietschel/dpa/picture alliance

Police report peaceful afternoon and evening, but deploy pepper spray later

Dresden's police said in their late-night summary of the day's events that morning and afternoon memorials had taken place "without incident." 

It also said the city's chief of police Lutz Rodig joined the evening human chain. 

For the evening, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party planned events in the landmark Old Market Square, the Altmarkt, in coordination with other right-wing movements. Counter-protests by left-wing extremists were also planned in the same location.

"Police held the two sides apart and simultaneously enabled a protest within eye- and earshot of each other [for the two groups]," police said. 

"Isolated attempts from left wing individuals to break through the police cordon were prevented by officers. In this process, pepper spray was also used." 

Aerial photo showing the severe and widespread damage in Dresden, taken around February 14 or 15, 1945, shortly after the bombing.
Much of Dresden's city center was left in rubble after the bombing raid designed to assist the Red Army's advance on Berlin on the eastern frontImage: akg-images/picture-alliance

rmt/msh (AFP, dpa)

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