Was it the beginning of the end for the Nazi regime and well-earned punishment for the German war of aggression or the symbol of a senseless Allied bomb campaign against an already conquered civilian population? Hardly any other World War II incident has been interpreted in such different ways as the Feb. 13, 1945, bombing of Dresden.
The fact is, the attacks did decisively weaken Nazi Germany both militarily and in terms of morale. It's also true that one of the world's most beautiful cities was destroyed, a city full of refugees; the death toll remains a point of contention and the extent of the cultural losses enormous.
The myth of the "innocent art metropolis" that was unprepared and unfairly destroyed was started by the Nazis. They used the horrible images of charred bodies and smoldering ruins as propaganda to foment resistance against the Allies in the last weeks of the war. The Nazis portrayed the attack on Dresden as a singular and unnecessary act of brutal destructiveness.
And the myth carried on after the war in communist East Germany's interpretation of the bombing. In a bizarre falsification of the United States' role in the air raids, the GDR turned the yearly commemoration of the victims into a propaganda event against "Anglo-American imperialism."
At the same time, West Germany shamefacedly chose to skip over the civilian population's suffering and write off Dresden -- and other destroyed cities -- as a self-inflicted consequence of Germany's war.
Both approaches -- politically monopolizing the topic as well as neglecting and treating as taboo individuals' suffering -- prepare the ground for the extreme right-wing Pied Pipers who want to use the anniversary for their own aims.
In the meantime, Dresden has developed its own way to commemorate the events. In the early 1980s, a handful of brave Dresdeners used the anniversary of the bombings as an occasion to mount peace movement demonstrations. What started as a ginger protest against the arms race between East and West eventually led to the end of the GDR.
And the Dresdeners also emancipated themselves in another way, taking possession of their own past without irrespective of political correctness. Regardless of misgivings, they started rebuilding the Frauenkirche, whose ruins had been preserved as a memorial. Constructed with active help from Britain, among others, the town landmark stands tall again, as a symbol that reconciliation between peoples must be forged.
On the Frauenkirche site, Dresden will commemorate the victims of the firestorm on Feb. 13, while protesting against neo-Nazis and their attempts to monopolize remembrance.
Peace and freedom are not a condition but a process that can only be successful if dialogue continues with democracy's opponents -- including an honest analysis of one's own history. Slowly, carefully Germany is developing such a new approach to the burdens of history. Nowhere is that as apparent as in Dresden.