Dresden, just a couple of hours south of Berlin, is a beautiful city, especially on a warm early spring weekend. From the Baroque glories of the Zwinger Palace, to the sublime Renaissance Brühl’s Terrace, know as the “Balcony of Europe”, to the magnificent dome of the Frauenkirche, a thousand years of history seems to drip from the very fabric of the city. Appearances can be deceptive though, and what visitors to Dresden see today is a carefully reconstructed version of the ancient capital of Saxony.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the events of 1945 will be aware that, after three days of utterly devastating aerial bombardment, Dresden was little more than a smoking ruin. Bombing raids raised an immense firestorm in the city, temperatures of close to 1,000°C melted glass and metal. It burned oxygen from the atmosphere and people suffocated before being incinerated in their thousands. Many of the dead were found clustered together in cellars, where they’d sought protection from the bombs.
When it was over, the city that was renowned throughout the world as the ‘Florence on the Elbe’ was obliterated. Over than 20km2 of the city was little more than rubble when the shattered population of more than 650,000 people finally reemerged from their hiding places. Dresden had been considered safe, largely because it was of such historic and architectual value. Like Rome, Paris and Kyoto it could, should have been saved from the nearly 4,000 tons of high explosives and incendiaries.
Dresden, to all intents and purposes economically and militarily unimportant to the Nazi war effort, wasn’t a battle. It was a slaughter from the air. It’s little wonder that American novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, based much of his critically acclaimed anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, on his experiences of living through the Dresden bombing raids. Vonnegut, an American serviceman captured at the Battle of the Bulge, survived by hiding in a meat locker at the slaughterhouse where he was held prisoner.
The debate about whether the bombing of Dresden was a war crime still goes on, but Vonnegut recalled that, “When we came up the city was gone … They burnt the whole damn town down.” The most accurate estimates agree that around 25,000 civilians were killed in the attacks between February 13 – 15. The scale of the destruction was so great that after the war, when Dresden found itself in the Soviet zone of occupation, there were serious discussions about whether the entire city should be levelled.
That, thankfully, wasn’t to be Dresden’s ultimate fate. Starting with the beautiful Saxon royal residence, the Zwinger Palace, the Baroque centre of the city was resurrected. A true Phoenix from the flames of war emerged in the decades after the war. While the architectural and artistic treasure trove for which the city was famed will never be fully recovered, a walk along the northern banks of the River Elbe admiring the magnificent cityscape provides a stunning perspective of this remade Baroque beauty.
Our first impression of Dresden was the town’s central Neumarkt late on a Friday night after the drive from Berlin. We’d arrived with just enough time to find a few places still serving food. Our search for nourishment didn’t stop us admiring the illuminated dome of the Frauenkirche. A delicate 18th century architectural beauty that dominates the square and surrounding buildings, the Frauenkirche was left as a ruin after the war and was only reconstructed following German reunification in 1990.
We took a quick stroll around the town after dinner, thankful that the East German authorities hadn’t ploughed all this magnificent history into the ground. We stood on Brühl’s Terrace and admired the view across to the Neustadt, bridges and buildings reflected in the calm waters of the River Elbe. It was peaceful and serene, as far as it could possibly be from those fearsome nights in February 1945.