At some point it should have occurred to me that Dresden might look a little different than Würzburg, that bucolic Bavarian town I’m happy to call home. After all, I knew Dresden’s history: Once Germany’s most beautiful city – “Florence on the Elbe” – on the night of February 13, 1945, an Anglo-American bombing campaign reduced it to rubble, killing an estimated 35,000 people. More than 50 years of communism followed, during which time the city was rebuilt as a “Soviet replica state.”
But had I stopped to think about these details, I would have relegated them to the distant past, having little to do with Dresden as it stands today. After all, I am only just old enough to remember Peter Jennings announcing on “World News Tonight” that the Berlin Wall had fallen and forecasting the eminent reunification of Germany, and that was almost 20 years ago. Surely any differences between East and West would have long ago disappeared, or so I thought. But I guess cities have a longer view of history than 25 year olds. And as Faulkner famously wrote, “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.”
As it was, I was completely unprepared for the change of scenery as my train made its way East. Tidy, well-tended Bavarian villages gave way to gritty industrial towns, where half the buildings seemed abandoned to rust and decay. Dresden, entered from the West, seemed like only the biggest of these.
Actually, Dresden makes an interesting contrast to Würzburg. Both were nearly bombed into oblivion by the Allies, but where Dresden languished under communism for half a century, Würzburg “rose phoenix-like,” the tourist literature likes to say, part of West Germany’s “economic miracle” (Wirtschaftswunder). And so today, where one of Würzburg’s farmers might live in his family’s 19th century farmhouse, it’s been completely renovated, landscaped, and equipped with a two-car garage. A farmer outside of Dresden, in rural Saxony or Thuringa, might live in the same type of house (with its steeper Eastern-style roof), but it’s surrounded by rusting farm equipment, fallow fields, and comes with an old outhouse on the grounds.
[I recently read in Tony Judt’s excellent Post War that in 1989, shortly before reunification, 60 percent of East Germans lacked central heating, 25 percent lacked a bath, and one-third had only an outdoor toilet. Judt also writes that during the period when the Marshall Plan was pumping $14 billion into Western Europe, Stalin extracted the same amount from Eastern Europe.]
The view from my window was more East than West, not unlike what I’d seen on a trip to Eastern Slovakia and Hungary years earlier, but I never would have expected to see the same conditions in the “wealthy” Germany of 2007. It was as if traveling East, I was traveling back in time.
“The past is not over. …” Indeed.
So it’s interesting, then, to find myself in Dresden at a moment when the city is busy erasing this unfortunate period of it’s history and replacing it with an exact replica of the city in all its Baroque glory.
Everywhere I go in Dresden, I see bulldozers tearing down the old Stalinist-style high-rises, those shoddy, soul-destroying concrete blocks that housed droves of drably clad workers. (The “New Brutalism,” one critic called it.) Across from the train station, a whole row of these relics awaits the chopping block. The first supports a 20-foot-tall neon sign, long dark, which reads: “Dresden Grüßt Seine Gäste” (literally, “Dresden Greets Its Guests”). I can just image the implicit message of such propaganda, cir. 1960: “Welcome to Dresden. See our amazing Communist architecture.”
Meanwhile, not two blocks away, a massive building project is underway in the historic Neumarkt. (I love it that in Europe a square called “New Market” is still four hundred years old). A dozen yellow cranes are erecting Baroque-era high-rises to frame the city’s famous Frauenkirche, a symbol of all that Dresden lost during the war and has since regained. Completely destroyed in bombing, the post-war Communist government refused to allow it to be rebuilt, preferring to leave its remains as a reminder of the evil West. Rebuilding started immediately after Reunification and was finished by 2006.
Once these candy-colored buildings are completed, the square will look very much like it did on the morning of February 14, 1945. That’s pretty amazing, when you consider that virtually nothing was there 24 hours later: not the Frauenkirche; not the palatial Zwinger museum; not the Residenzschloß, former home to the extravagantly wealthy Electors of Saxony. Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden as a German prisoner of war, described the scene that day in his novel/memoir Slaughterhouse Five: “Dresden was like the moon now. Nothing but minerals.”
But it’s not as if the locals want to erase this memory from the collective consciousness. On the contrary, that fateful day and its immediate aftermath are the centerpiece of the exhibits at the Staatmuseum and the subject of a popular DVD on sale all over town and available in six different languages. It’s more that they seem to want to forget that Communism ever happened. And I guess I can’t blame them. Baroque palaces are a lot more attractive that Soviet-style apartment buildings, and they have the added benefit of bringing in more tourists.
It’s not hard to imagine how beautiful Dresden will be in a few years, a true destination, “Florence on the Elbe” once again. And if the Staatmuseum ever wants to run an exhibit on what Dresden looked like before the Great Rebuilding, I’ve got a few photos I can loan them.