The city of Dresden, capital of the Free State of Saxony, in the east of Germany, has a grimly melancholy reputation in the UK as the town most comprehensively destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, a level of destruction with little military or strategic necessity. Over three days in February 1945 British and American bombers killed around 25,000 people (including a lot of prisoners of war – the American author Kurt Vonnegut survived the bombing and wrote about it in his book Slaughterhouse Five). Although more people died in raids on Hamburg (42,600) and Tokyo (c.100,000 – the worst in history), these were much larger cities.
It’s something of a miracle to visit the city now and find it almost completely restored to its baroque splendour. The former “Florence on the Elbe” is now not only a beautiful tourist town but has a relaxed but lively feel about it. It is very hard to imagine how it once lay in ruins. This reconstruction falls into two phases. Some of the buildings were restored during the period of the German Democratic Republic, the communist run state installed by the Soviet Union at the end of the war. Even though the Germans made the best of the communist central planning system and the GDR was the most prosperous of the Warsaw Pact countries, it was still poor by western European standards and restoring historic buildings was not a priority. Surprisingly for a country officially hostile to religion, the main exception was the leading Protestant church, the Kreuzkirche, or Church of the Holy Cross, which re-opened, albeit in a very humble condition, in 1955. It tells you something about human resilience that the church, founded in the twelfth century, has burned down five times, including the WW2 raid, yet has been rebuilt each time.
The Kreuzkirche was the site of the Peaceful Revolution, the movement that eventually led to the overthrow the East German regime, leading to the reunification of west and east Germany in 1990. The centrepiece of Dresden is the Church of Women, the Frauenkirche, built in the eighteenth century by the Lutheran church, a statue of whose founder stands outside in the large market place. The Frauenkirche was left by the East German government as a ruined memorial to the war, though that may have reflected economics as much as symbolism. The church was restored after German reunification and reopened fully in 2005. Unlike the Kreuzkirche, which is still not fully restored, the Frauenkirche is almost magically back to its original beauty, inside and outside. It’s a wonderfully light, uplifting church, not like so many dark and forbidding churches in northern Europe.
The golden tower cross was donated from the UK and made by a British goldsmith whose father flew in one of the raids against Dresden. The church is also part of a network of crosses of nails, which started in the bombed ruins of Coventry cathedral in England in 1940, when some burned nails were twisted together into a cross to symbolise forgiveness. Coventry, which suffered proportionately the worst air raid damage in the UK, though much less badly damaged than many German cities, is twinned with Dresden, which is also twinned with Rotterdam, another city badly hit in the war. There are now 200 churches in the cross of nails network, aiming to bring forgiveness and reconciliation to nations previously at war. Coventry built a new cathedral in modern style, adjoining the ruins of the bombed cathedral. The new cathedral, which is very much a 1960s looking building, has not been universally well received. I think it was the former Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman who said of Coventry’s new cathedral: “We once built railway stations like cathedrals. Now we build cathedrals like railway stations.”