Pinky Kase on Dresden
I remember Dresden well. We were on a cruise on the Elbe in Germany and we stopped there and gazed at the blackened ruins of the Frauenkirche which had collapsed from fifteen hundred degree heat during the bombing of Dresden in 1945. The statistics of the bombing really have to enter into this discussion because on the night of February 13, 796 bombers of the British Royal Air Force unloaded more than 2600 tons of munitions over the city; the next day 431 American B-17 planes released another 700 tons of bombs over residential areas and rail yards. I have known about Dresden since that time because America and Britain have both been heavily censored for the devastation of the city and the deaths of thousands of people. It has been compared to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and celebrated by Kurt Vonnegut in “Slaughterhouse-Five”.
While we were there we were exposed to an admittedly benign request to contribute to a project to reconstruct the 18th century cathedral. All of the other buildings in the area and the Palace of the Saxon Kings had already been restored and rebuilt. I refused to contribute to the fund because I had no intention of funding the rebuilding of the church. To me the power of the bombed out church in Berlin was a far better treatment of the destruction of war. Let those who believed in the church rebuild if they chose. Now, 15 years after our exposure to the city’s soft gemutlicheit appearance, its Baroque church and neoclassical art museums, its opera, its plethora of Meissen china have all been recreated.
Dresden has now come into the newspapers because Daniel Libeskind , the famous architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the 9-11 planned memorial in New York, has designed an addition to the Albertstadt arsenal which will be reunified Germany’s first comprehensive military history museum. This should not have created any brouhaha; it is simply a small improvement to an existing building, right? No! Why? Because it has called back into play the entire history of Dresden and the sentiments of its inhabitants through the ages up to the current 21st century. Here is a piece of architecture which has esthetic concepts which make the world look back at not only World War II but Saxon kings and nobles and the church over a 300 year span.
So let us try to go back in time in Dresden and then link up all the strange and new happenings in this story. Dresden was bombed because it was a large industrial center with many factories converted to military production, with slave labor producing bomb sights, fuses and other military hardware. It was a rail hub for the movement of German troops. Saxon kings had brought Italian stone masons to create the lush buildings in the center during the Baroque period, and the residents of Dresden referred to their city as Florence on the Elbe, a stopping point on the grand tour. It was a city that was softer and warmer than other German cities, and its citizens felt that its beauty was a safeguard against Allied destruction.
But within this seeming softness Dresden also had a history of Anti- Semitism that was violent even by German standards. By 1933 they had already embraced Nazism enthusiastically and completely. During the Nazi era it was a place of terror that ostracized, humiliated, warehoused, tortured and finally annihilated its Jews.
Realistically we can look at both sides, the Allies and the Nazis, and find “immoral” actions, but this bombing was neither irrational nor unusual. It saved the lives of perhaps 200 Jews out of the original 6000 who had once lived in the city. Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, told reporters in neutral countries that Dresden had no war industries and that the raid was an act of cultural desecration and mass murder. Goebbels submitted death tolls of one hundred to two hundred thousand and many still accept this greatly inflated figure. When Dresden came under East German rule, the Communists perpetuated the exaggeration, which was finally given thorough acceptance by David Irving, the British historian who was a major denier or the Holocaust. Vonnegut picked up his knowledge of the bombing from Irving’s book, and the falsehoods have continued to this day. He says of the Dresden bombing, “not many Americans knew how much worse it had been than Hiroshima.” And so, today Saxony still has virulent and vocal neo-Nazi and far right groups who pour into Dresden by the thousands on February 13 each year screaming Auschwitz plus Dresden=O.Ben McGrath writes, “Dresden is the Blanche DuBois of German cities– violated, complicit in its violation, desperate to recover its innocence. It has the unstable character of a place with a romantic self-image and a past it would rather not discuss…. The city sees itself as an ornament of European high culture, and it has gone to great lengths to remove signs of tarnish.” The rebuilding of the Frauenkirche was the last reconstruction to take place and it was completed with donations from ordinary Dresdeners.
One of the major benefactors, an American citizen now, summed up his action, “It’s the idea of the Frauenkirche that is important. Germans are very proud of their culture, and they’s better be. After Auschwitz, there’s very little to be proud of to be German. But there’s still culture– There’s Mozart and Beethoven and Goethe.” His point in recovering Baroque Dresden was not to forget the war, he implied, but to find a way to compensate for it.
So now we return to the 21st century and Daniel Libeskind. The Albertstadt arsenal is being dramatically recast into this major military museum. It has been a military arsenal since the 18th century, a three story neo-classical building with a huge colonnaded arch over its entrance. It is heavy and huge and it looms over Dresden; its function seems to deny the city’s professed devotion to peace. It has served as a burial ground or repository for all the machines of war since 1897. Libeskind’s design creates a five story glass and steel wedge that slices through the arsenal from back to front at an oblique angle, bursts through the facade and juts outward toward the city like the prow of a ship breaking through an iceberg.
Within the glass extension, the arsenal’s original exterior remains intact–the building is protected as a landmark–yet the effect of the wedge is so violent that it seems to deal a deathblow to the arsenal. The citizens of Dresden are shocked and concerned. Far right groups want to know why the winning architect is Jewish; they have made the redesign an election issue in Saxony. However most of Germany is hardly aware of it imminent completion because there has been no fanfare, no celebration of its existence. The time is now because the Albertstadt changes will be completed in April or May of 2010. Reunified Germany is trying to normalize the place of the military in its democracy.
However reunification of Germany has not produced for Dresdeners any period of self-scrutiny; the Elbe River Valley is often known as the Valley of the Clueless. The only possible way is for Dresden and the German government to acknowledge, again and again, the crimes of the past. Dresden’s Jews are scarcely remembered. There is a memorial bench in one of its parks that still has a marker that says “For Aryans only” and that Jews were banned from even walking there. Dresden must acknowledge all of the war’s victims without yielding to the temptation of equivalence; to see the evil of all war and also the evil that led to World War II and the Holocaust; to remember the firestorm that killed thousands but also the city that practiced genocide of Jews. The gash in the building must remember that this devastation took place in the sixth year of a huge war, that there were twelve years of Nazi crimes, that there were eight concentration camps in Dresden with three thousand prisoners.
Dresden can only succeed in this effort if it takes leave of the picture postcard nostalgia of old Dresden. The Libeskind addition to the building transforms it into a symbol of all of the horrors of war.