By Patricia Keegan
It was in July, just after President Obama left Dresden that I made my 6th visit to my favorite city in the world. When I heard about the limitations on the President’s visit, I felt sorry for him, so harnessed by the restraints that come with the office. On a hectic schedule, he stayed only one night at the Taschenberg Palais, overlooking the baroque Zwinger Museum. There was tight security everywhere, the city was cleared out for more than 15 hours. He paid a visit to the renowned Frauenkirche, ( Church of Our Lady), he met with officials at the King’s Palace, and the next day he was gone!
Unfortunately, he missed really seeing and feeling the city of Dresden -- still being restored after the Allied (Britain and US) fire bombing on February 14-15, 1945, at the end of WWII. During my stay in the same hotel on my very first night in Dresden in 1995, although restoration was in full swing, rubble from the bombing was still visible in different areas. I could imagine President Obama looking out those great hotel windows in the evening and seeing the surrounding Baroque architecture and the lantern lights shining invitingly on cobblestone streets and wishing he were free to explore. I can almost hear him saying to himself, “One day I will return and really see Dresden.”
For cultural addicts, Dresden is a place that combines the great works of art and architecture gathered by Saxon Kings in the 17th and 18th centuries with the history of the world’s finest musicians and composers who either lived or gave concerts here. In a small city, nurtured on culture and overflowing with everything the soul needs to enrich life, all was well -- until the advent of Hitler and the war. Near the war’s end, with Hitler falling in defeat, Dresden was considered a safe place to shelter from the approaching Red Army, so thousands of women and children poured into the city. Husbands and fathers were still deployed in combat. It was then that Dresden‘s residents, its refugees and all its monuments to beauty were fire-bombed. There were no records of the number of refugees arriving daily, and there is still no accurate tally of the number of people burned to death. Some say as many as 250,000 died, others estimate range as low as 15,000.
Even 64 years later I still haven’t heard a reasonable argument as to why Dresden was bombed. People glibly give me answers wrapped in clichés such as “war is war” and “stuff happens.” For 44 years the question was overshadowed by post-war history as Dresden and East Germany fell under the communist sphere of Soviet empire.
The nightmare of fire bombing, human suffering and political oppression is in the city’s past, and the world has moved on, but it adds a poignancy to Dresden that is even palpable today and bound to affect the sensibilities. I believe the feeling comes from the juxtaposition of the human potential for greatness alongside man’s inhumanity to man.
Who can understand? It is an awesome thing to ponder, but the city of Dresden remains a true reflection of the capabilities of the human spirit. Like few cities in the world, it carries a legacy that, hopefully, will be studied and learned from through generations to come. I believe that legacy also carries a huge responsibility to tenderly care for all that is beautiful and conducive to uplifting that part of the human spirit that yearns to be enriched by other than material gains.
After a four year absence from Dresden, I walked around in awe of the carefully planned restorations of the Neumarkt, the old baroque buildings around the Frauenkirche, and the spectacular King's Palace, a work still in progress. I was thrilled to be back among buildings that spoke to the human potential for greatness, serving as monuments to Germany’s early history when the environment held a soothing power.
But there was a snag -- one that had loomed in my mind and was brought to my attention again by a woman on the train from Dresden International Airport. She was on her way to her mother’s birthday party in Dresden, and later was setting out on a bicycle trek along the Elbe River to Prague. Full of enthusiasm, she told me, “I will pass old castles, and villas and small historic towns. It is an inspiring journey.” She asked if I had seen the advertisements about the “ugly bridge.” She said the bridge would spoil part of a ride such as hers. “I can’t believe we were dropped from UNESCO’s World Heritage List for that bridge!”
The only other site worldwide to have ever provoked deletion was Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in 2007.
Dresden, like every modern city, faces the challenge that change brings. Sometimes its not pretty. This beautiful city recently lost its UNESCO designation over a bridge that is planned across the Elbe River and its unspoiled valley. For me this was hard to fathom. I could only conclude that either UNESCO was out of control, or Dresden had made a huge mistake.
Later I had the opportunity to ask Dresden Mayor Helma Orosz about plans for the bridge. At an opening reception for a new No Violence Revolution exhibit at the Stadt Museum, honoring the 20th anniversary of freedom from Stasi control under communism, I spoke with her. She seemed a little surprised at my question. She told me that the “decision by UNESCO is not discussed anymore.” She said the decision to go forward with the bridge has been made by the court, and there is still a chance of restoring the designation somewhere further upriver. She said all agree it will not affect tourism. The people had voted for the bridge, she said, and the project was already started and nothing would change.
I came away thinking that if the citizens voted for it, they must have taken everything into consideration, including the potential loss of UNESCO’s designation, an outcome which couldn’t help tourism. Without UNESCO oversight there are no limits. The bridge can be designed so large as to obscure views of the historic city from some locations. I still wasn’t sure if this was a done deal -- a lost cause. I know there are thousands of Dresdeners who are not about to give up. They have always wanted to build a tunnel instead of a bridge.
The fact is that in 2005 a plebiscite was held, and with a low voter turnout two thirds voted for the bridge. However, before the plebiscite the people were not informed about the alternative -- a tunnel, nor was UNESCO consulted to find out if the bridge was compatible with UNESCO standards. When Dresden first applied for World Cultural Heritage recognition the bridge was announced, but at a different site, apparently further away from historic areas.
Consider this. For over 500 years the banks along the Elbe were looked upon as sacred territory, and for many centuries animals and rare plants flourished here. People could walk the banks and enjoy the quietly flowing river, but that could end if so called “progress” takes over. The four lane bridge will certainly be a detriment to peace in the valley and will add pollution. Those in favor, including some business owners, say they need the bridge to relieve traffic congestion, some say the other five bridges are old and not strong enough. Those against the bridge roll their eyes and describe it is as a “disaster.” They are afraid this will only precipitate further development of a treasured area, and they dread to think of what could be forfeited next.
It is possible that those who favor the bridge do not see the rarity of the treasure that Dresden offers the visitor. Like every other city it has to respond to change and keep its economy functioning at the highest level. At the same time it cannot afford to take for granted a beautiful and magnetic attraction for tourists and to forfeit a prize like UNESCO World Heritage status in the name of progress.
The keepers of Dresden have to be more careful than other cities not to disturb their unique environment. It is not like any other city in Europe, it fits into an image of “the ideal.” Maybe that’s an unfair burden as compared to most city’s commercial and public works projects. But if it were like any other city, geared toward commerce, it will have lost its presence, its character and its spirit, and that would be a real tragedy.
It would be a shame if President Obama, on his next visit to Dresden after his White House tenure, with the freedom to really enjoy the city, was not able to stroll several miles along the banks of the Elbe without encountering a noisy, four lane bridge.