Spotlight On Dresden

Dresden — the Death of Enlightenment

Patricia Keegan

No place on earth tells the tragic tale of man's inhumanity to man more vividly than the city of Dresden. No place on earth stands as a monument to the glorious affirmation of the human potential for good, than the city of Dresden. In this, the 21st century, with violence still considered an option in international conflict, a visit to witness the restoration of Dresden can only inspire and reinforce the more noble side of our human calling.

The saturation bombing of the historic city of Dresden, dubbed 'Thunderclap,' occurred on February 13 and 14, 1945, just three months before the end of World War II, and after the meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta. Ironically, though the allies knew the outcome of the war, the Royal Air Force and American Flying Fortresses dumped some 650,000 bombs on the non-military, cultural center of Dresden. The phosphorus bombs fed a raging firestorm that sucked oxygen from the air causing suffocation among inhabitants. Temperatures rose to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, melting steel and cooking concrete and stone to dust. 35,000 city dwellers and an unknown number of refugees fleeing east from the Soviets died, perhaps 100,000 total.

In his book, Dresden 1945 -- The Devil's Tinderbox, Alexander McKee says that in the aftermath of this vengeful bombing there was great controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. It set in motion a number of embarrassing questions on the morality of this form of attack. Winston Churchill, who had wholeheartedly supported the raid, said in a memo to the British Chiefs of Staff, 'the destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of allied bombing.'

The fire burned for days turning the 'city of Saxon Kings' to smoldering rubble. Dresden, fondly called the Florence on the Elbe, and a center of cultural wonders, was demolished. The masterful ensemble of baroque architecture, including the famous Zwinger Museum, the Palace, the Opera House and the Frauenkirche were destroyed. The death of Dresden and its cultural treasures was mourned throughout the world.

Ode to Joy

On my first visit in 1999, driving through the heart of Dresden on a lovely April evening in search of the Kempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais, nothing had quite prepared me for the sudden impact of this splendid city. In the glow of sunset I saw narrow streets leading to a large square surrounded by Baroque splendor. Along the frieze at the top of the Hofkirche I saw a parade of statues outlined against the pink, evening sky, hands and faces lifted heavenwards, in what struck me as a poignant gesture of trust. As we explored further, I glimpsed a golden dome, the gilded Polish Crown of the Zwinger, shining between two buildings. We could see part of the restored Zwinger, which looked as large as the Louvre in Paris. We passed a wire-fenced area where I could see piles of rubble carefully stacked and labeled, large pieces of statues that had once contributed to the glory of Dresden all piled together, smaller pieces in their own pile.

Slowly, an overwhelming jubilance took hold until I reached a point when I wanted to jump out of the car to celebrate what I was witnessing and all its symbolic meaning. The rising from the ashes, restoration of hope, stones rolled back, and fragments made whole again. It was a combination of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It was time to rejoice.  I felt like Oscar winner Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful. I wanted to be him; I could see him. He would run to the center of the square gathering together an orchestra and filling the entire city with the soaring sounds of Ode to Joy in celebration of the indomitable power of good over evil. I was filled with the German poet Schiller’s description of joy written in 1785, he speaks of joy as a force that can both cause the sun to fly across the firmament’s splendid design, and bring flowers to bloom.

In Ode to Joy the poet Schiller speaks of his deep longing to reach above the starry canopy and find God who will reward sorrow and poverty with joy, when revenge and anger will be forgotten, when our deadly enemy will be forgiven and none will shed tears anymore. 

Dresden could be cause for the celebration of Schiller’s vision. I could imagine Benigni smiling, laughing, and bowing many times in honor of all who had lost their lives and in honor of their families, friends and survivors, who, against opposing forces, persisted in restoring Dresden to its cultural heritage. Benigni would bow to all of the women who came with broken hearts, day-by-day, sorting countless piles of rubble left by the bombs. He would praise those who tenderly picked up pieces of angel wings and charred, cracked faces of smiling cherubs, harvesting them in piles, believing that one day, each and every one would find its special place again.
 What lay before me was tremendous cause for an exuberant, Schiller/Benigni style celebration. Reigning in my joy I just stayed where I was, in the car, and silently thanked God for the privilege of seeing Dresden for the first time.  Little did I know, on that first evening, that I had been smitten with Dresden and would return again and again.

Exploring Dresden

Ashes no more, Dresden, once the center of splendor and enlightenment, its famous skyline almost complete, shone for us under blue skies and warm sunshine. A sprinkling of tourists added an airy liveliness to the city.  There seemed so much to do and see here that it was hard to make a choice but first we must explore on foot and walk to the Elbe River
 Leaving the Kempinski, located across the street from the Zwinger, we took a red and white Stadtrundfahrt bus tour of the city.

The bus was equipped with multi-language headphones and offered a brief history of each building and an overview of bygone days when Dresden was surrounded by moats, walls and ramparts. The city owes its cultural stature to Augustus the Strong (1670 -1733) and his son, Augustus III, (1696-1763), both electors of Saxony and Kings of Poland, who transformed a former modest princely residence into a royal city with a lavish court. In this climate the arts flourished, fueled by the ruler's voracious collecting appetite. During the first half of the 18th century, Dresden became a mecca for artists, craftsmen, architects, and theatrical and musical performers. They came from Paris, Venice, Verona, Bologna, Brussels, and Copenhagen, and from nearby Aussig, Erfurt and Weimar. While Augustus the Strong championed all the arts and industries of his native Saxony, his son devoted himself to the fine arts.

We passed areas that looked new as the guide spoke of the 'devastating wound to the city' and pointed out one side of the street that had been destroyed while the other side retained lovely old villas. He pointed to Hitler's villa which, ironically, had not been hit, while his sister's house nearby was bombed. We left the bus near the Blaues Wunder Bridge and took the cable car up a steep hill to the lovely Loschwitz area and the house at Schillerstrasse 19, now a small museum, where Frederick von Schiller finished his play Don Carlos. We walked to the nearby Luisenhof Hotel and had coffee on a wide terrace offering a panoramic view of the city. In the stillness, broken only by birdsong, we looked across this beautiful valley, with the wide ribbon of the Elbe, winding and curving its way along grassy banks, eternally bringing continuity and hope to this wounded city.

Returning to the old city center, we added a new dimension to a growing appreciation of Dresden by visiting the sprawling, baroque Zwinger Palace, which houses five museums. A walk through the awe-inspiring Old Master's Gallery, home to one of the most important collections of art history in the world, is packed with Italian Renaissance, Italian Baroque, Flemish and Dutch masters of the 17th century. These paintings, from all over Europe, flowed into Dresden after Augustus the Strong took the throne in 1670, interrupted only in 1756 by The Seven-Year War. The acquisition of the 100 best paintings from the collection of the Duke of Modena in 1745 and Raphael's Sistine Madonna, are spectacular. For us, the most unforgettable was the very old, but still clear, Titian's Tribute Money painted around 1516, in which the artist summarizes the story of Jesus meeting with the Pharisee. The angle of the head and hands of Jesus, and the contrasting auras of the two men, tells the profound story. This outstanding collection will draw the art enthusiast back again and again. 

The Zwinger was badly damaged during the war, and although structurally rebuilt, finer details like the replacement of sculptures are still in progress. Here again, visitors take photos of the array of broken, soot-blackened statues -- heads, arms, and torsos of sculpted stone, gathered together and ready to be cleaned and returned to their special niche in baroque architecture. The Zwinger's graceful, courtyard fountain is framed by an open-air gallery with several charming portals, one accessible by an ancient drawbridge.

Next to the Zwinger is the completely restored Semperoper, (Semper Opera House), which, with or without the sound of music, is a joy to behold. The first opera house on the site opened in 1841, but burned down three decades later. Magnificently rebuilt in 1878, it was completely destroyed by the allied bombing of1945. Completely restored by the craftsmen of Dresden, costing millions to rebuild during the communist era, it opened again in 1985. The Dresden opera has a tradition going back 350 years, and many works by Richard Strauss, Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner premiered here.

A visit to the Albertinum is more than a walk through a museum; it is an experience. The Grunes Gewolbe (Green Vault) is what visitors remember the most. The museum is softly lighted; even the walls seem brushed with gold, just enough light to highlight a sprawling collection of precious stones set in dazzling jewelry collections, ceremonial weapons and miniatures of every kind. With diamonds, rubies, sapphires and garnets dating from the 1700's, its treasures include the world's biggest green diamond of 41 carets and a stunning group of 137 gem-studded figures entitled Court of Delhi on the Birthday of the Great Moghul. Amazing in its detail, this magical creation was fashioned by Johann Melchior Dinglinger, court jeweler to Augustus the Strong. The display is a magnet for wide-eyed children and people like me, who stand mesmerized, noses pressed against the glass.

The Albertinium also houses the New Masters Art Gallery, with renowned 19th- and 20th-century paintings of leading French and German Impressionists. 

In seeing Dresden's amazing collections of art and treasures, visitors might wonder how all this could have survived the war. In Dresden 1945, author Alexander McKee refers to a GDR guidebook that offered its own explanation. 'Red Army soldiers and Soviet art specialists recovered the treasures of the Dresden collections which had been hidden underground by Nazi leaders… Between 1955 and 1958, in a magnificent act of friendship, the Soviet Union returned a total of some 1.5 million treasures, which it had preserved for mankind, to the German Democratic Republic.'

McKee writes that this grand gesture was not unconnected with the East German revolt of 1953, and a need to conciliate the population.

The scaffold-wrapped Frauenkirche, (the Church of Our Lady), is, for many, the most poignant symbol of the destruction of Dresden. The city's famous skyline had always been dominated by the cupola, turrets and enormous dome of the Frauenkirche, Germany's most important Protestant church until its destruction in the bombing of 1945. Finished in 1743, the Frauenkirche was an architectural and engineering masterpiece. Its most outstanding feature was its huge, bell-shaped dome of solid stone, a monumental edifice comparable in importance to Michelangelo’s dome for St. Peter's in Rome. The church's organ was built by famed organ builder Gottfried Silbermann and played by Johann Sebastian Bach. Works such as Mahler's 'Eighth Symphony' and Wagner's 'Love Feast of the Apostles', were written for the Frauenkirche and performed with 1,300 singers and musicians.

It had been built as a Protestant cathedral, even though King Augustus the Strong was a Catholic convert. His support of the Church's construction made the Frauenkirche an important symbol of religious tolerance. However, the bombing raids of February 13-14, 1945, annihilated the civilized world's growing sense of common cultural values for some time. The rubble of the Frauenkirche lay untouched in the middle of the city for over 45 years, a reminder of the destruction of war.

With the unification of Germany came the decision to reconstruct the church. Beginning in 1992, the pieces were removed, matched to a virtual model for placement, sorted, labeled and stacked on long shelves across the street as reconstruction proceeds. Today, June 21, 2001, the people of Dresden are looking forward to completion of the Frauenkirche scheduled to coincide with the 800-year anniversary of Dresden in 2006. In the morning light of the 21st century, this could be one of the world's great celebrations, but only if we learn something from the destruction of war and begin to conceive of a world without war.