Building back better? Bombed Dresden will never be the same again. Katja Hoyer

Building back better? Bombed Dresden will never be the same again.

Katja Hoyer, Historian and Author


If you ask your average person on the street to name a city in the east of Germany, many will say Dresden. And quite right, too. Dresden is absolutely worth knowing. It has a long and proud tradition as the capital of Saxony and world-class versions of many of the things people enjoy and admire: from art collections and Christmas markets, to beer brewing traditions and fine orchestras. Yet, especially outside of Germany, Dresden isn’t first and foremost associated with what it has but rather with what it has lost. For all its regained splendor, in many minds Dresden is still the city that was bombed.


Iconic image of Dresden after the bombing by Walter Hahn.


And that is all too understandable given the horrors that unfolded during the end phase of the Second World War. Between 13 and 15 February 1945, Anglo-American raids dropped a potent combination of incendiary and high-explosive bombs onto Dresden. The shock waves tore through stone and mortar. Ancient timber was set ablaze. Metal and glass melted. The force of the firestorm whipped objects and people through the air. The glow of the burning city could be seen for hundreds of miles, striking fear into the hearts of all who beheld the inferno.

The city’s iconic Frauenkirche (‘Church of Our Lady’) held out at first, providing shelter for around 300 terrified Dresdeners who had sought refuge in its crypt. But the air in and around it became hot until the pillars glowed red and people had difficulty clambering out before it was too late. In the morning of 15 February, one of the pillars finally exploded. Without its support, the others buckled. The church walls collapsed and the massive dome slowly began to tilt and then fall. As 10,000 tons of stone crashed onto stone, a cloud of dust rose into the air, stifling any glimmers of hope Dresdeners may still have harboured. The city’s icon had fallen. When the fire finally ran out of fuel, most of Dresden’s old town lay in ruins and 25,000 bodies were piled up and hastily buried.

The rights and wrongs of the bombings have been subject to intense debate ever since. What is certain is that they have carved deep scars into the cityscape, scars that cannot be concealed by the mask of shiny replicas of the buildings that were destroyed. 

Most visitors to Dresden today are blown away by the beauty of the reconstructed buildings that surround the Neumarkt, the square in central Dresden which features the Frauenkirche. After German reunification, the decision was taken to rebuild the old town centre as it once was and this work in now largely complete in many areas. 

At first glance, the cobbled square with the reconstructed Frauenkirche and immaculate facades appeals as the centre of an attractive European city. But spend a while there and it becomes very obvious that everything is brand new. 

Everything around the Neumarkt is just so. It’s too neat and very consciously assembled. The closest analogy I can think of is those pre-historic villages that act as outdoor museums. Historians may well have faithfully recreated something from a bygone age but everything has clearly been put into place and is designed to look old. Nothing has organically grown or is untidy or eccentric.


Reconstructed Frauenkirche and Neumarkt.


And then there is the psychological component. Even if one were able to imagine for a moment that the Baroque landscape was real, Dresden cannot, will not and should not forget what’s happened to it, which makes suspension of disbelief rather difficult. Every year on 13 February the city commemorates the day of its destruction in discussions, art and events. This year, a human chain of 13,000 people held hands in silent solidarity, forming a protective wall around the city centre as church bells rang.

I am in Dresden at the moment to attend an event (more on that in the next piece), and the atmosphere still feels very sombre a few days after the commemorations. Yesterday morning, people were gathering at the Martin Luther memorial on the Neumarkt square, right in front of the reconstructed Frauenkirche, leaving flowers, messages and candles. The Frauenkirche guest book was full of messages about peace and reconciliation.

People here told me stories about what it was like watching Dresden try to build back over the years. One man said he'd visited the city for the first time in 1989, after the Berlin Wall had fallen. He was only 9 years old then and had grown up in West Germany. When the family arrived in Dresden, the boy was stunned to find that there was a heap of rubble in the middle of the city. The East German authorities had chosen not to rebuild the Frauenkirche but preserve its ruins as a war memorial like its counter piece Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by German bombing.


Ruined Frauenkirche and Neumarkt, 1961. Img: Bybbisch94


After the reunification of Germany in 1990, efforts were renewed to rebuild the city centre and specifically the Frauenkirche as many deemed it critical to Dresden’s ability to recover from its trauma. Funds were raised from a vast array of sources within Germany and around the world. The German-American Günter Blobel, who had, as an 8-year-old, seen the old Dresden in early February 1945 and then watched the glow of the fire that destroyed it from a nearby town during the nights of the bombings, donated his entire award money to the rebuilding of Dresden when he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1999.

Britain’s ‘Dresden Trust’ gathered over one million euros, including donations from the Royal Family. The late Queen herself visited the city in 1992. Ignoring a number of people jeering and whistling, she stoically took in the site of the ruined church, determined to do her bit for reconciliation and rebuilding. In October 2005, the reconstruction of the church was completed and it was consecrated again.

Walking around it today, I felt it was a strange place. It looks absolutely magnificent and gives Dresden a part of its old skyline back. One of the founders of the Dresden Trust remarked: ‘The church is to Dresden what St. Paul's is to London,’ and I think there is something to that. But the difference is that Britain won the war, and St. Paul’s was saved. It became a symbol of hope and endurance. Dresden’s gleaming new Frauenkirche reminds one at every step that the original was not saved but irretrievably lost. Its displays warn and remind visitors of the horrors that took place here. Its neat wooden benches have no marks. Its straight stairs have no indents from centuries of wear.


Frauenkirche and Neumarkt, 1898.


Some Dresdeners react very sensitively when comments are made about the newness of the old town. ‘Oh well, you just wait 300 years and nobody will know or care that these buildings were rebuilt after destruction in the Second World War,’ one told me with an icy undertone that suggested he would rather that time was now. But can that ever be true? Will people in 300 years really not know or care in what context these buildings were built? I hope not.

Sure, the Frauenkirche and Dresden’s other reconstructions will weather in time. They will witness their own historical events and with a bit of luck become organic parts of the city. But they can never be the same as the city they replaced. This current Frauenkirche wasn’t built out of a desire to promote Protestantism or to project the power of Dresden. This Frauenkirche was made possible by a spirit of reconciliation and defiance.


Dresden 1945 with the ruined Neumarkt and Frauenkirche in the centre. Img: Bundesarchiv, 146-1994-041-07


I’m writing this at the desk of my modern hotel room which looks out onto the Neumarkt through a panorama window. Let go a moment and the buskers down below, the sound of church bells and the bustling tourists make the illusion almost perfect. Almost. But then I remembered that there isn’t a traditional restaurant in sight. Or how there are no wooden beams, noisy plumbing or creaky stairs.

No matter how perfect the illusion, the fact remains that I’m sitting in a place where 79 years ago, the ashes had barely settled on the heaps of rubble, where people desperately searched for relatives and personal belongings in the skeletal remnants of houses, where bodies where piled up high and often buried or cremated without identification. It’s a fact I don’t want to forget and I hope that Dresden doesn’t either. Rather than seeking to replicate something lost, perhaps the city will find a way to live with its trauma, remembering it’s history while also looking to the future.

To be continued…