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Tribute to Alan Russell

Service of Thanksgiving for the Life of Dr Alan Russell, OBE, MA, DPhil:  Chichester Cathedral, Wednesday 6 March 2019
By David Woodhead
Trustee, The Dresden Trust 2005-17
Founder, Dresden Scholars’ Scheme, 2001

It is an honour for me to pay tribute to Alan today; I am just one of many people who are grateful to him. He enabled us to become involved in a life-enhancing and noble cause characterised by historical and cultural awareness, human empathy and reconciliation.

In my mid-teens, I had been made aware by a Germanophile uncle of what had happened in Dresden in the previous decade. Soon afterwards I made my first visit to Germany and a life-long love of the country began. So when I first read about the Dresden Trust, only a year after its foundation in 1993, it easily captured my imagination.

Initially, Alan was a name on letters received by subscribers and supporters of the Trust. But then, like many others, I first got to know him well 19 years ago when a substantial number of us went to Dresden for the handover, by the Trust’s royal patron, the Duke of Kent, of the golden orb and cross which the Trust had been given the honour of commissioning and which, four years later, was to surmount the great dome of the rebuilt Frauenkirche.

That must have been one of the proudest moments in Alan’s life. And it sprang, somewhat incongruously, from Alan and others engaging in what seemed like a rather uncharacteristic activity – a public demo. Not, of course, a gilets jaunes-type violent one but a very English silent, placard-carrying, protest at the unveiling of the ‘Bomber’ Harris statue outside the RAF church in London. Rarely has an inanimate object motivated so much profoundly valuable work – and which came to dominate almost a third of one man’s public life.

After the post-German unification call went out from Dresden to the world to assist with the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche “for the promotion of peace in the new Europe”, it was Alan who recognised that it required a strong response from the UK – as the country chiefly responsible for the hellish firestorm unleashed on the city almost at the war’s end.

For the next 20 years Alan set the Dresden Trust’s course, defined its purposes, galvanised its supporters and, with effective and variously talented teams of trustees, raised funds in an impressively short space of time.

Alan invited me to join the trustees in 2005. Five years earlier I initiated what has been my main contribution to the Trust, creating a scheme which still enables boys and girls from schools in Dresden and across the state of Saxony to attend independent schools in Great Britain, usually for a year and typically on 50 per cent scholarships awarded by the schools themselves.  Well over 300 have done so, establishing Anglo-German friendships among a younger generation who will hopefully avoid the mistakes of a previous one and personify the sentiment expressed in the banner which for several years adorned the Frauenkirche during its rebuilding – ‘Brücken bauen – Versöhnung leben’: Building bridges for a living reconciliation.

Full of ideas himself, Alan warmly embraced other people’s if they contributed to the central purpose of the Trust, which was the furtherance of friendship between the people of the UK and the people of Dresden.

Any rounded view of Alan’s leadership of the Trust must acknowledge that he did like his own way! Don’t we all? And, of course, his way was usually the right one. Anyone who became a fellow trustee felt a strong duty to try to match, or at least emulate, his energy and dedication in pursuing the Trust’s purposes.
As many, but perhaps not all, of you know, Alan’s inspirational leadership meant that, as well as contributing to the completion of the Frauenkirche, the Trust’s activities embraced a range of educational, cultural (including musical), environmental and humanitarian initiatives dedicated to the cause of Anglo-German friendship in general and restoring, in particular, the historic connections between the UK, the city of Dresden and the state of Saxony. And this work has continued under Alan’s successor as chairman, Eveline Eaton, and vice-chairman Marcus Ferrar.

Alan gave a strong impression that his life until the early 1990s had been a preparation for the years that followed and that these were the years, so far as his public life was concerned, that gave him most fulfilment, in which he found apparently limitless sources of energy, for organisation, fundraising and prolific writing.

The far-reaching significance of what Alan initiated was recognised in a leading article in The Times  in 1998, which said: “German art, music and civilisation are central to the Western canon and their wartime destruction was a tragedy for Britain as well as for Germany. Today Britons and Germans need to be key partners in upholding the values of a peaceful, prosperous Europe. The orb and cross of the Frauenkirche will proclaim these values far beyond the skyline of Dresden.”

Another former trustee of the Trust, unable to attend today, contacted me as soon as she heard of Alan’s death. She wrote: “Alan led a very special kind of life, driven by one single goal – to bring about reconciliation. There’s a lesson in there for all of us.”

It gave me great satisfaction to work with him through 2014 in preparing for publication his history of the Trust – A Trust for Our Times. We had some lively discussions – I won some, perhaps he won rather more than some – but always with his characteristic charm and a twinkle in the eye. So often did we meet, he joked that I needed only to shout ‘Chichester’ at my car and it would find its own way to Dresden House, Stirling Road.

Alan wrote of Dresden that it had been “an architectural and artistic powerhouse in the 18thcentury, an intellectual and industrial leader in the 19thcentury and a musical giant throughout these years … Its 21stcentury vocation,” he wrote, “is surely to become a crucible for reconciliation and peace throughout the European Union and beyond”.

The principal legacy of his public life is to have made a notable contribution to the realisation of that vocation.

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