Dresden's Complicated Legacy

While many Americans are preoccupied with February 14th, either making plans or decisively not making plans for Valentine's Day this year, I am preoccupied with a different date. I live in Dresden, Germany. Between the 13th and the 15th of February, 1945, four Allied air raids created a firestorm, destroying the city's center. Many Americans know of the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, at least marginally, through Kurt Vonnegut's famous novel Slaughterhouse Five.

This year will be my third February in Dresden. Every year, on the 13th of February, the largest neo-Nazi rally in Europe takes place here. Neo-Nazis gather for what they call a "Trauermarsch," or funeral march, in "memory" of the victims of the firebombing. Counter-protesters, a collaboration of leftists, centrists, students, citizens of Dresden and ordinary people, arriving from cities and towns all over Germany, form a rally of their own. While the majority of the protesters and counter-protesters are peaceful despite being on opposite sides of the political spectrum, some, unfortunately, are not. Last year I watched as a group of radical leftists threw cobblestones at police officers clad in riot gear and set fire to trash cans in the middle of the street. The police presence on February 13th is powerful; they keep the radical left from the radical right, and often become targeted for "protecting" the neo-Nazis (those protesting against the neo-Nazi rally greatly outnumber the neo-Nazis and their supporters every year.)

It's easy to see why this day is so controversial. Should the police protect neo-Nazis? Should neo-Nazis even be allowed to assemble here? Was the firebombing of Dresden a war crime, or a necessary measure made by the Allies to ensure the terror of the Third Reich would end? Even the use of the word "victims" to describe those who died in the bombing can be controversial. The death toll is contested as well; the Nazi Regime estimated 200,000 deaths, a number inflated for use as propaganda. More recent estimates range from 25,000 to 135,000 deaths.

Does the death toll really matter? There is an inscription on a memorial at the Heide Cemetery in Dresden that reads, "How many died? Who knows the number? In your wounds one sees the anguish of the nameless ones who were burned here in hellfire made by human hands." ("Wieviele sterben? Wer kennt die Zahl? An deinen Wunden sieht man die Qual der Namenslosen die hier verbrannt im Höllenfeuer aus Menschenhand.")

At Dresden's City Museum you can see photographs of human bodies piled upon Dresden's Old Market Square after the firebombing. Words cannot describe the veritable mountain of human suffering, of lives lost. The photos were taken by the Third Reich to be used as propaganda. Those bodies are still being used today. Radical left or radical right, I have never seen a true "Trauermarsch" here.

I do not care about your political leanings on the anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden. I do not care about your opinions on the police presence, on the radical leftists, or on the radical right. I, too, have strong opinions on all of these issues. But I would like the people of Dresden and, more importantly, all of its visitors (wanted or unwanted), to try something new this year: putting politics and personal agendas aside. Something terrible happened here, something we all, as human beings, should remember. Why? Because the firebombing of Dresden was "made by human hands."