Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Saxon City Of Dresden

Frauen Kirche at night
Our recent road trip through Germany included a stop in the city of Dresden and our visit proved to be one of the most interesting cities we have visited in a long time. I wasn't sure what to expect from this city as we had scheduled a stop here because it was along our route to our next destination. I had failed to really do any research before we arrived so my only knowledge of the place was what I remembered from my high school history classes. But for us, Dresden turned out to be a hidden gem and we left wishing we could have spent more time there. Needless to say, we will be returning.

Located in the Saxony region of eastern Germany near the border with the Czech Republic, Dresden has long been a cultural, educational and political center for Germany. Dresden was first settled in the 12the century, became the seat of the Saxony region in 1485 and quickly became a gathering place for painters, musicians and architects from all over Europe. This confluence of artistic talent influenced the skyline for which Dresden in famous. The 1800s saw an increase in the military presence in the area with over 20,000 military personnel serving in the garrison there at the beginning of World War I.  This combination of art, culture and yes, military brought about the circumstances by which I knew about Dresden; the bombing of the city by the Allied forces.

For three days in February 1945, in a two-fold attack, the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces dropped 2,431 tons of explosive bombs and close to 1,476 tons of incendiaries on the city of Dresden. While the bombs damaged and destroyed buildings, the incendiaries ignited what was left, essentially burning the largely wooden city, therefore reducing the amount of shelters available for retreating German soldiers and refugees. Years later the number of reported deaths was 25,000 but at the time Nazi propaganda had the number in the 200,000 to 500,000 range. Because the target was not a military installation, women and children accounted for the majority of the causalities. The legitimacy of the bombardment was immediately questioned by war observers. The majority of the city center was destroyed and the heavily inhabited center of the city was all but wiped out while the industrial zones and military installations on the outskirts of the city escaped the bombings relatively untouched. At the time the Allies described the bombings as a legitimate attack on military and industrial targets. Although he was involved in the planning, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took measures to distance himself from the attack.

The Furstenzug depicting Saxon sovereigns
In the years after World War II the city of Dresden recovered but scars of the war remained. Located in Soviet controlled East Germany, (where current Russian president Vladimir Putin was stationed between 1985 and 1990 as a KGB officer), it once again became an industrial powerhouse and investments were made in improving the infrastructure of the city.  Some historical structures were rebuilt while others were remade in a more "socialist modern" style. Unfortunately, many of the bombed out churches, palaces and cultural buildings were all but razed by the Communists.

Walking around Dresden today you see evidence of the past as well as hope for the future. Many of the city's grand buildings bear the pock marks of bullets and wear the soot and grime of age with pride. Rather then fill them in or erase evidence of the destruction, they are a part of the Dresden landscape.  A walk along the promenade above the Elbe River shows off the city at its best. To me, Dresden feels worn but proud with a sense of hope. Across the broad flood plain of the Elbe sits the more modern and reconstructed part of the city. Closer to the historic city center the grand buildings that house the city's museums, educational and cultural centers. Some buildings show their age while others appear to be in mint condition. Newly constructed hotels fight for space with the restaurants, cafes and trinket shops that are ubiquitous with every tourist center.

Dresden skyline
And the rebirth of the city continues today. The reconstruction of the Frauen Kirche, which anchors one end of the grand Neumarket Square, was only completed in 2005 due in a large part to private donations. On the outside, it is easy to see which parts of the church exterior are original and which parts are reconstructed. On the inside of the church the walls and ceilings the pastel colors resemble beautifully gilded Easter eggs. But the pattern of new stone blocks abutting old is not unique to the cathedral; it can be seen on most of the buildings in central Dresden. The area around Newmarket Square is gradually being rebuilt with many of the buildings being reconstructed as they were originally built. A walk across the square is like walking through time; you start out in a completely rebuilt area that exudes the charm and character of times long past before wandering into the newer "socialist modern" area. The contrast is quite striking but then again so is the entire city of Dresden.

I liked Dresden. A lot. I wish we had more time to explore her secrets but now that we have gotten a taste of what she has to offer we want to return.

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