Germany commemorates 75 years since Dresden’s destruction

The destruction of Dresden in 1945 is still deeply rooted in Germany's memory. Even 75 years later, the struggle for neutral interpretation remains, and Neo-Nazis want to turn guilt to innocence.

Germany commemorates 75 years since Dresden's destruction
Flowers laid out at Dresden's Neumarkt on Thursday. Photo: DPA

American writer Kurt Vonnegut said the city of Dresden resembled “the surface of the moon” after the bombing in his book “Slaughterhouse Five”.

As a prisoner of war, he witnessed the air raids on the city firsthand that fateful February. Dresden was a single flame, he wrote. In the English-speaking world, the term “Like Dresden” can be synonymous for a fire with immense destruction. 

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The poet Gerhart Hauptmann also found haunting words to describe that night: “Those who have forgotten how to cry will learn it again when Dresden goes down.”

A photo taken by German photojournalist Richard Peter overlooking Dresden from a courthouse tower in 1945. Source: Deutsche Fotothek via Wikimedia

The history

On the evening of February 13th, 1945, the British launched their air strikes on the city, which until then had been largely spared from the war. After two waves of nightly assaults by the Royal Air Force, the Americans continued the attack during the day on February 14th and 15th. Up to 25,000 people died. The firestorm burned down around 25,000 houses and turned the city centre into a ruin.

A few days before the anniversary of the city's destruction, Dresden Mayor Dirk Hilbert, of the FDP, met with tenth graders from a local school to discuss the anniversary with students.

The students initially seemed speechless, but not because the conversation revolved around a massive bombing. They just knew too little about it. A boy said his grandparents never talked about anything from that time. Eyewitnesses to the attacks are gradually dying. 

“This terrible event was very long ago. So how can we keep the memory of it alive?” he asked the students – and likely himself. 

The topic has become increasingly controversial as right-wing extremists try to reclaim the date for their own purposes. The city is desperate to find the right form of commemoration.

The truth vs. the myth

A struggle for neutral storytelling around Dresden's destruction has been raging for a long time. Contradicting myths revolve around the number of victims, alleged attacks by low-flying aircraft and ultimately hinge on whether the Allies committed a war crime in Dresden. 

“There are international lawyers who answer this question with a yes. But you have to attach a disclaimer to this,” says historian Jens Wehner. He said Dresden played a complex part in the context of the war. And if what happened in Dresden was a war crime, many airstrikes, whether perpetrated by the Germans or the Allies in World War II would be considered crimes as well.

Nazi propagators themselves ensured myths about Dresden soon grabbed hold. After bodies were recovered, authorities assumed 18,000 to 25,000 lives were lost – a fact once again confirmed by a commission of historians in 2010. But the Nazi regime wanted to use Dresden’s fall as evidence of an Allied war crime, and added another zero to their figure.

“In March 1945, the Federal Foreign Office instructed German embassies in neutral countries to report casualties of up to 200,000,” the Commission’s report states. The number is still a fact used by the extreme-right today.

Dresden's old city center emerges in the distance on a snowy night in 2019. Photo Credit: DPA

'It's a disaster for us'

“We are a place of pilgrimage for the far-right. It’s a disaster for us,” Mayor Hilbert said. The Nazis had already instrumentalized the air strikes, and the GDR continued to do so. The GDR leadership actually used the date as evidence of “Anglo-American terror,” Dresden historian Johannes Schütz said. 

The myth of the “innocent city” has been strengthened in recent years. Experts had always questioned this perceived blamelessness. During the war, Dresden was a stronghold for the Nazis and armament factories, as well as an important transportation hub for the regime. 

“Weapons for war were made in Dresden and forced laborers were kept in camps. None of this was hidden or secret. It was visible to everyone,” Hilbert's mayoral predecessor Helma Orosz, of the CDU, said in 2014. The message was clear: Dresden was guilty.

For years, the “Exhibit of Perpetrator Traces” has tried to take back the commemorative date. The tour leads visitors to locations of the Nazi regime in Dresden in an effort to help demystify the city’s history.

This year, Hilbert began his tour at the mansion of NSDAP Gauleiter Martin Mutschmann, which played a major role in the persecution of Jews in Saxony. He also told the students about this part of the story. A student wanted to know why Dresden allowed rallies for the Nazis, and the mayor gentry reminded her of Germany’s freedom of assembly. 

He told her the only way to show the far-right they are unwelcome in Dresden is to participate in peaceful remembrance.

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German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.