Friday, 13 February 2015

Dresden: 70 Years On

Today Germany commemorates the controversial Allied bombing of Dresden, one of the better known bombings in Germany towards the end of the Second World War. On the night of the 13th of February, 1945, 800 British planes dropped 4,500 tonnes of explosives onto the city of Dresden, killing 25,000 of its inhabitants. The following day another bombing followed by the US Air Force. Before the bombing, Dresden was known as the 'Jewel Box' for its baroque and rococo city centre. Most of the city was destroyed during the British and American attacks.

The restored Church of Our Lady has become a symbol of Dresden's resurrection

The BBC showed a heart-breaking interview this morning with Victor Gregg, a British WWII-veteran who fought throughout the Middle-East and Southern Europe before being captured and becoming a prisoner of war. He was being held in Dresden on the night of the bombing and his recounting of his experiences this morning made it seem as if it was yesterday rather than 70. It was clearly an experience which shattered something in him and made him question not only his country's actions in the war but also something that made him question himself.

Victor Gregg isn't the only veteran to have had trouble coping with his experiences. A literary equivalent is Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.
Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.
Rather than try to describe something so outside of normal human experience, I thought it would be best to let Vonnegut share his experiences with you in the way only he can.

'Billy thought hard about the effect the quartet had had on him, and then found an association with an experience he had had long ago. He did not travel in time to the experience. He remembered it shimmeringly-as follows:  
Slaughterhouse-FiveHe was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. The meat locker was a very safe shelter. All that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine. The Americans and four of their guards and a few dressed carcasses were down there, and nobody else. The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families.  
So it goes.  
The girls that Billy had seen naked were all being killed, too, in a much shallower shelter in another part of the stockyards.  
 So it goes.  
A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the other guards. There was a firestorm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.  
It wasn't safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead. 
So it goes.' p.78
The beautiful thing to have come out of this terrible experience is the relationship which has been established between cities who have experiences such dreadful violence, especially Coventry, Dresden and Rotterdam. It shows Europe's capability to never let this happen again,

However, Dresden has also found itself at the centre of a new rise of nationalism in Germany, being the birthplace of Pegida, a new right-wing party with extreme views. As the years pass, the memory remains and the city is torn over its history and how to deal with it. A remembrance such as today is crucial, for the fact that it should serve as a reminder of the destruction that is caused by extremism. Tonight Dresdeners will form a chain of light around their rebuilt Frauenkirche and for the moment it seems that the light still outshines the dark.

If you want to read more, here are some of the articles about the bombing and its legacy:

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