The Spirit of Dresden

Reduced to rubble during World War II, the German city is now restored and ready to celebrate its 800th birthday.


Cover Story

October 31, 2004|By Susan Spano | Susan Spano,Special to the Sun

You can't get lost in Dresden. Wherever you go, you can see the stately white dome of the Frauenkirche, as much a landmark in this eastern German city as St. Peter's is in Rome.

It isn't just that the church towers 300 feet above Dresden's lovely baroque skyline, that its colossal dome was an architectural marvel when consecrated in 1734 or that it stood for religious tolerance in a Protestant city ruled by the Catholic electors of Saxony. Even its extraordinary acoustics, which inspired composer Richard Wagner, don't fully explain its profound meaning to Dresden and the world.

Its significance stems from its destruction in the waning days of World War II. The Allied firestorm, dropped from the sky the night of Feb. 13, 1945, incinerated up to 80 percent of the city and killed 25,000 and maybe more. (Casualty figures vary because of the many refugees passing through the city at the time.)

The Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, continued to stand above the burning pyre until, structurally undermined, it collapsed without warning the morning of Feb. 15.

For the next 50 years, it lay in rubble on the city's historic marketplace, a symbol of the devastation of war.

Now it has risen again, rebuilt of bits and pieces salvaged from the ruins, in an 11-year, $175 million project funded largely by international donations. From America came almost $3 million, raised by Gunter Blobel, a 1999 Nobel laureate for medicine who donated nearly $1 million in prize money to the project. As an 8 1/2 -year-old war refugee, he passed through Dresden when it was intact.

"For a child," he said of the Dresden of that day, "it was like a fantasy."

The completion of the Frauenkirche's exterior this summer was marked by the placement of a golden cross and orb atop the cupola, a replica of the 18th-century original. It was made by British silversmith Alan Smith, whose father flew a bomber to Dresden that night in 1945.

The interior is scheduled to be finished late next year, just in time for the 800th birthday celebration of the southeastern German city in 2006.

To prepare for the event, museums, gardens, squares, pa-laces, the railway station and whole city blocks are being renovated -- leaving, for now, little unmarked by the unlovely signs of construction.

When the scaffolding finally comes down, it won't be hard to imagine what Dresden was before World War II: cultivated, pleasure-loving, one of Europe's most cherished "grand tour" cities, filled with Italian art and rare Oriental porcelain, the architectural apogee of the German baroque.

A lost world

I came to Dresden seeking this reincarnated city and, more generally, the lost, urbane world of Eastern Europe that faintly whispers in such places as Krakow, Poland, and Riga, Latvia. I flew from Paris to Berlin, then drove south through the lush heartland of Saxony, close to the Polish and Czech borders. The carefully husbanded fields were bursting with summer sunflowers and bore no trace of the horrors of war.

Dresdeners understandably want to put World War II and the mean, dull years under communism behind them. I could not, because both are so much a part of the city's remarkable story.

I took two books with me: Frederick Taylor's recently published Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945, which contradicts a rising tide of opinion about the needlessness and immorality of Dresden's destruction, and Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 novel in which the time-traveling protagonist keeps getting shunted back to the Dresden of 1945.

Christoph Munch, a spokes-man for the Dresden Tourist Promotion Board, labors to correct the misconception that the city is a pile of rubble interspersed with Soviet-era apartment blocks. "When I go to America," he told me, "people say it must be terrible to live in Dresden."

Terrible isn't a word I'd use to describe it now.

Driving in, I saw it from afar, on an easy bend of the Elbe River, all salt-and-pepper-colored sandstone and baroque whirligigs that look more like millinery than architecture. The old part of the city, or Altstadt, sits high above the river on a graceful terrace that 18th-century playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called the "balcony of Europe."

With its forested ridges, castles and vineyards, the Elbe Valley has just been named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations' cultural arm, UNESCO. Even in the heart of the city, the river retains its bucolic character, with more meadowlands at its flanks than stone embankments. I spied people in the middle of town, pitching tents, sunbathing and pushing kayaks into the current.

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