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Letter from Dresden

February 14th, 2005

It’s sixty years ago since the destruction of Dresden by British and American bombers an event that is still being debated. Chris Bertram at CT has some thoughts and links on the historical events. Here’s a personal, contemporary view from occasional guest poster Tom Oates.


Dresden, Saxony
13th Feb 2005

It was raining. I was sick. There was no way I was going to leave the comfort of my coal heater and cosy bedroom for a couple of quick snaps of a bunch of skinheads. I can watch it on the news tonight, I reassured myself, I won’t miss anything. Nonetheless, a couple of hours later I was rugged up and leaving the flat, venturing into the dreary winter collage of remnant Baroque sandstone and concrete Stalinesque ‘plattebauer’. I couldn’t possibly stay in bed on the 60th anniversary of the biggest aerial bombing run in European history, could I!

Crossing the Augustusbrücke over the Elbe towards the Altstadt I was stopped by one of the thousands of unabashedly obvious riot police. ‘Personalausweise, bitte’ came the request for my ID. ‘Jeez, sorry mate, but I can’t speak German’ came back the ‘dumb tourist’ reply. Disgruntled and with better things to do the Polizist waved me on. Entering Theatreplatz I encountered the first of a number of running skirmishes between the police and disorganised groups of black-clad anarchistic youth. I stood aside as a pair of teenagers was rundown, ‘lightly’ beaten by truncheons and apprehended facedown with their hands ‘cabletied’ behind their backs. With such a start to the day the effort to get out and about seemed already justified. I don’t mind a bit of a skirmish in the morning.

I cautiously crossed Theatreplatz to the Zwinger and around the back of the Semperoper where the strains of rhythmic rhetoric were blaring from the midst of a crowd of around 5000 skinheads, NPD (Nazional Partei Demokratik) banners flapping in the stiff northern wind. I found myself observing this scene amongst a group of teenagers with battle camouflage stripes across their cheeks, shouting antagonistic chants such as ‘Bomber Harris, Do it again!’ (Harris was the RAF commander who ordered the attack in 1945). Puzzlingly, the Polizei were keeping these trouble-seeking youth away from the frighteningly threatening Neo-Nazis, and not the other way around. These are not my people, I thought to myself, and sought to safely distance myself.

Well, I’m not sure what come over me, but the next thing I knew I had slipped through the police line and found myself in the midst of the NPD rally. I don’t mind a bit of a Neo Nazi rally in the morning… NOT! Racist slogans such as ‘blue-eyed soldier’ emblazoned from the chests of true skinheads (we’re not talking crew cuts here), and the overall impression was of a serious lack of intellect in the eyes of the disaffected youth I was bold enough to momentarily stare into. The truly frightening element of this gathering was not so much the overpowering emotion of confusion and hatred emanating from the hairless youth, but rather the rarer, more sinister image of an elderly ‘gentleman’ or businessman manipulating this unchannelled power source for their own ends. Uuugh, these were not my people. Upon turning to leave I was amused to see a line of around 50 skinheads waiting calmly in line for the portaloo; a comical reminder that I was in Germany.

Crossing back over the Elbe to the bohemian Neustadt I noticed groups of students and ‘alternative’ folk beginning to mill around colourful peace banners and centre-left flags. These were my people! Breastfed on the antinuclear rallies in Sydney in the early eighties, I certainly don’t mind a bit of a peace rally in the afternoon. Within half an hour I was crossing back over the Elbe with in excess of fifteen thousand people, rain clouds clearing to illuminate the newly rebuilt Frauenkirche and the rest of the incomparable Dresden skyline. My confidence in the goodness of the Deutsche Volk was firmly restored, and the illness and skinhead inspired doubt over the location of my self imposed exile was gone.

It got better. I don’t mind a bit of a candlelight vigil in the evening. Passing back through Theatreplatz I climbed the base of the central statue to observe the assembling of a large crowd. Within the next half hour around fifty thousand people of all denominations had crammed the square and laid a line of candles in remembrance of the victims of the allied bombings 60 years previously; no flags, no banners. These were not my people, these were the people. These were the same people I crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge with to say sorry to the Stolen Generation because Little Johnny Coward wouldn’t; the same people who gathered in Hyde Park before the Iraq invasion to say ‘No War’, only to be misunderstood by Honest John(it must have been the ‘War’ bit he didn’t understand). With the bells of the Dom and the Schlossturm resonating with solemn tones, and the first flakes of snow tickling my continuously running nose, I turned for home and my beloved coal heater. I’ll probably be in bed for the next week, but at least I know Dresden a little better now.

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  1. February 15th, 2005 at 10:46 | #1

    That was great, particularly given the trashy way the story has been beaten up (ha!) into skinheads destroy celebration stories.

  2. AlanDownunder
    February 15th, 2005 at 14:23 | #2

    For the occasion of the anniversary, Der Spiegel Online has a chilling photographic record of the destruction.

  3. February 15th, 2005 at 20:40 | #3

    I read this morning of the size of the US daylight attack following the british firestorm the night before.
    1400 heavy bombers and 900 mustang fighters!
    That is incredible,the amount of industrial might that the US was able to muster by the end of the war.
    The germans were crushed by US productivity and manpower.Not surprising what has happened since.

  4. February 15th, 2005 at 21:21 | #4

    Marklatham, the reasoning is sound but it does not apply here.

    To see what Dresden signified, like Hamburg, it should be compared with the economic support behind blitzkrieg. The thinking there was that it would provide a sort of sprint, not a sustained effect. The US military-industrial complex did indeed use sustained efforts that did their part towards winning the war. Only, the massive raids didn’t use that approach – they were one offs that couldn’t be repeated at will but required a breather to rebuild resources, like blitzkrieg. So they did feature in the whole effort, but the same breather was given to the Germans. Result: the massive raids didn’t reflect US steady capacity.

    You are drawing the right lessons for the whole war effort, but that particular thing – raids – don’t provide evidence for the lesson you drew. No doubt, had the war continued, things would have reached that pitch. But Germany didn’t have the strategic depth that Russia had in the face of the German invasion, so things never reached that stage.

  5. Richard O
    February 16th, 2005 at 18:14 | #5

    Marklatham,

    It wasn’t US manpower that crushed the Germans, it was Russian (with US equipment). The Western Front was a side show compared to the Eastern.

  6. February 17th, 2005 at 15:20 | #6

    Sigh. Richard O, these things are always a combination of arms. Anything that emphasises and selects one aspect is misleading to the point of falsity, no matter the factual accuracy of the selection.

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