The bombing of Dresden weighs on the city 75 years later

Dresden, The 1945 destruction of Dresden is deeply engraved in the German city's memory.

Seventy-five years later, this historic event is still the subject of heated debate, as neo-Nazis seek to hijack public sentiment for their own agenda, Deutsche press agency (dpa) reporetd.

Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals, author Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five after the city was firebombed towards the end of World War II. A prisoner of war in February 1945, Vonnegut was in Dresden when the eastern German city was destroyed.

Dresden was one big flame, he wrote. Later, people used the phrase like Dresden to describe a horrific fire and immense destruction. German novelist Gerhart Hauptmann said: Whoever had forgotten how to cry learned again at the destruction of Dresden.

The aerial attack began on February 13, 75 years ago. Now, Dresden is preparing to commemorate the day. But that process of remembering has itself become a battle, as historians on the left and right argue about the events and their meaning.

After two night raids on the city by Britain's Royal Air Force, US forces resumed daytime attacks on February 14 and 15. Up to 25,000 people were killed as incendiary devices burned 25,000 homes, creating a firestorm that destroyed 90 per cent of the city centre.

Ahead of this year's memorial day, Mayor Dirk Hilbert paid a visit to a class of 10th graders to talk about the bombing of the city.

After his remarks, the students were silent, and shocked, less at the scale of the destruction but more because they knew little of the events. One boy said his grandparents had never spoken about that time.

Hilbert said the generation of people who experienced the carnage is slowly dying.

When such terrible events take place so long ago, how can you hold onto the memory of them? he asked the school students - and, it seemed, himself.

The city has been grappling with the question for some time, especially as far-right extremists seek to use the date for their own purposes.

Nazi propagandists were quick to create a myth around the destruction of Dresden. After burying those who were killed, local authorities estimated the death toll at between 18,000 and 25,000, numbers that were later confirmed by a commission of historians in 2010.

But the Nazi regime simply added a zero to the numbers to further the argument that the bombing was a war crime. In March 1945, the German Foreign Ministry instructed embassies in neutral countries abroad to say victims numbered up to 200,000, the historians wrote in the commission's report.

For many of today's far-right in Germany, this higher number remains a fact - as though 25,000 was not bad enough.

On the question of whether the firebombing was a war crime, Jens Wehner, a historian, says some legal experts believe this to be the case.

However, you have to add a big 'but', he said. The events in Dresden have to be seen within the context of the course of the war, he pointed out. If Dresden was a war crime, that applies to many other aerial attacks during World War II, irrespective of whether they were carried out by German or Allied forces.

Neo-Nazis now gather in Dresden to commemorate their version of history. Becoming a place of this kind of pilgrimage is a disaster for us, says Hilbert, the mayor.

The Nazis started to try to exploit the bombardment and this continued under the East German Communist regime. Its leadership used the date as proof of Anglo-American terror, says Johannes Schuetz, a Dresden historian.

This only started to gradually change in the 1980s. On February 13, 1985, on the occasion of the reopening of the Semperoper Opera House, East German leader Erich Honecker spoke of the war that started in Berlin and had returned to Dresden.

Experts have always questioned the myth of Dresden's innocence, arguing there were reasons the city was bombed. Dresden was not only a Nazi stronghold but was also a key transport hub and home to armament production sites.

The mayor before Hilbert, Helma Orosz, pointed out: Weapons were made in Dresden for the war and forced labourers were held in camps. That wasn't all kept secret, either, but took place in the open, for all to see.

A group in Dresden working to oppose Nazi myths also regularly holds a vigil, visiting places in the city where the Nazis were active. This year, it starts at the villa of Martin Mutschmann, a regional Nazi leader who played a decisive role in the persecution of Saxony's Jews.

Hilbert describes this chapter of history to the students too. He adds that it is important to stand up for the truth, especially when there are people who want to use the commemorations for their own purposes.

Source: Bahrain News Agency