Dresden, Germany

James Articles, Narratives


Discovering Dresden

Prior to visiting Dresden, my mental image was of a German Coventry, bombed out and rebuilt using pre-fab architecture with a communist twist. But, in fact, the residents of this war-ravaged city have ensured the city was restored – in the most part – to its former glory.

Capital of Saxony
The city’s history is bittersweet. Augustus the Strong, as Elector of Saxony (1694-1733), established the Saxon capital as a major cultural centre. A patron of the arts and architecture, he attracted artists and musicians from across Europe, built baroque palaces around the city and amassed an impressive art collection – now on show in the New Green Vault museum, where the porcelain collection of works made in nearby Meissen and clocks dating from the 16th to 19th centuries are of particular interest. Indeed, while the city has been through numerous and colossal changes since, it is almost impossible to escape from the influence Augustus cast over the city.

Second world war
Into the 20th century, Dresden remained a leading European centre of art, classical music, culture and science. What’s more, as the second world war began to come to a close, Dresden looked to survive unscathed – having previously suffered heavy destruction in the seven years’ war (1756-1763) – but it was not to be.

The bombing of Dresden by the RAF and USAAF on 13-15 February 1945 destroyed 95% of the city centre, including the 200-year-old cathedral. High explosive bombs ripped buildings apart, while incendiary bombs ignited the city, causing at least 25,000 civilian casualties. Unsurprisingly, the campaign remains one of the most controversial in the war.

Post-war in the GDR
In the post-war period, Dresden, as part of the German Democratic Republic, began the rebuilding campaign. While the cathedral was left as a pile of rubble in the city centre, other historic buildings were recreated in their former glory. The Zwinger Palace, where Augustus the Strong had hosted numerous parties and the Semper Opera House, originally dating from 1841, are two standout developments – perhaps only feasible under the financing of the communist regime.

Not all historic buildings were saved, however, with the Sophienkirkhe, Alberttheater and Wackerbarth-Palais razed. Meanwhile, other areas in the city were rebuilt in the socialist-modern style. Happily, the juxtaposition of the harder-edged communist architecture, the classical historic and modern day buildings with historical facades work together extremely well.

The standout building from the GDR era must be the Palace of Culture, a brutalist building decorated only with a mural depicting workers, strong women, students, teachers and the red star and seal of East Germany. While the redevelopment of other areas rebuilt under the regime is now occurring, the city has elected to maintain this building, a venue for plays and concerts, in memory of this important time in its history.

Following re-unification
The brand new Military History Museum, opened in October 2011, is the perfect bringing together of the new and old. Designed by Daniel Liebeskind, the museum is housed in a Renaissance building and features a huge metal ‘wedge’ sticking out of its facade, pointing both to where the bombing of the second world war began and forming the angle of the area destroyed in the campaign. Inside, the exhibitions look at military campaigns throughout history, but with a heavy bias towards the second world war. Standout exhibits include a nuclear missile and other bombs raining down from the ceiling and a work in which the flash of a light creates a shadow on the (photosensitive) wall that remains after you walk away, similar to the effect of a nuclear explosion and quite disconcerting.

Dresden’s great success story, however, is the reconstruction of the cathedral – Frauenkirche or the Church of Our Lady. Following the incendiary bombs of 15 February 1945, the stone church lay as a pile of rubble – as a memorial against war – until re-unification. Following a private worldwide fundraising campaign, hundreds of people came together to sort through the rubble, identifying and labelling blocks for reuse in the structure. The architects used the original plans to rebuild the cathedral, and today the original stones, blackened by weathering, are clear to see in the facade.

Inside, the mangled cross that had sat on top of the church is on display as a reminder of the past, while a new gilded orb and cross, donated by the UK, sits on top of the bell-shaped dome. Fittingly, the father of one of the goldsmiths who created the new cross had been part of the aircrew during the campaign – and always troubled by it since. The rebuilding was finally completed in April 2005, in time for the city’s 800th anniversary.

It is a staggering accomplishment. Together with the Semper Opera House, the buildings are a delight to visit. Old buildings, but built anew. Walking around them, you view them as the architects intended, glistening and loved, with none of the dilapidation brought on by time. The originals when viewed in the 18th century must have seemed extraordinary.

The view from on top of the dome – towards the New Town (which dates from the 18th century), the Academy of Fine Arts (with its ‘lemon squeezer’ dome), the Catholic Hofkirche, Rathaus, Royal Palace and numerous Christmas markets dotted about the city is truly spell binding – especially when you consider the effort gone in to making it.

First published: Cox & Kings, 27 April 2012
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JamesDresden, Germany