For most visitors DRESDEN is synonymous with devastation; in fact, it’s all about regeneration. Of the major cities, only Berlin or Hamburg suffered such total obliteration in the war, and Dresden had far more to lose. For two centuries before its Altstadt was reduced to a smouldering heap in February 1945, it was acclaimed the most beautiful city in Germany. Italian master Canaletto immortalized it as a “Florence on the Elbe”. Visitors on the Grand Tour marvelled at a Baroque streetscape unparalleled in Central Europe. Dresden’s coming of age was thanks to Elector Augustus the Strong (Augustus Der Stark; 1696–1763). No matter that the regent had an ugly absolutist streak, nor that the city’s rejuvenation was all about personal vanity – a transformation to reflect the glory of a self-styled Saxony Sun King. Augustus gathered to his court a brilliant group of architects and artists. Between them they created a city of extraordinary grace in which nobles rode through perfect squares, were serenaded by church bells in elegant spires, or drifted up the Grand Canal of the Elbe to alfresco balls in the Zwinger.
Then came the bombs. After reunification Dresdeners began to rebuild the iconic buildings that had been left as ruins by the communists. Begun in 1990, the reconstruction became a metaphor for reconciliation, not just for East and West Germany but among wartime enemies. When the wraps came off the Frauenkirche in 2005, the last icon of Europe’s most striking Baroque city was resurrected.
Part of the attraction of the Altstadt is that it remains in the act of creation as the GDR past is airbrushed and the Baroque streetscape of its glory days reappears – regime apparatchiks would be disgusted. Consequently the city fabric is patchy in places except around the showpieces that extend behind the Elbe between the two axes of the Altstadt: civic space Neumarkt, home to the Frauenkirche; and the Residenzschloss and splendid Zwinger pleasure palace – the former with some of its finest museums, the latter not just the great glory of Baroque Dresden but a prize of Germany. The Neustadt on the north bank emerged from the war with barely a scratch. Originally the Baroque “new town” of its name, it splits between the Innere Neustadt south of Albertplatz and Äussere Neustadt, where most culture is of the bar variety.
Dresden today is as rooted in its past as ever. Yet the two districts are effectively strangers. In one you have historic buildings and museums, tour groups and cafés. In the other, the north-bank Neustadt, is the best bar district south of Berlin and a young multicultural population for whom the historical city is just that – history. That they coexist happily accounts for much of Dresden’s appeal as two cities in one.
Dresden’s Baroque brilliance is thanks to Augustus II (1670–1733). The Saxony Elector was nicknamed “Augustus the Strong” either because of his physical strength – they say he showed off in court by snapping horseshoes – or his potency. Even if contemporary rumours that he fathered around 370 illegitimate children are hyperbolic, his twelve or so mistresses – from aristocratic ladies to French dancers via an Ottoman noblewoman – suggest a man of considerable appetites. The sobriquet also suits a ruler with an absolutist streak. Impressed by Versailles and Italian courts as an 18-year-old, Augustus styled himself as a Saxon Sun King and began to transform his capital into a mirror of his own magnificence. The upshot was such fantastic fripperies as the Zwinger and outrageous collections of porcelain and jewels that were hoarded with an almost obsessive-compulsive need. Indeed, his passion for porcelain, a “white gold” that had to be imported until his alchemist, Johann Friedrich Böttger, cracked the secret while incarcerated in the Königstein fortress, was directly inspired by the god-like rule of Oriental emperors. Yet Augustus was as ruthless as he was extravagant. Despite Saxony’s role as a wellspring of the Reformation, he converted to Catholicism to claim the Crown of Poland in 1697 and spent huge sums on bribes for its nobility and clergy.
Historians continue to debate the bombing of Dresden. Some now describe it as immoral or a war crime, and no other Allied raid has attracted more condemnation than that launched on the night of February 13, 1945. Records show that RAF and USAF Command carried out an incendiary raid on a city that had hitherto escaped destruction. Thereafter the issue is contentious. Without doubt it was an annihilation: if the obliteration of the architectural gem of Germany does not put the raid in a different class, the casualty figures do. Around 25,000–35,000 people were killed in a city swollen by refugees; always sketchy at the time, the number of dead was exaggerated first by Nazi propagandists, who stated that 200,000 had died, then by the communists, who put the figure at 135,000.
The tragedy of Dresden is that the raid seems pointless. The stated military aim was to restrict movement of troops and armaments in order to aid the Russian advance west. As leaflets dropped on the city explained: “To the people of Dresden: we were forced to bomb your city because of the heavy military traffic your railroad facilities have been carrying. Destruction of anything other than military objectives was unintentional.” (As it turned out, those key railroads were knocked out for barely two days.) Allied bombing of civilian targets was nothing new. Yet Dresden, a city whose tradition of arts and humanism was so anathema to the Third Reich that Hitler had only visited twice, was no military lynchpin, and passing comments by High Command about shattering German morale at the end game of the war did not help the military’s case. Contemporary Allied journalists and intelligentsia sniffed something rotten, something punitive, and the raid provoked the first public dissent over High Command bombing policy. Churchill, who must have approved the plan, distanced himself from it, leaving Air Chief Marshall Arthur “Bomber” Harris to carry the can. Few historians now concur that the attack shortened the war. Just as depressing is the fact that “Dresden’s Holocaust” is a cause célèbre of neo-Nazi parties.