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12 February 2001

The enchanted city finds a new kind of beauty

Sixty years ago, Dresden was bombed to rubble. William Cook visits the home of his German ancestors

By William Cook

When my grandmother arrived in Dresden, on a train from Hamburg, the inspector wanted to know why she didn’t have a ticket. She didn’t know where to begin. She had been bundled on to this locomotive by the Red Cross. Hamburg was a smoking ruin. The carriages were packed with weary evacuees. To top it all, she was pregnant. Yet these strange Saxons asked for tickets in an accent so guttural, it almost sounded like a foreign language.

My grandmother was at the wrong end of the Elbe, far from her Hanseatic home town, because Dresden was considered the safest city in the Third Reich. She had been here before, as a teenager at finishing school. Now my grandmother had returned to stay with her sister, whose husband was working at the local airfield – training young pilots for walk-on parts in Hitler’s high-tech Gotterdammerung. After the Russians took him to Siberia, the airfield became a Soviet base in East Germany.

So that is why my father was born in a nondescript dormitory town just outside that beautiful baroque city, which, for a few more years, could still call itself the Florence of the Elbe. My relatives never owned the house. They merely rented it – much to the relief of the family living there now who, when I wrote to ask them if I could visit my father’s improbable birthplace, required emphatic reassurance that I wasn’t coming to claim it back.

Four generations live under one roof. The father met me at the gate. Proudly, he showed me the top-floor flat, where my father was born, recently redecorated to house his eldest daughter, her husband and their child. From this humdrum penthouse, my grandma saw a firestorm ignite the darkness, as a thousand planes from another airfield far away reduced the flamboyant metropolis to a mundane heap of smouldering rubble. She thought this raid would be no worse than usual. She was wrong.

We went downstairs. The father gave his youngest daughter a DM10 note and sent her to the corner shop for cakes and coffee, and we sat in the kitchen and drank and ate and talked until after dark. Then he drove me through deserted streets, past silent houses, back to that station where my grandmother had arrived, in a perfect city, heavy with child, and later had left, the city in ruins, with a new, bewildered life in tow, more than 50 years ago.

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This was therefore the route my father took, during the dying days of the Third Reich, and the man who waves me off is about the age my father is now. They could scarcely look less alike but, in the weak light of the empty waiting room, I wondered whether they would look so different if they had lived their lives on the same side of the Iron Curtain. This man is shorter and stouter than my father, but they have the same lank, dark hair, so unlike the bleached comic-book archetype. If my grandma hadn’t taken her son back to Hamburg and on to England, if he had stayed here, gone to school and grown old in the town where he was born, might he have become this stranger by my side?

Dresden shares its sorrow with Coventry, whose own wanton ruination began this wicked business, which ended in the virtual obliteration of a city of which all Europe could be proud. Coventry’s remorseless devastation gave a destructive new verb to the German tongue. It also planted an idea that, fed by five years of monotonous slaughter, evolved into a virtuoso masterclass in total warfare. Deutschland’s cultural capital reaped the dreadful harvest of Hitler’s hatred, while the man who sowed its seed hid, in suicidal safety, in a bunker in bureaucratic Berlin. And so, for the last few hours of 13 February 1945, only three months before the end of the war, my mother’s air force finally matched the amoral tactics of my father’s, and Dresden became a byword for the anonymous carnage of aerial bombardment, a European Hiroshima.

In the chirpy commentary that accompanies a wartime newsreel of the bombing, a cheerful British narrator apologises for the static electrical discharge, caused by intense cold, “which mars these magnificent pictures”. Old buildings burn like dry kindling, and incendiaries eat fresh air. Afterwards, although they had already suffered enough flames to last a lifetime, survivors stacked their neighbours’ corpses in human pyramids and burnt them, in mass funeral pyres, to prevent them from infecting the living.

Estimated fatalities range from five to six figures. An accurate total was impossible to calculate, as the city was full of fleeing refugees. My grandmother caught the last train out of Dresden before the Red Army arrived, returning to Hamburg, the relative safety of British conquest and a future in the west.

Meanwhile, Dresden was swallowed up by Stalin. The Florence of the Elbe became the Valley of the Stupid, the only East German city that couldn’t receive West German TV. Imprisoned in space-age slums, captives in their own home town, Dresden’s inhabitants were even denied the respite of a televisual holiday. Brutalist high-rise blocks replaced the vast architectural wealth that had been flattened. The modernist palace of culture looks more like a municipal swimming pool. The comradely murals on this tarnished monolith make it a historic curio worth keeping, but our descendants will measure the 20th century by these miserable monuments, and see in older structures conclusive evidence of a better age.

Outside the funereal centre, the wide leafy avenues are lined with grand old villas, still beautiful despite peeling paint and plaster. These handsome suburbs, which survived virtually unscathed, once provided a bourgeois nirvana for clever businessmen and obedient civil servants.

But even within the city proper, some of Dresden’s vitality does survive. Every Advent, for more than 500 years, the old market-place has become a busy Christmas market, a festive fairground selling seasonal food and drink, toys and decorations. In this windswept square, an underworld of cellars stands suddenly revealed – remnants of streets swept away in the aftermath of that modern Armageddon. The homes have vanished, but these useless basements betray what once rose above them.

In Dresden, I met a man who survived the bombs by sheltering in one of these cellars. When he emerged from his subterranean sanctuary, his city had completely disappeared. His family retreated to the outskirts. The centre became a ghost town, haunted by a rogue army of vagrants who lurked in the cellars that had saved his infant life.

Fifty years later, I sat down with this survivor, in a makeshift cinema above a homely restaurant, alongside a handful of other men from his unfortunate generation, to watch a precious collection of ancient films about Dresden before the bombing. Someone dimmed the lights, and forgotten districts flickered into life against an illuminated screen. As day trippers and courting couples danced in and out of shops and cafes in fast-forward staccato sepia, the silence was burst by audible gasps of recognition.

The secrets that fed these murmurs felt so raw that they made me wince with a discomfort that was almost physical. In an instant, the trite fact of birthright that I had always nurtured – the pedantic truth that my father was born in their Heimat’s hinterland – was rendered worthless. Despite my ancestry, I was still the only Englishman in a room full of grieving Germans. And it made me realise that, whatever the rights and wrongs of Dresden’s blithe annihilation, whether historians call it a demented triumph of revenge over mercy, or merely a necessary evil, it remains a shame.

Yet Dresden is currently undergoing a remarkable reconstruction, and every time I have been back I have seen a slightly different city. Previously, the few relics rescued from sudden ruin or insidious decay stood alone, like isolated islands in a sea of grey cement. Now you can turn a corner and catch a fleeting glimpse of the enchanted city that Canaletto saw. Before reunification, the bombed-out Taschenbergpalais was a hollow wreck. Trees grew within its icing-sugar walls. Today, it is a five-star hotel. The castle is still festooned with cranes, but its clock turret has emerged from a nest of scaffolding, to resume its place on Dresden’s delicate skyline, alongside the Catholic cathedral. It may be a mere trick of the winter twilight, but as you walk past the church, the human statues that surround its roof seem to shift from one informal attitude to another. Dresden’s Protestant cathedral, the Frauenkirche, withstood the bombs, only to crack and crumble two days later, baked by the intense heat. The avalanche of debris became a peace memorial.

Concealed in a cocoon of plastic sheeting, the crypt is a working chapel once more. Its dome, a mottled patchwork of replica and original masonry, will soon complete a panoramic silhouette of regeneration and regret.

Dresden will always be shackled to the Second World War, but its hidden hinterland remains rooted in an even earlier age. Beyond its city limits lurks the perfectly preserved, half-forgotten summer palace of Pillnitz. Through dormant ornamental flower beds, past barren stables and blank ranks of shuttered windows, the gravel path ends at the water’s edge, where reeds and meadows melt into a leafless forest.

A few hours downstream is Meissen, a castle, a palace and a cathedral all crowded together on a sandstone cliff above a bend in the river. This is where the famous porcelain comes from, and even the church bells are made of china. From their belfry in the town square, brittle chimes echo up the steep hill towards the Schloss at the summit, whose honeycomb of draughty halls is decorated with melodramatic murals depicting battles between Slavs and Teutons in this disputed borderland.

Strange things happen in Saxony. Returning from Meissen, my train stopped suddenly, with no station in sight. Eventually, a guard arrived. The overhead electric cables had failed. Without a word, the man beside me wrenched open the doors and stepped down on to the track. The other passengers followed. I hurried after them. The rails ahead were punctuated with pedestrians, from clerks clutching briefcases to hausfraus lugging shopping-bags. Our procession tramped through flat Saxon fields, picking out a hopscotch path over the sharp pebbles between the concrete sleepers, until the train shrank into the distance.

For a few minutes, we were immersed in the damp countryside, before a modest station appeared in a haze on the horizon. I clambered up on to the platform, and completed my journey to Mortizburg by cab. This grand hunting lodge sits amid a silver lake, reflected with perfect symmetry in the still water that surrounds it. A superfluous canal runs through the woods to a pretty, pointless summer house. I returned to Dresden on an ancient steam train. It arrived dead on time.

I wish I could see the Dresden my grandmother saw, but I wouldn’t feel so fond of it in a petrified state of such perfection. Its suffering can never begin to compare with the infinite evil of the Holocaust, but its ugly scars of remembrance still make it the only place in my imaginary fatherland where I can pretend to feel at home.

In every Christian story, redemption is inseparable from remorse. The old landmarks are returning but, although Dresden may become beautiful again, it cannot mimic what it once was; and because the culture that created it also made a monster, maybe that is for the best.

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