The Fire and the Darkness: Dresden Before the Bombs Fell

Posted on February 20, 2020

by Sinclair McKay

In the following excerpt from the recently released The Fire and the Darkness, Sinclair McKay discusses Dresden in 1945 prior to the Allies’ devastating bombing campaign.

Dresden (Saxony, Germany) – View from town hall over the Altstadt, 1910.
This photo is in the public domain via WikiCommons {{PD-US}}

As the working day began early for the free citizens of Dresden, so too were their children making their way to their schools, finding out whether they were open that day, assiduous about studies even in the increasing chaos around them. There had been extensive disruptions to timetables and schools had frequently closed, often to conserve fuel; children instead were left to play winter games in the city’s parks and in the wooded suburbs. Some classrooms had been converted into makeshift field hospitals for wounded men brought back from the eastern front.

Any German child under thirteen in 1945 had grown up knowing nothing other than Nazi rule; this, to them, was the natural order of the world. Those few whose parents secretly questioned the order of things behind closed doors must have felt conflicted when asked to learn and repeat the propaganda so willingly absorbed by their classmates. Among the smarter establishments in the city – certainly in terms of academic pride and attainment – was the Vitzthum-Gymnasium, the school attended by Dr Fromme’s elder son Friedrich. Throughout the course of the year, the establishment had suffered two major setbacks: first, the requisition of one of its main buildings for military use, necessitating a move to share premises with another school; then, in 1944, those premises were shattered by American bombs during a speculative daylight raid.

Among its pupils were many who would later become lawyers, engineers, doctors or journalists, but increasing numbers of the city’s fifteen-year-old boys were being drafted, via the Hitler Youth, into military positions in anti-aircraft batteries, pointing guns at the night sky not just above Dresden but in other cities too.

All boys were required to participate in the Hitler Youth, even the quieter, bookish ones not suitable for defensive duties. Winfried Bielss, fifteen years old in 1945, had his own after-school responsibilities. They seemed not to impinge greatly upon his larger concern, which was stamp collecting. Winfried and his mother lived in an apartment in a genteel suburb on the north bank of the Elbe. His soldier father was, at that time, in Bohemia: one of the more vicious crucibles of Nazism. There, in Czechoslovakia, the local Jewish population had been almost completely exterminated, and other minorities such as the Romany were persecuted too. Now, Bielss’s father was facing not merely Stalin’s advancing forces but also local resistance groups who were fighting back with real vigour while, little more than a hundred miles away, his son was returning home for his supper.

Even in those sparse times there was red cabbage and fried potatoes – and as his mother exclaimed, there could be scant cause for unhappiness if one ‘could still enjoy fried potatoes’. Indeed, in peacetime, staple Saxon comfort recipes had always revolved around potato soup (with cucumber and sour cream) and potato dumplings (with buttermilk). The only real absence now was rich cakes, a traditional Dresdener yearning.

By those early days of February 1945, Bielss’s Hitler Youth duties were centred on the grand central railway station; and they involved guiding the many disembarking refugees to their new temporary billets in the farms and villages that surrounded Dresden. The architecture of the station surely impressed upon all arrivals a sense of the city that Dresden had until recently been, with its elegantly curved long glass roofs and slickly designed platforms and concourse. Here was a structure that spoke of some cosmopolitanism; pan-European detailing in the whorls of the ironwork, in the light pouring in through those glass roofs, which gave a romantic haze to the rich smoke from the steam engines. There had also until recently been refugees arriving from some bombed-out cities in the west as well. Added to this, there were German soldiers arriving on leave or to convalesce.

Those disembarking at the station were frequently pointed north, to the New Town – Neustadt – that lay on the other side of the river. The Neustadt had streets with a distinctly Parisian flavour: long, tall terraces, shops and restaurants on ground floors, a maze of hidden leafy courtyards behind. Meanwhile, matching this sophisticated feel in the old town – the Altstadt – near the railway station was the elegant and sumptuous Prager Strasse, a shopping street that, even in the vice-grip of the total-war economy, still exerted a strong pull on the imaginations and desires of many local people.

In a curious way, the windows of Prager Strasse’s shops in earlier years had not only afforded glimpses of flashing beauty – richly coloured silks of indigo and emerald, chic haute couture, voluminous luxurious furs, the hard dazzle of jewellery – but also suggested a form of social stability: exquisite assets that unlike the cruelly inflationary German currency of the 1920s would keep their value, thus also buying their owners security and safety. There was no such security for many store owners, though; since the passing of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws forcing anti-Semitism deep into the constitutional heart of German life, business people had learned bitterly that such assets could be snatched – expropriated by the state. None the less, even by this later stage of the war this was still where the smarter ladies of Dresden society came to shop, dine and take coffee, albeit ersatz with an aftertaste of oats.

Check out an exclusive History Reader piece by author Sinclair McKay!

More down-to-earth Dresdeners favoured traditional stores such as Böhme, which by 1945 had become a thriving marketplace for gossip and war theories. There were modern department stores too: Renner, on the Altmarkt (old market), even in the depleted war years, stocked everything from children’s clothes to household goods. And a few streets up was an innovative shop that had once been called Alsberg. In contrast to the charmingly antiquated neighbouring streets, this was a temple of futuristic modernism, built with a carefully calibrated geometry of horizontals and subtle curves. Alsberg had been the first to introduce smooth escalators so that more genteel shoppers might not overexert themselves. Like so many other businesses both in this city and across Germany, it had been seized from its Jewish owners by the Nazi authorities as part of their Aryanization process; they changed the name to ‘Möbius’. The business would not have been much use to the owners as the decade wore on in any case: the Nazi boycott on Jewish shops was too thorough.

The ostentation of other, grander shops might have been regarded with a certain sardonic amusement by young working-class Dresden women such as seventeen-year-old Anita Auerbach; she was a waitress at The White Bow, a cheap and busy restaurant a few streets from the centre. In earlier years this had been an establishment filled with teetotal left-wing political radicals, an informal theatre of speeches and fiery meetings and long, shouting debates. One such prominent Dresden communist from those days, a young mother called Elsa Frölich, had been imprisoned by the Nazi authorities and subsequently released. She was now working as an accountant in a nearby cigarette factory that had been converted to manufacture ammunition. Frölich was one of the few in Dresden in February 1945 who yearned to see Stalin’s forces in the streets. The White Bow, however, was now teeming with German soldiers (and indeed the occasional furtive deserter, seeking to avoid scrutiny), its windows fogged from the steam of the hot vegetable broth that was served.

In the south-west of the city another young woman of seventeen, Margot Hille, had just a few months previously completed an apprenticeship that in peacetime might not have been available to her: she now had a full-time position in the Felsenkeller brewery, one of many breweries that thrived around the city. Established in the mid-nineteenth century, the firm had excavated special tunnels for the purposes of brewing storage. War had also brought a new sort of production line to the firm – darkly secret and deep within the factory – that of highly technical components for military machinery. But there was still beer too. Felsenkeller specialized in a strong lager advertised with the image of a smiling golden-haired boy in checked trousers holding aloft a foaming stein.

If there seemed something slightly unreal about local manufacturing and drink businesses continuing as though the world was on a stable footing, the sense was magnified back in the Altstadt, where the banks and insurance companies continued their daily business. Like the department stores, the Dresden banks had been subject to Nazi theft. One of the city’s more prominent financial houses, owned by the Jewish Arnhold family, had been swallowed up by Aryanization in 1935; their bank was subsumed into the Dresdner Bank, which, although it had moved its head office to Berlin, still had substantial premises in Dresden.

Dresdner Bank’s business was now wholly war-related, and its tendrils reached into every part of Nazi-dominated eastern Europe. It is fair to speculate that in those dark months, some senior figures within the bank would have known and understood for certain what had been happening in those concentration camps so deep in the eastern forests. Part of their business had been about financing such efforts, and finding ways of profiting from them. In the streets where Dresdner Bank’s senior management operated, the bright red and black of the Nazi flag fluttered in the winter winds, the swastika stark against grey masonry.

Yet nearby were tokens of a city somehow not wholly steeped in war. There was (and is) the Pfunds Molkerei – an absurdly picturesque dairy shop, ornately decorated with nineteenth-century Villeroy & Boch hand-painted ceramic tiles, that represented an older Dresdener spirit, playful and blithe, a small temple to the virtues of sweetness.  A tourist attraction in peacetime, here were pastries and buttermilk – a draw not merely for children but also for parents who had never quite forgotten their intense childhood pleasures. Further along the river, vineyards covered the slopes of Schloss Eckberg, a splendidly grandiose nineteenth-century structure built in the style and spirit of an English castle by a local wealthy merchant.  Here and in many other nearby vineyards there was said to be an extraordinary terroir. Certainly it produced a subtle Riesling that was both light and as sharp as autumn apples. The Eckberg vineyard commanded a view of the river, and of the early twentieth-century bridge that was known locally as the Blue Wonder. It was also the bridge that many locals mentioned when they were discussing the advance of the Red Army. In these conversations, people wondered if this construction – considered a revolutionary piece of suspension engineering and a real source of local pride – would have to be sacrificed to slow the Soviets down.

The underlying fears of brutality and unstoppable violence were woven through with other profound anxieties. To each and every Dresdener, the city had a unique and perhaps sacred beauty: the cathedrals and churches and palaces that had lined the curve of the Elbe for centuries should have represented a form of eternity. Instead there was the fear that the barbarians would smash the beauty into dust. That religious sense of aesthetics had somehow found a way of coexisting with blood-red swastikas.

Yet the real shadow over the city was not being cast by the Soviets; instead, the broadly unsuspected threat lay in the secret plans and intentions of the Allies in the west.

© Liam Bergin

Sinclair McKay is the bestselling author of The Secret Lives of Codebreakers (published in the UK as The Secret Life of Bletchley Park) and The Secret Listeners for Aurum, as well as several other books. Sinclair is a literary critic for the Telegraph and The Spectator and for three years was a judge of the Encore Prize, awarded annually for best second novel. He lives in the shadow of Canary Wharf in east London.

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