The Ghosts of Dresden

Posted on February 4, 2020

by Sinclair McKay

Sinclair McKay, author of The Fire and the Darkness, discusses one of the most devastating bombing campaigns of WWII and the lingering effects it has had on the city of Dresden.

“Two B-17 Flying Fortresses’ vapor trails light up the night sky over Eastern Europe.”
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

ANYONE visiting Dresden might unconsciously expect to find a vast sepulchre. This city – deep in the east of Germany, near the borders of Poland and the Czech Republic – is, after all, a by-word for annihilation and the horrors of total war. The black and white photographs have a ghastly familiarity: skeletal shells of buildings, entire streets reduced to jagged stumps, the historic old city crushed and flattened as though sucked down by some preternatural force of nature.

Yet the city that greets the visitor today is whole, and thriving and welcoming; in the old town, the streets miraculously look very much as they did before 1945. There is the grand schloss, the great churches, the opera house, the little lanes, the market squares. And more than this, there is vitality and blitheness; on rich warm summer’s evenings, the streets are suffused with music from classical buskers. Here is all the life of art that the city was famous for over a century ago. This is no illusion; it has taken decades of painful, perfectionist reconstruction to reach this point.

But as twilight comes, and the visitor walks along the famous riverside promenade that was painted by Bernardo Bellotto in the 18th century, it is impossible not to think, even fleetingly, of that one night of pure terror, and of the sky above filled with the sinister deep hum of the approaching bombers, and of 25,000 people being devoured in an inferno that rose a mile high.

“Dresden, partial view of the destroyed city center on the Elbe to the new town. In the center of Neumarkt and the ruins of the Frauenkirche.” (1945)
WikiCommons: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-041-07 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0

I have written a new book about the bombing of Dresden; but it is also a book about the astonishing, dazzling life of the city before Nazism, and the slow grey years of healing, under the Soviets, and then the fresh flowering in unified Germany. Here are the stories of ordinary Dresden citizens, finding their lives shattered in the most terrifying ways – and somehow, extraordinarily, rebuilding their lives afterward. This is also a story about the starkest morality in war; not merely from the point of view of the decision-making authorities, but also through the eyes of civilians, and of the airmen who themselves had already seen so many of their own friends burned and blasted out of the sky.

In February 1945 – as WWII was fought to its exhausted and traumatized conclusion – two waves of British bombers and one wave of US Air Force bombers targeted the city. The British bombers, flying over in the dark, threw down so many incendiaries and explosives that the fires that took hold in the city soon joined, creating a terrifying quirk of physics, a tornado of super-heated flame rising far into the night sky, creating searing lung scorching hurricane winds and sucking victims into its burning heart.

The victims were women, children, the elderly, and refugees. Those caught outside were either dismembered, or burned when their clothes spontaneously caught fire, or when they found their feet stuck in melting tar. Death was also in fierce pursuit of those who had taken shelter underground.

Because it had been assumed for so long that Dresden would not be a target for the Allies, there were no purposely built bomb shelters (save the one made for the gross Gauleiter Martin Mutschmann). So the citizens of Dresden’s old town retreated, during the air raid alarms, to low brick cellars, sparsely furnished with chairs and bare lightbulbs. There they sat as above them, in the words of one witness, ‘the gates of hell’ opened. Those who weren’t gradually suffocated or who suffered carbon monoxide induced heart attacks, were eventually baked and mummified.

Such a subject is, of course, intensely harrowing to research. But it is a huge tribute to the city today that Dresden has found ways to commemorate and remember in ways that emphasize the points of light in the darkness.

The Dresden City Archives has done the most brilliant job of eliciting and collating hundreds of eyewitness accounts of the bombing: citizens who were children at the time, diaries and letters from older generations. There are so many different voices, speaking quietly and distinctly, and with huge dignity, about the most nightmarish experiences: fighting through burning winds, escaping over-crowded cellars, squinting against the blinding glowing embers that filled the air. The archives themselves can be examined in a peaceful, sunlit reading room, bright and open; a sharp contrast to the darkness of those frequently hand-written pages.

And many of these accounts – claustrophobic, suffocating – none the less contain instances of human kindness in the most desperate circumstances: teenagers helping elderly neighbours, and mothers with prams; townspeople aiding terrified rural refugees.

Check out the Wall Street Journal review of The Fire and the Darkness!

Outside of the archives, the streets of the city are patterned with the echoes of history too. There are brass plaques commemorating the lives of Dresden’s savagely persecuted Jewish community; a statue to the young boy choristers who sang with Dresden’s world famous Kreuz Choir, who perished that night.

Then there is the Frauenkirche – a fantastically beautiful baroque church with a large dome that was built in the early 18th century. That church imploded after the raid; this new version is identical in every last detail, from the exact colours of the interior frescos, to the golden orb that sits at its summit. But there is one crucial and deliberate detail: the stones at the base of this mighty church are blackened. This is because they are the 18th century originals. The much paler sandstone masonry above belongs to the rebuild; the contrast is there purposefully to indicate the destruction. Nearby, on the paved concourse of the New Market, there stands a vast irregular boulder of stone. This – as a plaque points out – was hurled out of the Frauenkirche when the building collapsed.

Either on amber summer’s evenings, or in the rich dark sapphire afternoons of pre-Christmas, when the old market square is a red-and-green lit maze of log cabins, Dresden takes the greatest care to ensure that the past is never forgotten. Here and there, in churches, on hoardings, there are black and white photographs: not of ruins, but of the city in the 1920s, before the foul taint of Nazism, before the unthinkable trauma of the firestorm. These photographs encourage further exploration of the city’s older soul; the soul that seems to have found exquisite new efflorescence today.  

© 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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