Dresden and history
Trip Start Aug 30, 2009
244Trip End Dec 25, 2009
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Dresden was ruled by the same family for many years and became Protestant during Martin Luther's fall away from the Catholic faith. When Augustus II (I'm skipping many intervening years) because the Grand Elector of Dresden, he started building and making changes. One thing he did was start collecting tax on items moving through his city, thanks to one of his counts suggestions, which made his family very rich. He also wasn't one to waste opportunity knocking so when the kingship of Poland became vacant, he stepped up to bribe the necessary important people and converted his family back to Catholicism since it was necessary to be king of Poland. Of course then he had trouble finding anyone in Dresden who would build his catholic church so he had to import Italians to build it. He ended up with a beautiful church (on the outside since we couldn't go into it) for about 16 people since no one outside the royal family would give up being Protestants. He had traveled before his ascent to the throne and as a result, his palace and the Zwinger medieval fortress have a variety of building styles. Some of it looking like bad wedding cake, some very Italian, some very French. He also collected things, art, weapons, etc.
Fast forward to Nazi Germany. Dresden was considered then also as a beautiful city with art and such. It had very few, comparatively to other cities, war factories. In fact, everything thought that this city was safe from attack because Berlin was so near. Dresden had even had 10 false alarms for air raids. Because everyone thought the allies wouldn't bother Dresden, the officials had no real bunkers or air raid shelters for the general public. Military personnel had bunkers but mainly ordinary people might just have basements or such.
Arthur "Bomber" Harris devised a plan to attack Dresden a few days after the conference of Yalta in which Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt had worked to figure out what to do when/if they won the war. Churchill and Roosevelt were both concerned that Stalin seemed very vocal in expressing that he wanted to have a "Red" Europe, stopping just short of England turning communist. So for whatever reason: showing Stalin he could be next, getting even for Germany bombing Coventry, England (another beautiful town with little or no reason to be destroyed), Harris' plan was put into action.
It was a three phase plan with hundreds of bombers in each run. They had primary targets: factories, train station, infrastructure, then secondary targets: public buildings, and finally "anything you can hit" targets. Smaller planes accompanied the bombers in order to fight off the German planes. The bombers all came out of England and up through southern Germany as if going to Berlin and then swerved and flew over Dresden.
The first two runs were British with the final run being American. Our guide said the first run concentrating on dropping what I would call percussion bombs which blew out windows and doors. This was to create wind tunnels. The second run dropped small incendiary bombs which would start a small fire. The fires were so small they could easily be put out with a bucket of water, a blanket, stomped on, etc. BUT thousands of these were dropped and with so many tiny fires, and the wind tunnels from the windows and doors being gone, these little fires grew into each other and became big fires.
Apparently Dresden was burning by the time the Americans flew over and dropped bombs to destroy anything left standing. So while I knew that Dresden had been destroyed during the war, I didn't realize that it had been fires that really did the worst damage and killed most of the people who died by asphyxiation. Temperatures got up to 1000C and basically the fires used up all the oxygen in the city. People went to basements to get away from fires and just ran out of air. Others ran to jump in the Elba River which is the lowest part of the city and also ran out of air and then drowned. Some people tried to get to water tanks but the water was super heated from the fires so that killed them also. Really a horror story of what war can do and what can happen. Buildings were made of a sandstone so many would just disintegrate when they got hot enough.
After the bombing, Dresden ended up in East Germany under the control of the Soviet Union. The Soviets did not want to fix up anything that smacked of the west so no churches were repaired, only art things and palaces that they wanted to use. Luckily for us all, the Nazis had taken the art collections and buried them in the woods. They had taken the statues off the palaces and weighted them down in the river. So today a building is restored but it still has many of the original statues on it. You can see which ones are original and which ones have been made in the past 30 years.
The Cold War used the bombing of Dresden as a propaganda and gave out figures like 500K killed. The grand Protestant church was the symbol of Dresden before the war and everything that left Dresden pretty much had its picture on it. After the bombing, the Soviets used the bombed church as a symbol of everything bad in the west.
Many of the buildings that are now restored in Dresden were not restored until after 1989 and when Germany was reunified. The Protestant church has been rebuilt now as has the Catholic church but 20 years ago, they were still in rubble.
It was fascinating and horrifying to visit the city and see how beautiful and interesting it is now and learn it's history and how it and the citizens have suffered.
Frederich Taylor has a book out in the last few years that gives a better history of Dresden and gives more accurate figures based on historical documents that aren't Soviet biased. Kurt Vonnegut was also a POW in Dresden and he wrote Slaughterhouse Five, a fiction, but it came from his experiences there.
I enjoyed our visit very much.