George Bähr, Frauenkircke, Dresden, c. 1730

I’m currently in Dresden, a city that’s fascinated me ever since learning about the tragic Valentine’s Day bombings (13-15 February) that killed between 35,000 and 120,000 people (I find it horrifying that even now statisticians cannot determine a more accurate number), almost exclusively civilians, in 1945. I first heard of it from Kurt Vonnegut while reading Slaughterhouse-Five. When World War Two came up in history class, the bombing of Dresden was glossed over with few details and touted as a war-ending action of the Allies, similar to scholarly assessment regarding the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan some months later that likely killed twice as many civilians, and perhaps it was. A tragedy nonetheless, since bombs dropped at lunch time in busy civilian locations: banks, schools, hospitals, open-air markets, trains stations. Germans considered Dresden a safe, non-strategic city where tens of thousands of elderly, women, and children fleeing the ruthless Russian army on its westward march had taken refuge. The bombings continued for two days and most deaths were caused by suffocation, since (especially after the first attack) civilians took refuge in underground shelters, whose oxygen was sucked out in the attacks.

I became particularly interested in the bombing of Dresden during the fall of 1976, when I took a course in nineteenth-century art at Columbia University with the MacArthur ‘genius’ Award winner, Kirk Varnedoe. When we got to Realism, he discussed Gustave Courbet’s landmark painting The Stonebreakers. He explained how, in the wake of 1848, when all French men were granted the right to vote (it was the first time in history that citizenship rather than property ownership—much less education, literacy, or intelligence—formed the sole criteria for suffrage, a situation extremely frustrating for educated women), the ragged figures and the turned-away faces of the stone-breaking men, whose expressions viewers cannot read combined with the presence of the potential weapons of paving stones and pickaxes, caused alarm among critics and the viewing public. I found it thrilling that a painting could inspire such fear! I couldn’t wait to see this painting in person to imagine as I studied the painting the dramatic emotional response it evoked.

Then, just at the moment when my excitement level was at its pinnacle, Varnedoe delivered a coup de grace: the painting had been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden (a city where artworks as well as inhabitants were presumed to be safe). That Germans had developed stable film with excellent resolution and color properties in the 1930s and had photographed much of their museums’ contents by the onset of World War Two was the only reason we could study it. I’m not sure I heard the rest of the lecture, so devastated was I by this news. It piqued my curiosity about Dresden, I city to which I was already partial because it was where Caspar David Friedrich (my favorite painter), settled and established an influential school of Romantic landscape painting.

I’ve been coming to Dresden regularly (at least every other year) since the mid-1990s and it’s been fascinating to observe the city’s transformation following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Although the magnificent Baroque palace complex known as The Zwinger, designed by architect Matthäus Pöppelmann and constructed during the reign of proto-Enlightenment, art-collecting King August the Strong (1694-1733) had been rebuilt directly after the War, much of the rest of Dresden lay in a shambles with piles of rubble and weed-filled fields where magnificent buildings once stood.

The most poignant of these was the Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady (or Notre Dame, in French), which the atheistic Communists understandably left in ruins. Believers or not, Dresden citizens rescued the cathedral’s fragments, identifying and organizing the charred remains to the extent possible and storing them on long stretches of roofed shelving in the field beside the Frauenkirche’s ruined foundation. The Communists knew better than to remove these treasured vestiges of a centerpiece of what many once considered Europe’s most magnificent and architecturally harmonious Baroque city. And there the fragments waited until 1990.

Following ‘the turn’ (die Wende), popular support rallied for the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche. An enormous, life-size sketch of the façade on cotton sailcloth was hung before the location of the actual façade, and a kind of ever-rising thermometer along its edge showed the amount of money raised and the black and white drawing was colored in at the end of each year to show the reconstruction progress. Each summer, I’d stop by to witness the progress, and I attended several of the concerts mounted by altruistic music groups to raise funds. The entire project was paid for by individual contributions, by people wanting to contribute to the rebuilding of their city, of their society, of their newly unified country, and not for the tax advantages or publicity it might generate; all contributions remained anonymous. I found this effort heartwarming and inspirational, and I was thrilled to be a part of it. The Frauenkirche’s doors reopened in 2005.

Since then, the field where its shattered bits lay stored for decades has been replaced by shops, eradicating evidence of half a century of the cathedral’s history. I wish they’d retained the field as a kind of memorial site, since knowing this history makes the church’s presence touching in a way the obvious newness of the building obscures. Much of the Altstadt (Old Town) is now vibrant and touristy. It’s difficult to imagine, as you walk along the stately terraces along the Elbe River, the terror that rained (literally) during those 48 hours in February 1944. But where one sees new construction, one can assume that the building standing there in the early 1940s had been destroyed. Like London. There, I always imagine that the checkerboard of ancient and modern structures indicates real estate freed up by bomb destruction.

These telltale signs of urban historical geography appear also in the city’s residential districts (one of the most problematic aspects of that bombing campaign) where incendiary bombs ravaged areas that should not have been targeted according to contemporary rules of war. South and west of the Altstadt lie impressive neighborhoods of magnificent Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) homes and apartment blocks, especially near the expansive Tiergarten park. They are so beautiful, creative, and varied that I’m surprised some haven’t been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites. There, interspersed, however, one sees unadorned ‘Plattenbau‘ (‘flat-construction) apartment blocks typical of the post-World War Two period. These appear often flimsy and ugly in much of the former ‘Iron Curtain’ countries, but here, they look solid and tastefully tidy, often with balconies and views onto green spaces that create a harmonious nature-human balance that one finds lacking in American McMansion neighborhoods, with their disproportionately large homes devouring land parcels. As I wander these Dresden neighborhoods,  as appealing to me as any museum installation, architectural appearances relate a history that fascinates. Public spaces along sidewalks, curbs, tram and train tracks are often left wild and are sprinkled with wildflowers, giving these spots a welcoming countryside feeling.

Now, I’m off to spend the evening with a childhood friend who happens to be in Dresden for a few days. Enroute, I’m hoping to see more thought-provoking historical-architectural traces. Dresden, I’ll never tire of visiting you!


By michellefacos

I am a multi-lingual art historian, consultant (art, travel, writing), editor, entrepreneur, lecturer, and writer who has lived along the shores of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and Lake Erie, in New York and in Paris, and in the forests of Quebec and Sweden. While I’ve lived a semi-nomadic existence for the past few decades, I’m inching toward a life anchored in Europe.

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