75 Years On, Dresden Recalls the Images of War and the Echoes of History

75 Years On, Dresden Recalls the Images of War and the Echoes of History

Universal mourning and atonement have been central themes in the nation’s commemoration. But the far right has sought to use the attack to promote a revisionist history of the Nazi state.

BERLIN — Germans on Thursday marked 75 years since Allied bombs destroyed the eastern city of Dresden, with national leaders emphasizing atonement and the universal mourning of the war’s victims even as the far right has promoted a revisionist view of the Nazi state.

Images of Dresden’s skeletal, burned-out buildings have become synonymous with the ravages of war. The inferno devastated the city, the capital of the state of Saxony, resulting in temperatures so hot that they caused the stone dome of the Church of Our Lady to collapse. It was rebuilt after reunification and consecrated in 2005.

But in Germany, the attack also sowed the seeds of debate over victims and responsibility, one that has taken on new meaning as a resurgent far right in the country’s east promotes a revisionist history of World War II.

Mourning all of the war’s victims has been central to Germany’s remembrance efforts since reunification in 1990.

“Today, when we remember the history of the bombings in our country, we remember both the suffering of people in German cities and the suffering that Germans inflicted on others,” President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a speech at the official ceremony on Thursday.

“We, as Germans, do not forget our guilt and we remain true to our responsibility,” he said. “Always.”

In the days after the bombing on Feb. 13, 1945, the Nazi propaganda ministry declared the Dresden bombing a “terror attack,” circulating reports that up to 200,000 people had perished. These numbers persisted for decades, and Dresden was cast as an innocent victim of war.

After German reunification in 1990, historians and researchers determined that about 25,000 people perished in the attack, a number in line with fatalities in other German cities targeted by American and British pilots in the final days of the war.

But even as city and national leaders called on residents to heed the “lessons of the past,” members of the far right Alternative for Germany party promoted the Nazi line.

“The suffering was immeasurable. The Allied attack on a city full of refugees is a war crime,” Tino Chrupalla, a spokesman for the party, which has questioned and belittled the country’s post-World War II culture of atonement for Nazi crimes, said on Twitter.

Like many of the Jews who survived the Holocaust, the number of people who remember the inferno that engulfed the city are dying out.

Ursula Elsner was 14 when the bombs fell. In an interview with Der Spiegel, she recalled her mother dragging her and her brother out of bed to hide in the cellar as the sirens wailed. When the house caught fire, they emerged and spent hours clinging to a lamppost as the hot winds of the firestorm raged around them, she said.

Now 89, she said the anniversary should serve as a warning against war, not be misused for political gain.

“This day belongs to us,” she said.

As evening fell on Thursday, residents stood in the rain and joined hands in a human chain that snaked through the wet streets, encircling the heart of the city, a tradition that began several years ago when the tactic was used to block a neo-Nazi march.

Far-right groups plan to mark the anniversary with a demonstration on Saturday.

Mr. Steinmeier urged Germans to push back against efforts to contradict or play down their country’s responsibility for the crimes of World War II.

“Whoever pits the dead of Dresden against the dead of Auschwitz, whoever seeks to talk down German wrongs, whoever falsifies improved knowledge and historical facts,” he said, “we as democrats must loudly and clearly contradict them. We must defy them.”

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