Dresden. Wow. All I knew about Dresden before we got here was the fire bombings of World War II. And even then, all I knew was that there had been some serious bombs that pretty much wiped out the city. At least I got that part right. In mid-February 1945 American and British pilots dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and “incendiary devices” on the city, killing perhaps 25,000 people, mostly civilians, and leveling much of the city. While there is a plausible case that Dresden’s military and industrial significance warranted this level of death and destruction, it seems clear that the intensity – savagery, really – had as much to do with German psychology as with military needs narrowly defined.Whatever the moral and ethical implications, Dresden was wiped out. As late as 1984, when Mark was here on a college trip, the city was still a bombed out mess. Today? Wow. After German reunification – Dresden had been part of East Germany – the investments came and many of the grand old buildings were rebuilt. The museums are world class. The restaurants are great. Cool hip neighborhoods. The running trails along the Elbe are heavenly. (OK, that’s idiosyncratic, but they have great biking/running trails for miles and miles along the river. Truly heavenly.)
A little quick history is worthwhile here since it’s pretty interesting and I knew nothing of it before we came. Dresden was long the capital of Saxony, one of many German states that made up the Holy Roman Empire (which was, of course, not holy, Roman, or an empire, but whatever). The Duke of Saxony was a Prince of Europe, but he was much more than that: he was one of just four lay Electors of the Holy Roman Emperor, along with three spiritual Electors. The role of Elector was highly prestigious, even though by the 15th century the Emperor had become an inherited role in the Habsburg dynasty. Electors ranked above all other Princes and just below kings in terms of royal hierarchy. In fact, the electors’ title was Elector rather than Duke or Prince or whatever and, amusingly for me at least, their wives were called Electresses. Kind of like calling Michelle Obama the “Presidentress.” I wonder if we could get that to take off?
Finally, when Napoleon dissolved the empire in the early 19th century he raised the state of Saxony to a kingdom. Thus Dresden was a Very Important City over hundreds of years of European history. (And I should note that, looking a little further back, Saxony is also where those Saxons who crossed the English Channel to mix with the Angles and give the world the Anglo-Saxons came from. Being there was like finally being home.)
So now fast forward through World War II, the bombing, the emergence of the Cold War, and the dreary “recovery” experienced by Dresden and the rest of East Germany. Finally 1989 arrives, the Iron Curtain falls, Germany is reunited, and Dresden is rebuilt. The Catholic cathedral, the Frauenkirche, the Zwinger Museum, the Opera House, the Palace, and much more all rebuilt and beautiful. So today it is again a rollicking example of baroque and rococo masterpieces. What fun!