Dresden — The February 1945 firebombing of Dresden has long been a rallying point for neo-Nazis. Indeed, prominent Holocaust deniers have been assiduous in symbolically conflating Dresden with Hiroshima as the real crematoria of World War II. Neo-Nazis have swarmed this ancient capital of Saxony for every anniversary of the bombing since the reunification of Germany in 1989.
The majority of Dresdeners don’t want their pain to reinforce the monstrous ideology that precipitated the destruction in the first place. It is already difficult enough for descendants of perpetrators to deal with questions of collective or inherited guilt, unfathomable historical reality or relative victimhood. They want to be able to mourn the devastation and mass incineration of the city without having their commemorations co-opted by any politicians, let alone neo-Nazis.
One of the loveliest cities in the world, Dresden has been called the “Florence on the Elbe.” It was the first city in Europe to enact urban zoning regulations and is historically a major center of the arts and engineering. Dresden has now largely been rebuilt to resemble what was there before the war. Alongside the re-creation of the physical reality of the old city out of the rubble, efforts almost as massive have been undertaken to heal the spiritual and psychological wounds of the past: education under communist rule layering the disinformation with anti-Western propaganda compounded with lies covering up Nazi history. Dresden cultural institutions, local and federal governments, and the people themselves are now taking multiple steps to confront the neo-Nazi problem and the widespread lack of knowledge about the past.
Among the numerous efforts this year, Dresden commissioned a new requiem by a Russian-American Jewish composer for performance in the Frauenkirche and the Semper Opera; opened the huge anti-war Military Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind, and, most dramatic, had a “human chain” — individuals, families, old and young alike — holding hands in the below-freezing weather to create a peaceful barrier. Outnumbering the much-diminished contingent of 1,600 neo-Nazis by at least 4:1, the citizens effectively blocked them at the train station.
The Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra (one of the oldest and finest orchestras in the world) has been performing annual memorial concerts since 1951, when much of the city was still in ruins. This year, for the first time, the orchestra commissioned a new requiem instead of performing an existing work. The program book for the performances confronted the audience with two photographs. The first showed the huge Dresden crowds greeting Hitler on May 1, 1933, in the huge square in front of the Semper Opera. (Hitler had made his appearance in the city conditional on the opera and the Staatskapelle being made completely “Juden-frei” [Jew-free].) The second photo showed the bombed-out city of 1945.
For these performances, the orchestra deliberately chose to bring in performers from the Allied countries — Russia, England and America — and to incorporate Jewish elements. New York’s Saint Thomas Choir of Boys and the London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir were imported to sing alongside the men of the Saxon State Opera Chorus. For this highly symbolic and emotional occasion, for the first time,with additional funds from the Frauenkirche Foundation, the orchestra commissioned its prolific Jewish composer-in-residence, Lera Auerbach. She created an 18-movement “Ode to Peace” for male voices and orchestra: four soloists (two boy sopranos, a countertenor and a bass-baritone) plus boys’ and men’s choirs. She also cobbled together an ecumenical assortment of prayers, psalms and other texts in Latin, German and Hebrew.