On 12th February 2019, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the twinning of Dresden and Coventry, Dresden received its 5th Cross of Nails as an affirmation of their joint commitment to work for peace and reconciliation.
We Dresdneners are proud that of the more than 200 Cross of Nails centres worldwide there are now five of them in my hometown of Dresden: 1965 – the Christian hospital Diakonissenhaus, 1966 – the main Prostestant Church of Dresden, the Church of the Holy Cross (Kreuzkirche), 2005 – the famous Church of our Lady (Frauenkirche), rebuilt after the ‘Velvet Revolution’ with substantial donations from England, 2006 – the small but very active Parish Church ‘St. Mary on the Water’ (Maria am Wasser) on the outskirts of Dresden, and since last month the Memorial of the Church of St. Sophia-Busmann Chapel, run by a civic foundation and the ‘Friends in support of the memorial’.
The Memorial of the Church of St. Sophia-Busmann Chapel is different from the other four centres. It will be able to contribute to the work of peace and reconciliation in Dresden in its very particular way because this memorial has a very exceptional history which must not be forgotten.
This Memorial has been built on the foundation of the once oldest churches in Dresden, the Church of St. Sophia, dating back to the early 13th century. Although the church was hit by bombs on 13th February 1945 it wasn’t damaged as badly as most inner – city buildings and churches. Therefore it was without question that this famous and important Church of St. Sophia was to be rebuilt after the war.
Yet the communist leaders of the newly founded German Democratic Republic (GDR) had different ideas and visions regarding the rebuilding of cities like Dresden. In July 1952 the new authorities of the GDR decided to enact their vision of a communist city. The atheist functionaries of the communist party SED were determined to fight religion as “opium of the people”. For Walter Ulbricht, head of the new East German state, there was no place for the Church of St. Sophia in his master plan for reconstructing the city of Dresden. In his mind the church stood in the way of a great avenue for military parades as well as a shopping mall with cheap eateries for the people (in the vernacular called ‘Fresswürfel’, i. e. ‘greedy pigsty’). The church towers stretched too far into the sky and were at odds with the atheist ideology of the government. At a Dresden city council meeting on August 11th 1956 Walter Ulbricht put it this way when referring to the Church of St. Sophia: “What do you mean by oldest church of the city. Whether young or old we have to ask whether we have a need for them at all! …
In spite of intense protests of the Dresdeners only some of the valuable assets could be saved when the Church of St. Sophia was eventually pulled down. On May 1st 1963 the ideological fight was won by the communists and the Church of St. Sophia was wiped out off the skyline of the city. After its demolition the Church of St. Sophia did no longer figure in the public mind. Nevertheless the church has been kept alive in the cultural memory of many people in Dresden.
That is why following the peaceful revolution in 1990 the newly and democratically elected councillors, as well as Saxony’s Office for the Protection of Historic Monuments, decided to save the Church of St. Sophia from falling into oblivion. On its original site a memorial was to be erected. In 1995 two young architects won the competition launched by the city council for the erection of a memorial. Unfortunately the necessary financial means were not available at the time. Therefore a ‘Society for the building of a memorial of the Church of St. Sophia’ was founded and became very active in fundraising. A civic foundation, Bürgerstiftung Dresden, acted as building contractor and leased the land from the city. All that made it possible to begin with the building work. In the end funds once belonging to the SED, the East German Communist Party, which had been invested abroad were recouped by the German Government and used for the realization of projects such as the Memorial of the Church of St. Sophia-Busmannchapel.
Even though the building of the memorial Church of St. Sophia-Busmannchapel will only be completed this autumn we are very grateful to have been presented with a Cross of Nails on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the twinning of Dresden and Coventry on 12th February 2019. The moving ceremony attended by many Dresdners is a big milestone on the way to grant this memorial a new meaning:
Since the original Church was dedicated to St. Sophia (‘Sophia meaning ‘heavenly wisdom) we want visitors to be aware of the burning issues we are facing in today’s world of injustice, violence, wars, suffering, destruction and failure. To help visitors to reflect on our accountability to God and our fellow human beings there will be space on the gallery for exhibitions to remember the Christian martyrs of Saxony. In the basement there will be a room for silence, prayer and meditation. On the ground floor where the Coventry Cross of Nails was put next to a medieval sculpture of Christ, Man of Sorrows, there will be a multifunctional room for talks, lectures, concerts and theatre plays.
As the Busmannchapel is covered in a glass structure passers-by can always see what is happening inside and hopefully get curious and feel invited to come in. And as the memorial will be open to the public daily we hope that this place will become a living bridge between Christians and non-Christians being guided by the UN prayer for peace which will every hour be projected against the outside wall:
Lead us from death to life, from falsehood to truth, from despair to hope, from fear to trust, lead us from hatred to love, from war to peace; peace fill our hearts, let peace fill our world, let peace fill our universe.
The story of the Cross of Nails of Coventry and the story of the 5 Dresden Crosses of Nails are proof that the vicious circle of hatred and enmity, of resentment and self-righteousness can be broken.
Ulrike Birkner-Kettenacker, Lutheran minister and board member of the Friends of the Memorial of the Church of St. Sophia-Busmann Chapel