The attacks, on 13 and 14 February 1945 by the RAF and the USAF, were out of all proportion to the strategic importance of the city only three months before the end of the war. It was completely burnt out, about 25,000 died (the figure is still debated), mostly asphyxiated in their cellars by the firestorm. Churchill recoiled in horror when he heard the news. It was similar to Coventry’s destruction at the beginning of the war – also by fire, though Coventry was a recognized war target. Our numbers are smaller, but both cities had their heart ripped out – our Cathedral, their Frauenkirche. That common experience led to our twinning in 1959, when Dresden was part of the East German Democratic Republic – a miracle in those political and cultural circumstances.
Provost Howard’s prayer has found a ready reception in Dresden: Dresden now has five Crosses of Nails – the first in 1965, the latest presented only last year to the Busmann Chapel, a 15th century family chapel once part of the Sophienkirche, an important court church, which was deliberately destroyed in 1962 by the Communists. The chapel has recently been rebuilt using every tiny fragment that remained. Germans usually rebuild their damaged memorials, we often build new – including in our case the ruin preserved as a memory. Dresden’s Frauenkirche, the Protestant city church, has been rebuilt exactly as it was, thanks to donations from across the world (including £1 million from Britain for the gilded orb and cross on the dome, made by a silversmith whose father had been part of the raid that destroyed the city. Not long ago we had a German visitor to Coventry who revealed in tears that his father had been one of the pilots “who did this to you”.)
So how do the Dresdeners remember? In 2015 the 70th anniversary was marked with a state occasion – with the Federal President, Archbishop Justin, Bishop Christopher, the Bishop of Saxony, Dean John and both city mayors. In his address President Gauck – who had been a pastor in the East German city of Rostock until unification – underlined that Germany had started the war, it could not be surprised or angry that destruction should come back to hit it too. After this the ceremonial takes the same form every year: people gather on the Neumarkt to form a human chain around the city, to keep Dresden’s far right groups (who are very prominent in the city) from taking over the official events. At 6pm everyone joins hands and falls silent as the bells toll. Then a Memorial Walk leads through the city visiting and remembering sites of destruction or catastrophe – the Synagogue, the Frauenkirche, whose dome collapsed in the fire just as our roof did, the Sophienkirche, the Town Hall and others. At each stop a text is read – including some by Provost Howard – which draws attention to its importance. There follows a service in the Kreuzkirche, then at about 10pm everyone returns to the Neumarkt, lights a candle outside the Frauenkirche and waits for the bells to mark the exact moment when the first bombs hit. As a Coventrian you’re made really welcome at all of this– they’re so glad you want to be there. No trace of resentment, just a huge feeling of shared sadness and regret. The Frauenkirche is open throughout the night for silent meditation, for readings and music.
So this is Dresden’s memory now – a city conflicted by its duality as highly cultured city (historically a royal residence) and site of far-right extremist groups – the anti-Islamic Pegida, and the Alternative for Germany – and yet strong in its links to Coventry. The Cathedral is not the only point of contact – the Coventry-Dresden Arts Exchange (run by John Yeadon), the Coventry German Circle (continually in existence since 1946), Coventry Association for International Friendship and Cardinal Newman School all maintain contacts and exchanges, via Dresden’s German-British Association or with individual friends. Let’s hope that as he UK withdraws into self-imposed isolation from Europe these links may still flourish.
BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week at 9am on Monday 10th was devoted to the anniversary, and new initiatives – worth a listen.
Richard Parker, Coventry Cathedral congregation
Image: The Choir of the Survivors, by Helmut Heinze, gifted to Coventry on its 50th anniversary in 2012 and located today in Coventry Cathedral ruins.