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Sirens and Bells and City-Busting Past

The politics of remembering Allied bombing raids in Dresden pokes at the sensitive spots in Germany's democracy.

The Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 destroyed the baroque center of what Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut called, in a letter home from Germany, "possibly the world's most beautiful city." Every year since 1946, at 9:45 p.m. on Feb. 13, the city churches ring out an echo of the air-raid sirens that first announced the planes.

It's an eerie thing to witness. This year, Dresden was covered in snow; lamps floodlit both new and surviving churches, and bells sounded from both sides of the Elbe River. People stopped what they were doing. A few stray Dresdeners set off fireworks, which was even eerier. In Germany you almost never see public expressions of grief over something that happened to Germans in World War II.

The major exception over the last few years has been a tendency among neo-Nazis to rally in Dresden. The demonstrations have swelled since the '90s into massive, organized "grief marches." Dresden lies in Saxony, where a handful of neo-Nazi politicians have sat in state parliament since 2004, but the Nazis still have to bus in supporters from across Germany to achieve the sorts of numbers that make headlines. Since the marches embarrass everyone, a number of left-leaning groups mobilize their own crowds from around Germany to counter them.

This year it worked. Around 5,000 demonstrators from the neo-Nazi scene collected at Dresden's Neustadt train station, but the police called off the march because about 6,000 other Germans — activists from the Green or Left Parties, trade unionists, anarchists, members of the anti-fascist or "Antifa" scene — held street demonstrations nearby. The cops stood for hours in riot gear while neo-Nazis and counterdemonstrators made a lot of noise on opposite sides of the line, and finally the cops called off the march because of the risk of violence.

One crowd of black-dressed anarchists broke into various chants:

Alle woll'n dasselbe
Nazis in die Elbe!

("Everyone wants the same thing / Toss the Nazis in the Elbe!")

Overall it was heartwarming. But the demonstrations and counterdemonstrations were a controlled form of street theater — not quite what would be called "free speech" in the states. They're an awkward answer to an impossible problem for German officials. On the one hand, Germany wants to be a liberal democracy with all the usual freedoms. On the other hand, the presence of neo-Nazis is intolerable to Germans with a conscience. Holocaust denial is illegal here, and a lot of the demonstrators in Dresden last weekend thought the "grief marches" ought to be outlawed, too.

The problem has even more significance in Dresden because a huge number of Germans think the firebombing of the city was a war crime. They don't call it an "Allied Bombing Holocaust," like the neo-Nazis, but they remember that almost every German city was bombed to rubble during the war. Even Churchill wasn't sure the Allies should have studied firebombing techniques — that is, deliberately setting intense fires with a carpet of bombs over the civilian-dense heart of a city — between 1942-45. The civilian tolls were terrible, and the firestorms have become a bitter but largely silent German memory.

The novelist W. G. Sebald tells a true story about a teacher who told him how survivors of the Hamburg raids remembered the civilian dead. "As a boy in the immediate postwar years he quite often saw photographs of the corpses lying in the streets after the firestorm," he writes, "brought out from under the counter of a Hamburg secondhand bookshop, to be fingered and examined in a way usually reserved for pornography."

The shame and silence were a propaganda gift for the far right. After Germany reunified in 1990, neo-Nazis were free to holler in eastern cities like Dresden about the bombs. They also had a monopoly on this particular corner of the German psyche — the feelings of victimhood, the wounded pride, even the open grief. Sebald, in his last book, On the Natural History of Destruction, points out that firestorms are all but absent from postwar German literature. No one knew how to talk about it.

But the Germans are learning. The largest demonstration last Saturday was a "human chain" formed around the city center and the now-rebuilt cathedral, the Marienkirche. Some 10,000 people lined up. It was Dresden's official event, separate from the rallies — the sort of thing bourgeois politicians and business leaders could show up for. Some people in the chain held signs pointing out that Hitler's warmongering had brought the firestorms on Germany. Others just stood there holding white roses.

The roses have become an accepted expression of grief, but they're also free of Nazi overtones, because they refer back to The White Rose group, a circle of students in Munich executed in the '40s for promoting nonviolent resistance to Hitler.

None of these good citizens in Dresden, of course, would have kept the skinheads from marching — that work was accomplished by left-wing activists across the Elbe. But the human chain suggests a new mainstream vocabulary for Germans to talk about the war, which — after 65 years — still disfigures their democracy.

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