I finally got around to reading George Packer’s great piece on Dresden that appeared in The New Yorker in February. Entitled “Embers”, it astutely discusses the way that Dresden, which was bombed in a famous Allied air raid on February 13, 1945, has been turned into, as Packer puts it, “the German Hiroshima – an outrage that reversed the roles of aggressors and victims, exposing the horror of Total War and, even, Anglo-American barbarism”. He points out that it was Joseph Goebbels, in what he calls his “last successful act of media manipulation”, who began the mythologisation of Dresden as the beautiful Baroque city inexplicably and immorally destroyed by the Allies. The myth was reinforced by David Irving’s 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden and, more recently, by Jörg Friedrich’s 2002 book Der Brand (The Fire). As a result, Dresden has become “the epicenter of German victimhood” on which neo-Nazis converge in order to “repeat a mendacious equation: Auschwitz + Dresden = 0”.
Packer visited Dresden while spending last year at the American Academy in Berlin. He argues that Berlin and Dresden have been rebuilt in very different ways since the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago. Berlin, he writes, “placed the vanished Jews near the center of its collective consciousness” (e.g. the Holocaust memorial) and visibly confronts the Nazi past and in particular the Holocaust through its buildings. “Berlin’s way of treating its darker history is to comment on it.” I think you can even see the post-1989 architecture of Berlin (Norman Foster’s renovation of the Reichstag, the Holocaust memorial, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum) as the apotheosis of the so-called Holocaust identity – in other words, a national identity based on the idea of memory of the Holocaust – that emerged in West Germany in the eighties.
Dresden, Packer suggests, approaches the Nazi past differently. In the last decade, the centre of the city once known as Florence on the Elbe has been restored so faithfully that, he writes, it now feels like “a Baroque fantasia”. Meanwhile, the 6,000 Jews who lived in Dresden before the war and who, with a few exceptions like Victor Klemperer, were mostly killed during the Holocaust are hardly commemorated. This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, Dresden was rebuilt mostly in the last decade (the Frauenkirche, the centrepiece of the city, was only reconsecrated in 2005), i.e. later than Berlin. Secondly, whereas the rebuilding of Berlin was an intellectual project, the rebuilding of Dresden by driven by ordinary people – many of them former East Germans who had absorbed Cold War propaganda about the destruction of Dresden by “Anglo-American air gangsters” but not West Germany’s Holocaust identity.
I think Packer’s analysis of Dresden is absolutely right. In my book, Utopia or Auschwitz (and also in a paper that will be published in the academic journal German Life and Letters next year), I discuss the way that Auschwitz and Dresden function as competing collective memories in contemporary Germany. I argue that a discourse centred on the Holocaust, based on collective memories in which the Germans were perpetrators, dominated the Federal Republic (but not the GDR) from the sixties onwards. However, in the last decade it has increasingly been challenged by a new discourse centred on Dresden, based on collective memories in which the Germans were victims (in particular victims of the British and Americans), which emerged around the time of the publication of Friedrich’s book and the run-up to the Iraq war. The new Dresden is, in a sense, the symbol of a new German identity that focuses on victimhood and to some extent marginalises Auschwitz. In some cases, as Packer suggests, it even creates a moral equivalence between the Allied bombing of German cities and the Holocaust.
Of course, the victims of Dresden were victims and should be commemorated. I am not for a moment suggesting, and I think few people would suggest, that discussion of their suffering should once again be a taboo as it was in West Germany during the Cold War (see W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction on how German writers avoided the subject). But, crucially, the commemoration of German victims should not be at the expense of commemorating the victims of Nazism. In short, it should not be a zero-sum game, as it sometimes feels it is in Germany. Packer has a great line at the end that sums it up perfectly. “The challenge of Dresden,” he writes, “is to acknowledge all of the war’s victims without yielding to the temptations of equivalence, to see the evil of all war and also the evil that led to this war, and to remember that the firestorm that killed thousands of people saved the Klemperers.”