For his home audience in the United States, the focus of President Obama’s brief visit to Germany was, undoubtedly, Buchenwald. But for Germans, it was all Dresden. As discussed in my earlier PJM report here, for Germans Dresden has become the symbol bar none of German suffering at the hands of the Allies and even of Allied “war crimes.” Dresden was the target of heavy Allied bombing in February 1945 and much of the city was destroyed in the attacks. Neo-Nazis make an annual pilgrimage to the city to commemorate the event, the most famous episode in what they describe as a “bombing Holocaust.” But the notion that the Allied raids constituted a “crime” against Germans and Germany is by no means the reserve of Nazis. It has, in the meanwhile, become part of the German mainstream.
In the run-up to Obama’s Germany visit, the White House appeared to be at pains to downplay the significance of the stop of Dresden. Asked whether the president had chosen Dresden “just because it’s close to Buchenwald,” a presidential spokesman explained that the president’s conversations with Chancellor Merkel had piqued his interest in the former East Germany and that he was “looking forward” to seeing “the major changes in the former East.” But a simple look at the map reveals the disingenuousness of the attempts to explain the choice of Dresden as just a matter of “logistics” (as Time magazine put it). As a matter of fact, Dresden is not particularly close to Buchenwald. Buchenwald is located just on the outskirts of the Weimar of Goethe and Schiller fame. Several major Eastern German cities — including, for instance, Leipzig — are closer to it than Dresden.
Germans, in any case, knew better. Dresden is, as Angela Merkel put it in her joint press conference with Obama on Friday morning, a “highly symbolic city.” And within this highly symbolic city, there is no more symbolic monument than the historic Frauenkirche or “Church of our Lady.” The Frauenkirche was destroyed in the fires provoked by the Allied bombing and it was left in ruins for decades. The renovated church was first reopened to the public in 2005. The symbolic significance of Obama’s visit to Dresden could hardly be made complete without a visit to the Frauenkirche. But as late as Friday morning, there were still doubts about whether Obama would go to the church. Seemingly cognizant of the controversy that his Dresden visit had sparked back home, the president and his handlers were reportedly resisting the entreaties of his German hosts.
A big screen had been set up in Dresden’s Altmarkt or Old Town Square to watch the stages of the Obama visit. Reporting from the Altmarkt, Natalie Steger of Germany’s ZDF public television noted that when Obama finally did cross the threshold of the church, the images set off “downright jubilation” among the assembled Dresden residents. “That was definitively the highlight,” Steger added.