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.
Inside the Frauenkirche, Obama lit a candle under the battered “old cross” that formerly stood atop the church’s dome. It is said that the Frauenkirche is a symbol of “reconciliation.” But, as noted in the Saturday edition of Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the “old cross” obviously symbolizes something else. The cross “used to be the highest point of the church,” the FAZ writes:
[I]t was rediscovered under the rubble. In its twisted metal, one can still perceive what the cross went through in the firestorm, and with it the church and with it the people.
A symbol of the suffering of Christ reinvested with the significance of German suffering. It was before such a cross that Obama placed a candle in Dresden.
Obama did not say much about the significance of his visit. During his press conference in Dresden, he merely alluded vaguely to the “tragedies” that the city had undergone. It is interesting to note that Angela Merkel did not even go that far. She merely noted matter-of-factly that the city was “destroyed during the Second World War” and “then rebuilt.”
But as the ZDF’s Guido Knopp would note later in the day, Obama did not have to say anything. The heavily loaded symbolism of the Frauenkirche visit did the talking for him. By virtue of his visits to Buchenwald and the Frauenkirche, as Knopp put it, Obama had paid tribute to “all the victims,” i.e., both the victims of Nazi persecution and the German “victims” of the Allies. Knopp, the director of numerous popular television documentaries on the Third Reich, even mumbled something about remembering everybody’s “crimes,” thus making the assertion of moral equivalence more explicit still. (For the Obama administration and the American media, the Buchenwald visit was, of course, above all about commemorating the specifically Jewish victims of Nazi persecution: the victims of the Holocaust. In fact, however, Buchenwald was, so to say, an “all-purpose” concentration camp and not one of the camps, like Auschwitz or Treblinka, that was specifically devoted to the extermination of Jews. On this subject, see my “Obama Flunks History, Again”.)
Was the Allied bombing of Dresden a “tragedy”? Well, in any case, not for everybody. The philologist Victor Klemperer was a resident of Dresden. After the war, Klemperer would write the definitive study of the language of the Third Reich LTI (Lingua Tertii Imperii). As so happens, the bombing of Dresden saved his life. A Jewish convert to Protestantism — hence according to the Nazi “racial laws,” a Jew nonetheless — Klemperer had managed to avoid deportation by virtue of his marriage to an “Aryan” wife. Here is how he recalls the bombing of Dresden in LTI (author’s translation):
On the morning of February 13, 1945, the order came to evacuate the last persons in Dresden who wore the yellow star. Having hitherto avoided deportation as members of “mixed” marriages, their certain fate had now caught up with them. One would have to get rid of them on the road, since Auschwitz had long since fallen into the hands of the enemy and Theresienstadt was under threat.
On the evening of that February 13, catastrophe struck Dresden: the bombs fell, the buildings collapsed, the phosphorous streamed through the sky, the burning timbers fell on both Aryan and non-Aryan heads, and one and the same firestorm brought death to both Jew and Christian. Whoever among the approximately 70 persons wearing the yellow star was spared, however, for him that night meant salvation. In the generalized chaos, he could escape from the Gestapo’s clutches.