Today is the anniversary of one of the most controversial Allied decisions of the war in Germany: to destroy the hitherto untouched Saxon city of Dresden in a night and day of firebombing. As luck would have it, I was in Dresden thirty years ago today for the reopening of the historic Semper Opera House, which like most of the major buildings in the city had been destroyed. On a bitterly cold evening, I stood outside along with ordinary Dresdeners in the Theaterplatz to listen to East German party chief Erich Honecker give a stem-winding denunciation of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, aka “Star Wars,” a s part of the memorial observances.
Then we all went inside to hear a performance of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischuetz, which was the last opera performed before the house was destroyed. Four years later, the German Democratic Republic vanished in the fall of the Berlin Wall, as gone as Nazi Germany before it.
The survivors recall the bombing, in which an estimated 25,000 people were killed — burned alive, sucked into the vortex, their bodies exploding in the heat, heads raining down out of the sky like bowling balls as people were ripped apart in the maelstrom. Here’s one:
Soviet troops were pressing into Germany from the east and the other Allies from the west, but for 12-year-old schoolboy Eberhard Renner the war seemed far away. Dresden had been spared the destruction suffered by other cities like Berlin and Hamburg, and Renner clung to the hope that the Saxon capital would stay off the target list with the war so clearly near its end.
Even as air-raid sirens started screaming 70 years ago Friday, Renner’s father dismissed the attack as another reconnaissance mission. Then the bomb fell into Renner’s backyard. It blew the thick oak door off the shelter where the family had taken refuge, slamming him and his mother to the ground. Somebody yelled that the roof was on fire, and they ventured out into the streets as the bombs rained down.
The raid left the city littered with corpses, and tens of thousands of Dresden’s buildings had been turned to rubble, including its famous opera house and museums in the historic old city. The baroque Church of Our Lady, appeared initially to have survived, but, weakened by the intense heat, it collapsed two days after the bombing under its own weight.
As Renner wandered the streets of Dresden, he saw a dead body for the first time in his life. In the days to come, he would see many more. Renner remembers the streets still being littered with bodies a week after the attack and coming across the corpse of a woman in a square. “She was burned to a cinder, had become very small, but her hand was held up and on it was her gold wedding band, shining, not blackened at all,” said the 82-year-old retired architecture professor. “I will never forget this scene.”
The Atlantic has a vivid and moving collection of photos of the destruction here. And then there’s this: