Page last updated at 13:01 GMT, Thursday, 24 February 2011

Dresden still divided over blame for WWII bombing

By Stephen Evans
BBC News, Germany

Far-right Dresden Marches
Far-right demonstrators at the Dresden marches carried crosses

Sixty-six years after the bombing of Dresden - one of the most controversial allied operations of World War II which killed around 25,000 civilians - a debate about who was to blame for the conflict still rages.

I never got close enough to the swarm of black-shirted followers of Hitler to ask them if they realised that the lush string music swelling from their loud-speakers was actually Elgar, the quintessential English music.

Hitler wanted peace... Just because you fire the first shot does not mean you start the war
Olaf Rose

For some reason, the neo-Nazis on the march in Dresden seemed to think that the right music to swell German nationalist pride was the Enigma Variations.

You would think that Wagner would be better. But no, they liked Elgar.

Call me a snob, but I suspect they just did not realise.

With their black garb, shaved heads and studded, snarling faces, they did not seem like natural music buffs to me.

I did ask them why they were there and what they wanted.

Just grunts and shuffles came back, even from the large man with the "Kraft fur Deutschland" T-shirt ("Power for Germany").

'Our march'

It is hard to work out the ideology - or is that too strong a word? - like trying to work out the ideology of a football mob.

Dresden Marches
The far-right see former British prime minister Winston Churchill as a criminal

To do that, I met Dr Olaf Rose, who advises the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany on history.

He is charm itself.

We got our wires crossed and I had got the day of our meeting wrong.

He moved heaven and earth to re-arrange it, even though his car had broken down and it meant a friend giving him a long lift.

He is the respectable face of the march - which he described as "our march". He is genial, with a goatee beard and pretty good English.

He has, he says, nothing against the British airmen who bombed Dresden, nor does he have anything against a memorial to them in London - in fact, the National Democratic Party of Germany is collecting money for it.

He has respect for all soldiers, he says.

No, it is not them he has got anything against, it is the people he sees as criminals: Churchill and Butcher Harris, as he calls Bomber Harris, who led Bomber Command - the section of the Royal Air Force which conducted the raids.

He warms to his theme.

"Hitler wanted peace", he says.

"You can look at the documents. Nine times he sued for peace."

But did he not start the war, I wondered?

"Just because you fire the first shot does not mean you start the war," he said.

Perpetrators or victims?

This contesting of history on the anniversary of the air-raids on Dresden matters today.

Human chain to mark Dresden memorial
Thousands formed a human chain to mark the anniversary

If you believe that German crime had equivalent British crime, then the values that inspired that German crime might be less unacceptable today - the constraints of guilt are loosened.

On one side in this contest over the past are the far-left, dressed very much like the far-right, all in black but waving the English flag - the Cross of St George - to symbolise I suppose their siding with Britain.

On the other extreme, the neo-Nazi march, with its Elgar.

Both demonstrations were tiny compared to the human chain of thousands of people marking the anniversary by linking hands across the city, over the bridges of the Elbe, and back to the Altmarkt, the old market square where 6,865 corpses were cremated in the open in 1945.

On this human chain, I met Germany's interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, one of Angela Merkel's right-hand men.

How did he read the history?

"Germans started the war," he said.

"But Germans were then victims of the war."

Germans as perpetrators, certainly, but Germans as victims? That is a locution with which not everyone is easy - Germans as victims too.

Ghosts of the past

Past and present can confuse in Dresden.

Dresden, 1946
The allied forces' bombing campaign on Dresden killed thousands of civilians

Mostly, the city is a new town. Only a few of the golden domes of what was called Florence on the Elbe remain.

Not that you can always tell.

The magnificent opera house is a post-war replica, for example, but you can still see ghosts there, particularly if you sit in the gilt chairs like I did, and lean forward craning from the balcony, to watch Richard Strauss' opera, Salome, exactly as it was first performed in 1905.

The ghost of Strauss is there, I swear it. He wrote the most gorgeous, sublime music and also hob-nobbed with Hitler and Goebbels (to whom he dedicated a song).

How do you work out that marriage of beauty and beastliness?

Draped down the façade of the opera house now is another echo of the past, a banner which reads, "Es ist noch wichtiger, sich anständig zu benehmen, als gute Musik zu machen."

The man who said it was the conductor Fritz Busch who was driven from Dresden and its opera house by the Nazis in 1933.

In exile, he did much to create a great British cultural institution, as the conductor at Glyndebourne, the opera house nestling in the soft English downs just like the ones which inspired Elgar.

The slogan, by the way, means: "It is more important to behave well than to make good music".

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