Warning: this article is graphic, and deals with some disturbing subject matter. It is vivid deliberately; the horrors of war – and especially of war prior to guided munitions – is something we must not gloss over.
We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.
I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them.Lothar Metzger, a survivor of the bombing of Dresden
From February 13 to 15 of 1945, more than 1,200 allied bombers dropped more than 7,000 tons of bombs on the eastern German city of Dresden, an industrial and rail hub that had so far been spared the ravages of World War Two and the carpet bombing campaigns that all sides used. Over those two nights, more than 1,600 acres of the city’s center was destroyed – either by the bombs or the subsequent fires. An estimated 25,000 people, mainly civilians, were killed.
It was an event that really had no precedent. While more tonnage per capita was dropped on several German cities, this took place over two nights. And with roughly 40% being incendiary bombs (compared to around 10% in Berlin, for instance) the resulting firestorm was huge, destructive, and again, unlike anything the world had seen before. This fire was so powerful that it created its own weather, with tornadoes of flame consuming everything in their path. (It would be repeated in Japan in the coming months.)
The mainly timber buildings of Dresden’s old town stood no chance, and even the stone structures that had survived centuries were no match for the fires. It would be nearly sixty years before Dresden’s skyline recovered.
Most prominent in that skyline is the Frauenkirche, literally the church of our lady (in France it would be Notre Dame). Built from 1726 to 1743, it is a relatively small-in-area Lutheran church with a huge-for-its-size dome, at 315 feet. The dome looks like it should fall at any moment, as it makes up such a huge portion of the church and is held up only by eight small thin supports. And yet, when Frederick the Great and the Prussian army attacked the city in 1760, more than 100 cannonballs were seen to have merely bounced off its graceful curves.
When Dresden was bombed, the church was consumed by the resulting fires. Temperatures inside reached – according to later studies – more than 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,830 Fahrenheit). On the morning of February 15, 1945, the mighty dome of the Frauenkirche collapsed inward, and that force caused the outer walls to shatter outward. More than 6,000 tons of stone fell to the ground, even largely destroying the church’s underground crypts.
And so it laid, for decades. Despite public support for rebuilding the Frauenkirche – and so many other iconic buildings of Dresden’s old town – the partitioning of Germany after the war, the resulting collapse of the Eastern D-Mark, and lack of governmental interest in communist East Germany meant that there was no funding to rebuild the church. The pile of rubble between remains of two exterior walls stood as a memorial to the bombing of the city and to war in more general terms.
After the reunification of Germany, a campaign to rebuild was launched. In 1993, the rubble began to be cleared, and in 2004, the golden orb atop the dome was put into place (though it wouldn’t be consecrated until the following year).
From the outside, it is easy to see the remaining segments of wall, as they are much darker than the rest. And more than 3,800 original stone pieces were used throughout the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche, lending a sort of speckled look to the finished church.
With the exception of a small portion of the crypts, virtually everything inside is new. (The altar was in pieces, but many of those – like the stones on the exterior – were used in reconstruction.) Using photographs and memories, the Frauenkirche was rebuilt using old techniques as much as possible, but with modern technology helping with “assembly.” As such, the current church can be thought of as being nearly identical to the old.
The inside is stunning. Pastel colors (which are not the reason for the feminine name) highlight the golden trim on the altar. Graceful curved balconies stretch upwards toward the high dome, giving a spacious feel that belies the small interior floor space. Photos cannot do it justice; it is, other than the Cologne Cathedral (read about that beautiful structure here), the most incredible church I’ve seen so far in Germany.
The crypts have also been rebuilt and modernized. One side chapel is built into the small portion that survived relatively intact, with a chunk of stone that fell leaving a cross shaped hole in the wall. The crypts also house a small museum to the rebuilding efforts.
It is insane to think that this seemingly necessary piece of Dresden’s gorgeous skyline was not rebuilt until fewer than twenty years ago. The Frauenkirche stands as a reminder of the horrors of Dresden’s bombing, and of the perseverance of the local population to see their city returned to them. It feels both right, and also wrong, to be here as a tourist in this place, enjoying the remnants of something so horrible.
Kurt Vonnegut, whose masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five discusses the bombing of Dresden as a backdrop for the novel, perhaps best summed up the feelings of finding a “silver lining” in the terrors of war. “The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.”
That sarcastic satire seems appropriate as I stare back up at the Frauenkirche from Dresden’s Harvest Market in the square outside. I hope that the 25,000 killed here in February 1945 would want people to come, to see, and to ultimately write about the horror of war.
Like it? Pin it!