Volume 19 Number 4
Answering Dresden's Call
01 August 2006
Philip Boobbyer discovers how the rebuilding of an historic German church, destroyed by British bombers during World War II, is healing old wounds.
THE DESTRUCTION of Dresden by Allied bombers in 1945 has become a worldwide symbol of the horrors of ‘carpet bombing’. But could Dresden now become known as a focal point of reconciliation? The answer is ‘yes’, according to Alan Russell, co-founder and Chairman of the Dresden Trust. This remarkable initiative, run from an office in Russell’s back garden, has helped to pioneer new attitudes and understanding between Britain and Germany.
On the night of 13/14 February 1945, more than 4,500 tons of high explosives and incendiary devices were dropped on Dresden, capital of the German state of Saxony and known before the war as ‘Florence on the Elbe’. A terrible firestorm resulted, creating temperatures of up to 1000°C in parts of the city. Current estimates suggest that 35,000–40,000 people were killed; and at least eight square miles of the city were totally devastated. The areas of strategic and military significance, like the transport system, were left relatively untouched.
The strategy of bombing German cities owed much to Arthur Harris, chief of Britain’s Bomber Command. Harris believed that ‘area bombing’ would erode the morale of the German population and hasten the end of the war; the earlier strategy of attacking economic and industrial targets had not proved very successful. The public was generally supportive of the strategy, partly in reaction to the Blitz, the German air-raids of 1940/41 which killed 30,000 Londoners and destroyed the centre of Coventry. But there were doubters too (for example George Bell, then Bishop of Chichester), who felt such methods of waging war were morally indefensible. After the bombing, and in subsequent decades, many others became uneasy about the ethics of the raid.
In 1953, Russell was doing military service in Germany, a year before going up to Oxford University. (His subsequent career involved spells in the Colonial and Foreign Offices, and the European Commission.) He got to know a German student, Gunter, and asked him to explain the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Gunter acknowledged that the killing of the Jews had been a great wrong, but countered, ‘And what about Dresden?’
The question resurfaced in Russell’s mind in 1992, when a visit to Dresden by the Queen failed to satisfy the desire of some Germans for a statement of regret by Britain for the bombing. At the same time, a controversy arose over the decision to erect a statue to ‘Bomber’ Harris near Britain’s Ministry of Defence in London.
Russell was not against acknowledging the lives of Britain’s wartime pilots, roughly 55,000 of whom had been killed, but felt that the suffering inflicted by the aerial bombing campaign should also be remembered. In this context, Russell and some others felt ‘morally obliged’ to do something to ‘atone’ for the bombing of Dresden.
When Russell talks of ‘atonement’ he means that people on different sides should be willing to recognise that things were done in the names of their countries that should not have been done—even given the exigencies of war. ‘Nations must be able to look critically at what has been done in their names in order to have the right to examine what other countries have done.’ Reconciliation, too, is a central element in Russell’s vision; he calls it a ‘profound, reflective, long-term process, requiring justice, freedom, forgiveness and love’.
Russell rejects any suggestion that the Allied bombing campaign, with its aim of ending the war, was morally equivalent to the actions of the Nazi regime that led to the war in the first place; the bombing of Dresden was not the equivalent of Auschwitz. He also thinks that Harris and Churchill were sincere in their belief that mass bombing was a way of shortening the war.
In spite of this, he believes that, according to the canons of war existing in 1939, the Dresden raid was morally wrong and had something criminal about it. Following Edinburgh historian Donald Bloxham, he distinguishes between ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’; in his view the Dresden raid belonged in the first category rather than the second. ‘It wasn’t wrong to bomb Dresden, but it was wrong to bomb it in the manner in which we did. We deliberately bombed a historic city. I personally can’t justify it.
Some kind of atonement, then, was needed—a public recognition that Britain’s own moral record needed examination. Russell’s concerns soon acquired a practical form. In 1990, shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a group of distinguished Dresdeners issued an international appeal now known as the ‘Call from Dresden’. They called for financial aid for the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), which had been destroyed in the bombing. The Frauenkirche was a famously beautiful baroque church built between 1726 and 1743, with a bell-shaped dome that rivalled those of St Peter’s in Rome and the Duomo in Florence. In response to the call, groups were formed inside Germany to raise funds for the reconstruction project; foreign support groups were also established, of which the Dresden Trust, set up in August 1993, was one.
The Frauenkirche project gave the Trust a material focus for its attempts to foster British-German reconciliation. Through an exhibition that toured Britain from 1995 to 1998, concerts in various cities, and high-profile dinners (in such venues as St James’s Palace and the Palace of Westminster), Russell and his fellow trustees brought the history of Dresden and the needs of the Frauenkirche to the attention of the British public. They soon discovered that there were many people in the UK who had a love of German culture and wanted to contribute to a project that could enhance British-German relations. Almost £600,000was raised in the next few years. In all, more than 2,000 people and nearly 100 companies and charitable trusts contributed, and many more anonymously.
Part of the money was used to finance a ‘British window’ in the new Frauenkirche; roughly 10 ach to sponsor particular stones around the reconstructed window.Sometimes there were profound personal stories behind these gifts. For example, Richard Murray from Horsham in the south of England had been much angered by German wartime bombing. In 1957 he had found freedom from his hatred and had ‘apologised in tears’ to some Germans for his bitterness. Now, in 1997, he gave half of a legacy he had inherited.
The money was also used to pay for the making of a new orb and cross for the dome of the Frauenkirche. A technical committee studied a report on the old cross that had been recovered in the ruins of the destroyed church, and commissioned a company of silversmiths in Blackfriars, London, to create a new one. It was erected in 2004 as part of the final phase of the reconstruction project. The Frauenkirche was formally re-consecrated in a service which was reported all over the world.
From 1999 onwards, the Trust—prompted by Dresdeners themselves—began to focus increasingly on cultural work. Books were published, including Dresden, a city reborn (Berg Publishers, 2001), which introduced readers to the city’s history. The Trust gave scholarships to young people from Dresden and Saxony to attend schools in the UK and young Britons to visit Saxony. Five German journalists were funded to base for a few months at the Reuters Centre in Oxford. In December 2005 the London Bach Choir gave two concerts—to great acclaim— in the Frauenkirche. Aided by support groups from all over Germany, the Trust is planting a British-German Friendship Garden in the UK’s National Arboretum in Staffordshire.
The Dresden Trust has helped to change attitudes and create understanding at a deep level. It has affected people’s professional lives; young British stonemasons worked with colleagues from Germany, France and Spain in fashioning stones for the church. New friendships have been created. Russell stated in 2006: ‘The hand of friendship which the Trust sought to extend was immediately, warmly and firmly grasped and the feelings of deep sorrow and remorse to which the Trust has sought to give voice have been reciprocated in more than full measure.’
People have been challenged to think more deeply about their histories. Robert Lee, a British prisoner of war in Dresden who was required to help clean up the city after the raid, stated: ‘Seeing Dresden before it was destroyed was one of those precious experiences that changes one’s life. The fact that the old Dresden enlightened me is inseparable from the tragedy that I had to witness. It is important that people not only learn about history, but that they learn from it and allow it to touch their personal lives.’
The Patron of the Trust and of the British-German Association, the Duke of Kent, writes: ‘To be able to share in the pain of others and—in a small way—work with them in building reconciliation into friendship and cooperation is at once healing and fulfilling.’
Germans too have been impressed and moved by the work of the Trust. For example, Rolf-Alexander Thieke, a pastor from Berlin and enthusiast about Britain, believes that it reflects a clear will to create the kind of permanent reconciliation that has been missing since 1945. He also believes that it is challenging stereotypes and dismantling distorted images, such as caricatures of Germans as World War I soldiers (complete with spiked helmets) which tend to appear in the British press.
Russell’s own love of German culture comes across in his speeches, touching hearts as well as minds. Speaking in the new Frauenkirche in 2000, Russell stated that ‘in human—and in state—relationships, unless we can understand and empathise with the other person’s/people’s point of view, nothing works’. Growing up in North London in the ‘Anglo-Catholic’ Christian tradition, he said, he was able to ‘absorb a little of two other great traditions—the German and the Jewish—and learn to love them both’.
Many of his speeches are in German. From the first, Russell and his fellow trustees were determined to conduct their correspondence with Dresden in German; this was ‘part of the gesture’ they wished to make. Consequently, in his late 60s, Russell went to a technical school in Chichester to learn the language. In March 2006, in recognition of his contribution to British-German relations, Russell was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, and the Medal of Honour of the city of Dresden. Speaking to a Dresden audience after receiving the latter, Russell declared that Dresden, Saxony and Germany had a vital role to play in building a peaceful Europe, and that Dresden itself, with its unique history, could give a lead in the reconciliation of peoples and the strengthening of faith.
Russell believes that Germany coped with its history surprisingly well after the war. He notes that in 1945 it had the task of rebuilding a sense of national cohesion against the background of a catastrophic national failure; and it largely succeeded. It is so easy to see German history in terms of the militarism that seized hold of the country between 1870 and 1945. By looking further back into Germany’s past, and looking forward to what could lie ahead, Russell offers a different perspective, one that provides a bold and exciting vision of what Germany could contribute to the world in the 21st century.
There is a religious motivation behind Russell’s work—as indeed there is in many of those in Dresden who have worked on the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche. He senses that he has been called by God to do what he is doing, indeed that his work for the Trust is the most important thing he has done with his life. He comments: ‘Every individual is called to make his contribution in a particular setting.’ He says that the work of the Trust has been a great ‘satisfaction’ to him personally; it has given him a sense of purpose; an initiative that he thought would last for two to three years has now lasted for nearly 15 and will clearly continue to engage his energies for some time to come.
The Dresden Trust has not been the only example of a British link with Dresden; the city of Coventry formed a twinning arrangement with Dresden in 1959, and Coventry Cathedral’s Ministry of Reconciliation has fostered lasting links between the two cities. Russell describes the Trust’s work as ‘just a small drop in the bucket’. Even if true, it is still a remarkable example of what a creative personal initiative can achieve. The Trust has been able to contribute to the rebuilding of a great church, while at the same time encouraging a renewal of British-German relations; the material and the spiritual have gone hand in hand. Sometimes, it seems, something good and important for humanity can be created from the destruction of the past—if the imagination and conviction are there.
Philip Boobbyer is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Kent.