This is a tale of three cities, or rather of one city at three stages in its history. The city is Dresden. Once a European cultural jewel, it was first deformed by the Nazis, then (almost) destroyed by the Allied bombings in February 1945, and thereafter endured the vicious embrace of the Soviet Union and of totalitarian Communism. After 1989 hope rose again and with much help from a reuniting Germany the city sought to renovate itself and to bring back some sheen to its surface. And it succeeded, as any visitor can attest; but late in the day a worm has grown in Dresden’s bloom, and more so among the neighbouring cities and towns of Saxony as support for the far-right AfD (“Alternative für Deutschland”) party has increased in recent times.
In late 1990 only a year or so after the fall of the wall which had divided Berlin and Germany as a whole, my then job involved monitoring political developments in the new Länder (States), collectively referred to as the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) or just eastern Germany. I travelled extensively, including to the historic State of Saxony whose capital is Dresden.
The car journey to the city that year was longer than I had expected and made worse by the poorly maintained roads as I headed south. Dresden was remote in other ways, too. Situated in a valley, the locals had not generally been able to “pick up” radio broadcasts from the West during the Cold War years. That may help explain why Leipzig and not Dresden had been a key focal point of anti-regime rallies before the GDR imploded. In 1990 and 1991 the city had a leftover quality even though much had been done to restore the bomb-damaged city and its infrastructure. There seemed to be a covering of brown dust over the whole place; as if, I recall saying, it was in need of attention from a giant vacuum cleaner.
For a visitor from the west of Berlin, Dresden offered a rather depressing prospect (as, sadly, did a number of other cities in eastern Germany). However my own visit and my calls on emergent or re-emergent political parties had a certain surreal quality. With some difficulty I located an unnumbered and flaking brown building reportedly containing the offices of the Christian Democrats (CDU). The front door opened to reveal a recently and hastily renovated interior with stainless steel fitments and contemporary lighting. The CDU in the West was obviously subsidising the CDU in the East.
Having walked across the hallway I was taken into the office of the secretary for external relations of the Dresden branch of the party. He was an urbane, well-dressed man in his middle years. I was asked if I would like a coffee. Our conversation already underway, a butler or similar functionary dressed in a black tailcoat and white dress shirt came into the room carrying a silver tray on which was a silver coffee pot and a plate of biscuits. Somewhat incredulously I took my coffee and resumed my interview. A while later I thanked my host for the conversation and headed out to drive back to Berlin. What I had seen was an early sign of the impact of “Wessies” on a reuniting eastern Germany. Dresden was at the start of a state and privately funded makeover or, in the view of many eastern Germans, a takeover.
Forty five years before my visit one of the most beautiful cities in Europe had been reduced by British and American “area bombing” to a nightmare of grey and brown rubble. 25,000 people died as a result of bombings conducted over some eighteen hours. Fires were set in train by incendiary bombs and, alongside the fatalities, horrible injuries were induced. Though the city in some fundamental sense survived, that which had almost been destroyed was then subjected to an invasion of Soviet troops licenced to take their own vengeance on their German enemies, including, notoriously, on German women. Dresden’s degradation was complete.
Recovery from the physical destruction was slow, distressing (not least the clearing of bodies) and hobbled by lack of resources in the early post-war years. Soviet contributions of support were patchy and reflected a wish to advertise and reinforce the “benefits” of Communism rather more than to empower local initiatives. Nonetheless the spirit of Dresden and its historical and cultural memory somehow survived the bombs and the Soviet armies and occupying forces. The city slowly found its uncertain feet. Musical and other cultural life gradually revived. Even the Russians were not unmindful of the city’s heritage. Some emblematic buildings were repaired (though not all the religious ones) and new life found expression in Communist form.
Reunification of Germany after 1989 opened up new vistas. Those in the East who had been sequestered in a restrictive and ideologically purist state had known (not least from illicit viewing of West German television) that across the dividing wall was a more prosperous and liberal state populated by fellow Germans.
Resentment was common in the new Länder of eastern Germany. Many believed they were entitled to be “compensated” for what they had foregone in the post-war years. In turn many Germans in western Germany came to resent this perceived assumption that the east of the country should be a recipient of western German largesse as if it were their “right”. In fact the patterns after 1989 was more complex still. Many eastern Germans missed aspects of the GDR, not least a wraparound social state and “full” (even if economically nonsensical) employment.
Over time, however, many Germans in the new Länder became jealous of their new-found – even if western German subsidised – economic “gains” since the 1990s and were alert to any sense of being treated as second rate citizens as compared to their fellow citizens in the western part of Germany.
This is part of the context in which the arrival of refugees/migrants from outside Germany, especially from Syria after 2016, became a breeding ground for new resentments. Right-wing “populist” political movements (the most extreme perhaps being PEGEDA or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West, which had held worrying demonstrations in Dresden in 2014) and parties (most prominently the AfD), responded to and fed upon the new anxieties and resentments.
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The AfD in Dresden and especially in Saxon cities such as Chemnitz (another victim of area bombing in 1945), became a focus of complaint and of demands to halt and if possible reverse refugee arrivals. In the poorer parts of the cities high unemployment and degraded apartment buildings generated a kind of plea to “make Germany great again”, i.e. for ethnic Germans. The AfD gradually ate into CDU support across Germany, and earlier this year in Saxony there was a prospective AfD-led coalition in the Saxon Parliament which was only prevented late in the day.
Dresden is still a sophisticated place with a strong sense of itself and with a dynamic and thriving cultural scene. It is the recipient of many admiring visitors from elsewhere in Germany and the wider Europe (although travel has come to halt for now).
Its musical life especially resonates still with the pre-Nazi flowering of the Semper Opera (where so many of Richard Strauss’ operas were premiered) and the Staatskapelle Dresden and Philharmonic orchestras. The proud city is bidding to become the European Capital of Culture in 2025.
And of course the city still dominates and is itself dominated by the majestic Elbe river which is a green refuge today as it was a hoped-for route of escape for its citizens when the bombs fell 75 years ago on 13/14 February 1945. Dresden is a survivor, a city which over the past century has sometimes been complicit in terrible injustices before and during the Second World War, but it has also been a victim of forces often beyond its control. The contemporary challenges made more acute by relatively high levels of unemployment and significant levels of migration, are new tests of Dresden’s ability to adjust whilst sustaining a high level of community identity. And how Dresden manages these challenges may have lessons – and will certainly have implications – for the rest of Germany.