Germany was yesterday to mark 75 years since the destruction of Dresden in World War II, with the far-right seeking to inflate victim numbers and play down Nazi war crimes.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was to give a speech at Dresden’s Palace of Culture, walking a fine line between remembering those killed in the Allied air raids on the eastern city and stressing Germany’s responsibility for the war.
At 5:30pm, he was to join thousands of residents in forming a human chain of “peace and tolerance” as church bells rang out.
Photo: AFP / SLUB Dresden Deutsche Fotothek / Richard Peter Sr
However, as in past years, the commemoration is expected to attract neo-Nazis, while the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party was to run an information booth to tell the supposed “truth” about the bombings and demand a grander memorial for the victims.
Police were also bracing for a large demonstration by right-wing extremists tomorrow, which is expected to be met with counterprotests.
“The myth of the ‘city of innocence’ lives on,” the regional Saechsische Zeitung wrote, accusing the far-right of using the commemorations “to minimize German war crimes.”
In 1945, hundreds of British and US bombers pounded Dresden with conventional and incendiary explosives from Feb. 13 to 15.
The ensuing firestorm killed about 25,000 people, historians have estimated, and left the baroque city known as “Florence on the Elbe” in ruins, wiping out its historic center.
The devastation came to symbolize the horrors of war, much like the heavily bombed city of Coventry in England.
However, in Germany, Dresden also became a focal point for neo-Nazis who have held “funeral marches” for the dead and given the city a martyrdom status that experts have said is belied by historical facts.
This year’s anniversary is especially charged as Germany reels from a political scandal that erupted in neighboring Thuringia state last week, where an AfD-backed candidate was elected state premier for the first time.
Although he swiftly resigned, the drama marked a coup for the AfD — laying bare mainstream parties’ struggle to maintain the firewall against a party that has called for Germany to stop atoning for its Nazi past.
“Resurgent nationalism and right-wing populism are increasingly endangering the democratic remembrance culture,” Dresden Mayor Dirk Hilbert told local radio.
Some observers have questioned whether the indiscriminate bombing of Dresden was justified so late in the war, an argument hijacked by neo-Nazis eager to shift the focus onto atrocities committed by the victors of World War II.
However, the Allied forces saw Dresden as a legitimate target on the eastern front because of its transport links and factories supporting the German military machine.
In the immediate aftermath, Nazi propagandists claimed more than 200,000 people had lost their lives in Dresden — even though historical records showed early on that they had simply added a zero to their estimates.
Yet, right-wing extremists continue to cite wildly elevated tolls.
AfD cochairman Tino Chrupalla told Der Spiegel that his grandmother and father recalled seeing “mountains of bodies” after the firebombing.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, he said that he believes the victims numbered “around 100,000,” prompting critics to accuse him of historical revisionism.
Last year, AfD lawmaker Mario Lehmann caused uproar when he described the Dresden bombings as “a Holocaust” — a term usually reserved for the murder of 6 million Jews under Adolf Hitler.
Founded just seven years ago, the anti-Islam, anti-immigrant AfD has risen to become the largest opposition party in the German Bundestag.
It is most popular in the country’s former communist east. In Dresden’s Saxony state, the AfD came second in regional polls last year.
Dresden bombing survivor Ursula Elsner, who was 14 when her mother dragged her to safety past burning buildings, told Der Spiegel that she was tired of the anniversary being misused for political gain.
The 89-year-old wants the occasion to serve as a warning against war.
“This day belongs to us,” Elsner said.
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