East German cities: destinations reborn

From high above Dresden, atop the newly constructed dome of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), the landscape resembles that of many major European cities: cobblestone streets, narrow and long, bustling with tourists and the lunchtime crowd; buildings rarely more than five or six storeys high, neatly arranged in large rectangular blocks extending toward the horizon and dotted with the occasional cupola of a church, much like the one I’m standing in. I can hear the familiar yet slightly differently pitched sound of an ambulance making its way through traffic. And just below me and to my right, a gently moving river – the standard of any European city – running through the city.

At first glance, I might not have known where in Europe I was, had I been blindfolded and transported here. But a closer look reveals a much different story. In Dresden, many of the streets are lined with perimeter fencing, low-rise buildings are dwarfed by large cranes and even more familiar than the alarm of an ambulance is the sound of construction. Dresden is rebuilding itself and, in its present state, is distinctively different from any other European city. It is in a time of great trsition and, to comprehend why, one has to first understand its history.

Before travelling to East Germany, I knew very little of it. I had been to Germany before, closer to Bavaria in the former West, but never to the East. I was to fly into Frankfurt and travel to Weimar, a small town just inside the former border between the East and West. After an overnight stay, I would move on to Leipzig, a larger metropolitan city, and then on to Dresden, my final destination. Weimar and Leipzig were completely foreign to me, only dots on an atlas, which I duly consulted back in Toronto.

Literary connections
I knew something of Dresden though. It had been the setting of a novel I had read years earlier – Slaughterhouse-five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. While serving in the United States Army during the Second World War, Vonnegut had been captured as a prisoner of war and quartered in a Dresden slaughterhouse. During the 1945 firebombing by Allied forces, Vonnegut and other prisoners took shelter in an underground meat locker. When they emerged, the city had been completely levelled. The story of Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, is in fact the story of Kurt Vonnegut, who managed to survive the firestorm in which 135,000 German civilians perished – more than the number of deaths in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

It is a compelling story, which would give me a better understanding of Dresden’s history as affected by the war. So I was surprised, when, out for dinner our first night in Dresden, the city’s public relations representative, Christopf Münch, balked at the idea. “We want people to forget about the war,” he said. “We want people to come to Dresden for the culture, the museums, the food … everything.” On one hand, I could understand his point: of course you want people to come for all the right reasons. But on the other hand, I couldn’t see how it was possible to forget something of such great historical significance. I could see that he felt strongly about the subject though, and I realized later that in writing the novel, Vonnegut had unwittingly popularized Dresden as a post-war relic. For a nation desperately trying to separate and move on from the war, this was a troubling reality.

Following the war, the German people were confronted by a situation never before experienced in their history: foreign armies occupied the entire German territory. Cities and infrastructure had largely been reduced to rubble, large portions of the population were suffering from hunger and the loss of their homes, and many Germans were now hearing of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis for the first time. It was perhaps the darkest time in German history. Then, in June of 1945, the Soviet Union assumed total control of its occupied zone. This zone, which included the former German states of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia, would come to be known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany.

Next page: Learning the present-day city

Following our dinner at Brauhaus Watzke in Dresden that first night, our group took a walk into Neustadt, or New Town. After our discussion with Christian, I was grateful for another opportunity to acquaint myself with the city and attempt to fulfil his wish: to forget about the past and soak in some culture. New Town seemed like the perfect place to start. 

After a fire in 1685, the quarter, which is on the northern banks of the river Elbe, was rebuilt and named “New Town near Dresden.” The reconstruction that followed produced some beautiful and traditional baroque architecture, which provides an idea today of what Dresden might have looked like before the war. And recently, a new cultural scene has emerged, with restaurants and bars emerging in the area. It was Sunday night though, and the nightlife was shifting into low gear.

The following day, we visited the Dresden Royal Palace, the former residence of the electors from the houses of Wettin and Saxon and now home to the Green Vault Gemstone collection. Between 1723 and 1729, King Augustus the Strong had rooms in the western wing of the palace converted into a splendid public treasure museum. Because the rooms were painted green, they soon became known as the Green Vaults. This is where Augustus had kept jewelry, goldsmith’s art made from ivory, stone carvings and bronze figurines. Following the war, many of the pieces were taken to the Soviet Union. Fortunately, with Dresden’s commitment to return the museum to its former glory, nearly all of the pieces have been returned. Today, the museum is one of the city’s most popular cultural attractions.

Cultural aspects like these are being eagerly reclaimed by East Germans. In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet regime, Germany began the transition to a reunified state, and the recapturing of its national and cultural identities. Dresden, dubbed the Florence of the Elbe, was long considered the artistic and cultural centre of this part of Europe. It was home to magnificent galleries and museums and widely regarded for its baroque architecture.

Post-war GDR times placed very little emphasis on restoring the country to its pre-war glory. In place of much of the destroyed baroque architecture were utilitarian block-like buildings. It is only recently Dresden has begun to feverishly rebuild. For every newly constructed building, there is an old one being resurrected. The city isn’t merely rebuilding; it is meticulously restoring itself.

The most notable example of Dresden’s restoration is the Frauenkirche. The firebombed church lay in rubble for decades as a painful reminder of the war. Then, in 1990, with the help of international funding, a unique archeological reconstruction began: when completed, the church will not only retain its original design, it will do so with almost half its original stones. This has become a familiar process in Dresden; many of the old buildings that have been reconstructed are dotted with distinctly darker older stones, intermingling with the new. Rebuilding has been swift since 1990, and today, only one official ruin remains from the 1945 firebombing. Restoration of the Frauenkirche will be completed soon, with a consecration service set for Oct. 30, 2005, in time for Dresden’s 800th anniversary only a year away.

However, no bigger change was made by any city following reunification than Weimar. Today, it is the standard by which other reconstruction projects throughout East Germany should be measured. After spending somewhere in the region of $1 billion on infrastructure and revitalization, it was named Cultural Capital of Europe in 1999, the smallest city in Europe to hold the distinction.

The transformation was complete – cosmetic surgery on a grand scale – with a resulting vibrancy and colourful beauty. With a population of only 64,000, Weimar has small-town ambience. In fact, it is so rich and inviting a place, it has captured the hearts of some of Germany’s most recognizable figures: nationally revered poets Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller came to Weimar for a brief period, then made Weimar their home and final resting places.

Back in Dresden, high atop the Frauenkirche, our guide points out a barely noticeable white structure along the banks of the Elbe – the infamous slaughterhouse. But before I could even scamper to the rail to take a look, she’s moved on to something else. That was it. Looking back, I understand now what Christian meant that night over dinner, how important it was to move on from the war. As I reached for my notepad, I came across a poem by Goethe entitled Found given to me by our guide. It seemed strangely befitting of the moment:

 Once in the forest,
 I strolled content
 To look for nothing
 My sole intent.

 I saw a flower,
 Shaded and shy,
 Shining like starlight,
 Bright as an eye.

 I went to pluck it;
 Gently it said:
 Must I be broken,
 Wilt and be dead?

 Then whole I dug it
 Out of the loam
 And to my garden
 Carried it home,

 There to replant it
 Where no wind blows,
 More bright than ever
 It blooms and grows.