This is a guest post by Doerte Letzmann.
Every year on February 13th and 14th, Germans commemorate the bombing of Dresden by the allied forces in 1945.
Usually there is an official memorial at the ‘Heidefriedhof’, a cemetery in the outskirts of Dresden. This year on February 13th , Dresden’s mayor Helga Orosz and Saxony’s prime minister Stanislaw Tillich spoke to the 200 mourners and laid a wreath in commemoration of the dead. Like in the years before, this event was also attended by several neo-Nazis, for example by members of the NPD, the main far right party, and of the neo-Nazi organisation HDJ.
In the evening of Friday February 13th, around 2500 people gathered around the ‘Frauenkirche’ (‘church of our lady’) – which was burned out during the bombing and collapsed – to remember the people who died during the bombing. Around the same time, around 1100 neo-Nazis marched through the city with torches.
Usually there is a major neo-Nazi demonstration to commemorate the bombing. This year on February 14th , about 6000 neo-Nazis – the highest number so far – from all over Europe came to march in Dresden. They listened to Wagner, symbolically laid down a wreath and carried placards saying: “allied bombing holocaust” and “historical truth brings intellectual freedom”. In their speeches they pointed out how the Allies “demolished an innocent city” and killed “hundreds of thousands of civilians”. In 2004 a commission of historians made clear that about 25000 people died during the bombings – far fewer than the number claimed by Nazi propaganda at the time and today’s neo-Nazis. It seemed necessary to highlight yet again how the city and its people were not that ‘innocent’: many of Dresden’s residents worked in war industries and the city was a communication and transportation hub.
A broad alliance of democratic institutions and individuals – among them the confederation of German trade unions and members of the Social Democratic, Green and Left Party- called ‘Geh Denken’ (‘Go think’) that engages against right-wing extremism in Dresden organised a counter-demonstration, which was attended by 7500 people. ‘Geh Denken’ opposes the ‘exploitation’ of the remembrance event by neo-Nazis, the “distortion of history” and wants to send a “democratic signal” against right-wing extremism.
The anti-fascist left is split over the possible counter-actions. The anti-fascist alliance ‘No Pasarán’, which was also part of ‘Geh Denken’ and doesn’t want to “let the nazis lie about history” staged an anti-fascist counter-demonstration that was attended by almost 4000 people. This demonstration was dispersed by the police and several protesters were arrested.
The ‘Vorbereitungskreis Keine Versöhnung mit Deutschland’ (preparation group no reconciliation with Germany) however, opposed the abandonment of left-wing positions in favour of a mass mobilisation and pointed out that the collective mourning of German ‘victims’ characterises both the neo-Nazi demonstration as well as the official commemoration events and that both were staged in order to find a new German collective identity. ‘Vorbereitungskreis Keine Versöhnung mit Deutschland’ organised a rally and concert on Friday February 13th against the remembrance event the same night and demanded the abolition of such events in general as they are an attempt to revise history and turn people that were involved in the national socialist state into ‘victims’ and ‘innocent civilians’.
They are clearly fighting an uphill battle. For Germans who yearn for a clear conscience, it is hard to be reminded of the simple fact that Hitler’s regime remained popular and the Germans remained loyal to it until its final hours. A ‘neutral’ German civil society did not exist in that sense, because the German reality of total war, ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ and ‘final solution’ required Germans to be either actively involved in what would now be considered war crimes and crimes against humanity, or to give an ideological approval to stay passive in light of this reality. Germany’s behaviour in the war, the crimes it committed, and the role of its civilian population were unique.
Like in the speeches at the memorial at the ‘Frauenkirche’ on Friday evening, it is often claimed that ‘legitimate’ mourning for Dresden is characterised by a demand for reconciliation while neo-Nazi marches stand for revenge. The understanding that Germans in Dresden and elsewhere were ‘innocent victims’, however, seems to be an uncontested value that most Germans, neo-Nazis or not, share. This is not what Allied leaders thought at the time, nor is it what history teaches.
The ‘innocent victims’ of Dresden is an historic construct collectively remembered every year so that Germans today can feel better about themselves.