The city was quickly rebuilt. On Feb 13 1955, the restored Church of the Holy Cross (Kreuzkirche) was packed for its reconsecration. Thirty years later, a crowd of 200,000 gathered for the inauguration of the rebuilt opera house. And, 60 years after its ruins had become an icon of the city’s destruction, in 2005, the Frauenkirche reopened.
The contrast between the blackened original stones and their fresh, white counterparts serves as a permanent memorial. “Its wounds have healed,” says Rev Sebastian Feydt, pastor of the church. “But the scars still show.”
Wounded pride takes longer to heal. The flames that skipped through Dresden have long since died out, but the passions sparked that night burn on. As the city prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the raid on Friday, official talk is of reconciliation.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, will deliver a sermon in the Frauenkirche, and the Duke of Kent will be presented with a prize for his efforts to reunite the old enemies.
Away from the town hall, some Dresdeners recoil from these overtures. Where once February 13 was a day of quiet contemplation, it has now become a violent clash of historical interpretations. Thousands of neo-Nazis march across the city, hijacking the anniversary to claim moral equivalence between the bombing and the worst crimes of the Third Reich. Even larger crowds of Left-wing activists throng the streets in turn, trying to blockade the fascists’ advance.
“We will sit down in the street to stop them demonstrating,” says Frank Kohler, a 19-year-old student who will take part in this week’s blockade for the third year running. “They can’t be allowed to abuse this date.”
Ursula Elsner at home in Comenius Strasse, Dresden with her husband Helmut (Craig Stennett/The Telegraph)
The commemorations have become so charged that editors of a local newspaper supplement charting the raids have spent days debating their choice of pictures. “Everything is political,” says Oliver Reinhard, heritage correspondent of the paper, Sächsische Zeitung. “If we just used pictures of the bombing, some people would ask ‘why don’t you show what the Nazis did, too?’?”
Dresden was never intended to become such a contested chapter of the Second World War. Many more civilians had died during a raid on Hamburg in July 1943, and by the time Dresden was bombed, most other German cities had already been targeted.
For Harry Irons, a rear gunner who flew 60 raids, the city was “just another target”. “It was nothing out of the ordinary,” says WO Irons, now 91, who lives in Romford. “I was used to seeing German cities going up in flames and losing my comrades night after night. What went through our minds was just to get there and to get back – we couldn’t have any feelings about it.”
Dresden bomber Harry Irons remembers raid 70 years on
Listening as I read out his comments, Mrs Elsner, who is now 84 but has never moved from Dresden, stays silent. At last, she nods. “From his perspective, of course,” she says. “But for me, that was the worst night of my life. The whole city became one enormous morgue.”
She and her seven-year-old brother, Dieter, had been celebrating Shrove Tuesday, and Dieter was still in fancy dress as a tomahawk-toting cowboy when the air-raid sirens began to sound. They sheltered in their cellar but when they began to be sprinkled with ash, they leapt over a burning timber to hurtle outside, Dieter still clutching his teddy bear.
In the street, sparks singed their hair and hands, but they survived: the families who remained in the cellar all succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.
“Everywhere around me was death and destruction,” says Mrs Elsner. “I most recall seeing the prams – the babies weren’t moving any more.”
Yet, even though she remembers that night every day, she is happy to forgive WO Irons and the rest of Bomber Command. “It was war,” she says. “We can’t talk about blame.”
The British veteran plans to fly to the city for the first time since 1945 later this year, and Mrs Elsner says she would happily invite him in for a cup of tea: there they might sit, with the Frauenkirche between them, the bomber and the bombed. “It’s difficult to be angry,” she says. “What good does it do to hold a grudge?”
Mrs Elsner is typical of many of the remaining survivors, who have reconciled themselves with their former enemy.
Warrant Officer Harry Irons, DFC, joined the RAF in 1940 at the age of 16 as a rear gunner, flying in Lancasters with No. 9 Squadron (Geoff Pugh/The Telegraph)
But their efforts to make peace with the past are being threatened by a younger generation determined to exploit the legacy of that night. The neo-Nazi march has been an annual fixture of the commemorations since the Nineties, so that the city that was destroyed in the battle against fascism is now the epicentre of its revival.
“They’re young and they don’t know what fascism is really like,” says Mrs Elsner. “The day is becoming more and more political. There’s the Right-wing here and the Left-wing there: the idea of remembrance is getting lost.”
WO Irons is also depressed by the sloganising that surrounds Dresden. The far-Right’s claim that the raid was a “bombing Holocaust”, an Allied war crime on a par with the Final Solution, used to trouble him.
“I had second thoughts about Dresden for years,” he says. “But last year I went to visit Auschwitz myself. Now I’ve seen it, my conscience is clear. We killed many civilians but we lost many men too. That was war – but Auschwitz was something else.”
The neo-Nazis are far from the only group seeking to exploit the sense of loss that pervades Dresden. Pegida, a far-Right movement of “patriotic Europeans” that began to target disenchanted Germans last year, has shied away from overt references to the bombing, but few think the choice of Dresden for its regular marches is coincidental.
“It ties in with the victimhood running through the city,” says Frederick Taylor, the historian and author of Dresden. “The unresolved trauma of 1945 provides a fertile ground for those kinds of feelings.”
This exploitation began even as the embers glowed. Nazi propagandists seized on the raid to paint a dark picture of the bombing campaign. Helped by its self-styled image as a “Florence on the Elbe”, they claimed the city as an innocent victim of a war crime, omitting to mention the 70,000 workers there who toiled in factories supplying the war effort, or the city’s significance as a centre of the railway network and a sizeable barracks.
This fiction continued under the communist regime of East Germany, which used the raid as a useful shorthand for Western aggression, and branded the bombers “air-raid gangsters”.
Such blatant propaganda fooled few, but some of the misinformation it generated has proved far more pervasive. Seven decades on, the death toll is still disputed, after years in which Nazi and GDR politicians, helped by revisionist British historians such as David Irving, claimed that as many as 500,000 Dresdeners died that night.
Even after an official commission of historians settled on the far lower figure of 25,000, the number is still contested, and government press releases about the commemorations explain their workings in lengthy footnotes.
“There are still a lot of people who say it must have been higher – it must have been 100,000,” says Matthias Rogg, of the Dresden Military History Museum. When he quoted the true figure in a newspaper interview to publicise a new exhibition about the bombing, he received hundreds of furious letters.
“I don’t think this will ever become just history,” he says, detailing the emotions still stirred by any reference to the raid. “The debate will never end.”
One uncomfortable truth is sometimes overlooked in all the furore.
“You have to ask the question of responsibility,” says Col Rogg, pointing to a skyline that once again resembles the landscape in Ursula Elsner’s apartment. “The war started in Germany. And, that night, it came back to us.”