Billy drove through a scene of even greater desolation. It looked like Dresden after it was fire-bombed -- like the surface of the moon. The house where Billy had grown up used to be somewhere in what was so empty now. This was urban renewal. A new Ilium Government Center and a Pavilion of the Arts and a Peace Lagoon and high-rise apartment buildings were going up here soon.
That was all right with Billy Pilgrim.
-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5 (Vonnegut was in Dresden for the bombings in 1945 and survived them because he was a POW held in a slaughterhouse that day; I'm using this quote again, just because it's so great and relevant to this post.)
Travelling in Germany, you notice something in the towns and cities that you at first can’t pinpoint. After visiting historic towns in other countries, in Germany you sense something barely discernible and slightly out of character, but you consciously can’t name it. Then you realize what it is: Very few authentic German city centers stand today, primarily because US and UK forces obliterated them with bombs during World War II. Most of what you see today is a mix of reproduced buildings, infill development, and original pre-1940s buildings. Visiting German towns can be an enlightening tragedy: One experiences history dating back to the Roman Empire in AD 9 and also sees the horrific effects of war, all at the same time.
As German news magazine Spiegel notes, “Allied forces leveled up to 80 percent of the historic buildings in Germany's main cities in an unprecedented wave of destruction.” Spiegel goes on to note that another 30 percent of Germany’s historic buildings were demolished to make way for the new. There was such a depletion in building stock and fury to build new in the 1940s that the majority of what stands today was built after 1948.
After the war, Germans were understandably anxious to rebuild their country. One segment of the population that was particular excited about this urban tabula rasa was architects and city planners. Eager to implement modernist principles studied at Germany’s Bauhaus movement in the 1930s and empowered by a working relationship with the Nazi party, architects and urban planners worked frantically to rebuild the country. Modern architecture represented a utopian vision of "creating better people through better construction,” said the son of Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect.
There’s no denying that Germany’s post-war reconstruction produced en masse bland and unwelcoming architecture that hasn’t aged well. Sixteen million apartments existed before the war and more than a third of that was destroyed by 1945, rendering quality and thoughtfulness in rebuilding moot; functionality, speed, and necessity outweighed aesthetics and nostalgia. “Oversized apartment blocks and nightmarish developments multiplied from the 1950s onward,” notes Spiegel. Occupants started to feel bored and lonely in these sterile buildings, and urban planning gave greater accommodation to cars. Until the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, drab Socialist buildings and form-over-function planning principles ruled Germany’s built world. Starting with the country’s reunification, German citizens have begun to demand more traditional and higher-quality buildings, in some cases reconstructing what was lost or demolishing soulless post-1948 buildings. Historical old cities are “more popular than ever.”
Now let’s turn to Dresden. Before February 13, 1945, the day the city was reduced to rubble with Allied bombs, Dresden was one of Europe’s most beautiful cities that believed it was immune to bombing on that fact alone. Not only was this unfortunately untrue, but Dresden became the poster child of war-torn Germany. Some of the city was immediately rebuilt, such as Zwinger, but much languished until 1989 when a rebuilding wave took over the city. One journalist refers to Dresden today as “Baroque fantasia,” and admittedly, the city’s reconstruction did feel a bit surreal. To me, the city center almost looked too perfect, and hordes of tourists implied I was walking through a carefully-curated exhibit. Has Dresden become a “retro-world” that no longer represents what it appears to be, as architecture critic Wolfgang Pehnt warned? I found Dresden to be beautiful, inspiring, and disorienting; I had a hard time distinguishing which building was authentic (or if I’d have even noticed, if I had no idea Dresden was mostly recreated), and it was odd to see highway-like roads everywhere.
Regardless, the reconstruction of Dresden and Germany in itself has become a significant, historical event that Germans should be extremely proud of.
There is lots to see in the reconstructed city center. For one, there is Frauenkirche, the grand Baroque church that centers the busy pedestrian plaza. It was destroyed in 1945 and was left as a war memorial, but the country's reunification in 1989 inspired the its recreation. (Actually, the black stones mixed into the building's new, bright exterior are the 4,000 original stones from the first church.) The Frauenkirche reopened in 2005 to much fanfare.
Then there is "the largest porcelain artwork in the world" wall mural of Fürstenzug, or Procession of Princes. The mural was painted in the 1870s and later replaced with tiles in the early 1900s. It is located on the outside wall of the castle and shockingly was not damaged much during the bombing.
Unfortunately I missed it, but artist Yadegar Asisi has created a 360-degree panorama 'Dresden 1945—Tragedy and Hope of a European City' in the Asisi Panometer, on how the city looked in 1756 as well as after the 1945 bombings.
Although I'm no art buff, I appreciate the beauty and talent that comes with art. So, I was blown away when I visited the Albertinum modern art museum, a key Dresden attraction that's tucked away from heavy tourist traffic. In room after room, I passed masterpieces by Monet, Picasso, Rodin, Manet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Gauguin, Degas, and more. It was amazing to see the works of so many great artists in one spot. The Albertinum's sandstone Renaissance Revival building was built in the 1880s and (fortunately) sustained a modest amount of damage during the 1945 bombing which allowed it to reopen in 1953.
The elaborate Rococo style Zwinger was originally built as a public space and exhibition gallery, and today it still serves a similar purpose in its function as a museum complex. The art here (Semper Gallery) is as breathtaking as the Albertinum, as is the ceramics collection. What's most breathtaking, though, is the fact that the Zwinger was mostly destroyed in 1945 only to reopen to the public in 1951 and be fully restored to its pre-war splendor by 1963. Simply amazing.
The rebuilt Royal Palace across the street is just as fabulous, although harder to navigate. Apparently, after bombs destroyed the palace in 1945, it was largely left alone until restoration commenced in the 1960s. Its restoration (or recreation with some liberties taken) was completed in 2013. The Green Vault on site contains Europe's largest collection of treasures.
Neustadt neighborhood & Kunsthofpassage
A trip to Dresden wouldn't be complete without a stop in the new part northwest of the, well, old part. This district is drastically different than the rest of the city, with graffiti and murals all over the buildings and a laid back vibe. There are plenty of interesting-looking restaurants and shops, and passing through the neighborhood's Kunsthofassage is like walking through an art gallery, with building walls used instead of a canvas. For a better understanding of Dresden now, the Neustadt neighborhood is not to be missed.