On Feb. 13, 1945, a spark erupted in a local munitions factory. By midnight, the fire was engulfing Dresden, the city of more than half a million people that was formerly one of Europe’s leading cities. As the smoke covered the entire city, some fearful residents fled, burying themselves in the soil of the wooden homes. Others stayed behind and could not leave. When the fire was finally put out, it had destroyed more than 90 percent of the city.
On what would have been the 75th anniversary of the firestorm, I recently got to visit Dresden once again, this time with my daughter and son-in-law. These visits have become regular pilgrimages for us as we travel around the world for work and family. We were part of a delegation from Germany who went to Dresden with a guide, a retired public schoolteacher who had been a volunteer in the city’s after-school educational programs for youth during the war. For us, Dresden was like a full circle of history, a time in which we could look back on the destruction of Dresden’s most iconic landmarks and one of the most powerful bombings in the history of aerial warfare, all happening at the same time 75 years ago.
Visiting Dresden has helped to foster in us a new understanding of how human history functions. We all do the same thing, trying to accomplish our goals through the same material force, and history is full of occurrences similar to Dresden that, like Dresden, seem inexplicable.
During our visit, we took a walk through some of the worst-damaged places in the city, looking back over the destruction. Many of the thousands of burned-out houses had no structures to salvage — the surviving beams of the house in which I live are the only exception. At this point in time, it would be unwise for us to build anything. Indeed, rebuilding the city would take another several years, during which time we would either use the houses as a place to meet while walking the city or another building, or sometimes, they would have to be bulldozed.
The people of Dresden seemed at once surprised and surprisingly happy. Not only were the scars of the fire still visible, but the city’s character seemed to return to normal, including the singing of Christmas carols. People still worked in their factories, but that is still a part of Germany that other countries, such as Britain, don’t share. Above all, people still live and work and entertain themselves, and most have not lost touch with the many native traditions that bind people together. What would seem incredible in living memory is now a natural part of everyday life in the city.
A small town on the plains of Germany has a different history, and a different culture, from Dresden. They never had a firestorm like the one in Dresden and, yet, the damage was equally catastrophic. There, too, a heavy crush of art and history was consumed, even though the town isn’t anywhere near Dresden. Dresden’s destroyed houses, though, are more recognizable to outsiders. The history of Dresden is a fascinating and powerful history, in which history, art and people co-exist as one of the foundations of life in the region.
Here, a child playing in the tulips can easily see his father’s painting in the corner, while the mournful brass bands of Düsseldorf, Dresden’s capital city, can be heard faintly somewhere in the distance. The lives of all of us, as observers of that history, cannot help but feel closer to the historical events in Dresden.
By visiting Dresden, Germany, we also felt a sense of our shared purpose. As we walked through the shattered city — where the cigarettes burned black and everything felt rotted — my daughter and I reflected on the fact that none of us can bring back the life of people whom we have lost, just as they can’t bring back the buildings that burned to the ground. Our task is instead to pass on the wisdom that comes from the outpouring of time and the lessons of the history of our own species. From our perspective, the only difference is that we are all being forced to look at the world in a more compassionate and less doctrinaire way. It’s an exciting shift.