The week that brought freedom (we hope) to Egypt concludes with the memory of another event involving masses of people in a life-changing and state-challenging event. Tonight marks not only the eve of Valentine’s Day, but also the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden.
Between 13 and 14 February 1945 the Allies dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs on the beautiful Baroque capital of Saxony. 3,600 planes, of which 1,300 were heavy bombers, dropped as many as 650,000 incendiar bombs and other huge devices. The intensity of the onslaught destroyed 15 square miles (39 square kilometres) of the city centre and killed tens of thousands of people.
A couple of years ago I was preaching in Meissen Cathedral, only a few kilometers from Dresden. At the end of the service I shook hands with several hundred people as they left. One man refused to shake my hand. When I asked him why, he said that he could not shake hands with an Englishman who had the nerve to preach in a German pulpit. He had lived in Dresden all his life and had endured that night in 1945 which saw his family destroyed and his city devastated. He understood why we had attacked Dresden, but couldn’t understand why civilians had been targetted so directly when communications networks were up and running again so quickly.
It is a bit rough holding me personally to account for what the Allies did before I was even born, but I could see the enduring grief in this man’s eyes. I responded by saying that my own family (parents and grandparents) had endured the bombing of Liverpool and that war brought only victims on every side. He believed the bombing of Dresden was a war crime; I didn’t disagree.
Yet, last year (2010) the neo-Nazis decided to demonstrate on 13/14 February. The former East Germany is said to be ripe territory for right-wing resurgence and Dresden offers an iconic locus of resentment and perceived injustice. Yet, counter-demonstrations challenged the simplistic associations of the neo-Nazis and reminded people of why the bombing happened in the first place: the Nazis, the War, the attack not only on other countries, but on German civil society, too. Many Germans are saying that they have to be careful about claims of victimhood in the light of the facts about 1933-45. The Germans who remembered went onto the streets and kept the neo-Nazi revisionists off the streets. This year up to 20,000 people took to the streets to remember the bombing, to remind the world why it happened, and to challenge those whose ideologically-driven grievances demand a re-writing of history.
The bombing of Dresden was horrendous and – to my mind, at least – still has not been justified. It has been often described, but not adequately accounted for. But, when up to 20,000 people remember the context in which the bombing took place 66 years ago, they challenge the revisionism and easy sentimentalism of the neo-Nazis.
In June I will once again stand in the pulpit of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. I will be there to deliver a Bible Study as part of the Kirchentag. The church has been completely restored, the gold cross on top of the dome having been made by the son of one of the British bombers. The church speaks of reconciliation and its task is not just limited to a memory of 66 years ago, but the ongoing reconciliation between people now and in the future.
However, reconciliation with the reality of history also remains a difficult and permanent task of those who do not wish history to be repeated.