Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Dresden and the British German Friendship Garden

Over many years the biggest source of resentment in Germany towards Britain could be encapsulated in the one word – Dresden. On 13-14 February 1945, less than three months before the ending of the war in Europe, one of its most beautiful baroque cities was destroyed by British and American bombers when they dropped 4,500 tons of explosives, creating a firestorm, devastating eight square miles of the city and killing at least 35 to 40,000 men, women and children.

In October this year (2006) the Duke of Kent dedicated a British German Friendship Garden in Britain’s National Memorial Arboretum, in honour of all who died in World War II raids. A plaque states, ‘Just as the city of Dresden has risen from the ashes of the firestorm which engulfed it, so have the respect that traditionally characterised British German relations been reborn. Henceforth may all difficulties between the two countries be resolved with patience and understanding, may their sorrows be shared and their joys celebrated together. In the beauty of nature as in the presence of God, we are all one.’

In a remarkable way Dresden is, through honesty, apology and compassion, becoming in this way a focal point of reconciliation between the two countries. The bombing had always been an embarrassment to the British, as the London Times pointed out in February 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the raids, but added that ‘it was being transmogrified into friendship and reconciliation and revitalized understanding of an older, worthier and culturally rich Germany’.

Physical expression of this transformation is the Frauenkirche. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall Dresdeners launched a call for help in rebuilding the church. One of the many in Britain who felt strongly that a positive response from Britain was called for was Alan Russell. He grew up during World War II and was proud of what the RAF did to achieve victory. Soon after the war he did military service in the British zone of Germany. Whilst there a German student friend had acknowledged to him that the persecution of the Jews had been a great wrong but had added, ‘What about Dresden?’

At the time Russell had no answer. But as he read the first of what was to become a number of well-researched books on the subject, he found himself forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that, as one distinguished reviewer put it, ‘something not quite worthy of Britain’ had taken place. Whilst he felt it entirely right to honour the bravery and commitment of the more than 50,000 British Bomber Command crewmen who had sacrificed their lives in the war, he felt that the victims, too, deserved a memorial since innocence, dignity and the sacredness of life itself know no frontiers. It wasn’t wrong to bomb Dresden, he believes, since the outer reaches of the City contained both war industries and military installations but the manner in which it was done, focusing on the historic inner City, was highly questionable. He felt that some sign of atonement and regret for the bombing should be given and that the British public should be given the opportunity to look at Britain’s moral record; ‘Nations must be able to look critically at what has been done in their names in order to have the right to examine what other countries have done.’

He worked with others to set up a Trust for Dresden (in 1993) to help raise money in Britain for the restoration of the church. He wrote in a Dresden magazine in February 2002, ‘The statement of St Matthew about ‘the splinter and the moat’ remains appropriate. It is for all members of the Trust a a challenge to liberate the British and the Germans from the common nightmare of self-righteousness.’

The Trust’s found a ready response round the country and over the following years it raised around £1 million. When in the autumn of 1994, it was invited to undertake the making of the new nine-metre-high baroque Orb and Cross which was to stand on the pinnacle of the dome of the Frauenkirche, it enthusiastically made this the centrepiece of its actions. By a remarkable coincidence Alan Smith, head of Silversmiths Grant Macdonald’s team of skilled workers was the son of one of the airmen who had bombed Dresden, who saw his work as not only a technical challenge but as a deep spiritual fulfilment.

In February 1995, at ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of Dresden’s destruction, the Duke of presented a drawing of the Orb and Cross and said, ‘We want this Cross to be a symbol of the reconciliation between Britain and Germany. We do this in remembrance of those who died in Dresden in February 1945, and in the conviction that there will forever be peace between our two peoples. We deeply regret the suffering on all side in the war.’

The Times commented, ‘There could be no more fitting gesture. Some Germans may interpret the present as a discreet apology. All can agree that it is a sincere act of reconciliation.’

In June 2004 the Orb and Cross were lifted into place before a crowd of 60,000 people. In October 2005 the Frauenkirche was reconsecrated and the Trust handed over a symbolic gift of Communion Silver Plate. To carry the message further the Trust has published books, given scholarships for young people from Dresden and Saxony to attend schools in England and for young Britons to visit Saxony, arranged for German choirs to sing in Britain, and taken the London Bach Choir to Dresden to give two concerts in the Frauenkirche itself. Thirteen years after the beginning, Russell says, ‘The hand of friendship which the Trust sought to extend was immediately, warmly and firmly grasped and the feelings of deep sorrow and remorse to which the Trust sought to give voice have been reciprocated in more than full measure.’