The Allied bombing of Dresden towards the end of World War II remains a touchtone for the perils of war -- and a rallying cry for Germany's far right. The official death toll from the raids stands at about 35,000. Survivors say it was much higher, as bodies were reduced to ashes in the ensuing firestorm that levelled the historic city once known as the "Florence on the Elbe." Czech forced labourers and concentration camp survivors who lived through the February 13, 1945 bombardment were among those on hand for commemorations.
A woman with a megaphone sounds the alarm to her fellow anti-fascist demonstrators, as a group of about fifty neo-Nazis — some wielding truncheons — suddenly appear on the banks of the old fortress nearby. The group of skinheads breaks into a run towards the new Dresden synagogue — the old one was burnt on the infamous night of Kristallnacht. Streams of people flee in all directions, but some, mostly young men in black hoods, run head on to meet the aggressors.
Moments before this clash between anti-fascists and neo-Nazis, Michal Salomonovic, a Czech Jew now in his seventies, was in the Dresden synagogue speaking with young Germans about how the war began, and in hopes that such atrocities would never be repeated.
"I was in a concentration camp during the war, transferred to the ghetto; I was sent to Dresden to do forced labour. It was a horrible year, but it must be remembered."
As a young boy, Michal Salomonovic and his family were forced to leave their home in Ostrava. His father was killed and young Michal was interned in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz with his mother, before being sent on to Auschwitz. He volunteered for a work detail and at the age of 13 ended up in Dresden in an SS-run "cigarette" factory that actually made ammunition, including internationally banned "dum-dum" bullets. These were bullets designed to expand upon impact with a human body to cause maximum internal damage.
Once famous for its china and chocolate, the Allies knew that Dresden was using slave labour for military purposes, and was an important railway and communications centre for operations against the Soviet Army. The Dresden raid is alleged to have come on Moscow's request; Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, described it one month later as "wanton destruction."
The bombing of February 13, 1945, left Michal Salomonovic traumatized; he was at first unable to speak, then developed a stutter. Weeks after the bombing of Dresden, with the Soviet Army closing in, the SS led forced labourers like Mr Salomonovic on a "death march" to the West. He hid in a roadside ditch during an American attack on the column and escaped.
"It began with xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, fascism and led to the control and repression of people, who later killed one another with passion. For the city of Dresden, it finished with the bombardment and heavy damage. Many people here died, which is of course also tragic. But it was also a deterrent for fascists to continue the fight and might well have helped to hasten the end of the war."
Derek Jackson, a flight gunner from Manchester who participated in the bombing, says he didn't know the full scale of the destruction until months later, but could see the flames of Dresden from nearly one hundred miles away as his squadron returned to its base in England. He regrets the innocent victims, but to this day believes the strike was necessary.
"I'm now 80 years old and at the time of the bombing of Dresden I was 19 years old. I was flying as an air gunner in Lancaster bombers.
"I know there was big loss of life in Dresden. But do not think, if Dresden hadn't of been bombed, that the Russians wouldn't have tried to take this city. They would have bombarded it; they would have smashed it with the shelling. The German army would have fought street to street, as they did in Berlin — and Berlin was smashed to pieces, as you know."
On Sunday, some 5,000 supporters of the neo-Nazi National Party of Germany, the NPD, held a "funeral march" for German victims of the "Holocaust of Bombs" as loudspeakers blasted Ride of the Valkyries, a work by Wagner — Hitler's favourite composer.
The neo-Nazi NPD party won over 9 percent of the vote in last September's elections in Saxony, their support base the depressed areas of this former communist East German region, that borders Poland and the Czech Republic, and of which Dresden is the capital.
It was against this backdrop — the rise of neo-Nazism in Dresden — that people like Michal Salomonovic and Derek Jackson sought to open dialogue with ordinary Germans and heal old wounds.
Lukas, who declines to give his surname, is a leader of one group of young anti-fascist demonstrators. He says people are falling victim to revisionist history and that many ordinary Germans have a distorted view of the war.
"I think that Dresden is thought of like — like Hiroshima, or even Auschwitz — like a war crime, and so they see themselves completely as victims. You know, they forget that Dresden was the Nazi town in Germany; Dresden was the town that had the most persons in the NSDAP (Nazi) party before the war stated. This is my point of view of this day; why I'm here."
Evoking the name of Coventry — an English city heavily bombed by the Nazis in November 1940 — activists and mayors of German cities bombed during the war gave speeches of reconciliation typical of the day.
"We must not believe the neo-Nazi propaganda." "Terror was met with terror."
At least 80 people were arrested on Sunday, among them both neo-Nazis and anti-fascists. But the vast majority of the 50,000 German people who took to the streets of Dresden and braced the freezing cold and wind, were there to take part in peaceful vigils and processions.
They wore white roses as a symbol of reconciliation, they lit candles and lay wreathes to mourn not only for the city and people of Dresden, but for the millions of innocent people who died in World War II. At a quarter to ten in the evening -- the precise time that, sixty years ago, the first bombs fell on Dresden -- the bells of all the city's churches were rung in remembrance of the dead.
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