March 30, 2015 Dresden is a stunning city. People call it the Elbflorenz–Florence on the Elb River, the Jewel Box, Germany’s version of Italian Baroque.
I arrived at the train station in Dresden after the DAAD Conference in Jena, dropped my suitcase at the youth hostel, and headed for the city center. When I stepped off the tram at the Theaterplatz, the force of beauty hit me like a brick wall. So much pure loveliness needs no justification, no reason for being. It just is, and you stand there and blink back tears in the pouring rain, and are fully outside of yourself.
Perhaps even more staggering, however, is the fact that it is almost entirely all new–the entire old city was gutted by the American and British bombs that fell in February, 1945. Twenty-five thousand deaths, most of them of civilians, were recorded after the bombings, with thousands more left uncounted. The city as it exists today is a monument both to the horror of war and to the human capacity for hope and industry, I think. Restoration began soon after the war ended, and continues to this day–renovations of the Frauenkirche cathedral, for instance, were only completed in 2005.
It was a weekend of beauty, of unabashed reveling in Western culture at its most stunning. I photographed statues and frescoes and saw the Old Masters and the German Romantics in the art museums. I stood in line at the box office and scored a student ticket (13 Euros!) for a Bach oratorio at the Semperoper. “It’s the most beautiful opera house in the world,” said the woman who sold me the ticket. Afterwards, I was almost ready to believe her.
But of course, things aren’t so simple. This is Germany, after all.
Besides the museums and the opera and the Rococo architecture, Dresden is also the seat of PEGIDA—Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West–the far-right political organization that has been hosting demonstrations in Dresden and throughout Germany since October. The group has disturbing overtones of xenophobia, hate speech, and nationalism, which is particularly problematic given Germany’s history. The founder of PEGIDA, Lutz Bachmann, resigned in January after a photograph of him dressed as Adolf Hitler went viral. I mean, really?? That’s Western culture at its most pitiful, right there.
Although the number of protesters has fallen drastically from the roughly 25,000/week at the beginning of PEGIDA’s existence, Dresden is still something of a pilgrim site. The weekly “evening strolls,” as the group describes the demonstrations, still attract thousands of participants from across Germany. And unlike in other cities, there isn’t a counter-demonstration, or at least not one that I could see. In Frankfurt, the counter-protesters often outnumber the PEGIDA supporters twenty to one. There was none of that here.
At the same time, the official position of Dresden as a city was made very clear. There were public banners and signs throughout the city calling for understanding and openness, demanding that Dresden wake up and consider the dignity of all human beings.
At the actual demonstration, there were speeches broadcast by loud-speaker, and hundreds of banners and hand-painted signs. The sheer ugliness of some of it contrasted starkly and ironically with the beauty of the surroundings.
A small selection of the signs:
“Deutschland wehrt sich”–“Germany is defending herself.”
“Klagt nicht, kämpft!”–“Don’t complain, fight!”
“Wir sind das Volk”–“We are the People.” At the counter-demonstrations in Frankfurt, this is turned around into “Wirr ist das Volk”–“The People are just confused.”
“Erst wird’s bunt, dann…”–“First diversity, then [a picture of a bloody hand grenade].”
“Wir lassen uns nicht mehr von Minderheiten terrorisieren!”–“We aren’t going to let ourselves be terrorized by minorities any more!”
The minorities mentioned above, apparently, include the LGBTQ crowd as well. As one speaker said, “We don’t want the homo-trans-whatever-sexual minority to slime their way into our schools and traumatize our children with their shit-talk!!” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry after that one.
And the flags–I saw more of them in an hour than I had seen in the past 8 months, the soccer championships included. In Germany, unlike in America, you just don’t display the flag like that unless you have just won the World Cup, or unless you are trying to come across as problematically nationalistic at best and as a Nazi at worst.
In the end, it was all a strange mixture of laughable and horrifying. The protestors, at least on the day I was there, weren’t much of hooligans–but rather neatly-dressed middle-aged middle-class, perhaps disappointed and discontent, but not really the stuff of revolution.
So I never felt like I was in danger–but it was an unnerving experience none the less, to find myself in the middle of thousands of people who share a worldview that fundamentally clashes with my own.
In the end, though, as I have written elsewhere, this is one of the main issues Germany is talking about today. Watching the demonstration in Dresden felt a bit like being a part of history.