Sunday, February 13, 2005


Famed for its baroque architechure and cultural riches, Dresden, before World War II, was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Chris Bertram on Crooked Timber notes that today is the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden. Actually it's the anniversary of the day the attacks began; they continued over three days until more than 90% of the city center had been destroyed and an unknown numbers of residents had been killed (estimates range from 25,000 to 60,000). This I didn't know as a child.

Back then, I knew Dresden as the name of a china clock and candleabra that sat on the glassfronted rosewood cabinet in our dining room. The set looked a little like the ones in the following photos.
I'm pretty sure the set came down to us from the estate of Louis Windmuller (about whom I've written separately). It has been a long time since I thought about this 19th-c. version of a rococo flight of fancy. I expect I've always been embarassed at it's unembarassed extravagance and, if asked, probably would have said it suffered fatally from a total absence of artistic good taste. If you're interested, there's a good description of Dresden porcelain here.

As an adult my knowledge of Dresden has remained second-hand and, until fairly recently, I can only think of two sources for what little I knew: Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and Nicholas Freeling's Dresden Green. I suppose everyone knows the Vonnegut. The Freeling is well worth a read, though it's not one of his fine Van der Valk or Castang mysteries.

My more recent indirect contact was via Victor Klemperer's Diaries. Here is the Amazon page for the second volume, the volume that contains his description of the firebombing, and here is the LC catalog record.

Klemperer's diaries have had a greater influence on me than most other books I've read, not just recently but for a long time. His story is an amazing one and his telling is superb. Better you read them yourselves than I elaborate further. For me, the reading experience is like reading Primo Levi -- something to do with facing up to the worst; what can we mean by the word "evil" if not embodied in the experiences Klemperer and Levi and the experiences of the millions of slaughtered and the others who saw and survived?

The English-language site of Der Spiegel currently has two articles about Klemperer. The first, VICTOR KLEMPERER'S DRESDEN DIARIES, quotes from Klemperer's account of the firestorm. Der Spiegel says, "Victor Klemperer, a Christian of Jewish descent, wrote what many feel is the best account of what day-to-day life was like for Jews in Third Reich Germany. In all liklihood, the bombing of Dresden saved him from being sent to the Auschwitz gas chambers. Here is his diary entry describing his survival of the Dresden firestorm."

The other, VICTOR KLEMPERER, "I am German, the Others Are Un-German" is about Klemperer and the diaries: "The Nazis made Victor Klemperer's life a living hell. Baptized Christian but of Jewish descent, Hitler's henchmen labeled him "un-German." In a bizarre twist of fate, Klemperer could essentially thank a catastrophe -- the bombing of Dresden sixty years ago -- for saving him from the terror of the Nazi regime."

There's a nice short site about Klemperer and the diaries here (my source for the photo). The H-Net review is here.

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