A city in the south-east of Germany
that is in the dark annals of world history primarily as the victim of one of the worst aerial bombing raids in the entire history of warfare. What made it additionally controversial is the fact that this happened only shortly before the end of WWII and hit almost exclusively civilians, including large numbers of refugees. Regardless, Dresden was largely incinerated in a massive Allied air raid that created a fire storm which killed tens of thousands of people.
And that wasn't the end of dark history for the city. During the GDR
era that followed until Germany's reunification, Dresden was the site of some of the communist
regimes' crimes of repression (and worse), which are also commemorated at a couple of sites. And then only a couple of years ago, the old military museum in Dresden received a complete overhaul and remodelling to a modern standard that is simply second to none within its category. All this together makes Dresden a prime dark tourism destination on various levels – even though some chances of doing it even better have been missed …
More background info:
This old grand city of Saxony on the River Elbe has had a long and proud history. At its peak it was one the world's foremost centres of culture. It was (and is) most famed for its almost excessively exuberant baroque architecture. But the single most significant event in Dresden's entire 800 year history was the Allied aerial bombing of the city in WWII
. The name Dresden stands for the horrors of conventional carpet bombing of civilian targets more than that of any other city (even Coventry
The destruction of Dresden in the bombing was Germany
. It wasn't the target of an atomic bomb
, of course, but otherwise the analogy is quite accurate: the bombing raids came right towards the end of WWII
, in February 1945, i.e. at a time when Germany had to all intents and purposes already lost the war (just like Japan
had in August 1945) – enemy armies were fast advancing from all sides and it was only a matter of weeks or months until it would all be over. Still British RAF
commander Arthur "Bomber" Harris decided on the bombing of Dresden, which up to then had largely been spared (just like Nagasaki and the other selected atomic bomb targets in Japan). On the night of 13/14 February the city was turned to rubble and incinerated by 1300 heavy bombers. It was one of the last such massive bombings, after various other German cities had already been bombed on a similar scale earlier (beginning with Hamburg
Dresden was once regarded as the finest baroque city in Central Europe (if not the world), nicknamed "Florence on the Elbe". After the bombing of 13-15 February 1945 it was literally reduced to ashes. Tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives in the firestorms created by the bombing. Estimates of the number of casualties vary widely between 20,000 to well over 130,000 (originally even figures as high as 300,000 were given, but that was most likely exaggerated). How many died exactly is impossible to determine, as a) many refugees from the East (where the Soviet Red Army was advancing) had flooded into the city and hadn't been properly registered yet, and b) the firestorm was so violent that there was no trace whatsoever left of many of the dead.
Even amongst those who otherwise justify the systematic bombing of one German city after the other, there are many who concede that in the case of Dresden it was "wrong" or at least "not necessary". Like Nagasaki
, it was pure terror bombing for the sake of it, for no military end – hence some historians regard it as a war crime.
After the war, Dresden became part of the Soviet occupied zone which later became the GDR
. Within East Germany Dresden regained some of the status as one of the most important administrative and economic centres. This also meant it was one of the centres of the GDR's repressive system (see Münchner Platz
, Bautzner Straße
and in general under Stasi
). The Soviet Union
used Dresden as one of its military centres, namely in the old Saxon barracks of the Albertstadt (see Military History Museum
). The KGB
had one of its main HQs in the GDR in Dresden – famously headed by Vladimir Putin in the late 1980s.
The location of the city, however, also made it the target of jokes. So far in the south-east near the CSSR
and a long way from the West German border, it was out of reach of receiving Western radio and TV, which most other GDR citizens illegally tuned into in order to get information beyond the GDR's own state-controlled propaganda channels. Hence Dresden and all of eastern Saxony were routinely ridiculed as the "Tal der Ahnungslosen" or 'valley of the ignorant'.
Still, when the peaceful revolution of 1989 came, Dresden also played its part – for instance when trains with freed East German refugees from the Prague
embassy passed through the city this triggered a mass rally. Protesters also stormed the local Stasi
HQ (at Bautzner Straße
) to ensure that its documents (i.e. evidence of decades of civil rights violations) would not be destroyed.
As for the architectural destruction during WWII
, some of the former baroque splendour had slowly and painstakingly been restored during the GDR era already. Other parts had simply been razed to the ground and replaced by socialist
modernist architecture. Since the end of the GDR and reunification of Germany
, more refurbishment has taken place, most notably the complete rebuilding of the famed Frauenkirche.
Administratively, Dresden became a capital city again, namely that of the "Free State of Saxony" (one of the five new "Länder" or 'regional states' formed in the ex-GDR
). It has also seen a growth in population, now in excess of what it was before WWII. Economically, too, Dresden is now one of the most successful centres in Germany.
One disastrous moment for Dresden in more recent times came with the 2002 flooding of the city, when the River Elbe swelled to unprecedented levels, around 30 feet (9.5 m) higher than normal. Large parts of the inner city were inundated, including the train station.
Today, Dresden is once again one of Germany
's principal city destinations for tourists, not on a par with places like Berlin
perhaps, but certainly in the top league too, with something like 3 to 7 million visitors annually!
For the dark tourist Dresden is again a major destination too, not only because of its own merits but also because of its location, which is a convenient base for explorations of the many other dark destinations that are within reach from the city.
What there is to see: The main sites given their own separate entries her are the following:
The uninitiated tourist of today would hardly get more than a mere indication of the city's darkest time in its history when it was almost bombed off the face of the earth at the end of WWII
. The baroque grandeur has largely been restored and almost nothing at all is made of its most tragic past (except on the annual anniversary date – but that has had the controversial element of neo-Nazis' exploiting that past tragedy for their own twisted purposes of revisionism … although in more recent years counter-demonstrations have kept the right-wingers more or less at bay – but let's not give that unsavoury aspect any more undeserved space). Most foreign visitors to Dresden these days come to see the famed architecture and other non-dark attractions
and may not even be all that aware of the city's role in WWII.
One exception of an appropriate commodification of the bombing of Dresden, however, is the relevant section in the Stadtmuseum
('City Museum'). The Military History Museum
has a section on this too, but only a restrained and rather more symbolic one. Otherwise there isn't much at all left to see that is related to the bombing of Dresden.
Another symbolic exception is the monument of the "Trümmerfrau
" at the Neues Rathaus (New City Hall). The word translates as 'rubble woman' and refers to the role women played in the clearing up after the bombing, not only in Dresden but across Germany. With the men mostly drafted into the army and thus away serving on the various fronts (if not already captured as POW
s or even dead), all the hard work in the homeland was largely left to women. This sculpture is a tribute to these women. It is perhaps a bit crude but in line with the socialist-realism
style to be expected here in the East. She looks rather like those women depicted in Soviet propaganda glorifying agricultural labour, except that she's only got a hammer in one hand – and there's no sickle anywhere in sight …
Of the war ruins, almost none are left. The only one in the city centre still in situ when I was there in March 2013 was a part of the former Orangerie …. allegedly the barren plot that it stands at the corner of has been scheduled to be incorporated into a new hotel complex or something. But apparently nothing has come of this yet.
For decades the blackened ruins and heaps of rubble that once were Dresden's most significant baroque church, the Frauenkirche
('Church of our Lady') served as a sober and sinister reminder of the city's destruction. However, after the end of the GDR
and with Germany's reunification, plans for the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche were devised and the money for it was rather quickly raised (including donations from Great Britain
!). Since 2005 the Frauenkirche is once again Dresden's most recognized and popular landmark. From a dark tourism perspective, however, this celebrated achievement is more of a loss than a gain. And I'm not alone in saying this. The removal of one of Germany
's most significant WWII ruins was
controversial. And the execution of the reconstruction has also attracted some criticism. In my personal view the newly rebuilt church does indeed have a very strange air about it. It somehow doesn't fit.
Look out for the dark stones in between the new ones, though – these are original parts from the ruins that were still useable and were thus incorporated into the reconstruction. What was probably a well-meant nod towards the role of the building as a monument of war, in practice rather has the unfortunate effect of making it look like the church is made of Lego bricks. The inside is far worse still – overbearingly baroque but all spanking new (is there still a whiff of fresh paint?). It looks more like a badly made wedding cake with too much pink and pale-blue icing. Truly awful. Outside the church at least stands a small monument fashioned out of a former part of the ruined dome, which serves as a small – and rather easily overlooked –memorial to the destruction of the old church in the bombings of 1945.
Elsewhere, there are a couple of minor church ruins still left in Dresden that have not or not fully been restored. I spotted one such ruin on Nürnberger Straße. This was the Zionskirche, which was badly damaged in the firestorm, with only the main outer walls remaining. It was protected by a rather incongruous "temporary" (now rather permanent) roof, and inside is said to be a "lapidarium" (including parts of the ruined church itself). Another church ruin that has partly been turned/incorporated into a cultural centre/theatre is to be found in the Neustadt district north of the River Elbe, namely the "St Pauli Theaterruine".
While the city's WWII
dark history has been almost completely glossed over, some of the darker sides of its GDR
socialist days have been preserved, including first and foremost the former Stasi
prison at Bautzner Straße
. Ironically, the street is named after and leads to Bautzen
, where the GDR's most infamous prison was (don't get the two sites confused!). Just round the corner, at Angelikastr. 4, is a building that was the former KGB
HQ in Dresden – none other than Vladimir Putin, who later became Russia
's almost Tsar-like president, worked here between 1985 and 1990!
Towards the south of the city, the modernized Memorial Münchner Platz
commemorates both crimes from the Nazi
and from GDR
times, when the site was a major prison and, worse than that, an infamous execution site too.
Another rather more recent architectural "crime" is the Waldschlößchenbrücke – a new bridge crossing the Elbe just east of the old town. It slices right through the famed Elbtal ensemble of low riverside flats flanked by various architectural marvels that helped Dresden earn the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. This caused a massive controversy – with the eventual consequence that UNESCO withdrew the title from Dresden in 2009 when construction of the bridge commenced despite its warnings. This was an unprecedented case of losing such a title through deliberate action and is still regarded by many as a particularly shameful episode for Dresden. The bridge as such, completed in 2013, is not necessarily an especially ugly example of its architectural type, though not a particularly pretty one either. But the damage to the look of the whole area has been done in any case. At least local traffic will benefit from the bridge …
The disastrous record flooding of 2002 is commemorated by a small monument on the central Augustus bridge. At the southern end of the other central city bridge, the Carolabrücke, a striking modern building draws attention to itself. This is the New Synagogue
of Dresden (opened in 2001). Next to it a small memorial commemorates the old synagogue at the same location which like so many fell victim to the Nazi
pogroms of 1938 and was burned down. An old Jewish cemetery
can be found on Pulsnitzer Straße in the Neustadt part of Dresden north of the Elbe. Another, newer Jewish cemetery is located east of the larger Trinitatis cemetery in the Johannstadt part of Dresden, where there is also a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust
Those in search of traces of the "good old days" of communism
(warning: sarcasm!) can revel in the brutish, boxy, modernist style of the 1960s GDR-era Cultural Palace
on Altmarkt right in the old town, not far from the Frauenkirche. The artificial look of the latter actually makes the cultural palace look quite OK in comparison. On the west facade of the edifice you can find a superb socialist realism
Finally, dark tourists with a special interest in medical topics
should check out Dresden's unique Hygiene Museum
. In addition to all sorts of themes of the human body, this museum also includes a section about death and dying! The museum is located at Lingnerplatz, 01069 Dresden, admission is 7 EUR (concession 3 EUR); opening times: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Mondays (unless it's a public holiday).
in the south-eastern corner of Germany
in Saxony, not far from the border with the Czech Republic
, ca. 75 miles (125 km) north of Prague
, and over 100 miles (170 km) south of Berlin
Access and costs: fairly easy to get to; not necessarily so expensive.
Travelling to Dresden is these days as easy as it gets. There are plenty of train connections, south to Prague
(and onwards to Vienna
) as well as north to Berlin
and west to Leipzig
. Dresden even has its own "international airport" – although the foreign destinations served from here are mostly just seasonal shuttle services for beach-and-sun-holidaymakers.
For drivers, Dresden is well located at the intersection of four major motorways: the main east-west route of the A4 (E40), the A13 north to Berlin
, the A14 to Leipzig
and the A17 south to the Czech Republic
(where motorway 8 goes straight to Prague
Within the city, most visitors will be able to make do with walking. Except perhaps for around the many building sites, Dresden is an excellent city for walking. Longer distances can be covered by the very good tram and local bus network.
Accommodation options in Dresden cover an exceptionally wide range, including an unusually rich choice within the budget bracket, especially in the hip and vibrant Neustadt quarters north of the Elbe. This is also the part of town to go to for a wide range of unusual bars, restaurants and clubs. This is where the young, "alternative" cultural heart of Dresden beats. It is also here where most of the city's ethnic restaurants can be found. Within the more touristy old town south of the Elbe, choices are more humdrum and price levels significantly higher. Rather look north, I'd say.
Time required: To see all the dark sites described in detail here you need at least two long and full days. Better spread it over three or four days, or even longer, especially if you also want to give the rest of Dresden some of the attention it deserves.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Within relatively easy reach from Dresden are a number of significant further dark destinations of note, including the famed WWII
prison at Colditz
, the most infamous of all GDR
prisons at Bautzen
, and two of the T4 Nazi
euthanasia institutions, namely Bernburg
. The major concentration camp
is also still within relatively easy reach, namely near Weimar, some 140 miles (200 km) to the west.
Furthermore it isn't far to Leipzig
, and the "world capital
of dark tourism", Berlin
, is also easily reached from Dresden.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Dresden these days is primarily
a non-dark tourist magnet. It would be futile to try and list all the various architectural and cultural attractions individually here (that's the job of the many mainstream travel guides that cover Dresden). Let's just say that the main thread of Dresden's appeal is what I consider "baroque overload". That's not just because of the Frauenkirche (see above
). There's just so much of it – most opulently at the famous Zwinger palace (it really is a palace, not a dog kennel – don't let the normal dictionary meaning of the word 'Zwinger' mislead you!). Admittedly, the whole ensemble of the old town makes for a truly unique skyline. Many of the individual buildings are indeed beautiful – in a traditional kind of way. And there are some exceptional details to be spotted too, such as the Academy of Arts' glass dome, which due to its shape is locally known as the "Lemon Squeezer". On its top a statue of an angel is balancing on one leg!
My overall personal favourite of all the buildings in Dresden, however, is a very unusual one: the "Yenidze", just west of the old town and the Zwinger, immediately behind the train line. You can see it from afar and it will probably make you wonder too what the heck that strange thing may be. Well, it used to be a cigarette factory but you would hardly guess that. Its style is a flourish of orientalism: the huge semi-translucent dome of stained glass and especially the tall chimney that is "camouflaged" as a minaret make the whole complex look rather mosque-like. It's one of the most flamboyant examples of industrial architecture that I know of. Fantastic! Today, most of the refurbished building is used as office space. But the dome houses a restaurant and is thus publicly accessible. Likewise the roof, which in summer serves as Dresden's "highest beer garden" – affording good views over the city and its skyline.
- Dresden 01 - skyline
- Dresden 02 - old town
- Dresden 03 - city centre with reconstructed Frauenkirche
- Dresden 04 - the new old major landmark of the city
- Dresden 05 - incorporating bits of the old structure
- Dresden 06 - makes it look a bit like made out of Lego stones
- Dresden 07 - cultural palace from socialist days
- Dresden 08 - socialist realist mural
- Dresden 09 - imperial-era mural
- Dresden 10 - city-centre lamp post
- Dresden 11 - old town
- Dresden 12 - on the banks of the Elbe
- Dresden 13 - the Elbe
- Dresden 14 - wind-swept flood plain
- Dresden 15 - memorial to the Elbe flood
- Dresden 16 - the new bridge that cost the city its UNESCO world heritage status
- Dresden 17 - marker for the old synagogue
- Dresden 18 - new synagogue
- Dresden 19 - old Jewish cemetery
- Dresden 20 - city hall with Trümmerfrau
- Dresden 21 - Trümmerfrau monument
- Dresden 22 - relic from the war-time destruction
- Dresden 23 - one of only very few remaining ruined bits
- Dresden 24 - the former orangery
- Dresden 25 - old foundations visible behind a fence
- Dresden 26 - the Yenidze former cigarette factory
- Dresden 27 - Yenidze with transluscent dome
- Dresden 28 - the Semper opera
- Dresden 29 - Zwinger
- Dresden 30 - baroque overload
- Dresden 31 - dancing single-leggedly on top of the lemon-squeezer dome
- Dresden 32 - old and new
- Dresden 33 - the Florence on the Elbe