Thus Kurt Vonnegut, himself a survivor of the nightmare of the Dresden fire bombing, described the sight that greeted him as he emerged from the cellars of Slaughterhouse Five. Hiroshima apart, there has never been a raid like it. On a Tuesday evening, the old city - "Florence on the Elbe", as it was known - stood almost unscathed. The next morning, it was smoking rubble. And bodies - tens of thousands of bodies, roasted alive. There were too many to be buried, and not enough survivors to do the burying. In the days to come, thousands of bodies would be piled up and burnt in the marketplace.
Even now, the scale of the destruction is difficult to comprehend. In the most notorious German air raids on Britain, on Coventry in 1940 and 1941, 1,200 people died. In Dresden, a minimum of 35,000 - probably more, the exact number will never be known - died in one night.
The air-raid sirens heralded the inferno at 9.50pm on 13 February 1945. For years afterwards, Erika Naumann could not talk about that night. "You repress things. It's better that way," she says. "Now, every 13 February, I simply throw open the windows, and listen to the church bells."
When her house was bombed, there was nowhere to go. "In the cellar, we were packed like sardines in oil. I couldn't see if my baby was alive or dead. Outside, we knew we had to get away - but it was impossible to know which way to go."
First came the "Christmas trees" - the flares, to light up the sky. Then came the high-explosive bombs, and the incendiary bombs from the RAF Lancasters. First one wave, and then - just as people began to flee their burning houses - another, three hours later. Gertraude Hedler remembers her house exploding: "It was like a giant had come under the cellar and picked it up. We had no idea of the scale of what had happened. There was a huge firestorm. The whole place was in flames. Women were lying there, all charred. Dead babies. When I found my father, he didn't recognise us."
A whirlwind of flame engulfed the city, whose skyline Canaletto had immortalised, and which had inspired Schiller to write his Ode to Joy. The city centre suffered worst of all. "Five of my classmates lived in the old centre," says Ms Hedler. "All of them died."
Fifty years later, for every surviving Dresdener, 13 February 1945 is an indelible memory.
The controversy surrounding the raids has been twofold. First, some hoped that the unique architectural qualities of Dresden would save it from the fate of other German cities. Second, the Germans were already in full retreat. One reason that the casualties were so high (and so difficult to count) was that the city was brimming over with refugees fleeing the advancing Soviet forces.
"We have never understood - why did you do it?" is a typical question still asked of the British visitor. When the Queen Mother unveiled a statue to Bomber Harris, who was responsible for the raids, in London in 1992, it was seen as a provocative act.
The destruction of Dresden has been differently perceived at different times. The Communists sought to contrast the murderous policy of the Western imperialists on the one hand, with the kind and caring Russians on the other. But in the 1980s, the Party-sponsored commemorations began to be upstaged by ordinary Dresdeners. Thousands avoided the pomp-laden Party rituals, and attended church services instead, placing candles for peace at the bombed-out ruins of the Frauenkirche. "It was an attempt to take things out of the regime's hands," Jutta von Schiessl - then a student, now a 27-year-old teacher - recalls. "They didn't forbid the placing of candles. But one always had the feeling of being observed by the Stasi." Or, as another Dresdener puts it: "The authorities understood: the candles were for freedom, too."
Five years after the collapse of Communism, there is an eagerness to avoid recrimination. Instead, Herbert Wagner, the mayor of Dresden, seeks to put the nightmare into its historical context: "We, Germany, began this war. And then, the flames came back to destroy Dresden." The city is eager, too, to dismiss the crimes-were-committed-on-all-sides argument, where the horror of Dresden might mitigate the unique evil of Germany's own crimes. "At Auschwitz," says Ulrich Hver of the city council, "there was naked genocide. The Allies, on the other hand, were fighting a justified war of defence. Perhaps not every single measure in that war can be justified. But the destruction of Dresden was part of a war of defence."
For five decades, an enormous pile of rubble remained at the heart of the old town. The Frauenkirche, or Church of our Lady - whose bell- like dome was as distinctive a part of Dresden's skyline as the Duomo is in Florence - was bombed to the ground. Officially, the grassy rubble was to serve as a warning of the horrors of war.
Others thought that the East German government lacked the money and the will to restore Dresden to its former glory. Indeed, after 1945, the Communists tore down churches that could have been saved. Now, the face of the city is changing dramatically, as a new Dresden is created - a city that hovers uncertainly between past and future.
The idea of rebuilding the Frauenkirche was mooted before the Communist regime fell in early 1990. At the time, many Dresdeners regarded the idea as a folie de grandeur. The ugly rubble had, after all, become part of the landscape. Many felt, too, that the enormous cost could not be justified.
The rebuilding will cost at least £100m and possibly as much as £160m. Specially designed watches, clothing, cakes - all have helped to raise funds. There is even talk of organising a Frauenkirche rock festival.
The clearance of the rubble is now complete, and rebuilding has begun. In the world's largest-ever computerised jigsaw puzzle, thousands of numbered stones have been set aside to be reassembled. Buildings have been rebuilt from scratch before. Never, however, has such an architectural Humpty Dumpty been reconstructedfrom its own rubble.
The extraordinary challenge has come to be regarded as a symbol of the rebirth of the city itself. "Maybe it could have been delayed. But it's good that the Frauenkirche is being rebuilt," says Torsten Schrpler, a 30-year-old dentist. "It's part of the silhouette of our city, after all." The older generation is unequivocal. For Ms Naumann, now 72, it is unbelievable. "I am so happy. I cry each time I go into town."
The rebuilding of the Frauenkirche has come to be seen as a symbol of international reconciliation too. Among those who have donated to the rebuilding is the Dresden Trust, a British charity whose patrons include the Bishop of Coventry. The Queen has made a "four-figure" donation to the trust, and the British Government has also made an official donation. The Duke of Kent, who will represent Britain at today's anniversary commemorations, will announce that the cross to surmount the Frauenkirche is to be funded by the trust.
The Frauenkirche is not the only remarkable rebuilding project. For more than 40 years, the Taschenberg Palace, originally built for a mistress of August the Strong, consisted of grassy ruins. Now it has been rebuilt and has just reopened as a hotel. Guided tours have proved immensely popular - in recent weeks, more than 60,000 Dresdeners have come to gaze.
The Communists did not ignore the reconstruction of Dresden entirely. They rebuilt the Zwinger, one of the most magnificent of August the Strong's buildings, More notably, however, Prague Street, one of the grandest shopping streets in pre-war Germany, was turned into a concrete Communist avenue, and whole districts of the city were taken over by plattenbau, the pre-fabricated housing that became a byword for ugly Communist design.
Nor is the new Dresden likely to be a showcase for architectural imagination. In Berlin, celebrated international architects such as Sir Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano have been brought in to help design the new-look city. In Dresden, the future lies in the past.
The sense of loss is not confined to those who lived through the war. Andreas Schulz, a 30-year-old cook, says: "What happened to Dresden is something special. Of course, fascism had to be stopped. Still, it's terrible. Now we have a little bit of our history back."
"We need to rebuild Dresden," 33-year-old Barbara Zeiss agrees. "But the worst thing is that we still have learnt nothing. Yugoslavia, Chechnya... Fifty years later, nobody has learnt. How can that be?"
The Dresden Trust, 3 Western Road, Littlehampton, West Sussex BN17 5NP. Tel: (0903) 723137.Reuse content