Dresden extends its olive branch to royalty

Fifty years after Allied aircraft razed the city, reconciliation is in the air, writes Steve Crawshaw in Bonn
The last time British royalty came to Dresden - in 1992 - things did not go well. Angry locals pelted the Queen with eggs.

This time, the city fathers hope it will be friendlier. When the Duke of Kent attends a series of ceremonies in Dresden on Monday, the desire for reconciliation will be explicit, on both sides.

Monday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the nightmare of Dresden, on 13 February 1945. At least 35,000 died in a single night, after RAF Lancasters dropped thousands of tonnes of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city.

A firestorm devoured the "Florence on the Elbe". Within a few hours, the city was reduced to ruins and rubble. Thirty times as many died in a single night in Dresden as in the famous German raids on Coventry. The German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann wrote, at the time: "Whoever has forgotten how to cry will learn again, when he sees the destruction of Dresden." The raids had little or no strategic value. The Russians were already close to Berlin, and the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed. Indeed, the Yalta conference had already, a few days earlier, planned the carve-up of Europe, after Hitler was out of the way.

The targets in Dresden were overwhelmingly civilian. The casualty figures were especially high, because of the thousands of civilians, fleeing the Soviet advance, who had crowded into the city.

In subsequent decades, there was much bitterness in Dresden, and the constant question: ``Why?" Then and now, there has been no satisfactory answer. Theoretically, Hitler's defeat was not yet certain. Some subsequently defended the raids on an eye-for-an-eye principle: Hitler's crimes were incomparably great - so why should the Allies feel constrained to fight a "just" war?

That was part of the implicit logic behind the erection of the statue to Bomber Harris, responsible for the raids. The statue was unveiled in London by the Queen Mother in 1992. The Queen visited Dresden just a few months later; hence, the eggs. But the bitterness of that time has partly given way to a determination to look to the future, not the past. The mayor of Dresden emphasises that the catastrophe was a direct result of the evil spirits that Germany itself had unleashed.

Threatened demonstrations by the extreme left (against commemorating the raids) and the extreme right (against the raids themselves) both seem unlikely to get far. The city has banned all demonstrations which are "likely to be violent", saying: "Dresden is working for reconciliation."

The Bishop of Coventry is to lead the service of international reconciliation on Monday night, which will be attended by the Duke of Kent and the German president, Roman Herzog. Crucially, too, the series of official events organised for the Dresden anniversary includes no fewer than 17 exhibitions, lectures, films and meetings on Auschwitz.

For 40 years, the Communist authorities used the Anglo-American attacks (the Americans bombed Dresden, a few hours after the RAF Lancasters had gone home) as a stick to beat the imperialists with. Now, that style of politicking is over.

As the Suddetsche Zeitung noted yesterday: "A narrow tightrope is being walked, with the attempt to commemorate the occasion jointly with the former enemy." Olive branches are sprouting, all over.

The nostra culpa signals from Germany are being met by equally conciliatory signals from London. In 1992, the Queen Mother made an implicitly bullish speech, in which she did not even refer to the civilian casualties; her daughter did little to put things right when she visited Dresden.

This time, by contrast, the never-say-sorry Queen Mother has been metaphorically locked away. Instead, the Duke of Kent, as the Queen's emissary, will announce that the cross on the Frauenkirche - Dresden's much-loved central church, which is to be rebuilt, from public donations - will be funded by a specially created British charity, the Dresden Trust.

The Queen has made it known that she has donated to it. In an equally unprecedented move, the British government has made a £50,000 donation to the charity.

The Dresden Trust, 3 Western Road, Littlehampton, West Sussex BN17 5NP. (tel 0903 723137).