Duke tells Dresden of UK's deep regret

Reconciliation was the order of the day in Dresden yesterday - the anniversary of the RAF's Second World War bombing raids that destroyed the city 50 years ago.

The Duke of Kent, as the Queen's envoy, announced the planned gift from Britain of a golden cross to stand on top of the dome of the Frauenkirche, Dresden's central church, which is to be rebuilt from the rubble.

``We want this cross to be a symbol of the reconciliation between Britain and Germany. We give it in remembrance of those who died in Dresden," he said, in German. In a carefully worded form of almost-apology, the Duke added: "We deeply regret the suffering on all sides in the war. Today, we remember especially that of the people of Dresden."

At least 35,000 - almost all civilians and refugees - died during a single night in the once-beautiful city, less than three months before the war's end.

The German President, Roman Herzog, also talked of reconciliation, and emphasised: "We are not trying to lighten our own burdens by comparing them with those of others...We must never forget Dresden was destroyed in a war unleashed by a German government. Precisely for this reason, however, Dresden reflects the utter senselessness of modern wars."

Mr Herzog argued: ``Only if one imagines all those different people who must have died in that night of destruction does the human tragedy of modern warfare become fully apparent." Among them, he pointed out, were dyed-in-the-wool Nazis, fellow-travellers, silent and active opponents of the regime, and the regime's own victims. ``Any balancing or offsetting would be entirely futile."

When the Queen came to Dresden in 1992, shortly after the erection in London of a statue of Bomber Harris - Arthur Harris, the wartime head of Bomber Command - there was much bitterness. Protesters threw eggs.

Now Dresden is determined to send a different signal. The main commemoration poster shows a single burning candle; the ``never-again" message is clear. A town hall exhibition,``The Dream of Another Germany", focuses on civilian resistance and Nazi crimes against civilians in Europe.

The Duke of Kent and senior representatives of the German, British and American armed forces - including the British chief of defence staff, Field- Marshal Sir Peter Inge - were among those who laid wreaths at a silent ceremony amid the pines of the Dresden cemetery where thousands of bodies from the inferno were buried. The ashes of thousands more, whose bodies had to be piled up and burnt in Dresden's old marketplace, also lie here.

City authorities had feared demonstrations from the extreme left and right. Left-wingers argue it is wrong to commemorate the raids, because of Hitler's crimes. Right-wingers argue it is wrong to seek reconciliation. The leader of the extreme-right NPD, Gnter Deckert, was in custody yesterday after being arrested at the weekend at a motorway services station while leading a convoy of supporters towards Dresden.

Not all Dresdeners have taken the city's message to heart. One leaflet on a fence near the Frauenkirche talked of "Allied mass murder". Eberhard Friderici, a retired locksmith, said: "Reconciliation is all very well. But it can't be that we are ready to be conciliatory, while others continue to blame us for what we have done."

Passers-by reacted critically. One woman said the leaflet was ``vile", and asked Mr Friderici, her voice breaking with emotion: "What about all the millions from other nations who died?"

Younger people especially are critical of any attempt to portray Germany in the role of victim. Yvonne Frnkel, 18, said: ``None of this would have happened if it wasn't for Hitler. He really screwed us, didn't he?"

Nick Nolan, the Lord Mayor of Coventry - one of Dresden's twin cities - argued: "In a marvellous and almost miraculous way, the fires that burned so fiercely in Coventry and in Dresden have ignited a flame of hope in cities and among people all over the world."

The Bishop of Coventry gave the sermon at yesterday's traditional anniversary service in the Church of the Holy Cross. Afterwards, candles were lit at the Frauenkirche - for peace.

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