Dresden, Germany, was once one of Europe's most beautiful cities. As a jewel of Baroque architecture, it was known as "Florence on the Elbe." But 60 years ago on 13 February 1945 -- British warplanes began a two-day bombing campaign that utterly flattened the city and killed tens of thousands of civilians. In recent years, the firebombing campaign has become a rallying symbol for neo-Nazis with a revisionist view of history. Today, thousands of them marched in Dresden to commemorate what they controversially call a "bombing Holocaust."
Dresden, Germany; 13 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Sixty years after World War II, Dresden is still visibly scarred.
The old center, once the pride of Germany, remains a patchwork of rubble, empty spaces and new buildings despite reconstruction efforts that have lasted decades.
But it is the scars of the collective memory of Dresden and Germany that were most visible today.
An estimated 5,000 demonstrators took part in a march through the city organized by right-wing groups -- including the extreme right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany. The demonstrators sought to bring attention to what they call "the bombing Holocaust" of Dresden and other German cities during World War II.
RFE/RL's correspondent was on the scene as the demonstrators prepared to parade through central Dresden.
"Most of them were skinheads. They were wearing black jackets. They had black balloons. They had black pins on their coats which said, 'Never forget - Never forgive' regarding the bombing [that occurred] 60 years ago," Jeffrey Donovan reported.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder unsuccessfully sought to prevent neo-Nazis from marching. Other German leaders, as well as many residents of Dresden, also appeared somewhat embarrassed by the large turnout of right-wing extremists.
The rally is just the latest illustration of how public debate over German suffering during World War II is emerging after decades of virtual silence on the subject.
Two years ago, the German newspaper "Bild" launched an unprecedented editorial campaign that criticized the Allied bombing campaigns against German cities.
Those criticism came in conjunction with the publication of "The Fire" by historian Joerg Friedrich." The book argues that the British government was guilty of war crimes because it purposely sought to kill as many German civilians as possible through aerial bombardments.
As others before him, Friedrich argued that Dresden was of no military significance and that Germany was already in full retreat by February 1945.
Mario Lafur, a demonstrator in his mid-50s who marched with the right-wingers in Dresden today, compared the destruction of his native city to the execution of a beggar on his knees.
"This is a day about the 60-year [anniversary] of the bombing of Dresden. It is only to think about the people of Germany this time. I think it is normal to think about my people. It is not against the other people who died in the war. It's not against [them. But] this day is a day to think about these [German] people [who were killed]," Lafur said.
Critics of the right-wingers argue that they are trying to whitewash Germany's role in starting World War II and being the first country to cause massive civilian casualties with bombing campaigns against cities -- including Antwerp, Belgium; Coventry, England; and Warsaw, Poland.
Jewish groups are aghast at the appropriation of the term "Holocaust" by neo-Nazis. They say the tens of thousands of civilians killed by the bombing of Dresden is hardly comparable to the 6 million Jews who were systematically murdered at Nazi death camps and elsewhere as part of the Holocaust committed by Nazi Germany.
Today's march in Dresden comes as the National Democratic Party (NDP) of Germany is capitalizing politically from high employment rates in former East Germany. Last fall, the NDP won 9 percent of the vote in an election for the regional parliament in Saxony -- the Landtag.
With its popularity apparently on the rise in eastern parts of Germany, the NDP now hopes to win seats in Germany's federal parliament, the Bundsestag, in elections next year.