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Germany: Dresden Anniversary Showcases Rise Of Far Right

At least 35,000 people were killed in the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945. Once upon a time, Dresden was one of Europe's most beautiful cities, a Baroque jewel of garden terraces, stone staircases, and sweeping promenades. But 60 years ago, the eastern German city once known as the "Florence on the Elbe" was turned into an apocalyptic inferno. Tens of thousands of civilians -- the exact number remains unclear -- were killed as British and, to a lesser extent, American warplanes pummeled the city with incendiary bombs in a bid to break the morale of the German people and hasten the demise of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. Six decades later, with the extreme right gaining ground in the east of the country, Germans are now engaged in a painful debate about the nature of their wartime losses -- a debate that erupted in the streets of Dresden on 13 February.

Dresden, Germany; 14 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Christoph Naumann is upset.

The 40-something chemist watches with dismay as Germany's largest neo-Nazi rally since World War II passes through Dresden's streets, marring the 60th anniversary on 13 February of the city's destruction by Allied bombers.

"I've never in my life seen the Nazis being so openly Nazi, you know? They now have their members of [regional] parliament -- and they're quoting Hitler, you know? They're very open, out, and that is shocking that that is possible in Germany again -- that they're showing their true faces, actually," Naumann says. "They're not even hiding."

Waving black flags and banners stating "Never Forget, Never Forgive," 5,000 people took part in the neo-Nazi march through the eastern German city once so beautiful it was called the Florence of northern Europe. About 70 people, including antifascist protesters, were arrested after minor clashes.

Led by the National Democratic Party of Germany (NDP), the far right has seized upon the discussion of Germany's wartime suffering to forge gains in the former communist east, where unemployment is still high 15 years after East Germany and West Germany unified.

"We want to demonstrate for our city here and remember the bombing holocaust of Dresden," says Alexander Kleiber, an elegantly dressed man in his mid-30s who runs a far-right organization dedicated, among other things, to revisiting Germany's Nazi history. "We hold this demonstration every year. We started in 1997 and the first was with 20 people, the next year 150, and last year 3,000 people."

As it did at the end of the war, the firebombing of Dresden plays a key part in today's German right-wing propaganda. The city was devastated by two waves of British bombers on the night of 13 February 1945. U.S. planes finished the job the next day.
"Well, it's a mixture of joy to be here in Dresden and see how much reconciliation and reconstruction has happened. But, obviously, mingled with great sadness as we are reminded of the destruction and the bad memories, as well." -- John Irvine, dean of Coventry Cathedral

The official death toll is put at around 35,000, but many believe it was much higher. And many people believe the bombing was a stain on the Allied war record, arguing the city was militarily insignificant and that Germany was already in retreat by February 1945.

Standing next to Kleiber is Mario Lafur, a right-wing supporter in his mid-50s who compares his city's destruction to the execution of a beggar on his knees.

"This is a day about the 60-year [anniversary] of the bombing of Dresden," Lafur says. "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]."

But Lafur's words turn harsher once the recorder is turned off. He states it was France and Britain -- not Adolf Hitler -- who started World War II. He says Poland deserved to be invaded because it refused to meet Hitler's political demands. And he trivializes the mass murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis in the Holocaust by equating it with the bombing of Dresden.

The neo-Nazi rally is just the latest episode in a public debate over German suffering during World War II that is emerging after decades of virtual silence.

The discussion began two years ago 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 civilians as possible through aerial bombardments.

Naumann, the chemist, believes there is a place for Germans to acknowledge their own wartime suffering. But he says the right wing is going too far.

"They are abusing it, the [Dresden] anniversary," Naumann says. "They are very one-dimensional. They are seeing the bombing only as a war crime, which I think it was. But if you start a war, you can't complain if the other side uses -- if you're an extremist you say 'terrorist means' -- but it was a bombing of mainly civilian things. But you can't complain in the end."

But such complaining is paying dividends for the NDP. The far-right party, which sparked outrage last month by walking out of an event to mark the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, won 9 percent of the vote in elections last fall for the regional parliament in Saxony.

With its popularity apparently on the rise, the NDP now hopes to win seats in Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, in elections next year.

Before the march, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder unsuccessfully pledged to stop far-right groups from exploiting the anniversary. But it was left to Dresden's moderate majority to try and set a new tone later in the day.

The day's official commemorations began with a wreath-laying ceremony at a mass grave for 20,000 victims, attended by British, American, French, and Russian dignitaries.

John Irvine, dean of Coventry Cathedral in England, spoke at the ceremony. The city of Coventry was devastated by Nazi bombs early in World War II.

"Well, it's a mixture of joy to be here in Dresden and see how much reconciliation and reconstruction has happened," he said. "But, obviously, mingled with great sadness as we are reminded of the destruction and the bad memories, as well. Coventry was bombed itself at the beginning of the war, unlike Dresden [which was bombed] at the end. Our cathedral was destroyed, too. And so we have a great deal in common."

Many of Dresden's residents later used hundreds of flickering candles to spell out a message -- "This City Is Sick of Nazis" -- in letters five meters long.