AS AN AMERICAN TOURIST, there is one and only one thing I will state about Dresden: its reconstruction is simply miraculous. Centuries before World War II, the city was referred to as "Florence on the Elbe," a hub for intellectual exchange and a site for housing some of the greatest works of art and treasures to be found on the European continent.
Following the Allied firebombing in February 1945, restoration work spanned 70 years and it is estimated that full completion will require another 70. Under Soviet occupation and then the German Democratic Republic, initial efforts to revitalize the city were slow. Projects that came to fruition followed the aesthetics of socialist realist architecture, a style marked by austerity, functionality and ninety-degree angles. The desperation to create functioning cities and living spaces resulted in blocky, concrete monoliths and wide boulevards, that drastically departed from the quaint wood-beam homes, tight city centers and winding streets of the pre-war era.
With German reunification in 1990, the city expressed a desire to restore epic buildings to their former baroque splendor. Initially, some critics claimed that recreating the pre-war city would represent "a historic Disney World." There was also concern that total restoration was tantamount to papering over the harsh realities of history. However, the results speak for themselves.
I initially thought it strange that many historic buildings appeared both markedly decayed and sparkling new, assuming the blackened sections were on the restoration "to do" list. The facade of the Residenzschloss (Royal Palace) showed perfect white-washed stones cemented next to singed towers.
This effect is is very intentional on the behalf of architects and city planners. One is supposed to look at the buildings and feel a fissure between past and present. Restoration guidelines mandate buildings to be constructed using the exact same architectural plans, materials, and building techniques, but it must be clear to the public which work is original and which is restored.
The Frauenkirche Cathedral -- completed over ten years with government monies and private donations, including some from the British monarchy -- exemplifies this ethos. Referring to photographs, historic notes and sketches, and church purchase orders for materials, architects catalogued salvaged parts and incorporated them into the new structure wherever possible.
The light stones represent the sections of building that were missing entirely after the air raids. The dark stones are the original, fire-singed pieces. The restoration work alongside the blackened relics form a clear memorial to the bombing as well as a symbol of reconciliation between enemies. The truth of war has not been tidily concealed with a perfect façade, but remains visible as testament to Germany's varied history.