After 60 Years, Dresden Still Shapes German Identity

A few days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I found myself in the center of Dresden, standing in front of a pile of stones that formed a memorial, remnants of a city that was destroyed at the end of World War II.

A few days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I found myself in the center of Dresden, standing in front of a pile of stones that formed a memorial, remnants of a city that was destroyed by British and American planes at the end of World War II.

The passersby appeared to me like the city itself: gray and haunted by their past. A few East German policemen in black boots who looked like Nazis, very young and very blond, stood beside me, also gazing at the monument, and for a moment I thought of telling them that I am not to blame for what happened to their city; really I'm not. Because they belonged to a generation that was taught in communist schools that the city's demolition in February 1945 was one of the crimes of imperialism and capitalism - that is, crimes perpetrated by the world that was on the west side of that wall and anyone who came from there, myself included.

East Germany dealt with its Nazi past with relative ease: It is not us, the good, communist Germans, who are to blame for the regime's crimes, but them, over there in the west, the capitalist bastards. With the encouragement of the Soviet Union, East Germany created the theory that the Nazis, the British and the Americans as one were agents of evil: They built Buchenwald, they destroyed Dresden.

The Americans who took over West Germany forced it to cope with the past differently, compelling it to confess to the crimes of the Nazis. This made it difficult for the West Germans to denounce the destruction that the Allies had inflicted on their own cities. In contrast they spoke a great deal about the crimes of the Red Army and cultivated the dream of reuniting the two Germanies.

In the 15 years that elapsed since West Germany took over its East, a joint historic concept has begun to develop. All the Germans seem to have grown up, and learned to see their cities' destruction, including that of Dresden, as part of the history of the world war, not necessarily as a crime in and of itself. At the same time, they have responded positively to a new book by British historian Frederick Taylor, which analyzes with great understanding the considerations that led Britain to destroy the city. The mayor of Dresden even said this week that his city was not innocent, noting that it had been a Nazi arms-production center.

But like in Israel, in Germany history - political history - is still the basis of an evolving national identity. A great deal of caution is thus required. The Dresden municipality issued an official poster this week, placing the city among a list of 12 others that have been bombarded in wars, headed for some reason by Baghdad. After Hiroshima and a few other cities comes terror-smitten New York.

The most general, noncommittal words in the dictionary - "reconciliation" and "peace" - characterized the speeches at the memorial ceremonies. Even Gerhard Schroeder was careful, as only a German chancellor who speaks about World War II can be, and called for an end to "keeping a historical score sheet." This probably alludes to the neo-Nazi calculation: "Auschwitz minus Dresden equals zero."

The neo-Nazis' attempt to appropriate the Dresden story makes it difficult, of course, for the rest of the Germans to deal with it. But there are also historians who believe the Germans will not understand the full impact of the Nazi evil unless they are also made aware of the destruction of the cities in the war that they brought upon themselves. This is reasonable. You also don't have to be a neo-Nazi to declare that Dresden's bombing, like the bombing of any city, was a barbaric act that was not vital to victory. The Red Army was already close to the city. The British and then the Americans bombed it, not only because it was a communications and military-industrial center, but to prevent it from falling in its entirety into the Russians' hands, so that they would not be able to claim that they alone occupied East Germany. Also, probably, it was bombed out of revenge.

Nobody knows how many children were among the 35,000 citizens who were killed that day in Dresden; but you don't have to be a neo-Nazi to know that they were not Nazis.