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War and Faith in Dresden

Dresden was carpet-bombed by the allied forces over two nights in February 1945. Anthony Clayton on how the aftermath of war has tested belief in the city.

Dresden after the bombing raidFifty-one years after the air raids of 1945, 1996 was a further landmark in the history of Dresden. Rebuilding of the great Baroque Frauenkirche, destroyed in the raids, took visible shape and the reconstructed crypt was opened for worship and concerts. The story of the church and its place in the wider story of Christianity in Dresden after the raids is of special interest.

Until February 1945, the Second World War had brought to the Christian communities of Dresden only those problems faced in any German city of the time, those of consolation for families bereaved by the loss of men in action, and adjustment to standards of living, to add to the subversive ideological challenge of the Nazis and the misgivings felt by many over the treatment of the city's Jewish population. There was a mistaken belief that the city's beauty had been recognised by the Allies and it would be spared attack. The effect of the devastation in a single twenty-four hour period, of the raids of the February 13th and 14th, 1945, was thereby increased both by its totality and its sudden and unexpected nature.

Even the most vivid of the medieval representations of Hell fail to convey the scenes in the city's streets after the raids. Under a pall of smoke, three-and-a-half miles high on February 14th, areas of the city continued to burn for several days. The streets were littered with scores of burnt and maimed corpses, including many children (the night of the 15th, having been carnival time), clothing ripped or burnt off by the fire-storm; in one park over a hundred corpses were scattered around naked. Eight square miles of the old and beautiful city centre were reduced to ruins, with hundreds dead from asphyxiation in basements. The total death toll was approximately 35,000, the city being filled with refugees from the East. The hospitals that survived the raids were overwhelmed. Corpses were loaded onto farm carts for burial in mass graves, or piled high in huge pyres, to be trampled down by Ukrainian soldiers of the anti-Stalinist General Vlasov and then burnt by army flame-throwers. Distraught men and women roamed the smoking and reeking streets looking for any traces of relatives or of friends. Grim identification services based on clothing and wedding-rings were set up.

Of the centres of the Christian communities, the Protestant Frauenkirche was reduced to rubble after the collapse of its dome, and the medieval Kreuzkirche, famous for its boys' choir, gutted by fire, as was the city's Catholic Church Baroque masterpiece, the Hofkirche, or Court Church. The other churches in the city-centre were all destroyed or so badly damaged as to be rendered unsafe. Surviving congregations gathered dazed and shivering outside the wreckage. The pastor of the Johanneskirche reported:

The Johanneskirche has temporarily ceased to exist. The church burnt out, the rectory destroyed, in the whole parish there is hardly a house undamaged The community is in large part either dead or scattered to the winds.

The Zionskirche was in little better state: its priest wrote:

In the meantime I assemble the small remainder of the Zionskirche community for Sunday Service, 9 to 9.30 am in the cellar of the burnt out Parish. Hall (Hohestrasse 49). What will happen to the parish is unclear. Some eighty-ninety habitable houses still stand in the parish. For our first Service after the catastrophe thirty people attended, for the second seventy-one.

The conductor of the Kreuzkirche's choir, Rudolf Mauersberger, narrowly escaped death; several boys of the choir were killed.

Before the raids the Hofkirche's parishioners totalled 12,000, after it the total was approximately 500. Four of the Hofkirche's priests were killed. One, during the first of the night raids had taken the blazing church's high altar cross and silver candelabra to safety in the crypt, but he went missing in the second raid. A week later the priest was found, seated, wearing his stole and apparently physically unharmed, in the cellar of a nearby house. Around him were several other people in a similar state, all dead from asphyxiation. A second priest was also found dead from asphyxiation, together with thirty-four other people, in the presbytery's air raid shelter. A third, after leading nuns through fires to safety was never seen again. The fate of the fourth remains totally unknown.

The Catholic community also suffered the destruction of five churches, other church buildings, eight monasteries and convents, and a hospital Eleven nuns were killed, together with a number of resident lay church officials, some with their wives and children. In all, twenty-seven of Dresden's churches were either destroyed or very badly damaged.

The city's population remained for a long time in collective shock, a shock so great that for many it initially served to numb grief the day-to-day struggle for survival in the ruins was inevitably uppermost in people's minds. Then followed, with sensitivities still partly dulled, tears, uncertainty, a sense of helplessness and despair, the question 'Why?' and reflections on human behaviour with, for many, a new bitter scepticism distrusting any ideology or belief.

This then was the climate and environment with which church leaders had to reconcile their beliefs. The Roman Church took a traditional view, Dr Danhardt, expressing the views of the Dresden Priests’ Conference, wrote:

We deeply and from our hearts mourn the great loss of good, worthy people and blessed institutions which air warfare has brought upon the Catholic people of Dresden. We do not yet know how we are going to cope with the loss and recover all that we have lost. May God who first gave to us and has now taken from us, in His goodness and mercy show us a new way which may lead us out from the valley of sorrows of a heavily stricken life to an unshakeable belief in His eternal and unswerving Father’s love. If we are truly and firmly resolved for this greatest intention, then we will see also that the heaviest suffering is but a ladder that will direct our way to a brighter point, where the human soul can rejoice.

The Lutheran Church guidance was more detailed and specific. In May a newly reconstructed Lutheran hierarchy purged of those who had consorted with the Nazis (some of whom had even been affected by Nazi anti-Semitism) issued letters of counsel – to this day profoundly moving to read. In the first letter priests were urged to work together and preserve church communities, and to teach parishioners that by carrying each other's burden they were following Christ's laws. The new hierarchy administrative arrangements were then set out, noting that Divine mercy was evident from this continuity of church work. Both the occupying (Red Army) garrison and the new city authority were well-disposed and countless parishioners were coming to divine service. This was not, however, the time for any grand designs for the future. Parishioners were to think over, review and record their lives and experiences, to work industriously, and to go forth as 'fishers of men' and seek out people in need of the Word of God. Churches, the letter continued, would have to live very simply, remembering that grace and mercy would follow as the reward of poverty and hardship. Congregations should think of the God of Patience and Comfort, always with them in this time of need, and he linked together in the name of Jesus Christ in praise.

Parishioners were reminded in a. second letter that Jesus would comfort and strengthen believers, and that the alien voices that had so distorted church teachings in the past were now no more. In this new setting the church remained, in the past and in the future, men's true spiritual home; kingdoms could come and go, people could be oppressed but the eternal truths and enduring comfort of the Church would always remain. Believers were warned the world was watching them; 'What would they do, what would they say, would they comfort, help, provide a home?' They were reminded that they themselves were the Church, they must continue to believe and trust in Jesus and let their light shine before others who could see their good works and praise their Father in Heaven. Their duty was to serve. God, witness God, comfort and be comforted, offer penance for sins, neglect and the blind following of instincts, for which all were guilty but all could nevertheless receive grace.

Families should attend divine service, prepare their children for confirmation and return to traditional family and community piety and Bible reading. What the future might bring for the Church was unknown, but the Church could be thankful that the occupation forces and the new local authorities were well-disposed. All important was to remain true to belief and to witness that belief. The Church was likely to he poor, but with God's blessing the new provi.sional Church hierarchy would convey the word of God and be true servants of Jesus Christ.

And in their distress thousands turned to God amid the ruined churches. Rudolf Mauersberger conducted the Kreuzkirche choir in the church's battered shell on August 4th, he himself composed a lament for the dead and the city. Later in October 1945, Lutheran Church leaders made a statement that overtly recognised that 'Endless suffering has been inflicted on many peoples and lands by us [Germans]'. The devastation of Dresden and the self- questioning that devastation aroused served progressively to lead German church leaders and ordinary Christians to face the burden of guilt that had led to Germany's defeat; at first many could not accept the implications of the Holocaust.

What conclusion can be drawn from this'! There would seem to be one major consequence, not original as it recurs so often in the histories of religion. Disaster discourages the less-convinced followers, the more convinced retain faith, the faith in many cases paradoxically strengthened by the disaster and the experience of suffering. The adherents thereby pass on to succeeding generations a renewed vigour. Renewal was certainly the case in Dresden where the churches' need to re-define their beliefs and ways of life strengthened them in the years of a new government which came actively to propagate a hostile ideology, linking Christianity with alleged American designs, expelling Christians from schools and denying them access to higher education or careers. The lesson drawn from the Nazi years was that the Church must not be concerned simply with its own safety, it must accept being treated as an outsider and take risks, thinking for itself and speaking out when necessary, thereby gaining credibility and respect. The Church became the 'Church in Socialism' not the Socialist Church.

Perhaps three indicators may be highlighted in this context. First Dresden's close links with Coventry, where visitor exchanges enormously strengthened the lives and work of Christians in both cities. Of particular value in reconciliation was the work of a group of young people sent out from Coventry Cathedral in the early 1960s to help rebuild a hospital destroyed in the bombing. Then, after the 1975 Helsinki agreements, peace and ecological movements developed. In the stiflingly controlled atmosphere of East Germany people found in the churches the only places where they could talk and debate freely. The 'swords to ploughshares' demonstrations and the Protestant Church both played an important part in ensuring that the autumn 1989 fall of the Communist regime was achieved without violence. The Church had provided a safety valve, and also an indicator to the regime of the strength of feeling against it.

And finally remained the symbolism of the ruins of Dresden's Frauenkirche, two 50 foot high stumps towering above a huge pile of rubble. The East German government sought to present the ruins as the work of the West, but they remained a place of worship with candlelight services on the anniversaries of the raids. As the Frauenkirche had been the spatial and spiritual centre point of the city before the raids, the ruins evolved to be the focal centre for peaceful opposition, not only to war but all forms of authoritarian government, an architectural admonishment of evil. After the collapse of the Communist regime, the Frauenkirche ruins became also the scene of crowded Christmas night services. It was clear that the Lutheran community wanted the church to be restored. The rebuilt church will remain a permanent symbol of the effects of a war on faith – devastation leading to a rebirth, with far-reaching consequences.

Anthony Clayton is a Senior Research Fellow at De Montfort University and joint editor of a book Dresden: Phoenix of Europe (1998).

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