Dresden - 25 Years After Communism

Changes in My City of Inspiration

By Patricia Keegan

On my eighth visit to Dresden since the fall of the Berlin Wall, I see many changes in my “city of inspiration.” In the summer of 2000, I first saw the baroque buildings bathed in pink from the setting sun, some restored, some still flanked with rubble-enclosed areas -- silent reminders of the Allied fire bombing in February, 1945.

On that first evening, through my window at the Hotel Kempinski, the light and shadow on cobbled streets and ornate Baroque structures called me out to explore. Over the years I have watched the city grow and blossom. I have seen the step-by-step restoration of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) grow in magnificence, now totally rebuilt as a symbol of reconciliation between Britain, the US and Germany. The charred black stones, interwoven with new, white limestone, reflect the sensitivity of architects to the people of Dresden -- especially the women who carefully gathered and marked the stones, area by area, trying to piece together remnants of what was once a beautiful city as it lay strewn with bodies and rubble at the end of WWII.

Today I see the King’s Palace complete, and the town square mansions of the Neumarkt around the Frauenkirche have reappeared. These 18th -century baroque mansions once housed painters, composers, artisans and musicians who played major roles in the development of what was then known as “Florence on the Elbe.” The entire historic, baroque city center, a replica of what was created by the kings of the Wettin Dynasty during the 18th- and 19th- centuries, conveys the glory and the sadness of the past.

Now Dresden stands as a testimonial to the resilience of the human spirit. The people of Dresden who lived through fascism, the second world war and communism can take pride in sharing with the world what is truly their own.

A Culturally Vibrant City

For the visitor seeking cultural enrichment, Dresden has a robust calendar of ongoing and special events. One can be assured of an enjoyable and elegant evening at the magnificent Semperopra (Semper Opera House), a building that exemplifies Neo-renaissance architecture and is home of the famous Staatskapelle orchestra. The Semper is a special treat -- whether it's opera, ballet or the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Maria Weber or others in the long list of famous composers who either lived or performed in Dresden. On this visit I was surprised by an American favorite, Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” an exhilarating performance by the New York Harlem Opera Company.

For art lovers the Zwinger Palace is a must. There are several museums within the palace including The Master’s Gallery and the Porcelain Museum. The Zwinger contains over 2,000 paintings, foremost among them the famous “Sistine Madonna” by Raphael and a hauntingly beautiful Titian depicting “Christ and the Money Changer.” A visit to this museum is so relaxing and splendid -- one could spend all day strolling its magnificent halls and always want to return.

The historic Grunes Gewolbe (Green Vault) is home to the dazzling treasures of Saxony once collected from across the world by King Augustus the Strong, (1670-1733). Augustus had a deep passion for beautiful art, precious jewels and fine objects. In his world travels he was particularly inspired by the Palace of Versailles, and he wanted the kingdom of Saxony to artistically compete with its rivals. He brought home to Dresden magnificent silver furnishings, sparkling jewels and exotic art collections. The exhibit is breathtaking and one-of-a-kind.

Another unique experience in Dresden is to embark on a leisurely and scenic boat trip on the River Elbe, past mansions built along the grassy banks, to the beautiful setting where Saxon kings enjoyed their summer palace -- Pillnitz Castle. This becomes a memorable trip from spring through early fall, with the gardens in bloom. Many choose to rent a bicycle and ride along the river bike path.

Dresden’s 1989 “No Violence Revolution”

In celebrating 25 free and peaceful years since 1989, which saw the end of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dresden opened a new exhibit, The Revolution in Dresden 1989, at the Stadt Museum (City Museum), which looks back at  years of post-war history, and condensed it into four rooms. The rooms included a variety of themes pertaining to the period. In one room a visitor can see artifacts used by the Stasi in a display of the “power” (of state authorities). There was a room themed with “fine arts and artists,” a room of the “church,” and the “engineer” room is filled with megabit chips, maps, and crude inventions for spying on the populace. The era is represented by time capsules which gives a visitor an inkling of what it must have been like living under communism. According to director Richard Stratenschulte, hundreds of archives, museums and private collections had been combed all the way back to Moscow in order to trace the exhibit history.

One can only imagine what it was like to live in the GDR (German Democratic Republic). under the control of the governing party, the SED (Socialist Unity Party). The movie classic;  "The Lives of Others,” vividly portrays the tension of a long periodt when people were constantly being spied upon.. The SED was a Communist political party with a distinct Marxist-Leninist ideology. In the 1980’s the SED rejected Gorbachev’s reforms of perestroika and glasnost and virtually all the winds of change coming from the Soviet Union. It took a long time for them to react to the growing discontent among the population concerning its policies, particularly in the areas of economics, personal liberty, and the freedom to travel.

While in Dresden I found differing opinions on the changes that have transpired since the end of the Cold War. Some say the older community preferred the old ways, but I found that most people were generally in favor of the new way of life. One young person said that there were not enough daycare centers and there was a high jobless rate. The global economic collapse has had its effects on Dresden, but on the surface it looks as though it is a thriving metropolis, with lots of glitzy, name brand stores, as well as department stores with abundant merchandise for bargain shoppers.

It is difficult to get people to relive in words emotionally charged memories they want to forget. In trying to learn more about the affect Communism had on Dresdeners and what the turning point was for this particular community, I met with several men who were part of a group dubbed the Group of 20. They stood up in resistance against the system toward the end of  what is referred to as the Cold War.

The End of Stasi Control

Dresden was one of the most important starting points of the Peaceful Revolution of 1989. Frank Neubert, a leader in the revolution’s Group of 20, expressed feelings of great joy to be free from living under a dictatorship. ‘People now have civic rights,’ was his first comment..

‘At that time there were no civic rights, no one had the freedom to travel to the West, they could only travel to Russia and Soviet satellites; they could not criticize the system and had to praise Socialism. The street was used for forced demonstrations. If you didn’t participate you got into trouble in school, or would lose your place at the university, and people were threatened with losing their jobs. You were being watched closely, and you had to expect punishment.”

He said he felt angry at the time. But now, he says, in this new climate, it is difficult to really understand what the suppressed populace went through psychologically. After graduation from school, Neubert decided to rebel and not participate in demonstrations anymore. As a consequence he was restricted from visiting his mother who lived in West Germany.

As time went by and changes were beginning to take place in other Soviet satellites, the people of Dresden began to take control of their lives. They planned meetings, first with family and friends in churches, to discuss everyday problems and how dissatisfied they were with the governmental system. The church proved to be a powerful force which the government couldn’t contain. More people began to reject the armed service. Neubert finished college, then he, too, rejected the call to the army. Later he found his job in jeopardy, and he received threats, but nothing happened. That was in 1984 when the GDR was looking for international recognition. The suppressed people saw this as a crack in the wall and began taking more chances to test the system. Neubert believes this was the groundwork for the revolt, five years later in 1989.

Frank Richter, another leader of the Group of 20, and three friends formed a group of dissidents who refused to go to the ballot box to participate in a forced election. They also openly declared they would no longer participate in demonstrations and would not go into the army.

At the same time, people were pouring into Dresden from other parts of the GDR and trying to cross the border into nearby Prague. When Hungry opened the border to Austria, the GDR closed their border to Prague, and this caused thousands to take to the streets in demonstrations shouting, ‘We want to get out!’ Those who wanted to leave merged with all those ‘fed-up” with the system. Joining forces, they gathered in the streets of Dresden where they became hemmed in by the entire police force bearing clubs and shields, with dogs ready to beat down the crowds.

Continuing his story, Neubert tells me, ‘It was 8 pm on October 8, 1989. Thousands gathered on Prager Street; the demonstrators were so hemmed in by the police that they couldn’t move. What could we do? So we sat down. After 15 minutes, two people went to speak with the Police Chief. They turned to the demonstrators and asked for 20 people to come forward and articulate what the crowd wants.”

When more than 20 people came, they asked for a cross section of young and old. Frank Richter and Andreas Lauschner became spokesmen; they told the police they would speak only with the Mayor. They were told to go home and a meeting would be arranged the next day.

Neubert said they were surprised when a meeting with the mayor was actually scheduled at which they had to present passports. He said they were scared, but determined. All their information was taken and passports were returned after the meeting. They told the mayor they wanted ‘Freedom for all political prisoners, freedom of the press, freedom to travel, freedom to deny service in the army, and to hold elections that were free and fair.’ They were informed that the request would be relayed to a higher governmental department.

The next day thousands of protesters came together demanding to know the Mayor’s response. The police asked higher authority and were told there was no response from the government, so the crowd went to the churches. The pastors of all the churches in Dresden were supportive. They decided to keep up the battle, but each was to tell one other person where he was at all times in case they were arrested.

Frank Richter, a priest, spoke of the united stance of the churches during the communist period. He said that every year on the February 13-14 anniversary of the fire bombing of Dresden, hundreds of people came to stand in front of the rubble of the Frauenkirche. As they stood in silence with lighted candles, the bells of Dresden’s remaining churches tolled out in support. Richter believes that on that “Day of Remembrance,” as Dresdeners came together, they were building a foundation for the future confrontation with the oppressive regime. As the non-violent demonstrations grew larger and larger, prayers for peace continued in the churches.

On November 4, 1989, one million people demonstrated against the SED regime in Berlin, which ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. All was achieved peacefully, and a lesson was learned. From Gandhi through Martin Luther King, the power of peaceful revolution has been demonstrated again and again.

Where to Stay in Dresden

Like most vibrant cities, Dresden has a variety of accomodations, from inexpensive hostels to the five-star Kempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais.

The following two hotels are excellent options, for different reasons.

Pullman Hotel: This upscale, ultra modern, sleek and efficient hotel is ideal for business travelers. With 319 guest rooms, a spa, restaurant and bar, its conference rooms can accommodate up to 300 people. My single room was small, with crisp linens and and an unusually situated glass-enclosed shower right next to my bed. The window had a view over the top of McDonald’s and along the famous shopping boulevard, Pragerstrasse, which runs all the way to the historic center. I could see the dome of the Frauenkirche within easy walking distance. After an excellent buffet breakfast, one sets off with the energy to explore the entire city. For more information, see Accor Hotels-Pullman or call the Pullman Dresden at 49-351-4814-0.

Hotel Bulow Residenz: This oasis of peace and personalized service is a member of the Relais Chateau group. Located in a baroque section of Neustadt across the Augustus Bridge, it is a scenic stroll across the river to the historic center. Staying at this hotel is a real treat for those planning to saturate themselves in history and culture. See Hotel Spotlight on the Washington International front page for a full review of Hotel Bulow Residenz. For more information, see Buelow-Residenz.de, or call Dresden’s Bulow Residenz at 49-351-8003-0.

Cover photo by Bert Kaufmann