Sunday

29th May 2016

Feature

Dresden: Bombs, neo-Nazis and Kurt Vonnegut

  • The 1945 Dresden bombings killed so many that thousands of corpses had to be burned on the main square (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Slaughterhouse Five nowadays is called Halle Funf. It is a fair ground - conferences, exhibitions, concerts. Walking down one staircase, a wardrobe opens up. "There used to be meat hooks, now there are coat hooks," says Danilo Hommel, a former schoolteacher turned guide in Dresden.

It is in this cellar that the American author Kurt Vonnegut survived - as a prisoner of war - the Allied bombing of Dresden on the night of 13 February 1945 which levelled the city and killed some 25,000 people.

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  • Slaughterhouse Five today: "Where there were meat hooks, now we have coat hooks" (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Twenty-four years later, Vonnegut wrote his best-known work, "Slaughterhouse Five" - an ironic account of his experience as a misfit in the US army, who is shipped overseas at a young age to fight a “children's crusade."

Hommel admits the first time he read Vonnegut's book, he did not like it.

Like most Germans, he hadn't even heard of the US writer. But he gave it another try in 2006. "I can now say that it has transformed my life," the guide told this website.

Vonnegut died in 2007, a year after his second return to Dresden. Hommel never met him, but he has met the families of other US prisoners of war who shared the fateful cellar with the US writer.

Every month, some 20-30 people, mostly from the US, hire him for the special Vonnegut tour which he organises in Dresden.

His dream is to have a Vonnegut museum in the city.

A first step in that direction happened on Thursday (13 February), on the 69th anniversary of the Dresden bombings.

An art wall depicting the old and the new map of Dresden, complete with Vonnegut quotes and images, was unveiled in the former slaughterhouse cellar.

It was unveiled for a second time, because last year a flood destroyed the exhibition just a few months after it opened.

Ruairi O'Brien, the Irish artist who made the installation, said Vonnegut would have found it funny.

"I didn't even have time to document it, to take pictures. But there is a certain irony to it, something that has to do with the work of Kurt Vonnegut. Rebuilding the work, rebuilding the city, over and over again," O'Brien told EUobserver.

He read Vonnegut in school in Ireland and found it "odd" that the American writer is virtually unknown in Germany and even more so in Dresden.

"It would do the city a favour to make Vonnegut more of an attraction."

Vonnegut aside, the city, home to 500,000 people, is now a leading tourist destination in the former East Germany, having rebuilt most of the churches and castles destroyed in World War II.

But the commemoration of the bombings - which still scar the family histroies of many Dresdners - have also become a yearly attraction for neo-Nazis.

Why?

"Because it is their identity. The history of World War II, cultivating the myth of Germany as a victim - this draws more people than migration issues," says Gideon Botsch, a researcher into right-wing extremism and nationalism at the University of Potsdam.

This year, for the first time in more than a decade, the traditional neo-Nazi march was cancelled. But a demonstration of some 500 sympathisers was allowed to take place the night before.

Dresden-guide Hommel noted that the square in which the mini-gathering took place used to be called "Adolf Hitler square.” It seems that nobody in city hall took note.

For her part, the mayor of Dresden, Helma Orosz, said that when they commemorate the bombings, Dresdeners should not forget it was Nazi Germany which started the war and committed atrocities against millions of innocent people.

"There are still Nazis in our town, on our streets. Foreigners are still being attacked," she said.

Later on, a picture of Orosz smiling next to a right wing extremist made the rounds on Twitter. The mayor seemed not to know who she was standing next to.

On Thursday itself, about 11,000 formed a human chain to, they say, protect the memory of the old town from the new Nazi fringe.

Rai Peterson, a US professor of literature, who came to Dresden with a group of students studying Vonnegut’s life, mixed with the locals and held hands in the chain.

"The police in Dresden today mobilised against neo-Nazis, but the citizens seemed far more positive and mindful of valuing every human life. The man whose hand I held said 'all countries are guilty of committing acts of war at some time, but it's a better future that we're here for now'," Peterson told this website.

She noted that Vonnegut's past was just as complicated as Dresden’s.

"He was a German-American who fought for the USA against Germany, then was ironically spared the bombings because he was imprisoned, and ultimately ended up working with the Germans to clear bodies from the wreckage.”

"It took Vonnegut two decades to start coming to terms with what he witnessed in Dresden and to publish Slaughterhouse Five. It's going to take a whole city somewhat longer to sort out its past and future," she added.

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