DRESDEN, GERMANY – American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a prisoner of war in Dresden during World War II, has a scene in “Slaughterhouse Five” where time-traveling hero Billy Pilgrim sees the city’s firebombing in reverse, with phosphorous bombs sucked back into warplanes.
Today, visitors to the German city that proudly, if a bit cheekily, calls itself “Florence on the Elbe,” in a nod to its Italianate architecture, could almost think the scene was prescient of Dresden’s resurrection since World War II.
Imprisoned at a slaughterhouse that inspired the novel’s title, Vonnegut lived through the infamous bombing raid in February 1945 that destroyed the old part of the city three months before the war in Europe ended. It killed, according to widely varying estimates, 35,000 to 100,000 people, or more.
Emerging from the relative safety of the slaughterhouse, Vonnegut wrote that the destroyed city looked like a moonscape.
Today the moonscape can be seen only in photographs. Sited on land that slopes up gently from the scenic Elbe in the historic kingdom of Saxony, Dresden, formerly part of communist East Germany, is one of the beneficiaries of German unification.
It boasts booming semiconductor, pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries, including a glass-fronted factory that produces Volkswagen’s luxury Phaeton model, and is a tourist attraction in its own right, mean the city is flush with cash to support a thriving restaurant, cultural and arts scene.
One of Germany’s most prestigious opera houses, the Semperoper, which saw the premieres of nine of Richard Strauss’ operas and three of Richard Wagner’s, dominates a vast square.
Nearby, the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) has a spectacular collection, including works by Rubens, Durer, Rembrandt and Canaletto, plus touchstones of art such as Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” and Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.”
Dresden is also the site of a modern miracle in the reconstruction of its historic old town, especially the rebuilding of the 18th-century Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). The heart and soul of the old city collapsed into rubble two days after the bombing raid due to the intense heat generated by the firestorm.
While the communist authorities who ran East Germany until 1989 spent money to rebuild the destroyed Semperoper, they would not fork out money for the church. Townspeople cleared the site and stored the remaining original stones nearby, waiting for their time to come, which it did when communism collapsed and the Berlin Wall was torn down.
With donations from throughout the world, including a substantial sum from a trust in Coventry, England, scene of another devastating church bombing in World War II, the Frauenkirche was rebuilt from the rubble.
Since it reopened in 2005 it has become one of the top five tourist attractions in Germany, partly for its meticulously restored, pale white baroque interior, partly because it has a reputation for being “the biggest puzzle in the world.”
Dotted throughout the church, inside and out, are the dark original stones, reinserted in their former positions as a result of painstaking research and computer-imaging technology.
The end result is striking and extraordinary — a mostly light-colored structure flecked with dark that provides a stark visual reminder of the cruelty and destruction of war.
Dresden has another side, largely courtesy of the Wettin Dynasty that ruled Saxony for more than 800 years and began building palaces and other vast buildings in what had once been a small fishing village on the banks of the Elbe.
One of the more fantastic architectural legacies of Wettin rule is the sprawling Zwinger complex, essentially a folly inspired by Versailles and consisting of ornate Baroque buildings that were never really intended as living quarters.
Instead, the Zwinger was the setting for one of the longest and most lavish parties of the 18th century. Friedrich August, the only known legal son of Augustus II, whose nickname was Augustus the Strong and who was fabled to have had 500 mistresses and 365 children, married a Habsburg princess in 1719. “Half of Europe” was invited to the party, which lasted four weeks and cost a then-princely sum of 4 million thalers.
Like other royal buildings, the Zwinger suffered extensive damage in the war, but was rebuilt in its original style in the 1950s and ’60s. It houses a magnificent porcelain collection and also, in a wing designed in a later style, the Old Masters Picture Gallery. A clock at one end of the Zwinger’s open courtyard features Meissen-porcelain bells that chime the hours.
Porcelain, which came to Europe from China, was considered to be “white gold” and Augustus the Strong was anxious to develop his own source. When an alchemist came up with a process to make it, the Saxon ruler promoted the creation of workshops at Meissen, a small town northwest of Dresden, to manufacture porcelain. It is still made there today.
A “Procession of the Princes” mural that stretches 102 meters along the wall of the royal stables was painted in the late 1800s to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the dynasty. Between 1904 and 1907, the painting was replaced with 23,000 Meissen porcelain tiles depicting the same scene, making it the largest Meissen porcelain artwork in the world.
But when it comes to having a look inside, almost nothing compares to Dresden’s Deutsches Hygiene Museum (www.dhmd.de), a museum of public health and sciences that explores pretty much every aspect of human life, from birth to death, with exhibits that leave nothing to the imagination.
A visitor knows this is going to be an unusual experience from the first room. It features a black metal X-ray machine from the 1920s that is about the size of small car and features large dials and a tubular glass ray-emitting tube that would look right at home in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab.
A bit further on there are foetuses at several stages of development preserved in glass containers, exhibits of the instruments needed to deliver a baby and display cases showing how a child is conceived, and how it develops in the womb.
A considerable amount of space is devoted to discussing, with German and English texts, how the Nazis used the museum to promote their theories of racial supremacy. A spectacularly unappetising video shows how fishfingers are made. And the last room contains one of the world’s largest collections of antique flasks, jars and containers for beauty products.
Tourist information: Bus sightseeing tours of the city and cruises of the Elbe River are available from April until the fall.