Fall and Rise of the Frauenkirche

February 17th, 2014 | by Ken

If it were February of 1945, this street would be on fire.

At that point in World War II, the German army was retreating but had not yet surrendered, and the Allies were looking for ways to hasten the end of the war. As part of a campaign of air strikes against rail lines and factories, multiple bombing runs rained fire onto the German city of Dresden. But many industrial facilities in the suburbs were left untouched, while buildings in the cultural center of the city were laid to waste. Days earlier, Allied leaders had made plans at the Yalta Conference for the reconstruction of Europe, and yet thousands upon thousands of civilians were killed in Dresden. Fire ravaged the city and left charred bodies in basement bomb shelters. Debate over the military necessity of the bombing continues to this day.

I first learned about these events through the lens of a great book: Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was there, as a young prisoner of war, and he used the bombing as the backdrop for his unhinged, stream-of-consciousness, semi-autobiographical, postmodern novel.

Frauenkirche after the bombing

I heard about it again when my friend Lori visited the city in 1995, finding the iconic Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) still nothing more than a pile of weathered rubble. Voices began calling for its rebuilding as soon as the war ended, but East German leaders didn’t have the will or the Deutsche Marks for such an undertaking. The pile of charred stones was probably a handy propaganda tool, as well, reminding citizens of the indiscriminate hostility of the West.

But the winds of history blew across Germany and set the stage for the Frauenkirche to rise again. After German reunification, donations poured in and engineers went to work restoring the church to its 18th century glory.

In 2005, the Frauenkirche was reconsecrated. Standing in front of this ornate giant, I felt sadness at the terrible events that brought this city down and awe at the efforts that rebuilt it.

Thousands of original bricks, darkened by fire and weather, were incorporated into the new exterior.

Engineers also brought the building up to modern safety standards, allowing us tourists to ascend to the top of the dome for a 360-degree view of 21st century Dresden.

The church sits in a crowded square- a little too crowded, in fact, for my taste. I was disappointed that city leaders would allow huge buildings to surround the church on several sides, but then I saw historic photos showing those buildings in place before the bombing. It’s kind of hard to bemoan the way things are done “these days,” when those days were a hundred years ago.

In one large open space in front of the church there is an archeological excavation underway, so it appears that the face of Dresden is changing once again.