Speaking at a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces at the end of World War II, Germany’s president on Thursday said it’s time to stand up to rising extremism and nationalism.
Warning that hatred and a desire for strongman and patriarchal authoritarianism are on the rise again in Europe, including in his country, Frank-Walter Steinmeier said it was important to recall who had started the devastating global conflict.
The manmade firestorm, vividly captured by American author Kurt Vonnegut in his book “Slaughterhouse Five,” and the destruction of large parts of the baroque eastern German city have become a rallying point for those seeking to portray Germans as victims in the war.
“It was Germans who began this gruesome war,” Steinmeier said.
“We won’t forget the German guilt,” he added. “And we stand by the responsibility that remains.”
After his speech, Steinmeier joined the Duke of Kent, a cousin of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, and thousands of Dresdeners to form a human peace chain in a gesture of reconciliation and to commemorate the victims of Nazi atrocities and mass bombings by all sides during World War II.
Among those taking part as the chain formed in icy rain near the rebuilt Frauenkirche were Gisela Hahn and Gottfried Koehler.
“We’ve had 75 years of peace in Europe,” said Koehler, who recalled seeing Dresden burning from afar as a small child. “That’s why we’re here.”
Historians say the Feb. 13-15, 1945, bombardment of Dresden by American and British planes killed up to 25,000 people. That is comparable to the death toll in other large German cities.
Last November, the city of Dresden declared a “Nazi emergency” after allegedly experiencing a rise in anti-democratic and far-right extremist views and violence.
Council members in the city declared in a resolution that “right-wing extremist attitudes and actions … are occurring with increasing frequency” and called on residents to help victims of far-right violence, protect minorities and strengthen democracy.
The resolution calls on the city and civil society organizations to strengthen democratic culture and to focus on “the causes and consequences of anti-Semitism, racism and position of extreme right to restore trust in democratic institutions and the appreciation of diversity and respectful solidarity,” according to DW.
“’Nazinotstand’ means – similar to the climate emergency – that we have a serious problem. The open democratic society is threatened,” local councilor Max Aschenbach, whose left-leaning satirical party Die Partei sponsored the resolution, told the BBC. “The request was an attempt to change that. I also wanted to know what kind of people I’m sitting with in the city council of Dresden.”
German nationalists have for decades promoted the myth that as many as half a million civilians were killed in Dresden. Most recently the idea has been taken up by members of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which has grown into a significant force in German politics since its founding seven years ago.
The party, which goes by the German acronym AfD, has moved steadily to the right over the years.
Bjoern Hoecke, a regional AfD leader who once called for a “180-degree turn” in the way Germany commemorates its past, once was considered a fringe figure but now represents the party’s core.
AfD’s co-chairman, Tino Chrupalla, recently stated that the bombing of Dresden cost “about 100,000 lives.”
While such claims are dismissed by experts and condemned as revisionism by centrist parties, they reflect Alternative for Germany’s tactic of gaining attention by breaking taboos in post-Holocaust German politics.
Last week, the far-right party threw German politics into turmoil by unexpectedly backing a centrist candidate as governor in Thuringia state. The fumbled reaction to the situation by two other political parties — including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats — triggered widespread outrage and numerous resignations, including that of Merkel’s heir apparent.
Steinmeier alluded to the incident in his Dresden speech, warning that “if elected lawmakers make the parliaments in which they sit look foolish and ridiculous, then that’s an attempt to destroy democracy from within.”
“It’s not enough for democrats to shudder and turn away in disgust,” he said. “We have to reject all forms of hatred and incitement, speak out against insults and counter prejudice.”
“We all, each in their own way, carry a responsibility for the way we live together and for the democracy in our country,” said Steinmeier. “That, too, is a lesson from the wrong track Germany took, which led to the destruction of Dresden.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.