Some 13,000 people gathered on both sides of Dresden’s Elbe river on Saturday, where they linked arms in a sign of peace to remember the thousands of victims of an allied bombing attack on the city in the last year of the Second World War.
Dresden Mayor Dirk Hilbert also laid a wreath at the St. Pauli cemetery at the graves of children of eastern European slave laborers who were killed by the Nazis. The ceremony was meant to remind the citizens of Dresden, a city that was once strong in its Nazi sympathies, of the atrocities that provoked the firebombing.
Speaking at the memorial on Saturday, Hilbert urged the city not to forget those who were currently fleeing war and terror.
“Whoever closes their heart to those seeking protection does not understand the message of February 13,” Hilbert said, adding that “war is everywhere, in every generation.”
At Dresden’s Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), people were also invited to light a candle in memory of the firebombing victims. The church bells chimed at 9:45 p.m. local time (2045 UTC) – the time of the first attack 71 years ago.
In a series of four raids between February 13 and 15, 1945, British and US air forces dropped more than 3,900 tons of explosives onto the city once known as the “Florence of the Elbe.”
The impact of so many bombs created a firestorm – a phenomenon in which a fire reaches such a level of intensity that it draws all the oxygen out of the surrounding area.
Between 22,000 and 25,000 thousand people are estimated to have been killed in the bombing, most of them civilians. Critics have long said that the attacks were an unnecessary, indiscriminate act of violence against nonmilitary targets.
Some historians and writers, such as Günter Grass, even suggested it amounted to a war crime.
The Allies argued, however, that the resulting halt to German industrial production was a military gain significant enough to justify the bombing.
The bombing and the resulting firestorm destroyed over 1,600 acres (6.5 square kilometers) of the city center
Saturday’s memorials were overshadowed by a right-wing march on the eve of the commemorations, when between 550 and 650 right-wing demonstrators marched through the southeast of Dresden. More than 300 people turned out in opposition.
Around 300 members of the right-leaning Alternative for Germany (AfD) party also held a rally at the city’s Altmarkt on Saturday, where they were met by about 20 counterdemonstrators.
According to Dresden police, a scuffle broke out after a member of the countermovement attempted to crush a wreath laid down by the AfD.
With the growing right-wing sentiment in mind, the human chain created by thousands of Dresdeners on Saturday was also intended to symbolize the city’s unity against the right-wing populist movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West). The xenophobic movement has been rallying in the city most Monday evenings since October 2014.
Saxony state premier Stanislaw Tillich said the human chain showed that Dresden was an “open-minded, tolerant, peace-loving city.”