Who rebuilt Dresden: reformers and guardians of the ruins

"What does the cursed life teach? Because cities are burning, and people - it doesn't matter if they are stupid, funny or evil - just die in the fire." - Kurt Vonnegut, who survived the bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war, believed that the word "absurd" most accurately describes the essence of war. We talk about how the reconstruction of the destroyed Dresden took place and what steps the city planners took to bring order to the post-war chaos.


A devastating show of force

Unlike many cities of the German Reich, Dresden was almost unprotected by air defense forces. None of the Germans imagined that Florence on the Elbe, with its glory as a world cultural pearl, could be purposefully destroyed. There was no military concentration in the city, but there were POW camps with thousands of British and Americans.

A memorandum of the Royal Air Force of Great Britain, which was read to the pilots on the eve of the attack, marked the objectives of the operation as follows: "to strike the enemy where he will feel it most strongly, and show the Russians, when they arrive in the city, what the Royal Air Force is capable of." So what was the primary motive?

Elb-Florenz - Florence of the Elbe. This was the poetic name of the capital of Saxony, which was famous for its baroque architecture and wealth. The city exhibition palace of Dresden is depicted on the pre-war postcard

Three waves of bombing on February 13–15, 1945 destroyed 12 buildings in Dresden. The detonation of 2400 tons of high-explosive and 1500 tons of incendiary bombs caused a firestorm that sucked the air out of the basements where residents were hiding. Historians still do not agree on the number of dead (numbers range from 25 to 230 thousand). Most of the victims did not die from the collapse of the buildings, but burned alive or suffocated in the shelters.

Of course, the Reich, with its ambitions for the global redevelopment of European cities, had to respond to the ongoing destruction during the war. The operative and strategic plans for the reconstruction of the neighborhoods damaged by the bombing were in charge of the associate and subordinate of Albert Speer, the architect Rudolph Walters. At first, the architects on Dr. Walters' headquarters reconstruction task force were optimistic.

They considered the destruction of the old city blocks as a kind of cleaning, which would allow the introduction of a new, more progressive architecture. It was assumed that the reenactors would have a huge labor resource at their disposal, and the fantastic projects based on the Führer's sketches would be realized by the hands of millions of prisoners.

The emphasis in the new planning was on improving sanitary conditions (wide streets, spacious apartments with natural insolation and ventilation), on the construction of neoclassical administrative and cultural complexes, as well as on the construction of bunkers.

Since conquering the world is not a 5-day task, in 1940 Hitler introduced the Führer-Sofortprogramm, the "Emergency Program", which provided for the construction of thousands of public, including high-rise, bunkers. The 2,5 meter thick concrete walls were supposed to withstand even advanced Allied bombs. The campaign for the massive construction of bunkers never reached Dresden.

View from the surviving balcony of the town hall on the destroyed center of Dresden. 1945. Image source: bpk/Hilmar Pabel/ullstein

So, the lack of anti-aircraft defense and effective warehouses is what explains the colossal losses of Dresden. Charred skeletons, as if gnawed by a giant locust, the historic center of Florence on the Elbe turned into ruins.


Ideology and architecture

Despite the scale of the tragedy, historical facts testify to the rather fast pace of the city's recovery. The task was somewhat simplified by the fact that the city's infrastructure — roads, water supply, sewerage — mostly survived. Already in May 1945, electricity and gas were turned on in the outskirts of Dresden, and trams started running.

In December 1946, traffic on the Marienbrücke and Albertbrücke bridges across the Elbe was resumed. The audit showed that in order for the city to return to full life, the construction of at least 80 buildings is necessary.

During the dismantling of the rubble, the hewn stone, from which the palaces were built in the Renaissance, was carefully assembled. Subsequently, this material was used for the restoration of buildings. Image credit: bpk/Hilmar Pabel/ullstein

The audit showed that in order for the city to return to full life, the construction of at least 80 buildings is necessary

On July 13, 1945, Rudolf Friedrichs, appointed by the Soviet military administration to the post of chief magistrate, and city engineer Herbert Konert formed the "Committee for the Reconstruction of the City of Dresden." Despite the emergency situation, which required urgent measures, the city management announced a competition for urban renewal projects.

The works of both professionals and "enthusiasts who want to express their point of view on the redesign of the urban landscape" were accepted. In the summer of 1946, more than two hundred projects were presented at the "New Dresden" exhibition. There were proposals for a radical redevelopment of the center, dictated by the desire to free oneself from the National Socialist past, as well as historical buildings in general.

For example, the architect Hans Hopp, an ardent opponent of the bourgeoisie in architecture, saw the new Dresden completely built up with typical high-rise buildings, cruciform in plan. His radical modernism clearly resonates with the unfulfilled ambitions of Le Corbusier, who dreamed of rebuilding Paris in this way.

Hanns Hopp's "New Dresden" design, February 1946: view from the Altmarkt on Pragerstrasse and the organized business center

Other concepts involved detailed restoration of all destroyed objects. In the end, the commission approved Herbert Konert's compromise plan Große Dresdner Aufbauplan, which provided for the laying of new main axes, the expansion of old roads, but the preservation of baroque proportions and scale in the streets and squares of the historic center. On the entire territory of the center, it was planned to restore the neighborhood of four-story buildings with pitched roofs. Konert called for avoiding new dominants by restoring historical ones.

Herbert Konert died suddenly before the final of the competition. In the future, many of the buildings that he proposed to preserve and restore were nevertheless destroyed, and new quarters were erected in accordance with the document Die 16 Grundsätze des Städtebaus (16 principles of urban design), approved in 1950 by the GDR government.

This concept was formulated in the USSR as the antithesis of the Athens Charter of Cities. The structure of the city consisted of a political center with squares, avenues for marches, demonstrations, and working neighborhoods. "Cities are built by industry for industry" is the crux of the concept.

Director of Propaganda Heinz Grünewald, Dresden Mayor Walter Weidauer and architect Herbert Konert plan the reconstruction of the city in 1946. Photo: Fred Ramage

Walter Weidauer, who held the seat of the Ober-Burgomaster of Dresden from 1946 to 1958, was a supporter of radical modernism and did not hide his desire to rid Dresden of its age-old bourgeoisie. The ideas of socialist realism for the creation of administrative and cultural buildings, imported into the GDR from Moscow, had so much in common with the vision of Speer and the National Socialists that they caused rejection in society.

But the post-war years were not the right time for protests. In Dresden, the active construction of administrative buildings began, designed, as we would say now, in the style of "Stalin's Empire". The Dresden Altmarkt was extended to the south to create a space for mass demonstrations.

This is what one of the central streets of Dresden looked like in 1958. Image source: bpk/Hilmar Pabel/ullstein

"Rhyla" buildings suffer less from fires caused by bombing. But the traditional planning of the densely populated historical center turned out to be deadly dangerous

The background building of the central districts of Dredzen, typical for the second half of the XNUMXth century. Photo: Dario Ciraulo/Unsplash

Weidauer had many supporters among architects. The desire for global re-planning is explained not only by the utopian idea of ​​building a new socialist city, but also by the severe trauma of the war. The modernist typology of residential neighborhoods with wide streets and large courtyards between buildings, which the Bauhaus architects considered "healthier", seemed most attractive to people who survived the firestorm.

"Rhyla" buildings suffer less from fires caused by bombing. But the traditional planning of the densely populated historical center turned out to be deadly dangerous. Therefore, German architects started from the principle: "Never again should narrow streets and yards without emergency exits cost the lives of thousands of people."

At the same time, the planners adhered to the ideological narrative: the new city, even after "loosing up", should not turn into a "relaxed Western settlement". Until the beginning of the 250st century, Dresden planners tried to achieve a uniform density of XNUMX inhabitants per hectare. And only in recent years, this principle gave way to the new urban paradigm "dense city".

The square in front of the town hall, cleared of debris, remained free of buildings for several decades. 1955. Image source: bpk/Hilmar Pabel/ullstein

1957. Empty spaces in the center of Dresden were used as pastures. Image source: AFP

Protection of ruins

If it were not for the consolidated resistance of the Dresden intelligentsia and "traditionalists", Dresden would have been completely cleared of its heritage already in the first post-war decade. Weidauer is credited with the resounding statement: "Socialist Dresden does not need churches or baroque facades!".

In the first months, the clearing of the historic center and the rescue of surviving artifacts from the destroyed palaces and temples was a completely public initiative. Restorers, architects, sculptors who came from all over Saxony, with the help of voluntary assistants (mostly women), manually cleared the ruins of baroque palaces and galleries.

The master is working on the restoration of the sculptures that decorated the Dresden palaces. Image source: AFP

Surprisingly, the theater (Schauspielhaus), despite the catastrophic damage to the building, reopened with the opera "Fidelio" after only 3 years, in 1948. Looking at the photo after the bombing of the city, it seems like a fantasy, because the load-bearing walls, the floor, the hall and the stage were simply destroyed. However, the unique mechanisms of the scene (or perhaps the most progressive in the world at that time) were almost unharmed.

The architect Emil Leibold, who was responsible for the reconstruction, did a miracle: he managed to expand the functionality of the theater, turning it into a multi-arena, where opera, ballet and theater productions could be shown, while preserving the planning structure, in particular the interior of the three-tiered hall with flowing modernist balconies, reproduced according to the original project of Lossow & Kühne.

Gilding, rich bas-reliefs and crystal chandeliers have disappeared from the renovated hall, which received the public in 1948, replaced by white "egg" plaster, brass and lamps mounted in the coffered ceiling. But the very fact of such a quick revival of a socially significant building literally from the ashes became a powerful motivator for the townspeople.

In 1911-1913, architects William Lossow and Max Hans Kühne built a building in a mixed style: neo-baroque and modern on the order of the theater community of Dresden. The theater hall accommodated almost one and a half thousand spectators

Deprived of bourgeois extravagances, the theater hall, nevertheless, preserved the structure of the historical interior

The Zwinger Museum-Gallery was literally assembled piece by piece from the first days after the sappers left the ruins. The work was somewhat facilitated by the fact that all the plans and documents from the previous restoration in 1936 were preserved. The head of the pre-war restoration, Hubert Ermisch, doubted that the restoration was possible: "This work will take years. Only some sculptors, stone carvers, masons have the skills to perform such a complex job.

They must be artists of their craft, have tact and work with the awareness that their own work is subordinate to the general work." Still, most of the gallery was restored by 1964. But the restoration of individual objects of the museum complex continues even now.

Postcard-engraving with the image of the "art Mecca" - the Zwinger Gallery in Dresden. The end of the XNUMXth century

Restorers, architects, sculptors who came from all over Saxony, with the help of voluntary assistants, manually cleared the ruins of baroque palaces and galleries

The restorers of the Zwinger Gallery tried to accurately reproduce not only the pre-war architecture, but also the palace gardens. Photo: Marko/Unsplash

Zwinger gallery pavilions. Photo: koby ツ/ Unsplash

Fritz Leffler entered the history of Dresden and Germany as a keeper and savior of city monuments. He courageously and steadfastly resisted Weidauer's radicalism. Thanks to Leffler, the ruins of the opera house, created by architects Gottfried and Manfred Semper in the 1981th century, survived. In 8, after an XNUMX-year reconstruction, the opera house reopened.

Leffler defended the Residenzschloss, the royal residence in the center of Dresden. Although only a portion of the historic Green Vault and basements survived, Leffler and his associates insisted on preserving the ruins. The restoration of the luxurious palace began only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and has now cost more than 300 million euros.

Now tourists already visit the royal treasury, the mint, the armory, and the library. The museum collection consists of original artifacts — furniture and works of art. The treasures of Augustus the Strong survived the war and the bombardment in evacuation, and after the reconstruction of the premises they were returned to the palace.

Restoring the Frauenkirche almost from scratch, the restorers installed stones collected from the ruins into the masonry. They differ in color. Photo: Armin Pfarr/Unsplash

For more than half a century, the Frauenkirche was a symbol of Dresden's fall, and now it has become a symbol of its resurrection

Frauenkirche interior. Photo: Paul Kapischka/Unsplash

But Dresden's most famous landmark, the Frauenkirche, remained in ruins until the fall of the communist regime. The authorities of the GDR deliberately left these ruins untouched - as science. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche began thanks to voluntary donations.

The complete restoration cost almost 200 million euros. For more than half a century, the Frauenkirche was a symbol of Dresden's fall, and now it has become a symbol of its resurrection.


Restoration of housing

But Dresden is not only historical monuments. After the bombing, about 300 people were left homeless. They were joined by refugees from the eastern provinces, who were destroyed without any chance of recovery.

The homeless lived in "Nissen huts", designed by engineer Peter Nissen during the First World War. These were prefabricated shelters with a roof made of corrugated metal without any insulation or decoration. Whether it was hot or cold, it was unbearable to be inside.

Nissen-Hütten – surviving Nissen huts, often used as garden houses or warehouses

Most ideas about a radical architectural revolution in post-war Dresden remained unrealized, as it was necessary to urgently provide housing for impoverished families. By the end of 1946, almost 50 apartments that suffered minor damage were repaired. Another 220 had to be built from scratch.

In the early 50s, for the mass construction of housing throughout the GDR, housing and construction cooperatives (AWG) were organized, which received plots for development from the government and carte blanche for work. In the first days after his election, the Ober-Burgomaster of Dresden, Weidauer, announced the confiscation of the land and property of all members of the National Socialist Party. These resources were directed to the restoration of housing.

With the arrival of the Khrushchev thaw in Dresden, they stopped building buildings in the style of the Stalinist Empire and switched to the WBS 70 project, common to the entire GDR - the construction of prefabricated houses from reinforced concrete panels.

The Horbitz residential area, built in the southeast of Dresden as part of the housing construction program in the 70s - in the 70s

Horbitz is the largest array of panel houses (plattenbau) in Dresden

One of the streets of the Horbitz district after renovation

For many original inhabitants of Dresden, such architecture was offensive. But, firstly, it solved the problem of housing shortage, and secondly, as recent experience has shown, panels turned out to be a grateful material for renovation, and today the districts built in the 70s are not at all frightening.


Hurry up slowly

There are several striking moments in the history of the post-war reconstruction of Dresden. Despite the stormy debates, discussions, battles over the creation of new symbols, discussion of the construction of forums, political palaces, mega-squares for demonstrations, the ideological storm did not cancel the routine but active work of restoring infrastructure and housing.

The pyramid of life support was restored much faster than the ambitions of politicians were satisfied. Of course, the theme of erecting typical residential buildings could not, due to the tension of passions, compete with the issues of expanding the Altmarkt, where 200 marching demonstrators had to be accommodated. Somewhere in the background, in the shadow of the populists, hundreds of thousands of construction workers were working day and night, thanks to which the new Dresden came back to life.

A view of the Residenzschloss, the royal residence in the center of Dresden. Photo: Olga / Unplash

At the same time, until the reunification of Germany, in front of the Dresden town hall, there were empty spaces: cleaned, but undeveloped spaces. Their active construction and beautification began only after the fall of the wall. It is also surprising that, despite the unequivocal verdict on the old bourgeois architecture, the custodians of Dresden's heritage managed to save not only the seemingly hopeless ruins from demolition, but also the very stones from which the buildings were later rebuilt.

Consequently, the Germans proved to be wisely slow in the most contentious ideological matters, but surprisingly operative in matters of life support.



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