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Dresden, Capital of Saxony, and Its Difficult 20th Century (4:51)

Dresden, Germany

Dresden will always be remembered for its destruction in World War II by Allied firebombing. But its Frauenkirche, rebuilt after the war, symbolizes the rebirth of Dresden — today a lively city with fantastic museums and a bustling riverfront promenade.

Complete Video Script

After World War II, Germany was divided by the Iron Curtain into the free West and communist East. With the fall of communism in 1989, Germany was reunited. In the historic region of Saxony, we tour Dresden and Leipzig.

We start in Dresden – with fanciful Baroque architecture and some of the best museum-going in all of Germany. It’s a city that mixes a dynamic history with a delightful-to-stroll cityscape.

At the peak of its power in the 18th century, this wealthy capital of Saxony ruled much of eastern Germany from the banks of the Elbe River. Saxony’s greatest ruler was Augustus the Strong. To embellish his capital, he imported artists from all over Europe — especially from Italy. Dresden’s grand architecture and dedication to the arts earned it the nickname “Florence on the Elbe.”

In spite of its resurgence, Dresden is still known for its destruction in World War II. American and British planes firebombed the city on the night of February 13, 1945. The bombing was so fierce it created its own climate — a “fire storm.” More than 25,000 people were killed — in just one night — and 75 percent of the historical center was destroyed.

Memorials, while understated, remember the horror of war. This simple inscription recalls that “after the air raids…the bodies of 6,865 people killed in the bombing were burnt on this spot.”

For 40 years, through the Cold War, Dresden was part of communist East Germany. It was in what was called the “Valley of the Clueless” — one of the only places in East Germany that didn’t get Western television. Under the communists, Dresden restored some of its damaged buildings, left others in ruins, and replaced many with modern, utilitarian sprawl.

Prager Street, a bombed-out ruins until the 1960s, was rebuilt as a showcase for communist ideals. Its vast, uniform apartment blocks goose-step up the boulevard to this day. The design is typical of Soviet-bloc architecture — from Moscow to Bucharest. Today, after a thorough update, they’ve become desirable places to live.

After German reunification, the rebuilding of Dresden accelerated. The transformation has been impressive, and the city’s once-devastated historic center has been reconstructed.

The Frauenkirche, or “Church of Our Lady,” is the symbol and soul of the city. When completed in 1743, this was Germany’s tallest Protestant church. Then, in February of 1945, after the city was bombed, in the last months of the war, the Frauenkirche collapsed. For a generation it lay there, a pile of rubble. Then, Dresdeners decided to rebuild it completely and painstakingly. With the help of international donations, Dresden’s most beloved church was rebuilt and finally reopened to the public in 2005.

Stepping inside, you’re struck by the shape — not so wide but very tall. The color scheme is pastel, to emphasize the joy of faith and enhance the uplifting atmosphere of the services held here. The curves help create a feeling of community. [It’s] a Lutheran church, but built at the peak of the Baroque period — it seems the artistic style of the age trumped the Lutheran taste for simplicity. The church’s twisted old cross, which fell 300 feet from the tip of the dome and burned in the rubble, caps an inspirational story.

Climbing to the top of the beautifully reconstructed dome, you’re rewarded with a commanding view over Dresden and its river.

The rebirth of the city is evident everywhere. This central square was once ringed by the homes of rich merchants. It’s once again the heart of the city — alive with people and cafés.

Dresden’s delightful terrace was originally a defensive rampart. Today, it’s a welcoming promenade overlooking the Elbe. Its nickname: “The Balcony of Europe.” And a fleet of 19th-century paddleboats tempts visitors for a lazy river cruise.

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