Any one of these historical experiences will give you insight into Dresden’s interesting past, from World War II to its years behind the Iron Curtain.
For centuries, Dresden was known as “the Florence on the Elbe” thanks to its gorgeous baroque architecture and cultural riches. That all changed on February 13, 1945, when Allied forces in World War II began bombing the city; over a three-day period, nearly 4,000 tons of high explosives and incendiaries rained down on Dresden, destroying its historic Old Town and killing an estimated 18,000–25,000 people. That was followed by Soviet occupation and in 1949, the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which put the entire eastern portion of the country behind the Iron Curtain. During the East German socialist era, which lasted until 1990, only a handful of Dresden’s original buildings were reconstructed, namely the Semperoper opera house and the Zwinger palace. City leaders instead chose to build large swathes of the city in a Socialist modern style.
Dresden under East German rule also meant that its citizens were not free to travel to the West, nor could they vote; there was also no freedom of the press. The Stasi, the official state security service, surveilled, punished, and imprisoned dissidents. Beginning in the 1980s, a Peaceful Revolution was born throughout East Germany; in Dresden, one of the largest protests took place in October, 1989, calling for the end to the GDR and the reunification of Germany. The Peaceful Revolution finally led to the opening of the borders between East and West Germany, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and German reunification in 1990.
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Wherever you go in Dresden, the scars of World War II and the Soviet GDR days still remain. Here are six experiences where you can learn more about the city’s complex history.
Installed inside a towering former gasometer is this monumental panorama of Dresden after the Allied bombing raids of 1945. From a 50-foot platform, which mimics the views from Dresden’s Town Hall, visitors are surrounded by a powerful image of the city in ruins, complete with smoke and flames, while accompanying music, lighting, and sound effects of planes and explosions heighten the experience. The highly-detailed panorama was created by Austrian-born artist Yadegar Asisi; it alternates with another of his images of the fully intact baroque Dresden from 1756. The Panometer is located in the city’s Reick district, about a half hour from the city center by public transport.
Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady)
If the story of Dresden’s rise, fall, and rebirth could be expressed in a single building, it would be the Frauenkirche. Originally constructed in the early 18th century, the baroque Lutheran church, with its enormous bell-shaped
dome, was one of the city’s most distinctive landmarks. In the aftermath of the Allied air raids, the church burned for two days before its iconic dome finally collapsed. In the GDR, rebuilding a church was not a priority and it sat as a pile of rubble, right in the heart of the city, for five decades. During the 1980s, it became a symbol of the GDR peace movement. People regularly gathered at the ruins holding lighted candles in non-violent protests of the regime. So it was no surprise that when Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl delivered his historic speech on German reunification in December 1989, he chose to do so in front of the wreckage of the Frauenkirche. Reconstruction finally began in 1994 using thousands of stones salvaged from the rubble; they are visible as darker stones on the façade. It took 11 years and over 180 million euro to restore the church, which opened on October 30, 2005, in time for the 800-year anniversary of Dresden.
Militärhistorisches Museum (Military History Museum)
Housing 10,000 objects related to military history, this museum occupies a former 19th-century arsenal which, remarkably, was left intact following the 1945 Dresden bombing. A modern extension designed by architect Daniel Libeskind was added in 2011. While the museum covers various wars starting from the 1300s, the section covering 1945 to the present day focuses on World War II and the Cold War. Nazi and Soviet-era uniforms, weapons, posters, and other objects from these periods are on view, and there are whole rooms devoted to planes, torpedoes, air-raid shelters, and items from the 1978 Soviet-German space expedition. Many of the installations are interactive, like a room in which bombs from different countries and eras appear to rain down from the ceiling on visitors. Outside, military vehicles from the East and West German armies—tanks, trucks, and boats—are on display.
Kurt Vonnegut Tour (Slaughterhouse-Five Tour)
Kurt Vonnegut’s cult anti-war, sci-fi novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” isn’t just fiction; the author based the story on his period as a POW in Dresden during the Second World War. At age 22, after his capture during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut was imprisoned with other Americans in what had once been a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of the city. He survived the February, 1945 firebombing, hiding in an underground meat locker, and witnessed its horrific aftermath, which he vividly describes in the book. On the site of the former slaughterhouse now stands a high-tech exhibition center, but the tour takes you to the still-extant basement where Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners sheltered during the air raid. Other sites in Dresden destroyed during the bombing are included on the two-hour tour. The cost is 13.50 euro.
Die Welt der DDR (The World of GDR – German Democratic Republic)
Get a fascinating glimpse of what life was like for East Germans behind the Iron Curtain at this museum, set in the Simmel Tower in Dresden’s Neustadt (New Town). Period rooms show everyday life from the 1950s up to 1989—including furniture, radios, TVs, telephones, typewriters, kitchen utensils, and food, like Nudossi, East Germany’s answer to Nutella. Recreated stores and pharmacies, complete with models in fashions from the day, are also here. There are also toys, flags, military uniforms, motorcycles, and even a full room of Trabant cars (affectionately known as Trabi) on display.
Bautzner Strasse Memorial (Stasi Memorial and Museum)
Between 12,000 and 15,000 political prisoners were housed at this detention center and regional office complex of the East German Ministry of State Security (Stasi) where Vladimir Putin worked as a secret service officer. Visitors can tour the grim underground cells, used from 1945 to 1953 by the Soviet occupying forces, and see the adjacent prison, where GDR citizens who were suspected dissenters were questioned, incarcerated, and tortured from 1953 until 1989. You can also see the virtually untouched upstairs offices used by the Stasi. While most of the information provided is in German, there is a binder that outlines some details of the facility in English. The complex was listed as a historical monument in 1993 and opened to the public the following year.