Ghosts of Dresden

Remembering them is political

Pacific Standard

February 2010

The Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 destroyed the baroque center of what Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut called, in a letter home from Germany, “possibly the world’s most beautiful city.” Every year since 1946, at 9:45 p.m. on Feb. 13, the city churches ring out an echo of the air-raid sirens that first announced the planes.

It’s an eerie thing to witness. This year, Dresden was covered in snow; lamps floodlit both new and surviving churches, and bells sounded from both sides of the Elbe River. People stopped what they were doing. A few stray Dresdeners set off fireworks, which was even eerier. In Germany you almost never see public expressions of grief over something that happened to Germans in World War II.

The major exception over the last few years has been a tendency among neo-Nazis to rally in Dresden. The demonstrations have swelled since the ’90s into massive, organized “grief marches.” Dresden lies in Saxony, where a handful of neo-Nazi politicians have sat in state parliament since 2004, but the Nazis still have to bus in supporters from across Germany to achieve the sorts of numbers that make headlines. Since the marches embarrass everyone, a number of left-leaning groups mobilize their own crowds from around Germany to counter them.

This year it worked. Around 5,000 demonstrators from the neo-Nazi scene collected at Dresden’s Neustadt train station, but the police called off the march because about 6,000 other Germans — activists from the Green or Left Parties, trade unionists, anarchists, members of the anti-fascist or “Antifa” scene — held street demonstrations nearby. The cops stood for hours in riot gear while neo-Nazis and counterdemonstrators made a lot of noise on opposite sides of the line, and finally the cops called off the march because of the risk of violence.

One crowd of black-dressed anarchists broke into various chants:

Alle woll’n dasselbe
Nazis in die Elbe!

(“Everyone wants the same thing / Toss the Nazis in the Elbe!”)

Overall it was heartwarming. But the demonstrations and counterdemonstrations were a controlled form of street theater — not quite what would be called “free speech” in the states. They’re an awkward answer to an impossible problem for German officials. On the one hand, Germany wants to be a liberal democracy with all the usual freedoms. On the other hand, the presence of neo-Nazis is intolerable to Germans with a conscience. Holocaust denial is illegal here, and a lot of the demonstrators in Dresden last weekend thought the “grief marches” ought to be outlawed, too.

The problem has even more significance in Dresden because a huge number of Germans think the firebombing of the city was a war crime. They don’t call it an “Allied Bombing Holocaust,” like the neo-Nazis, but they remember that almost every German city was bombed to rubble during the war. Even Churchill wasn’t sure the Allies should have studied firebombing techniques — that is, deliberately setting intense fires with a carpet of bombs over the civilian-dense heart of a city — between 1942-45. The civilian tolls were terrible, and the firestorms have become a bitter but largely silent German memory.

The novelist W. G. Sebald tells a true story about a teacher who told him how survivors of the Hamburg raids remembered the civilian dead. “As a boy in the immediate postwar years he quite often saw photographs of the corpses lying in the streets after the firestorm,” he writes, “brought out from under the counter of a Hamburg secondhand bookshop, to be fingered and examined in a way usually reserved for pornography.”

The shame and silence were a propaganda gift for the far right. After Germany reunified in 1990, neo-Nazis were free to holler in eastern cities like Dresden about the bombs. They also had a monopoly on this particular corner of the German psyche — the feelings of victimhood, the wounded pride, even the open grief. Sebald, in his last book, On the Natural History of Destruction, points out that firestorms are all but absent from postwar German literature. No one knew how to talk about it.

But the Germans are learning. The largest demonstration last Saturday was a “human chain” formed around the city center and the now-rebuilt cathedral, the Marienkirche. Some 10,000 people lined up. It was Dresden’s official event, separate from the rallies — the sort of thing bourgeois politicians and business leaders could show up for. Some people in the chain held signs pointing out that Hitler’s warmongering had brought the firestorms on Germany. Others just stood there holding white roses.

The roses have become an accepted expression of grief, but they’re also free of Nazi overtones, because they refer back to The White Rose group, a circle of students in Munich executed in the ’40s for promoting nonviolent resistance to Hitler.

None of these good citizens in Dresden, of course, would have kept the skinheads from marching — that work was accomplished by left-wing activists across the Elbe. But the human chain suggests a new mainstream vocabulary for Germans to talk about the war, which — after 65 years — still disfigures their democracy.

Michael Scott Moore


Idomeneo in Berlin

Remember the scandal over “Idomeneo” in Berlin? Remember how Islamists went mad when the Deutsche Oper decided to stage a controversial production of Mozart’s opera, unleashing a storm of violence?

By George!

Behind the frosted-glass office doors of an old building on New Montgomery Street in San Francisco you can find a barber shop, a bartending school, and a number of lawyers

Noah and the Dinosaurs

One rule of fundamentalists is that they hate to be interviewed. William Dembski doesn’t. He has a long face and glasses, wears knife-edged slacks and sober ties; he mixes fashion sense with a relaxed wonkishness that announces dedication to reason rather than the Bible-thumping fanaticism he’s been accused


I Have Landed

The title of Stephen Jay Gould’s twenty-second book on natural science borrows a phrase his grandfather scribbled in an English primer after he arrived at Ellis Island

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again

I think Derek Walcott holds the title for Greatest North American Playwright Almost Never Produced in San Francisco, but Michel Tremblay runs a close second.

The Invention of Love

The last time one of Tom Stoppard’s plays had its American premiere in San Francisco, last spring, I wrote that it “wouldn’t be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar.”


Sending in the Marines

NATO, officially, is pleased to have pirates to fight. A mission against sea bandits in the Indian Ocean is not mission creep for the trans-Atlantic alliance, if you talk to its leaders

Battleships Off Somalia

Navies are expensive, and sending warships to Somalia is a hugely inefficient way to fight pirates, considering that the number of successful attacks off the Somali coast this year

How Do You Prosecute a Pirate?

The most eyebrow-raising aspect of Western counter-piracy missions off Somalia is how rarely they arrest a pirate.


Ghosts of Dresden

The Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 destroyed the baroque center of what Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut called, in a letter home from Germany, “possibly the world’s most beautiful city.”

How to Film Nazis

The big surprise last week during the Berlin Film Festival was a disastrous premiere for a long-awaited feature film, Jud Süß — Rise and Fall, by a talented German director named Oskar Roehler.

Nazis on the Campaign Trail

Holger Apfel is a burly, fat-cheeked 35-year-old with glasses, given to wearing brown suits. He leads a delegation of the neo-Nazi NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany) in the German state parliament of Saxony.


It’s Called Soccer

Americans live on what amounts to an enormous island, defended on two shores by the sea, and we’ve evolved a few marsupial traditions that nobody else understands.

One Hundred Years of Hanging Ten

The George Freeth memorial in Redondo Beach is a salt-bitten bust of a lifeguard in an old-fashioned swimming vest, gazing with the stoicism we expect from early surf heroes into the deep mysteries of a concrete parking garage.

Tilting at Turbines (in the Severn River)

The morning was clear and cold, with frost on the church steeple and the cemetery grass. I had a quick English breakfast at a white-cloth table, in my wetsuit, and drove to Newnham, a village on the Severn River in Gloucestershire, parking near the White Hart Inn.

Other Prose

Denis Johnson, Poet of the Fallen World

“I’m kinda like Ozzy Osbourne,” says Denis Johnson in a distracted moment, explaining that he might not remember to call me back. “My wife was just telling me that.”

This Will Kill That

“Here is one,” replied the archdeacon, opening the window of his cell; he pointed to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, whose two black towers, stone walls, and huge roof

The Curse of El Rojo

I’d packed the car lightly — a bag of clothes, a bag of cassette tapes, a backpack of books, a few essential tools.

Michael Scott Moore is a literary journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist and Popmatters. He was kidnapped in 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage for two and a half years. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from HarperCollins.

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The men from the Naham 3 are all friends of mine — a crew of 26 sailors from southeast Asia who worked on a tuna long-liner flagged in Oman but owned by a company in Taiwan, which abandoned them after Somali pirates hijacked the ship in 2012.

While I was in Somalia a man called Geoff Carter wrote about a picture of Indian men surfing on stand-up boards around 1800 off Chennai, which altered the known history of surfing a bit, even though the picture was hiding in plain sight at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Some people have asked about the Somalia memoir. It’s right on schedule, I promise, but it won’t be out for at least another year. It’s been revised in full, twice (see above), and it’ll need a few more revisions before we get anywhere. Old-fashioned authorship. July, 2018?

A version of what happened in Somalia is available as a Long Read at The Guardian, and, in somewhat shorter form, for German readers, in Der Spiegel. It’s not even near complete. Enormous parts of the story have been left untold.



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