Germany marks 75 years since the destruction of Dresden in World War II on Thursday, an anniversary seized upon by the far right to inflate victim numbers and play down Nazi crimes.
President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will give a speech at Dresden’s Palace of Culture, walking a fine line between remembering those killed in the Allied air raids on the eastern city and stressing Germany’s responsibility for the war.
Afterwards, he will join thousands of residents in forming a human chain of “peace and tolerance” as church bells ring out.
Dresden mayor Dirk Hilbert began the commemorations in the morning by placing white roses at a memorial for the victims.
As in past years, the commemoration events are set to attract neo-Nazis, while the far-right AfD party will man an information booth to tell the supposed “truth” about the bombings.
Police are also bracing for a large demo by right-wing extremists on Saturday, as well as counterprotests.
“The myth of the ‘city of innocence’ lives on,” the regional Saechsische Zeitung daily wrote, accusing the far right of using the commemorations “to minimise German war crimes”.
Hundreds of British and American planes pounded Dresden with conventional and incendiary explosives from February 13-15 in 1945.
The ensuing firestorm killed some 25,000 people, historians have calculated, and left the baroque city known as “Florence on the Elbe” in ruins, wiping out its historic centre.
The devastation came to symbolise the horrors of war, much like the heavily bombed city of Coventry in England.
But in Germany, Dresden also became a focal point for neo-Nazis who have held “funeral marches” for the dead and given the city a martyrdom status that experts say is belied by historical facts.
This year’s anniversary is especially charged as Germany reels from a political scandal that erupted in neighbouring Thuringia state last week, where an AfD-backed candidate was elected state premier for the first time.
Although he swiftly resigned, the drama marked a coup for the AfD — laying bare mainstream parties’ struggle to maintain the firewall against a party that has called for Germany to stop atoning for its Nazi past.
“Resurgent nationalism and right-wing populism are increasingly endangering the democratic remembrance culture,” mayor Hilbert told local radio.
Some observers have questioned whether the indiscriminate bombing of Dresden was justified so late in the war, an argument hijacked by neo-Nazis eager to shift the focus onto atrocities committed by the victors of WWII.
The Allied forces however saw Dresden as a legitimate target on the eastern front because of its transport links and factories supporting the German military machine.
In the immediate aftermath, Nazi propagandists claimed over 200,000 people had lost their lives in Dresden — even though historical records showed early on they had simply added a zero to their estimates.
Yet right-wing extremists continue to cite wildly elevated tolls.
AfD co-leader Tino Chrupalla told Der Spiegel weekly that his grandmother and father recalled seeing “mountains of bodies” after the firebombing.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, he said he believes the victims numbered “around 100,000”, prompting critics to accuse him of historical revisionism.
Last year, AfD lawmaker Mario Lehmann caused uproar when he described the Dresden bombings as “a Holocaust” — a term usually reserved for the murder of six million Jews under Adolf Hitler.
Founded just seven years ago, the anti-Islam, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) has risen to become the largest opposition party in the national parliament.
It is most popular in the country’s former communist east. In Dresden’s Saxony state, the AfD came second in regional polls last year.
Dresden bombing survivor Ursula Elsner, who was 14 when her mother dragged her to safety past burning buildings, told Spiegel she was tired of the anniversary being misused for political gain.
The 89-year-old wants the occasion to serve as a warning against war.
“This day belongs to us,” she said.
Reporting by AFP
Image: Historians think the February 13, 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden killed 25,000 people (SLUB DRESDEN/AFP/File/Handout)