A day’s roller coaster through five centuries

18. August 2014 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

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Since today, if I were ever asked by, say, a Far Eastern or South American tourist which European city she should visit if she could only take in one, and provided she has an interest in history, the arts and socio-cultural issues, I might well advise her to choose Dresden. I spent only one day here, and could barely scratch the surface of some of the layers of the past, but it’s probably true to say that the rollercoaster ride which is Europe’s history over the last 500 years played out in extreme ways here even though this is not one of the capital cities in which centralist power has always been wielded.

I would advise my traveller to dedicate, as I did, a couple of hours to the city museum, where you are taken, from the top floor downwards, through such a number of key events and significant configurations that again you’ll have to make a selection. For instance, I withdrew into one of the niches and listened to some sacred music by Heinrich Schütz, who was to bring opera to Germany, while at the same time reading an account of a girl in the 17th century who had lost her parents, was forced by her uncouth great-aunt to sell bread in the streets, where soldiers robbed her of her goods and money, and when she went after them to perhaps get some of it back, they raped her. All of this is described in the language of court proceedings of the day, and the girl’s ordeal didn’t end there.

The extravagancies of August the Strong, a keen art collector who built a palace for his mistress, are sketched alongside the machinations of the strong bourgeoisie, who in turn tried to keep the Jews out of their profitable lines of business. Again, I could listen to original parliamentary speeches about the issue, where for instance an evangelical parson tried to persuade the councillors to at least allow the Israelites access to the book trade because they were so good at delivering rare religious books and manuscripts that were needed for study. Some of the members went as far as to suggest that before the Jews were given equal citizens’ rights, they couldn’t be expected to improve their morals and behaviour. I could compare this state of affairs in 1837 with the much more progressive Silesia as I had looked at the issue in Wroclaw.

Another slice of history was revealed to me by a page in a local newspaper of about 100 years later, which said that Jews were not desired in the Weisse Hirsch. Now this happens to be the neighbourhood I have chosen to stay in, a leafy garden suburb full of beautiful large villas from the turn of the century, where the wealthy merchants and bankers had chosen to reside when Dresden was at its most splendid and industrious. It was also a spa, and the piece raged against the Jews as bringing misfortune on right-thinking citizens and contaminating the water, so they had to be banned. I chose the simple Pension Kunath in this very neighbourhood as it’s round the corner from where the fictional family Hoffmann lives in Uwe Tellkamp’s vast GDR novel Der Turm, and upon arriving here (after a real odyssey in the forest of Dresdner Heide) I immediately felt familiar with the place even if most of the mansions had lost their shabby socialist look of neglect and were now sporting distinguished façades and well-coiffed hedges. The novel had left me with an uncanny half-sympathy for the quietly compromising characters who sneaked their way through the „socialist dictatorship“ (not my word, but the label which the city museum chose for the era), neither rebelling nor basking in the glory of their privileges. How would I have behaved in the face of state coercion and an ominous caste system?

This is the weekend of the huge Dresdner Stadtfest, and I could observe the people as they were feasting. I must say they’re doing a good job, there are smiles on many of the faces, or at least a sort of contented interest, and the pleasures seem modest enough. Hundreds of food and drink stalls with fewer drunken men than on a regular day in a Polish street, stately paddle-wheel steamers on the Elbe unseen by the poor people who get their brains mashed on modern roller coaster hell rides, the East German cult band Karussell, giving a white-haired pot-bellied show of nostalgic rock with bland German lyrics in front of the Semper-Oper, the city services demonstrating their latest refuse collection vehicles beside a show tent for Infiniti luxury cars, a procession of a brass band followed by child care centre representatives proudly waving a placard that says Dresden = Geburtenhauptstadt, meaning that people here are confident enough to make more babies than other cities. This is truly balm to the troubled traveller’s mind who has just seen pictures of the piles of bodies that were burnt after the Allied fire bombing of Dresden in February 1945. It would be a strong dose of European history to my fictional tourist, to be sure, and there is no hop-on-hop-off bus to trundle through it. But if she wants something more palatable, serene or boring, she could always do Zurich, my home town, in a day.

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