2018 Spring Conor Freeley External Programs Germany IES Abroad

Grappling with Our History: A Weekend in Dresden

The first time I came to Europe,  I was a junior in high school. I went to Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic, touring the concentration camps and the sites of the Holocaust as part of a class focusing on human rights and social justice. Throughout my visits to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Majdanek, to name a few, I was constantly encountering the idea of grappling with the history, particularly the negative, of ancestry. I was amazed that many of my tour guides at the German concentration camps were descendants of Wehrmacht soldiers or even Nazi party members themselves. The American narrative seems to revere “our greatest generation” that fought in the 40s, but in Germany their narrative is the complete inverse–those that fought during WWII were in fact, their worst generation. I grew up hearing stories of my great-uncles who stormed the beaches in Normandy like they were superheroes; I never thought I would be in a position that would invoke feelings of guilt and atonement for the actions of my forefathers, until I went to Dresden.

Exactly 73 years ago this past week, the Allied forces conducted one of the most brutal, destructive, and remembered bombing campaigns of the second World War. Allied forces, composed mainly of British and American pilots, dropped nearly 3,900 tons of incendiary bombs on the city of Dresden, resulting in the complete destruction of one of the most important, if not the most important cultural centers in Germany, as well as around 25,000 German lives. It remains one of the most controversial Allied decisions of the war and is taught throughout many American history classes as such.

Today, Dresden has been mostly rebuilt to what it was before–a beautiful center of Baroque palaces, churches, and opera houses. Visiting for a weekend, I spent my two days in Dresden touring these beautiful (rebuilt) museums, palaces, and churches. Our dinner Saturday was in a Baroque-themed restaurant in a cellar, complete with historical re-enactors in contemporary garb, accordion players, and suits of armor lining the walls. On Sunday I toured a medieval armory that would challenge that of Game of Thrones, and climbed to the top of the Frauenkirche, a church of immense importance to the early days of Protestantism and Lutheranism.

Despite the incredible rebuilding that the city has undertaken to preserve its older history, the echoes of its most recent history were all around me the entire weekend. Suddenly, it was my ancestry that was under scrutiny. Europeans can often be wary of Americans, stereotyping them as loud, rambunctious, and unrefined–a combination of aversions that will lead to some distasteful looks in any European city. However, this was different. My identity was more public and more complicated than it has been my entire time abroad so far. As I walked around, I was so much more conscious of my history and my ancestors, feeling their weight upon my shoulders. Although I will never experience what it is like to be, say, the Granddaughter of Adolf Eichmann, this weekend I certainly experienced what it was like to have to grapple with an ancestral history I had no part in choosing.

With these reflections in mind, I  ultimately had an incredible time in Dresden experiencing all of the rich culture and history the city had to offer. However, it is clear that no matter what happens, the city will never just be a relic of the decadence of baroque royalty, but a stark reminder to the descendants of all sides of the sheer, incredibly destructive potential of humankind.

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