Dresden Marks WWII Bombing 68 Years Ago

Toward the end of World War II, allied forces bombed the lightly defended city of Dresden, creating a firestorm that destroyed it and killed tens of thousands of people. The attack was designed to destroy German morale and hasten the end of the war. These days, neo-Nazis are using the anniversary to march and stir up nationalistic sentiment in a bid to boost their political and popular clout.

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Thousands gathered last night in the German city of Dresden to mark the 68th anniversary of the allied bombing that destroyed that city during the Second World War. These days, the annual commemoration is less about remembering those who perished than a fight against modern-day Nazis - a fight waged sometimes with questionable methods. NPR's Berlin correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled to Dresden and filed this report.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: As night falls, scores of Dresden residents brave the cold and huddle around a makeshift stage outside City Hall. Many have small, white roses pinned to their coats to symbolize peace and tolerance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MAYOR HELMA OROSZ: (German spoken)

NELSON: Mayor Helma Orosz tells them it's great that their children are growing up in a multi-racial and multi-lingual city. She adds: We want it to stay that way.

(APPLAUSE)

NELSON: For many Germans, the anniversary is an uncomfortable one. They harbor deeply rooted guilt over their country's Nazi past, while mourning the violent destruction of a beloved German city. Hajo Funke is a political science professor in Berlin.

HAJO FUNKE: This is a day to memorize that kind of sorrow and the kind of killings that happened. On the other hand, you can't separate this bombing from the reasons for that bombing.

NELSON: But that's exactly what the newest generation of Nazis in Germany is trying to do. In recent years, they've hijacked the anniversary, calling it the bombing holocaust. They come to Dresden by the trainful to protest. Dresden residents and their government don't want them here. As a result, they've turned their annual commemoration into a fight to keep the Neo-Nazis out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OROSZ: (German spoken)

NELSON: During last night's ceremony, Mayor Orosz vowed not to let the quote, "brown-shirted grandchildren and great-grandchildren" of Nazi Germany commandeer Dresden's legacy. She called on those assembled to form a human chain around the downtown area to protect it, as they've done in recent years.

SILVIO LANG: (German spoken)

NELSON: That isn't enough, says Silvio Lang, a spokesman for a leftist coalition called the Dresden Nazi-free Alliance. He dismisses the human chain as symbolism. Instead, his coalition and other leftists who pour into Dresden from around Germany form human blockades that sometimes resort to violence to prevent the Neo-Nazis from entering.

That's what happened outside Dresden's main train station last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING, CHATTER)

NELSON: The Neo-Nazis and their opponents angrily shouted slogans at each other, trying to surge past a heavily armed riot police cordon. The anti-Nazi protestors turned violent, throwing snowballs and glass bottles.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

NELSON: Two elderly men were struck in the head by the flying objects. Police escorted them inside the train station. Many Dresden residents say they are fed up with the violence and disruption the anti-Nazi protestors bring. In Berlin, Daniel Koehler agrees. He is with EXIT Deutschland, which helps people leave Neo-Nazi movements in Europe.

DANIEL KOEHLER: Personally, I don't think that's the right way. Of course, you have to show civil society commitment.

NELSON: But he adds the blockades end up making the Neo-Nazis look like victims being denied their right to free speech. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

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