Peace and reconciliation at Dresden

Hans Rollmann
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In the summer of 1993, fewer than four years after the reunification of Germany, I walked through the historic town centre of Dresden.
Here lay the ruins of what once had been one of the most commanding structures of the city, the historic Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady.
Part of one wall was still standing, but little more; most of the church lay buried in a heap of stones and rubble, after 14 hours of continuous bombing that had taken the lives of as many as 35,000 people on Feb. 14 and 15, 1945.
The baroque edifice with the distinctive bell-shaped cupola, designed and built by George Baehr from 1722 to1743, had become the landmark of the capital of Saxony.
When I visited Dresden that summer, clearing of rubble and retrieval of 10,000 stones and fragments had just begun.
The unearthed remnants were then carefully numbered and placed into several monumental racks. Later, each of the stones would be placed into the meticulously reconstructed church like pieces in a gigantic three-dimensional puzzle.
What I observed was a fruit of the collective will of the people of Dresden and many others worldwide to reconstruct the church, destroyed near the end of the Second World War, as a monument to peace and reconciliation.
Critics of the project felt that too much had been destroyed and that the reconstructed building would be an entirely new church.
Others felt that the ruins should remain, like those of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the centre of Berlin, as a poignant reminder of the tragedy of war.
Yet those who championed rebuilding of the Frauenkirche, as an international monument to peace, won the day.
As I continued over the years to visit this Florence on the Elbe River on my travels to the Moravian Archive at nearby Herrnhut, where I worked on the history of the Moravian mission in Labrador, I saw the project's progress.
The tower cross, donated by British friends of the church as a sign of reconciliation and presented by the Duke of Kent in 2000 on the 55th anniversary of the destruction of Dresden, was one milestone in the history of the rebuilding.
Alan Smith, the leading craftsman of the golden orb and cross now towering over the city, was the son of a Royal Air Force bomber pilot in the squadron that destroyed the church.

Virtuous representations
Following completion of the church's exterior, work on the interior continued, including the painting of the cupola with representations of the Christian virtues.
The altar, widely considered "a sermon in stone," preaches the mercy of God with a lonely Jesus at Gethsemane in the centre and Moses, the lawgiver, and his brother Aaron, the priest, as its outer figures, representing the Old Testament.
Enclosed in their midst are two representatives of the New Testament, St. Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, and St. Philip.
Above the altar rises a magnificent organ, which encompasses a larger musical range than the historic Silbermann organ, which had been played by none other than Johann Sebastian Bach during a recital in 1736 but was entirely destroyed during the bombing.
Little more than a week ago, while attending the daily mid-day service, I was able to observe in person the progress that had been made from the time of my first visit in 1993 and the completion and consecration of the church in 2005.
To have a seat at the service, one should arrive early, because the church fills up quickly each day. As I sat in the light-filled building, I could hardly believe that the pile of rubble I had seen 14 years earlier was now indeed an awe-inspiring monument to peace and a facilitator of human fellowship with God.
I remembered my early schooling in West Germany, where teachers and politicians had paid lip service to reunification of the two Germanys, but hardly anyone had really believed it would happen.
Yet the place where I was sitting now, while still a pile of rubble, had been since 1982 one of several gathering places of East Germans dissatisfied with their regime. Eventually, these nonviolent meetings would swell into a peace movement that helped crumble the wall between the Germanys.
The service I attended on Nov. 26 of this year opened with the ringing of Isaiah, the largest, the peace bell, named after the prophet Isaiah's famous saying, " They will beat their swords into plowshares"(2:4), followed by a Praeludium of Bach.
Pastor Holger Treutmann then welcomed the many visitors, who together recited the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-10). In a brief meditation, the Lutheran minister attuned his listeners to the meaning of Advent as a period of preparation and readiness, for death but also for an active life, in which humans are challenged to be there for others.
The childlike joy and anticipation before Christmas gave the pastor an occasion to direct his listeners to the deeper meaning of life, as one not lived alone but in community with fellow humans and in the presence and expectation of a God who approaches us. The subsequent playing of a fugue by Bach linked meditation and prayer, while the service concluded with a communal "Our Father" and the minister's blessing.
As people quietly filed out of the Frauenkirche, some of Isaiah's promised peace accompanied them, to Dresden, other cities and villages in Germany, England, France, America and St. John's, Newfoundland.

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by e-mail at

Organizations: Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Royal Air Force

Geographic location: Dresden, West Germany, Saxony Labrador Berlin Elbe River Herrnhut St. Paul England France America St. John's

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