Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Sunday warned Germans against forgetting history, as far-right supporters rallied in Dresden to protest a devastating Allied bombing in World War II that killed an estimated 35,000 residents 60 years ago.
The rally — and fears of street clashes — cast a shadow over a day of remembrance and reflection on the U.S.-British air raids, which set off firestorms and destroyed the centuries-old city center.
Schroeder vowed to fight attempts by neo-Nazis to blur the historical context of the attack on Feb. 13-14, 1945 — part of a war started by Nazi Germany during which Adolf Hitler’s regime killed 6 million European Jews in the Holocaust.
“Today we grieve for the victims of war and the Nazi reign of terror in Dresden, in Germany and in Europe,” he said in a statement issued in Berlin. “We will oppose in every way these attempts to reinterpret history. We will not allow cause and effect to be reversed.”
Commemorations began with the U.S. and British ambassadors to Germany silently laying wreaths at a Dresden cemetery where some of the bombing’s victims are buried.
In another part of town, some 4,000 far-right activists rallied at the Saxony state legislature and then marched through the city. The nationalistic, anti-immigrant National Democratic Party, which entered the legislature last fall, helped organize the event, and police were out in force.
Evening ceremonies, including a memorial service, centered on the Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady. It was wrecked in the bombing and left in ruins by communist East Germany as an anti-war memorial but has been lavishly rebuilt since Germany’s 1990 reunification.
Dresden’s destruction by three waves of British and U.S. bombers resonates deeply in Germany, in part because of the city’s history as a cultural center — “one of Europe’s most beautiful cities,” Schroeder said.
The chancellor called the 60th anniversary an occasion for people everywhere to unite against the “inhumanity of war.”
But the National Democratic Party has caused widespread consternation with its heightened public presence and rhetoric in recent months. Its state leaders in Saxony caused an uproar last month by appearing to compare the bombing of Dresden with the Holocaust.
The party’s national leader expressed admiration for Hitler in a weekend newspaper interview.
“Only a great leader can commit great crimes,” Udo Voigt was quoted as telling the Die Welt daily. “Of course Hitler achieved great things. He got rid of unemployment within a few years.”
He denied that his party models itself on the Nazis.
The German government failed in 2003 to have the party outlawed by the country’s Supreme Court, and politicians are now debating whether to make another try.
Schroeder’s government plans to introduce legislation next week aimed at making it easier to ban far-right marches and rallies at historically sensitive sites, such as Germany’s new national Holocaust memorial in Berlin and former concentration camps.