Dresden's Boroque Restoration Complete: To Reopen Next Weekend

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It was the most striking baroque city in Europe - until Allied bombers flattened it in 1945. Next weekend its restoration will be all but complete.

"Try to understand," said Peter, smoothing his ponytail as he sat with his girlfriends on the parapet of Augustus Bridge. "That old town over there" - he gestured with his chin, blowing a pointer of Marlboro smoke south across the River Elbe towards the domes and spires of Dresden's Old Town - "that's for us young Dresdners like a piece of beautiful history. It's beautiful, but really it's history, you see? We like to look at it, sure, but that's it."

As his friends nodded agreement, Peter jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the New Town's square socialist blocks. "We like to live over here."

More than any other river city in united Germany, the twin halves of Dresden lie divided by their waterway. Along the south bank of the Elbe unrolls one of the world's finest architectural ensembles. The grand baroque waterfront and the towers, pinnacles and domes that rise behind it represent Europe's greatest triumph of postwar historical reconstruction. It has been a heavenly facelift for the bruised and battered old girl. By contrast, the Dresden of the Elbe's north bank, a plain Jane unregarded in her Communist-era sackcloth, has quietly been conducting a courtship with young and funky Dresdners. Taken together, there's an irresistible appeal to these dissimilar sisters as they face the future side by side.

The city has found it impossible to shut the door on the past. Though Dresden's history of regal glory, her medieval prosperity and 18th-century reinvention as "Florence on the Elbe" paled and were forgotten over half a century of obscurity behind the Iron Curtain, one universal image of the city remained: the suffering and destruction inflicted during the night of February 13/14 1945, when 800 aircraft of RAF Bomber Command were sent to flatten the architectural gem of Germany.

In a city whose population was swollen with refugees, perhaps 40,000 were crushed, asphyxiated or burned to death in the fire-storm created by the bombing. Eighty-seven per cent of the houses in the inner city were destroyed. Churches, hospitals and schools crumbled. It was an annihilation.

Dresden might have crouched for ever under the weight of that appalling night. Anger, helplessness and guilt were exacerbated by the Communist regime that ruled East Germany. Opportunism prompted the Communist leaders to portray the city as the victim of capitalist aggression. The biggest baroque buildings were patched up, in a few cases reconstructed with care and attention - they belonged to the state, after all. But great swathes of old residential Dresden that had survived the war were razed and rebuilt in socialist-brutalist concrete and plastic.

Money was tight, and there was no possibility of wholehearted reconstruction or restoration of past glories. Yet the Dresdners - always noted for a rebellious spirit and healthy bloody-mindedness - remained unbowed. After the reunification of Germany in 1990, the rebuilding of Dresden became a cause, a metaphor for reconciliation and for hurts healed. From the rubble and weeds along the south bank of the Elbe have risen once more the churches, the theatres and the grand public buildings, stone for stone and sculpture for sculpture.

Now the extraordinary work of recreating the most striking baroque city in Europe - interrupted by disastrous floods in 2002 - is all but complete. Tomorrow week, amid crowds that are expected to number anything up to 100,000, the great dome of the Frauenkirche will ring and roar with songs of praise as this symbol of Dresden's past despair and present hope is consecrated. The ceremony will be the culmination of the rebuilding of the 18th-century baroque masterpiece from the foundations up.

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