Dresden's Architectural Miracle

And the rebirth of culture...

Read time: 6 minutes

Like all forms of art, architecture can be used to demoralize or inspire. It can be used to humiliate a people, or to tell their story with pride.

There is no better example of this than Dresden’s Frauenkirche.

Destroyed by the Allies in WWII, left in ruins by the Soviets and finally rebuilt by resilient locals, its story is truly inspirational.

This story, however, begins not with inspiration, but with ignominy…

The Fall of an Empire

Pre-war Dresden (c.1895)

Germany suffered a humiliating defeat in the First World War. The terms of peace required it pay insurmountable debts, which left its citizens impoverished, starving, and demoralized.

As Germans faced a future of devastating hopelessness, one charismatic leader offered a way forward: Hitler’s message of German pride rallied the country, inspiring Germans to fight to the bitter end of WWII.

But the end was bitter indeed. The Allied powers deployed a tactic of “strategic bombing,” which, under its technical title, meant destabilizing Germany by focusing on non-military targets: factories, hospitals, even civilian homes. 

As Arthur Harris, Commander in Chief of the British Air Force at the time, wrote in an internal memo:

The ultimate aim of an attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this, we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger.

It’s no surprise that this campaign of demoralization took aim at the buildings most dear to the German people. One building to fall under the rain of Allied bombs was an 18th-century church in Dresden, the glorious Frauenkirche.

Seeing their luminous church reduced to rubble — along with 80% of the city center — certainly lowered the spirits of citizens. They must have wondered: is the promise of a glorious future worth sacrificing the beauty of the past?

Frauenkirche lay in ruins for decades, by order of the Soviets

A Nation Divided

Germany offered her unconditional surrender later that year. Eager to avoid the mistakes of the First World War, the Allies sought to help Germany transition to a new, post-Nazi state — without crushing the country’s spirit once more.

The four Allies (France, England, the United States, and the Soviet Union) divided the country into sections, each stepping up to administer one quadrant. 

The quadrant system was tenuous at best. As the political situation evolved from the aftermath of WWII and shifted into a Cold War, the four-way administration disintegrated. The three western quadrants fused to form West Germany, while the USSR set up a puppet government to rule the East.

No longer a mere administrational entity, the Soviets now occupied Germany… 

Punishment by Architecture

Dresden’s wonderful Pirnaischer Platz became a socialist experiment…

The citizens of Russia had suffered greatly at the hands of Nazi soldiers. Now, controlling almost half the country, the USSR had its chance to retaliate. 

The Soviet government punished ordinary German citizens according to the penalties laid out in the peace treaty for Nazi officers, including confiscating their lands. They demanded further remuneration from citizens, despite the fact that the Allies’ peace treaty specifically left out financial recompense to avoid impoverishing the country again.

The regime also took its chance to remodel Dresden from its war-time rubble into a model city of socialism. Just look at side-by-sides of the once-elegant Pirnaischer Platz to see what an utterly transformed place it became.

But most cruelly of all, the regime forced Germans to leave their beloved Frauenkirche in ruins.

The ostensible purpose of this diktat was to honor the damage as a memorial of the war’s suffering — a reminder of war’s incalculable costs. More likely, it was for the same reason the Frauenkirche was destroyed in the first place: to break the spirit of the people.

Glory from the Ashes

For fifty years, the Frauenkirche lay in the dust. Then, in 1989, a clerical error changed the modern world. 

The Soviet government issued an order to slightly loosen travel restrictions across the Berlin Wall, but the official who announced this to the public misunderstood. Instead, it was announced that all restrictions would be removed, implying that Germany would be reunited. Within hours, rejoicing crowds stormed the Wall. Within the day, it fell.

Over the next 2 years Germany was reunited, and went to work healing half-century-old wounds, including the devastation in Dresden. In 1993, work began on the Frauenkirche.

It would have been easy for short-sighted project managers to commission a new design for the church — something postmodern perhaps, with concrete walls and intersecting glass planes. Something for future generations to wince at.

Incredibly, that’s not what happened. 

Instead, workers approached the bricks that had lain in dust for fifty years, and carried off every piece that could be salvaged for analysis. They then began a twenty-year labor of love: reconstructing the church from its original stone, literally brick by brick.

Builders pored over old photographs and paintings of the original and painstakingly drafted plans based on its former dimensions. Using as much original material as possible, they began building it back precisely as it once was. After fifty years, the Frauenkirche rose again. 

Sadly, the church’s golden dome could not be remade, so a new one was built. But even in this detail, imaginative designers found meaning: the dome was topped by a golden orb and cross, just like the original.

The British-built cross presented at Windsor Castle, 1998

Unlike the original, this one was crafted by a English goldsmith. But not just any goldsmith: one who was the son of a pilot who had taken part in that devastating firestorm of 1945.

Rebuilding Peace

The new church is every bit as magnificent as the original

Architecture can be a touchstone of culture, an anchor of community, and a wellspring of beauty. But it can also be a tool of totalitarianism, a pawn of politics, and a jackboot of oppression. 

The revival of Dresden is more than a story about an insightful rebuild. It exemplifies the power of culture to build beauty — and of beauty to build culture.

While the USSR relished in razing beautiful monuments and erecting brutalist ones, the German people’s love of history raised a miracle from a pile of rubble. In turn, the beauty of the Frauenkirche became an occasion for reconciliation, bringing together even the children of enemy combatants to complete it.

During the half-century that the Frauenkirche remained in ruins, it was scar tissue from war wounds that reminded Germany of its excruciating loss of hope. You might say this deterred demoralized citizens from future war…

But it was the act of mutual rebuilding that brought peace to war-torn Europe. Dresden took the traditions of its past and built them into hope for the future.

Art of the Week

Monk by the Sea - Caspar David Friedrich (1810)

The late 18th century saw millions of people caught up in the industrial revolution and surrounded by machines — walled off from the natural world and the rhythms of nature that had formerly guided their lives. 

In response, artists began turning back towards nature in the movement of Romanticism, idealizing nature’s beauty and longing for a simpler life. German Romanticism took this movement in a darker direction, portraying ominous, supernaturally-charged landscapes that seem to encroach on everyday life. 

A century and a half before it was bombed by the Allies, Dresden was the home of Caspar David Friedrich, the greatest Romantic painter of his generation. His Gothic ruins and misty landscapes carried a mystical, yet threatening aura, often accented by a single dramatic figure.

Contemporaries found his paintings disturbing, yet undeniably significant; one named the mysterious quality of Friedrich’s works “the tragedy of landscape.”

It was in Dresden that Friedrich completed Monk by the Sea. Working from sketches, he brought together elements of various landscapes to create a composite image that captured his vision. The un-nuanced shapes of the rock outcropping and the dark sea rising into the sky create an expanse of loneliness that Friedrich’s contemporaries found intimidating. Even the foreground figure doesn’t break the painting’s airlessness, and only increases the sense of isolation.

Although it’s not Friedrich’s most recognizable work (that’s likely Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog), it’s probably his most significant, because critics identify it as the first “abstract” painting. While its abstract shapes are a bridge to modern art, it also has a profundity that keeps it firmly in the realm of the classics. 

In Monk by the Sea, Friedrich captures the alienation from nature that newly-industrialized Europe increasingly felt. But it also captures the deathly flatness of the mechanistic, Descartian world that artists and beauty-seekers struggled with.

Ultimately, it’s a portrait of spiritual alienation that leaves us with the questions: 

Why does the world feel empty? Is something missing in the modern age?

And is there any way to find it again…?

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