Do Germans have a right to mourn their war dead?

Neo-Nazi demonstrators on their route

Dresden is a particularly lovely German city, even when 4,200 neo-Nazis are marching through it like orderly black ants. Since it was bombed to rubble by British and American pilots in World War II on Feb. 13, 1945, its center has been rebuilt to a digestible, weekender version of its 18th-century Baroque grandeur. The neo-Nazis marched last Saturday to observe the 61st anniversary of the bombing.

They are at the far-right extreme of a vigorous debate that’s taken hold in the past five years or so about whether Germans have a right to mourn their war dead. Moderate politicians and antifascist protesters alike are queasy at the prospect of a united Germany talking about its deprivation and suffering, exactly the sort of terms Hitler invoked in the 1930s. The debate over Dresden is, in the end, over who has the authority to assert loss, victimization, and the perceived attendant political capital.

Dresden has become a particularly charged symbol of suffering, in part because the former East Germany encouraged commemoration of the bombing, and questioning of the Western powers and reunification has brought the discussion of the Dresden fire-bombing to the entire country. But there has also been prodigious recent literary attention focused on it. The destruction of Dresden has been taken up by historians and literary humanists, including W.G. Sebald in On the Natural History of Destruction (who spreads his ruminations across many bombed cities), Jonathan Safran Foer in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, German historian Jörg Friedrich in Der Brand (The Fire), and British historian Frederick Taylor in Dresden, as well as in a new film melodrama, Dresden, which just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

The interests of the literary humanists and the far right in the bombings, which killed between 25,000 and 40,000 people in a refugee-swelled city of around 800,000, naturally vary. The humanists are concerned with all manner of suffering, particularly secret suffering: Talk of German anguish during World War II was taboo until recently. Encouraged by books like Der Brand, neo-Nazis proclaim that not only did Germans suffer, but that the Allies committed “mass murder,” as Goebbels was quick to proclaim in 1945.

With the far right’s heightened sense of suffering and loss come political demands. Emboldened by new rhetoric, the far right has entered state politics in Saxony, of which Dresden is the capital. The neo-Nazis who have marched in Dresden on Feb. 13 for the past several years walk with Germany’s far right National Democratic Party (or NPD). In 2004, the NPD shocked mainstream politicians by gaining 9.2 percent of the vote in Saxony. Last year, 12 NPD representatives in the state parliament walked out of a parliament meeting, angry that there was a moment of silence for Auschwitz victims and not for those of Dresden, which the party leader called a “Holocaust of bombs,” according to Der Spiegel.

On Saturday, the neo-Nazis had a focused goal: to announce that the bombing of Dresden was an aggressive war crime. Marching in Dresden, they carried blue balloons that read: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden. (They marched on Feb. 11, a Saturday, presumably because even, or especially, neo-Nazis need to work.)

Demonstrators in Dresden

They were met this year, as they were last year, by a band of 500 antifascist counter-protesters, twentysomethings with piercings and dreadlocks, blaring snippets of punk music from their loudspeaker. The antifascists, or antifa, had a double mission. They were there to taunt the neo-Nazis with their lack of fear—they wore pins and patches proclaiming “against Nazis”—but they were also there, as their flyers proclaimed, to “Destroy the Spirit of Dresden.”

“We want to offend the historical revisionist trend in Germany,” said a young Berliner waving the British flag, “that tries to make Germans the victims of the Allies. We say this was a liberation and that the bombing attacks were justified and even necessary.”

More militant antifascists like the Berliner have taken the generic “against Nazis” slogan a step further and argue against an empowered, unified German national identity at any level. On Saturday, they waved British, American, and Israeli flags and banners saying “Boycott the fascist victim myth” and “No love for the nation.”

But there were more moderate protesters on hand as well. Ordinary Dresdeners lit candles and proclaimed, “This city has had enough of Nazis.” And the mainstream political parties, including the Social Democratic Party (or SPD; it corresponds roughly to the Democrats) and Christian Democratic Union (or CDU; the Republicans), came together to put on a mini-democracy festival, in the form of a cookout, games, and music. They set themselves up at the foot of the Augustus Bridge, which sat on the return route of the neo-Nazi demonstration. The SPD offered karaoke and the CDU a democracy quiz. A huge pink banner on the stage read “Kein Sex mit Nazis”—No Sex with Nazis. An SPD volunteer explained that the mainstream parties became particularly concerned after the strong far-right showing in the 2004 local elections; they marched last year, but this year they wanted to bring local Dresdeners together more comfortably for some wine and anti-Nazi sloganeering.

The marketing decision to sit in one place and play games rather than march portentously worked in everyone’s favor. The mainstream parties, galvanized by the volubility of the far right and far left, were taking a stand, even if only in snow-battered tents filled with flyers and quizzes.

“We want to show that the Dresden people are for democracy and not dictatorship,” said a volunteer for the CDU, which was participating in the “Democracy Milestone” for the first year. “Every year the 13th of February we are thinking of the attack on Dresden. It is typical that the right and left demonstrate. We are for the normal people.”

While the neo-Nazis grab tightly to the idea of their (or their parents’) suffering during the war, the antifascists worry that, in fact, many Germans can identify with the trauma of the war. It is understandable to remember the terror of being bombed and to mourn relatives who died, but to transform that identification into a fervent national identity and political platform based on exclusion brings to mind the problems of the Weimar era—and points to the problems with any political agenda dependent on the idea of loss. When a sense of group suffering wends its way into political arena, it can lead to a special kind of frustrated identity politics. The lesson of Dresden today is that, like collective guilt, the concept of collective suffering twists personal experience into utilitarian political aims: Demagoguery depends on it.

As the antifascists waited on the Augustus Bridge in late afternoon, hoping to challenge the neo-Nazis, police vans blocked the small antifa group from going further. Members of the far left Linkspartei/PDS left the “Kein Sex “cookout, as did the SPD and Green Party volunteers, to join the antifascists in solidarity. In the end, the Leftists, stubbornly waiting in the swirling snow for three hours, had blocked the neo-Nazis from crossing on their intended route. In the distance, down river, the black figures marched back the way they had come.