Dis/Continuities in Dresden's Dances of Death.

Author:Hertel, Christiane
 
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My own role in this strange dance was the embodiment of that figure standing between the beast and group in a highly passive mood. She was the last figure moving into ... This figure was called upon, to endure, as it were, but not to suffer from it ... and yet, she was not allowed to play the role of a puppet, nor could she leave the route assigned to her.--Mary Wigman describing the rehearsal of her Dance of Death (1926) in Dresden's ducal palace, The Mary Wigman Book [1]

Three examples of the Dance of Death, all of them produced in Dresden, will be examined here: Christoph Walther I's Dance of Death sandstone relief of 1535 (Figs. 5-9), Alfred Rethel's series of six wood engravings Auch ein Totentanz (Another Dance of Death) of 1849 (Figs. 13-18), and Richard Peter's photobook Dresden--eine Kamera klagt an (Dresden--a Camera Accuses) of 1949 (Figs. 23-28). I thereby suggest what might seem to be a somewhat forced trajectory from 1535 (Walther--the Lutheran Reformation), to 1848-49 (Rethel--the bourgeois revolution), and ultimately to 1949 (Peter--the early post-World War II era and the founding of the two Germanies, the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany). My purpose in so doing is to address the particular problem of Dresden's post-World War II image as a city of death. This image came to overlay the traditional image of serene Dresden as a "deutsches Florenz" (German Florence), as Johann Gottfried Herder famously called the city [2] The three Dan ces of Death by Walther, Rethel, and Peter offer the opportunity to investigate the Dance of Death as a political allegory and the functions of the "before/ after" schema employed in the overlay of "deutsches Florenz"/city of death. In other words, by virtue of being structured by analogy, this scheme here lends itself to a critical analysis under the rubric of allegory. Prior to the discussion of the three Dances of Death, what I call the problematic image of Dresden as a city of death needs to be introduced. This image has proven itself once more relevant and powerful beyond a local context, first, as a small detail in the Historiherstreit, the historians' controversy of the mid-1980s in Germany, and, second, before and during the elaborate ceremonies of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II held in February 1995 in Dresden.

Dresden as a City of Death

Dresden was firebombed on February 13 and 14, 1945, by western Allied bomber divisions. [3] The city's historic center, which had been largely spared massive bombing raids until then, was almost completely destroyed during this attack. The mainly civilian victims, numbering at least thirty-five thousand, included citizens of Dresden as well as many refugees fleeing the eastern front. The destroyed center of Dresden had been famous for its Italianate Baroque architecture and its art treasures. While much of the latter had been evacuated, the civilian population was unprepared and largely unprotected. After the war, within both West and East Germany Dresden's immense loss of human life and unique architectural heritage in just one night became emblematic for the evil of war, and within the unfathomable loss one particularly striking ruin became emblematic of the loss, the Lutheran Frauenkirche, a massive, domed Baroque church built by Georg B[ddot{a}]hr between 1726 and 1743. First by popular response and then in May 1966 by decree, this ruin became a memorial for the victims of the bombing, a function it served not only locally but also nationwide, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In Dresden various memorial services, some involving the ruin, were held annually on the anniversary of the bombing, a practice that continued for decades and into the 1980s. In November 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a group of citizens initiated the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche. Since German reunification in 1990 the building has been in the process of reconstruction under the direction and administration of a foundation, the Stiffing Frauenkirche Dresden, formed in 1991 (and reconstituted in 1994). As the ruins and a considerable amount of reusable building material excavated from the rubble are being incorporated into the new structure, many worry and predict that the church's function as a memorial will be weakened or even obliterated once the building is finished. Two arguments against this view are that Dresden s hould not have to continue to provide a pilgrimage site and a monument for the entire country's bad feelings about the war, and that the ruin would soon become outright kitsch in the rapidly prospering city. There are still other views, but this debate is not the subject of my inquiry here. [4] Instead I wish to point to the other of Dresden's two memorials to victims of the bombing. This second site goes unmentioned in current guides or other types of books on Dresden, although it has the size and shape of a parade ground or a secular way of the cross, roughly 820 feet (250 meters) long and 50 to 65 feet (15 to 20 meters) wide, and is bounded by several monuments to its left and right and at the farthest end. This site is the Ehrenhain, or Grove of Honor, in the municipal Heidefriedhof (Figs. 1-4) It is a twentieth-century wooded cemetery in the hills north of the city and in the western part of what is called the Dresden Heath, familiar through Caspar David Friedrich's paintings of its scenery.

By the late 1980s this Ehrenhain had come to honor what were evidently understood to be three different yet compatible groups of dead. One might say that as in a traditional Dance of Death, with Death leading representatives of the secular and ecclesiastical social hierarchy in a processional dance, these groups are lined up one behind the other. But whether the allegory actually applies here or not remains to be seen. The first section (Fig. 1: A) honors Dresden's "750 fighters against National Socialism," whose names and dates are chiseled into low walls serving as this section's boundaries to the left and right (a), which are subdivided by large, rectangular flowerbeds planted with evergreen bushes. The second section (B) consists of a circular plaza, about 65 feet (20 meters) in diameter. It is bounded by two low, semicircular walls intersected with seven pillars each. Those to the left bear the names of five cities and two villages, six of them attacked or destroyed, in widely differing senses of the wo rd, by Germans during World War II (Coventry, Dresden, Leningrad, Lidice, Oradour, Rotterdam, Warsaw); thus, Dresden's inclusion among them requires an explanation. Those to the right bear the names of seven concentration and/or annihilation camps (Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Ravensbr[ddot{u}]ck, Sachsenhausen, Theresienstadt). In the plaza's center stands an urn whose "eternal flame" does not burn permanently. There is no reference to the meaning of these place names, no inscription that might speak of perpetrators, acts, victims. This section, which implicitly and conveniently is claimed to speak for itself, dates from 1965. [6] Beyond it the way continues between another sequence of large flowerbeds planted with evergreen bushes which either indicate or literally bound the mass graves of Dresden's victims of the bombing, most of whom were buried here (C). If seen in the image of a Dance of Death, these dead come first, right behind Death. Between the planted rectangles are short walkways at whose ends benchlike blocks of sandstone are placed. Sentences, phrases, truisms are engraved into these blocks (c). Their content varies between general commemoration and explicit incorporation of the dead into a political agenda of vindication, as in: "Ihr lebt in unserem Aufbau fort" (You continue to live in our [socialist] construction; Fig. 2) . [7] At the farthest end of this section a slightly curved high wall of sandstone awaits the visitor (D). It bears the following inscription:

Wieviele starben? Wer kennt die Zahl?

An Deinen Wunden sieht man die Qual

Der Namenlosen, die hier verbrannt

Im H[ddot{o}]llenfeuer aus Menschenhand.

Dem Gedenken der Opfer

des Luftangriffes auf

Dresden am 13.-14. Febr. 1945

(How many died? Who knows the number?

In your wounds one sees the anguish

Of the nameless who burned here

In a hell's fire from man's hand.

In memory of the victims

of the aerial attack

on Dresden on Feb. 13-14, 1945)

No author of this text is mentioned here or elsewhere at the Ehrenhain. Line two may at first seem to refer to Christ, a reference rather incongruous with the image of immanent death in line four, "hell's fire from man's hand," and with the general secular and political character of this section, which was in keeping with the German Democratic Republic's secular burial practices. [8] On second thought, the reader realizes that the "You(r)" of line two is the personified city of Dresden, addressed as a wounded figure. This monument, the first erected but today the last one encountered, dates from 1948. The text is by Max Zimmering (1909-1973), a German-Jewish Communist poet who after living in exile from 1933 to 1945 returned to Dresden in 1946. [9] That by 1948 he was a member of the Saxon State Assembly and its representative to Dresden's City Council suggests at least his agreement to his poem's use for this monument, and possibly that he explicitly wrote it for this site.

Under the German Democratic Republic's governments this Ehrenhain was used for state ceremonies on the anniversaries of the bombing of Dresden. Almost inexplicably, it was last used not in February 1989 but in February 1995, during the elaborate ceremonies commemorating the end of World War II fifty years earlier. [10] The German federal government, along with foreign dignitaries, the city of Dresden, the churches, ecumenical organizations, representatives of Dresden's German and foreign partner cities, peace organizations, and political parties, all took...

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