THE RAF called it Operation Thunderclap. On the night of February 13, 1945, which by macabre coincidence happened to be Fasching, the local Mardi Gras, the first of three waves of Allied bombers swept over Dresden, the Baroque jewel of Germany. Proud to be called the Florence of the Elbe, the Saxon capital was a cherished center of art, music, and learning, one of the shrines of Western civilization. It was unmarked until that moment by the awful pox of the Second World War. But by the time the third aerial assault ended, the next morning, it had been incinerated by more than 650,000 firebombs.
In a few hours of nameless horror at least 39,773 people died, roasted or suffocated or buried alive, and the actual total may have exceeded 100,000. More than 1,600 acres were destroyed, including the richly ornamented center of the old city. Bridges and spires collapsed, the magnificent Zwinger Museum burned, and the Semper Opera was reduced to rubble. The Frauenkirche, the Lutheran Cathedral of Our Lady and its famous bell-shaped dome, survived the raids, as St. Paul's in London survived the worst night of the blitz, but the next day, with its stone skeleton weakened, it collapsed with a sigh. Only a few sad shards of smoke-blackened wall remained standing.
Dresden did not die, though the Communists, who took power in 1945, didn't help much, disfiguring the city with a sterile series of Stalinist boxes along Prager Strasse, which had been the Fifth Avenue of pre-war Dresden. While Frankfurt and Munich throbbed with postwar prosperity, Dresden settled into provincial mediocrity. Much remained unrestored--indeed, in the residential neighborhoods one still occasionally sees a tree growing out of the window of a ruined apartment block--but very slowly a rebuilding program got under way, and with reunification, in 1990, it accelerated sharply.
Last summer I returned to eastern Germany and to Dresden with my wife, Betsey. A decade before, we had been eyed by hostile, Uzi-toting East German cops as we ate dinner in a gloomy Hungarian restaurant. This time we got lost on the way home from an excursion and started up a one-way street the wrong way; noticing us studying a map, a policeman pulled up, asked cheerfully where we were headed, and led us back to our digs. Standing before the Frauenkirche, we were flanked no longer by weeds and rubble but by a snappy, well-run Hilton hotel and a kind of architectural ossuary, where the stones of the church have been cleaned, numbered, and laid under canopies. As if by magic, Cold War torpor has vanished. The Taschenbergpalais, built by the Baroque wizard Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann for the mistress of Prince August the Strong, has been restored as a Kempinski hotel. The nearby Zwinger is whole once more, as is the imposing Semper, where Wagner and Weber conducted, and Strauss's Rosenkavalier and Salome were first produced. Now the Frauenkirche's turn has come. At a cost of more than $150 million, most of it from private donations, the church will be rebuilt, blending old stone with new--a monument, in the words of Ludwig Guttler, the fundraising chairman, "to the moral will in our time to heal, start anew, and shape the future.''
When completed, preferably by 2006, Dresden's eight-hundredth anniversary, the Frauenkirche will symbolize the rebirth of the historic region that lies south of Berlin and north of Bavaria. This land of Bach and Cranach, Luther and Goethe and Schiller, languished for almost half a century behind the Iron Curtain, much of it closed to tourism, the rest more labor than joy for Westerners to visit. Now, of course, it is totally accessible, and the expenditure of billions of deutschmarks has helped it begin, if only just, to catch up to the rest of Germany.
Still, pollution remains a problem, with many factories burning lignite and some, like one we passed near Leuna, south of Halle, spewing tons of sulfurous smoke into the air. The autobahns and other main highways are excellent, but turn onto secondary routes and you will find giant potholes, rough cobblestones, and sometimes miles of roads that have been washed out and not yet replaced. Outside the main cities you must search for good hotels and, especially, for restaurants whose food doesn't nail you to your chair with indigestion.
In the words of the historian Timothy Garton Ash, Germany is "a nation in its perennial condition of becoming.'' From a traveler's perspective, it is all the more fascinating for that; the joy of a trip like ours was its blend of today's problems and achievements with the treasures of yesterday and the day before.
As the seat of the Saxon court, Dresden accumulated its artistic treasures in much the same way that Berlin, home of the Prussian rulers, and Munich, where the Bavarian princes lived, built their fine collections. The Zwinger, one of the greatest of all Baroque creations, was designed by Pöppelmann as a "pleasure ground'' for the enjoyment of the royals, with six linked pavilions--one of them a carillon whose bells are made of Meissen porcelain--surrounding a vast esplanade dotted with pools and fountains. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner looked at it and exclaimed, "What exultation in these rocking curves, and yet what grace! It is joyful but never vulgar; vigorous, boisterous perhaps, but never crude.'' Outside, the buildings are adorned with gods and goddesses, nymphs, flora, and garlands; inside, the royal collections are displayed. The pride and joy of the Sempergalerie is Raphael's luminous Sistine Madonna, but there are also masterworks by Van Eyck, Vermeer, and Veronese, plus views of Dresden as it looked in the eighteenth century, painted by the Italian Bernardo Bellotto (who rather confusingly used the same pseudonym, Canaletto, as his more famous uncle, Antonio Canal). Other rooms hold the world's best collection of Meissen, the first European porcelain successfully to imitate that of China.