The Old Made New

East Germany's treasures are once again a delight to see

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.

The Albertinum is another great museum, a fifteen-minute stroll away, down by the Elbe; you can get there by way of the Brühlsche Terrasse, overlooking the river. Four rooms of the Albertinum's Green Vault are crammed with bibelots created by goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewelers from Dresden and elsewhere, mostly in the eighteenth century. Worked in pearls, rubies, emeralds, diamonds, rock crystal, enamel, tortoiseshell, gold, platinum, and silver in unimaginable quantities, they bear witness to the era's taste for wretched excess. Yet the best of them, such as the Court of the Great Mogul, a minute evocation of an Indian birthday party, transform what might be a mere curiosity into art. The 137 golden figures of this piece took the Dinglinger brothers of Dresden, the Cellinis of their day, seven years to make. Older pieces, including Luther's ring and Ivan the Terrible's drinking bowl, are also on view.

Even if you can't get a ticket for the opera, you should take one of the tours of Gottfried and Manfred Semper's wonderful, ennobling theater. We saw it in the company of a charming old man named Gerd Straumer, the chief of the house's guide service. He had stayed up all night brushing up on his English, a language he had not spoken, he said, since high school half a century ago. He did fine, and when I blushed as he recounted the details of the 1945 attack, he protested gently, "But Hitler started the war, not the Americans, and you are not Bomber Harris"--the British commander who sent the planes to Dresden. Twice burned and twice rebuilt, the opera seats 1,323 people in an elegant nineteenth-century ambiance of gold, burgundy, beige, and white. A 1.9-ton brass chandelier hangs in the center, inscribed with the names of Wagner, Gluck, Mozart, and Meyerbeer, among others. But much here is unobtrusively modern, too--wooden panels have been replaced by plaster replicas as a precaution against fire, and the stage is a technological marvel, with sixteen square platforms that can be raised, lowered, or tilted, plus a revolving circular platform in the rear, all controlled by the latest in electronic devices.

Dresden is a good walking town, and a few sorties from the center demonstrate the changes the city is going through. Old, soot-blackened buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with Communist-modern blobs and, on our visit, West German banks set up temporarily in prefabs. Across the river we found a neighborhood in transition. The Rähnitzgasse, in a pedestrian precinct, is lined with lavish Baroque townhouses. Some have been lovingly restored, such as No. 19, which is now the Bülow Residenz, a thirty-two-room hotel with an outstanding restaurant called the Caroussel, and No. 17, with a beautiful façade embellished with stucco cherubs and pineapples.

Dresden is also a terrific excursion center. One day we headed southeast along the Elbe to a promontory called the Bastei, which affords spectacular views over the cliffs and gorges of Saxon Switzerland, the region that lies between Dresden and the Czech border. You can pick out the silhouette of Königstein, a castle so isolated on its pinnacle that it was used for centuries to house political prisoners. Pillnitz, another of Pöppelmann's triumphs, can be visited on the way back. In a burst of late-Baroque playfulness the architect combined Corinthian columns with pagoda-like roof lines and cupolas in this pleasure palace. It sounds awful but isn't. Another day we headed for Meissen itself, twelve miles northwest of Dresden, a pretty old town hugging the left bank of the Elbe. The famous factory is open to visitors, you can have lunch at the sixteenth-century Weinstube Richter, and you might want to head home by way of the Moritzburg, a striking ocher-and-white chateau with massive round towers at the corners, surrounded by an artificial lake.

AS we drove out of Dresden for a week-long loop through the heartland, we passed the spot in the suburbs where in 1980 poor Dresdeners, out scavenging with gunnysacks for lumps of coal that had fallen from the backs of trucks, had shaken their fists at our big capitalist car. Now the spot is marked by a billboard advertising American cigarettes, and BMWs and Volkswagens sped by as we pulled over. No matter how much they may grumble, the Ossies--East Germans--have grabbed the brass ring; alone among the people of the former satellite states, they had an automatic link not only to prosperous cousins in West Germany but through them to the European Union.

Our first stop was Weimar, in Thuringia. To foreigners, the town's name recalls the ill-fated government based there, which flourished briefly between the wars and then succumbed to hyperinflation. But to Germans, this pretty town is a cultural and spiritual capital. Goethe wrote Faust there and for twenty-six years directed the renowned National Theater, and his friend Schiller moved to Weimar in 1799. Their houses, restored, are open to the public. Both Bach and Liszt served as choirmasters at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which can boast as well of the great Crucifixion triptych, the last masterpiece of Lucas Cranach the Elder. In the town museum there are more works by this great contemporary of Dürer's. But Weimar is pre-eminently a town for strolling. Visit the market square, where stands overflowing with fruits and vegetables jostle with bratwurst carts and flower vendors; wander down back streets, overhung by red-tile roofs; stop for a quick lunch at Zum Zwiebel, a homey little pub tucked into a corner near the church, with strings of onions hanging everywhere; explore the Schillerstrasse, a pedestrian street that leads through the center of this most pleasant of the region's towns. Here and throughout Germany you will find English widely spoken.

Not far west of Weimar is another picturesque old town, Erfurt, a photographer's delight; it is the center of the eastern German horticultural trade and in spring and summer looks every inch of it. Erfurt is worth visiting if only to see the Renaissance Krämerbrücke, lined with half-timbered houses and antique shops, and to indulge yourself at San Remo, which must be the best ice-cream parlor north of the Alps. Another forty-five minutes' drive to the west lies Eisenach and its great castle, the Wartburg, set on a crag to the south. History's hand wrote large here. Bach was born in Eisenach; Luther hid from a hostile Pope in the Wartburg, translating the Bible from Greek into German and paving the way for the Reformation; and Walther von der Vogelweide, Germany's most famous minstrel, won a celebrated song contest in the castle in 1207, immortalized in Wagner's Tannhäuser. The castle can be seen only on guided tours; it's more than worth it, even if you don't speak German.

My pleasure in the Wartburg was extinguished by a bleak early-morning visit to Buchenwald, hidden amid the tranquil beeches of the Ettersberg north of Weimar. Here 65,000 men, women, and children from thirty-five countries met their deaths, and 200,000 others suffered. I went because I felt compelled to. The prisoners' barracks have disappeared, only the outlines of their foundations remaining. The gatehouse bears the slogan "Jedem das Seine" ("To Each His Own"), and the watchtowers, searchlights, and crematorium ovens are equally chilling. It embarrasses me to admit it, but the rest of Buchenwald reminded me of nothing so much as a sturdy summer camp, and I left thinking how right Hannah Arendt had been to write of the banality of this monstrous evil.

LEAVING Weimar, we drove north through the Harz Mountains (the birdseed people added a 't' to the name) to the little town of Quedlinburg, which has enjoyed two brief bursts of celebrity in an otherwise obscure history. In the tenth century an abbey was founded there by Otto I, the Germanic King who took up the job of empire-building where Charlemagne left off. His time and that of his successors were an epoch of artistic brilliance, as attested by both the austerely magnificent Romanesque church of St. Servatius and the exquisite medieval objects in its treasury. The jewel-encrusted twelfth-century Samuhel Gospel cover, a seventh-century ivory comb, a tenth-century reliquary box, and other glorious pieces dwelt in Quedlinburg for hundreds of years, with the exception of a brief hiatus during the Napoleonic era. But in May of 1945, when other treasures were returned to the cathedral from wartime storage in nearby caves, the best were found to be missing. Not for almost fifty years did anyone learn that they had been stolen by a young American lieutenant, Joe T. Meador, of Whitewright, Texas. After he died, in 1980, his family tried to sell them, setting off an international rumpus that ended, happily, in the objects' triumphant return to St. Servatius. Viewing them in their ancient ecclesiastical setting, I found it almost impossible to imagine them secreted in some small-town Texas bank vault.

We also stopped that fine summer day in Naumburg, whose insufficiently celebrated cathedral combines Romanesque and Gothic elements. The sculptures of the church's benefactors, carved in the west choir by an unknown master, mark the summit of the stone carver's art in medieval Germany. Their original polychrome decoration is intact. The individualism of the faces, the serene seriousness of their expressions, the tactile magnificence of their garments, is quite unforgettable. The portrait of Uta, the lovely wife of Margrave Ekkehard II, still haunts me.

Then Wittenberg. Martin Luther, professor of moral philosophy there, set in motion in 1517 one of the mightiest movements in humanity's spiritual history by nailing to the doors of the palace church his ninety-five theses condemning the abuses of the Catholic Church. Luther's tomb and that of his lieutenant, Melanchthon, are inside the church, and fine statues of the two stand in the marketplace. But the doors themselves were destroyed by French gunners in 1760, and the bronze replacements, on which the theses were duly inscribed, date from 1858.

That isn't the only letdown in Wittenberg, which, as the son of two graduates of Wittenberg University in Ohio, I had long dreamed of visiting. Though the town is well preserved and its Rathaus splendid, there is something sad about Wittenberg, as if no one cared much about it. The spirit of Goethe lives in Weimar, that of Bach in Leipzig, but Luther, such a brooding presence in my childhood catechism, seemed curiously absent from Wittenberg's forlorn, almost flowerless streets.

WE left Leipzig for last. During the long Communist nightmare this city of half a million, which was East Germany's biggest after Berlin, remained more open to the West than others, thanks mainly to its trade fairs, which date back to the twelfth century, and its dozens of book publishers. Leipzig was instrumental in the overthrow of the old regime, with Kurt Masur, then the conductor of the city's Gewandhaus Orchestra and now the music director of the New York Philharmonic, playing a prominent political role. The modern opera house and concert hall come up short on charm if long on acoustics, and much of the rest of the town is ugly, but the Altstadt, or old city, has a few well-restored buildings (the old Rathaus, 1556; the old produce exchange, 1687; the Romanus house, 1704). For me, this is above all Bach's city. If you can, visit the oft-restored St. Thomas's Church for vespers on Sunday, when the Thomanchor, which Bach led for twenty-seven years, sings his cantatas and motets. Bach's tomb in the church is marked with a plain three-foot-by-six-foot slab bearing only his name. Across the street stands a period house, now a small but excellent Bach museum.

The Fine Arts Museum may not be the Zwinger, and the exterior looks as if someone dumped a sack of coal dust over it, but we were excited by the pictures and the quality of their installation--a fine Van der Weyden Visitation, a great Hals, a greater Dürer of a girl with braids, a Beckmann portrait of a merchant. In the last gallery note is taken of the 394 works confiscated in 1937 by the Nazis, in their campaign against "degenerate art," with photographs of the paintings and a sad acknowledgment that most have been lost.

Mostly we wandered, the way one does in big cities, picking out remnants of the recent past, such as broken neon signs touting Bulgarian wines, amid reminders of a more sedate time, including the coffeehouse Zum Kaffeebaum, at Kleine Fleischergasse 4, with a Turk depicted over the doorway offering coffee to a cherub. The Mädler Passage, Leipzig's showplace, is an animated T-shaped arcade. Off it open the Auerbachs Keller, a restaurant mentioned by Goethe in Faust, and all sorts of smart, tempting shops, including the doll dealer Die Puppengalerie (at No. 21) and, just outside, at Neumarkt 16, Schulze's Delikatessen. Slowly renovation is gaining the upper hand over dilapidation, and the posters displayed at every street corner--"Leipzig Kommt!" ("Leipzig Is Coming!")--seem well within the bounds of acceptable civic boosterism.

Sipping a last drink on our last night, at the Inter-continental Hotel, we met a young bartender (what else?) who seemed to us to grasp the new East as well as anyone we had talked to. "I'm a West Berliner,'' he said. "I came here because this is where the opportunities are going to open up. I belong here now. You can only tell me from my Ossie friends by our accents, not by our clothes or what we do or what we want out of life. With the older ones, it's different. They carry East Germany around in their heads, and they will never really get rid of it."

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1996; The Old Made New; Volume 277, No. 4; pages 46-54.