“Hands Across Dresden”
Note: Andrew Neylon was one of three students invited to travel to Germany to present about Kurt Vonnegut’s life and work. The trip started and ended in Dresden and was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the bombing of that city during World War II. Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in February 1945, survived the bombing by being held in an underground slaughterhouse building, an ironic situation that forms the basis of his most popular novel, Slaughterhouse Five.
Every February 13 at dusk, the citizens of Dresden gather to hold hands around the restored center of their city to keep out the neo-Nazi protestors that have historically converged on their city to battle over the anniversary of the bombing. Churches all over the city peal their bells for 15 minutes while the people form a human chain around the city. This is Andrew’s report from Dresden.
When we arrived in Dresden, Germany I had no idea we’d land right in the midst of so much controversy, discussion, and protest. If I had any doubts, the collection of policemen organized outside our hotel and the 17 different police cars that drove past us on our way to the Dresden Municipal Library certainly solidified my suspicions. We were staying in the town during the anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden and ended up in the hotbed of activity.
Our purpose for being in Dresden was to present on the works of American author Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the Second World War and was held by German captors in the town of Dresden. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis to a prominent German-American family. Our Immersive Learning Project focused on creating physical and digital elements, including films, archival research, and a traveling museum exhibit for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. We were graciously asked to present our exhibit, and to speak on Vonnegut’s legacy and importance in Germany, at the Dresden Municipal Library in the week surrounding the 69th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden.
Earlier in the week the group visited the town of Münster in western Germany. Münster is the town of Vonnegut’s ancestors, and we were lucky enough to meet some Vonnegut cousins. While Münster was very important to Vonnegut’s family history, Dresden was important to his literary career. He spent the two decades following the Second World War working on a novel about the bombing of Dresden. This bombing included four air raids between February 13th and 15th of 1945, the destruction of over 1,600 acres of the city center, and the loss of more than 25,000 lives. Vonnegut survived the bombing of Dresden in a slaughterhouse alongside fellow American prisoners of war. He would name his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, after this location on the city outskirts. Before we attended the human chain event in the evening, we had the privilege of seeing the literary landmark that so many have read about.
The town has an annual event that focuses on reunion and reconciliation in the face of the great destruction caused during the firebombing. As Americans, we were all aware of our contentious place in the city and country. I was very surprised how open all of the Germans we met were in discussing the complicated issues of the Second World War, and particularly enjoyed the nuanced discourse of the Dresden Military Museum. Like Vonnegut’s work and the goals of the human chain event in Dresden, the Museum seeks to answer the question of why war continues to happen, and it advocates for reflection and understanding in the hopes that humanity will learn the complex lessons of global conflict.
Staff from the Dresden Municipal Library were gracious in welcoming us into the powder-keg of the city. We presented our research about Vonnegut and were encouraged to explore the traditions of the city and ultimately join hands with thousands of other Dresdeners, Germans, and travelers who desire world peace in a post-nuclear age.
While there was fear in the early stages of the event that neo-Nazi protesters would overshadow the goals of the peace advocates, problems were handled away from the city center. The event has drawn widespread neo-Nazi protests, but this year the protesters were denied a protest permit. Various anti-fascist groups with megaphones protested the neo-Nazis’ use of the event in the past as a political platform. The town was filled with people, and some of the city buses even came to a stop on the bridge where we stood. The streets were filled with adults and children holding balloons that advocated against fascism. Elsewhere, I saw anti-Nazi graffiti and children holding signs with swastikas crossed out. We stood on a bridge, just one small part of an enormous chain which lined both sides of the river Elbe, for several minutes as church bells rang and people remembered the horrifying actions that brought us all together.
My favorite part was that peace advocates had postcards to send to other cities, like Coventry, that were also bombed in the Second World War. It gave the entire proceeding a very strong air of historical importance, and I was struck by the myriad connections between the present and our more distant past. We were very lucky that our immersive project served not only to provide us the ability to go to Dresden and share our own information, but more broadly to be encouraged to bear witness to and participate in the very ideals we study in our classrooms.