DRESDEN, Germany – Germany's president called Thursday for his countrymen to stand up to extremism and nationalism, warning that hatred and a desire for authoritarianism are on the rise again in Europe, including in his country.
Speaking at a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden by allied forces at the end of World War II, Frank-Walter Steinmeier said it was important to recall who had started the devastating conflict.
The man-made firestorm and the destruction of large parts of the baroque eastern German city have become a rallying point for those seeking to portray Germans as victims in the war.
“It was Germans who began this gruesome war,” Steinmeier said. “We won't forget the German guilt,” he added. “And we stand by the responsibility that remains.”
Still, Steinmeier said those who perished in the Dresden bombings deserved to be commemorated, just like those killed by Nazi Germany's aerial bombings.
Historians say the Feb. 13 to 15, 1945, bombardment of Dresden by American and British planes killed up to 25,000 people, including refugees and prisoners of war. The toll was comparable to those from aerial bombings of other large German cities.
German nationalists have for decades promoted the myth that as many as half a million civilians were killed in Dresden. Most recently the idea has been taken up by members of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which has grown into a significant force in German politics since its founding seven years ago.
The party, which goes by the German acronym AfD, has moved steadily to the right over the years. Bjoern Hoecke, a regional AfD leader who once called for a “180-degree turn” in the way Germany commemorates its past, was once considered a fringe figure but now represents the party's core.
After his speech, Steinmeier joined the Duke of Kent, a cousin of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, and thousands of Dresdeners to form a human peace chain in a gesture of reconciliation and to commemorate the victims of Nazi atrocities and mass bombings by all sides during World War II.
Also among those forming the human chain in icy rain near the rebuilt Dresden Frauenkirche church were Gisela Hahn and Gottfried Koehler.
“We've had 75 years of peace in Europe,” said Koehler, who recalled seeing Dresden burning from afar as a small child. “That's why we're here.”