Berlin // Dresden is bracing itself for what could be Germany's biggest neo-Nazi rally since the Second World War tomorrow when the city marks the 65th anniversary of the Allied air raid that devastated it and killed up to 25,000 people. Authorities fear the National Democratic Party (NPD) and other groups will muster even more demonstrators than for the 2009 anniversary, when at least 6,500 right-wing extremists from across Europe marched through Dresden in the largest gathering of Germany's far right since 1945.
Thousands of police are being drafted in to prevent clashes with left-wing counter-demonstrators, and to stop the rally from interrupting the official ceremonies to commemorate the destruction and rebirth of one of Europe's finest baroque cities. The attack on Dresden has come to symbolise the horror of a war in which both sides tried to break public morale through the blanket bombing of cities. Neo-Nazis regularly seize on the Dresden anniversary to rail against what they call the "bombing Holocaust", a cynical term that has caused outrage because it compares the suffering of Germans under Allied bombardment to that of the six million Jews murdered in concentration camps.
"Sixty five years ago, the city of Dresden became the most memorable victim of the Anglo-American bombing terror," the Youth Corps East Germany, a far-right group, said in a statement announcing a "funeral march" tomorrow. The regional government of Saxony, alarmed at the size of last year's demonstration, has rushed through legislation allowing it to curb freedom of assembly rights. That will permit police to prohibit a march through the city, but they have no powers to prevent a stationary rally.
The mayor of Dresden, Helma Orosz, has asked people to defy the neo-Nazis by forming a human chain of 10,000 through Dresden on Saturday. "We want to conduct a dignified remembrance ceremony for the victims of National Socialism and the Second World War, which was started by Germany," she said in a statement. "The human chain is intended to surround the inner city of Dresden like a symbolic wall protecting it from right-wing extremists."
The interior minister of Saxony, Markus Ulbig, said he hoped the number of local people attending the official ceremonies would far outnumber the right-wing demonstrators. "We won't allow this day to be misused by extremists and neo-Nazis," he said. "We'll show that the far-right distortion of history won't be tolerated." The neo-Nazis' reference to Dresden as the "German Hiroshima" has long struck a chord with people and explains why many locals have refrained from joining demonstrations to counter far-right marches through the city over the years.
Many Germans still regard the raid on Dresden, which occurred on February 13 and 14, 1945, as a war crime because the city was filled with civilian refugees who had fled advancing Soviet forces, and because Germany's defeat was imminent. It is also widely seen here as a deliberate attempt to eradicate what remained of the country's architectural treasures after five years of bombardment that had killed half a million people and reduced other major towns and cities to rubble.
Dresden was famous for its baroque architecture and cultural treasures and much of the historic city centre has been painstakingly rebuilt, including the Semper Opera, the Zwinger Palace and the protestant Frauenkirche which was reopened only in 2005, after a national effort to fund the reconstruction. The city had not sustained much bombing until the February attack which came in four waves that started shortly after 10pm on February 13, and continued for the next day. The first two assaults by Britain's Royal Air Force with high explosive and incendiary bombs caused a 1,000°C tornado of fire that tore through streets at up to 275kph, sucking people into the flames and melting asphalt, steel, glass and even brick walls.
The US air force followed on February 14 with two raids. The bombing left so many blackened corpses lying in streets and cellars, and hanging in trees and on railings, that the city authorities, worried that disease may spread, ordered about 9,000 of them to be cremated in the market square. More than 3,600 tonnes of high-explosive and incendiary bombs were dropped in the raids. Wieland Förster, 79, a survivor of the bombing, said the attack was revenge for German aggression.
"I always saw it as natural retribution for the fascist warmongering," said Mr Förster, a well-known sculptor. "I remember watching cinema newsreel footage showing the bombing of Coventry and London and I always thought they would come and get their revenge. The people of Dresden thought they would be protected by their artistic treasures. How foolish." Mr Förster was 15 at the time of the bombing. He had been forced to join the Volkssturm, a national militia of boys and old men formed in late 1944 in a futile attempt to fend off the invading Allies.
"I had been called up along with our whole school class, you couldn't refuse or they would have shot you. I was in a barracks when the attack came. I could see them dropping phosphorous bombs into the buildings. The whole city was on fire." Ever since the attack, a debate has raged about whether it was justifiable, and how many people actually died. The Nazi authorities secretly estimated that some 25,000 were killed but published a wildly inflated figure of 250,000 in a propaganda coup that has remained stuck in the national psyche.
It is surprising that there was no official attempt to estimate the death toll until 2004, when Dresden appointed a commission of historians to clear up the controversy. They reported last year that 25,000 people at most died, and that the figure was more likely to be around 20,000. The historians examined records on burials and public registers, scrutinised fire damage reports and interviewed witnesses. They also refuted a dogged rumour that Allied fighter planes had machine-gunned survivors fleeing the burning city. A ground survey found no bullets in open ground along the banks of the Elbe river.
"The trauma of the destruction combined with a certain fondness the people of Dresden had for their role as victims fed a latent anger at the British and Americans for decades," wrote Die Tageszeitung, a left-wing newspaper. In recent years, the notion of Germans as helpless victims of the war has spread beyond Dresden, with books and films focusing on the bombing of cities and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe. Several historians have warned that the trend risks giving younger generations a distorted view of their past, and trivialising Germany's guilt.
Mr Förster said the authorities had neglected to tackle neo-Nazis early on in the 1990s, when far-right support was growing in eastern Germany as a result of surging unemployment in the wake of unification in 1990. "With the neo-Nazis we've seen a repeat of the complacency the people of Dresden had before the bombing in 1945. Something bad has grown here. And the way they are using February 13 is terrible because Hitler started the war and the Germans elected him. The country paid the price for that."