Ruins and riches

Semperoper, Dresden DE
Semper Opera House, Dresden

The Americans arrived in Dresden at five in the afternoon. The boxcar doors were opened, and the doorways framed the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen. The skyline was intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd. It looked like a Sunday school picture to Billy Pilgrim.

This is how author Kurt Vonnegut described his character’s (and his) first view of Dresden, Germany, in 1944.

My recent impression of Dresden’s cityscape was much the same.

The Old Town is a fascinating cluster of ornate palaces, churches, theaters, museums, monuments, and squares. Its dense arrangement of royal buildings is among the grandest in Europe.

But in the time between Vonnegut’s first look and mine, all of it was erased.

Zwinger, Dresden DE
Zwinger, Dresden

Jewel Box

In the 1700s, Dresden was the capital of a chunk of eastern Germany and most of what is now Poland. Its ruler was Augustus the Strong, king of Poland, prince-elector of Saxony, and, apparently, something of a powerlifter.

Although he was physically strong, Augustus had a soft spot for the arts. When he ascended the throne, he gathered architects and artisans from all over Europe and put them to work fulfilling his vision for the city.

Soon, the skyline of Dresden sprouted baroque and rococo landmarks, including some of the first public museums in Europe. Augustus filled the magnificent rooms of his palace with treasures and paintings, earning for Dresden its reputation as “Europe’s Jewel Box.”

Zwinger, Dresden DE
Crown Gate, Zwinger, Dresden


For a couple of centuries Dresden continued as a center for commerce and the arts.

Then, in February 1945, Britain and the United States dropped nearly four thousand tons of bombs and incendiary devices on Dresden, destroying over fifty percent of the city and killing twenty-five thousand people.

The center of Dresden was completely obliterated.

Vonnegut was a witness to the destruction. During the war, he had been captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge and transferred to Dresden.

As a POW, he was forced to work in a factory and sleep in a slaughterhouse. Vonnegut survived the city’s firebombing by taking refuge in an underground meat locker.

In his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, he describes the bombing and the aftermath:

There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

Academy of Fine Arts, Dresden DE
Academy of Fine Arts, Dresden

The justification for the attack remains controversial. Dresden’s city center was of little strategic value. Historians speculate the Allies wanted to demonstrate their superior air power and demoralize Germany. The scale of the attack, so late in the war, has led some to consider it a war crime.


Dresden, straddling the banks of the River Elbe, has a population of nearly eight hundred thousand. Since the bombings of 1945, many of its important historic buildings have been reconstructed, including the Royal Palace, Zwinger, Semper Opera House, Church of Our Lady, and Catholic Church of the Royal Court.

As a result, the new Old Town helps reimagine the 1700s when Augustus was in power and Dresden was in its glory.

River Elbe, Dresden DE
River Elbe, Dresden

I wandered among the regal monuments. Locals and visitors enjoyed sausages, pretzels, and beer under linden-tree canopies. Long paddle wheelers lined the riverbank. A golden statue of Augustus on horseback appears to be galloping toward Poland.

I started at the Royal Palace, the home of Saxon’s royalty for four hundred years, where Augustus showed off his opulent collections. The 1945 bombings destroyed most of the palace; the valuables, however, had been safely relocated.

Today, the palace houses several museums, including the Historic and New Green Vaults, and the Royal Armory. The armory exhibits a huge collection of polished armor and weaponry from the 1500s, much of it posed in fighting stance.

But the real jewels are the two vaults, the largest collection of treasures in Europe.

In the Historic Green Vault, Augustus showcased over three thousand sparkly valuables in a suite of mirror-lined chambers trimmed in gold. The rooms are as flashy as the jewelry.

Catholic Church of the Royal Court, Dresden DE
Catholic Church of the Royal Court, Dresden

It is an astounding collection of extravagant curiosities, ranging from goblets made from gilded ostrich eggs to jewel-encrusted swords to mother-of-pearl figurines. Every royal punch bowl, clock, and hairbrush has been bedazzled with precious metals and gemstones.

The more subtle New Green Vault exhibits treasures of amber, ivory, pearl, silver, gold, and gemstones in neutral settings. One of the highlights is a clasp, featuring the forty-one carat Dresden Green Diamond, the largest and finest natural-green diamond in the world.

The vault also displays a miniature diorama depicting the birthday party of a Mogul emperor. Crafted over seven years, the diorama features tiny figurines made of rubies, emeralds, pearls, and over four thousand diamonds. It cost Augustus more to build the diorama than one of his castles.

Statue of Augustus the Strong, Dresden DE
Statue of Augustus the Strong, Dresden

Party house

The Zwinger is an extravagant complex resembling a fancy fortress. No one ever lived there. Instead, it was party central for the royals. The outer walls surround lavish pavilions, which hold some of Augustus’s collected treasures. In the courtyard are gardens, fountains, and an orangery.

The compound was mostly destroyed by the 1945 bombings. However, the huge art collection had been previously evacuated for safekeeping. Today, the rebuilt Zwinger is a popular venue for concerts and festivals.

Several museums are housed at the Zwinger, including the Old Masters Picture Gallery, exhibiting hundreds of paintings from the Italian and Low Country renaissances. Its collection includes masterpieces by Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, van Dyck, and Vermeer.

Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, Dresden DE
Detail of cherubs, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, Dresden

The gallery’s prized possession is Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. As an afterthought Raphael added two bored cherubs to the bottom of the painting. They are now famous in their own right, appearing on everything from fridge magnets to postage stamps.

Royal parade

One landmark that incurred only minimal damage from the bombings is the Procession of Princes, a mural depicting seven centuries of Saxon royalty. The parade of portraits includes not only kings, but anonymous craftsmen, farmers, and children.

The mural was originally painted in the late 1800s on the outer wall of a courtyard. In the early 1900s, the painting was replaced with twenty-three thousand porcelain tiles. This huge work is over a football field in length and around 2½ stories in height. The tiles were fired at even higher temperatures than the firestorm.

Procession of Princes, Dresden DE
Procession of Princes, Dresden

Cross purposes

After the bombings, Dresden’s Church of Our Lady lay in rubble for nearly fifty years. The church, long a city landmark, became a symbol of the city’s destruction.

The original church was finished in 1743. At the time, the placement of its twelve-thousand-ton dome on just eight pillars was considered an engineering marvel.

Finally, in 1990, a campaign was launched to generate the funds needed to rebuild Our Lady. Philanthropists from countries around the world, including Britain, covered most of the cost.

About a third of the new church was built using blackened stones retrieved from the rubble. The original cross from the church’s roof was found in the wreckage. Twisted and charred, it now stands inside the church.

Frauenkirche, Dresden DE
Church of Our Lady, Dresden

On the altar is a cross made from nails found in the smoking ruins of a bombed church in Coventry, England. During World War II, Coventry was flattened as completely as Dresden. Now the two communities are sister cities.

British donors also funded the fabrication of a replica cross for the roof. The lead metalsmith on the project was Alan Smith.

“I spent up to ten hours a day working in the sweltering heat of my workshop, eight months long,” Smith said. “I hammered out the steel and copper of the cross using old smithing techniques from the eighteenth century. At the end I covered it with three layers of gold leaf, to protect it for eternity.”

Sixty years earlier, Smith’s father, a British pilot, participated in the bombing of Dresden.

Potter and Pinocchio

My accommodation in the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber was in a small hotel over a family-run grocery store. The tracksuit-clad owner, Klaus, led me past the canned goods to the stairs in the back.

Market Square, Rothenburg DE
Market Square, Rothenburg

Sometimes he leads tourists on runs through the streets, but not today. His ankle was bothering him, he said, as he lugged my bag up the steep, twisty staircase. Breakfast is served in the garret, featuring fresh fruit from the grocery.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber (red fortress above the Tauber River) was founded in the 1100s around a castle, which was later destroyed. The walls and towers around the town were built in the 1200s. The stained-glass windows behind the main altar in Saint James’s Church are originals from the 1300s.

Rothenburg is considered Germany’s, if not Europe’s, best preserved medieval town. Many of its houses, market squares, and fountains were in place in the 1300s. It’s a popular stop for day-trippers shopping for Christmas ornaments, cuckoo clocks, and tankards.

Marcus Tower, Rothenburg DE
Marcus Tower, Rothenburg

The half-timbered town looks like a movie set. In fact, several movies have been filmed in Rothenburg, including scenes from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, parts 1 and 2.

The town’s fairytale quaintness inspired the look of the village in the 1940 Disney animation, Pinocchio.

It also inspired the Nazis who regarded Rothenburg as the ideal German town. Under Nazi guidance, Rothenburg embraced its role as the German utopia by preserving its architecture, politicizing its tourism, and purifying its culture. In 1938, the town expelled its Jewish citizens.

Allied bombs destroyed half of Rothenburg’s medieval wall, several towers, and hundreds of houses. As happened in Dresden, international philanthropists paid for the restoration.

Chugging for survival

After walking a section of the ramparts, I visited the Imperial City Museum, housed in a former convent from 1258. In a window in its archaic kitchen is a lazy Susan, which allowed nuns to rotate food to the poor.

Rothenburg DE

Among an extensive collection of weapons, including a hunting ensemble that once belonged to Marie Antoinette, the museum displays a large tankard. It is the Meistertrunk, the tankard that saved the town.

During the Thirty Years’ War, Protestant Rothenburg was attacked and conquered by Catholic forces. The victorious commander, the Count of Tilly, condemned the town’s councilmen to death.

Fearing for their lives, they offered him a conciliatory drink of local wine in a tankard holding over 3¼ liters (almost seven pints).

The count was humored by the gesture and offered to save the city—if any of the councilmen could chug a full tankard.

One of the council stepped forward and, to the count’s and everyone’s surprise, emptied the stein in one long swig.

The legend makes a nice story, but it may have been invented to boost tourism. A play about the tankard, Der Meistertrunk, premiered in 1881.

Rothenburg DE

Every year during the four-day Imperial City Festival, hundreds of citizens don period costumes and take part in historical processions and folk dances. Der Meistertrunk is performed daily during the festival.

Monumental effort

After breakfast in the hotel’s garret, I took the back stairway into the grocery store and checked out next to the baked goods. Cash only.

On the way to Würzburg, the train passed wind farms, solar panels, and hunting stands. I arrived in the city on market day. A long line queued at a stall in Market Square for bratwurst-and-mustard sandwiches.

The massive Marienberg Fortress looms over the city from vineyards on the hill. A mostly naked Adam and Eve guard the entrance to the Chapel of Saint Mary. The bridge over the River Main was crowded with local residents sipping glasses of white wine.

Chapel of Saint Mary, Würzburg DE
Chapel of Saint Mary, Würzburg

Würzburg is an old town, first settled in the 300s. The first church on the site of the present Würzburg Cathedral was built as early as 788 and consecrated by Charlemagne. The current River Main bridge was completed in 1533 to replace an earlier bridge dating to 1133.

In 1945, nearly ninety percent of Würzburg was wiped out in just seventeen minutes by British bombers. Five thousand people perished. Würzburg was targeted because it was a transport hub.

The major attraction in Würzburg is the Residence, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Construction of the huge palace was completed in 1744. The halls, rooms, and chapel are richly decorated with paintings, sculptures, stucco ornaments, and tapestries.

On the ceiling above the grand staircase is the largest fresco in the world. It portrays the animals and landscapes of the four continents known at the time—Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.

I took the tour, walking from room to room, each more marvelous than the last. On the way out, a simple placard recognizes John D. Skilton, an American stationed in Würzburg after World War II.

Würzburg DE

When Skilton arrived in Würzburg, most of the roof of the Residence had been destroyed by fire, leaving the palace’s magnificent frescoes exposed to the elements.

For several weeks, Skilton looked for lumber to repair the roof. He eventually found a stockpile of logs, which he arranged to float down the River Main. With his own money, Skilton hired a sawmill to cut the logs. Then, he supervised a team of German engineers and carpenters who repaired the roof, thus protecting the palace’s priceless interiors.

Skilton was a Monuments Man.

The Monuments Men was a group of American and British men and women—museum curators, art historians, librarians, architects, and artists—charged with saving the cultural achievements of western civilization from the war in general and the Nazis in particular.

Ceiling fresco, Residence, Würzburg DE
Ceiling fresco, Residence, Würzburg

The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section worked with Allied powers to protect works of art from damage.

Toward the end of the war, it conducted the “greatest treasure hunt in history,” as its agents tracked down cultural valuables looted by the Nazis and hidden in caches across Europe.

The program is the subject of the 2014 movie, The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett.

For his efforts, Skilton received the Order of Merit from Germany. He is, according to the placard in the palace, “the savior of the Residenz.”

3 thoughts on “Ruins and riches

  1. Great review Kirk. It appears you had a great time. I had dinner tonight with a friend that has been to Dresden back shortly after the reunionification.

    I look forward to catching up with you when you return to the States.


  2. Sadly, the Green Vault in Dresden’s Royal Palace was recently broken into and robbed. Around one hundred pieces of historic jewelry, part of the collection created in the 1700s by Augustus the Strong, were stolen. Art experts fear the priceless jewels will never be recovered.

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