2 In Europe/ There Must Be Order

“We Are Human, Right?”: A Kurt Vonnegut-Inspired Tour of the Dresden Christmas Market

Disclaimer: I traveled as a guest of the German National Tourist Office and Visit Dresden. As always, all opinions are my own.

The following is a chapter from an upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany. Read more here.

Annual Christmas markets—Weihnachtsmärkte—are as much a staple of German culture as beer and sausages. Small wooden huts that look like enlarged toy Christmas cabins start to pop up in the town center and surrounding neighborhoods at the end of November with promises of all kinds of German delicacies, namely Glühwein (hot wine with spices), various sausages, Reibekuchen (a potato pancake), sweets, and decorative crafts that make for excellent Christmas presents when returning to the States for the holiday. Street musicians come out despite the cold, ice skating rinks are set up, and Germans eat up every second of this cultural tradition.

The Saxon city of Dresden, near the eastern German border with the Czech Republic, stakes the claim as the oldest running Christmas market, not just in Germany, but the world. Like most claims of similar age, there are disputes. One imagines there were some breaks in the 20th Century. But there is no disputing that visiting Dresden for the Christmas Markets is a thing people do, so Melanie and I followed suit one early December weekend.

Dresden also happens to be the site of one of the war’s most horrific bombing campaigns, one historians still debate as to whether or not it was entirely necessary. One camp says the Nazis were already all but defeated, another will say victory had not yet been assured. Plus, if my days playing Medal Of Honor on Playstation taught me anything, you already had plenty of reasons to kill Nazis.

Before traveling to Dresden, I picked up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse-Five, which was heavily influenced by Vonnegut’s surviving the fire bombing campaign of Dresden. I also read up on an independent tour that takes travelers to the site where Vonnegut survived the bombing, so I was very much in a Vonnegut-Slaughterhouse-Five mindset when we hopped on the ICE high-speed train to Dresden. No surprise, I saw and experienced that trip through that lens. A lens of war, crisis, helplessness, destruction, and rebirth.

As I said, the firebombing of Dresden remains a controversial topic with historians debating whether the strike was justified. But the debated merits of the attack are not why I saw the city through a filter of Vonnegut. It was the massive refugee crisis that the firebombing intensified and the pictures of Dresden lying in rubble. It all looks and sounds remarkably like the Syrian Civil War. The only difference in the pictures is that we can see Syria in color. Now, in an almost too obvious test of allowing history to repeat itself, Dresden has become a stomping ground in the debate of refugee policy.

Vonnegut’s work leaves the reader feeling nihilistic. The hopelessness of his repeated “So it goes” following any mention of death or mortality beats the optimism out of you until you melt into a puddle of tragic futility. It’s how many of us feel when following current events.

I still can’t decide if the resulting words are all pretentious crap or something worthwhile. (Though I suspect that in itself is the eternal quandary of the writer, uncertainty until praise is heaped upon them.) Nonetheless, it is what it is. Vonnegut’s work greatly colored how I saw Dresden and so I offer these words as an homage to Slaughterhouse-Five and the current state of affairs in this eastern German capital.

•    •    •

The following is about a trip to Dresden, more or less. It begins like this:

The chants were growing louder in Dresden.

It ends like this:

“We are humans, right?”

The chants were growing louder in Dresden. I wondered if they were in relation to the recent deportation of asylum seekers whose applications were denied. Or perhaps it had to do with the ongoing evacuation of Aleppo in Syria. Recent death tolls hover around 450,000. Peace remains a faint hope as the international community continues to sit on their collective hands. Meanwhile, innocent Syrians will continue to die. So it goes.

Recent press for Dresden hadn’t been great. This is Saxony country, a corner of eastern Germany with its fair share of anti-refugee stories. The right-wing populist group Alternative For Germany is considerably more popular here than the rest of the country. Ironically (or not, depending on your philosophy), Dresden was home to as many as 200,000 refugees near the end of World War II and just before the infamous firebombing on February 13, 1945. So it goes.

•    •    •

Before I could follow the chants, I had a meeting with Sascha and Claudia of the Visit Dresden tourist board and Event Hotels, respectively. Sascha knows Dresden. He visited often before the wall came down in 1989 and later relocated to follow a significant other.

“You needed proof that you knew someone there before you could visit,” he said.

Dresden was firmly East German territory following the end of World War II. Soviet philosophy didn’t care much for the past. Much of the remaining rubble from the firebombing was either swiftly removed or left as dusty, daily reminders of the war. So it goes.

In place of those modern ruins, East Germans built massive block structures that epitomize Soviet architecture. Claudia took me up to the 14th floor of the Pullman Hotel for a perfectly communist view of the three Ibis hotels lining Pragerstraße. These were all state-run hotels back in the day.

•    •    •

An institution that did survive the horrors of 20th Century Germany was the German Christmas market or Weihnachtsmarkt. Specific to Dresden, the Striezelmarkt. This year Dresdners are celebrating the 582nd incarnation. Indeed, Dresden sticks out among the pack in a country that already celebrates Christmas like no other. Even on the ugliest of days, Dresdners (and tourists, I’m sure) were out in impressive numbers, enjoying a hot cup of Glühwein or any number of food stalls. The blast and spectacle of the Christmas colors surrounding the countless makeshift log cabins are a sight to see in and of themselves.

Susanne met us at the hotel to start our evening walk around Dresden. We skipped quickly past the market outside of our hotel, something Claudia had called the more American of the city’s offerings due to its commercial surroundings. Susanne shared photos of how this area looked before and after the fire bombing. The city’s impressive architecture and history were gone in the blink of an eye. Nothing but green pastures with ghostly roads crossing through. So it goes.

We found the protesting Syrians at the front of this “American” Christmas Market on Pragerstraße. Candles lit on the ground spelled out, “ALEPPO.” One held a sign in German that read, “We are humans, right?” The crowd of 50 or so chanted something similar. “We are Aleppo! We are humans!” Other chants unified the protestors against the “Krieg” or “war.” So it goes.

A number of Germans (and perhaps tourists) paused to watch the demonstration or take pictures. Most continued their stroll along Pragerstraße where, to Claudia’s point, commercial name brands line the pedestrian thoroughfare. Primark, H&M, Superdry. Not much further there was another group chanting, but for funds to celebrate prom.

For Susanne the comparison between Dresden and Aleppo was obvious. She shared photos throughout our walk of once grand structures leveled to dust. It was Aleppo, but in black and white. So it goes.

•    •    •

These Dresden ruins were left mostly untouched until the fall of the German Democratic Republic in 1990. “The past times,” as so many Dresdners call it. It’s really been in just the last 15 years that rebuilding has begun and been completed. The Zwinger was the rare exception—a Rococo-style palace that served as an exhibition gallery and festival space. East Germans, with support from the Soviet military administration, insisted on rebuilding this staple of Dresden history. Reconstruction began the same year as the bombing and was largely completed by 1963.

“We’re lucky it was done during the time of the GDR,” Susanne added. “Nobody could afford it today,” the cost of living and wages being much lower in the GDR days.

•    •    •

Elegant churches, like the tourist favorite Frauenkirche, are once again a staple at the city’s Altmarkt. Dresden’s city center again has the feel of a typically old European city with construction plans mirroring old photographs prior to the bombing.

Some, like Danilo, call this area “Disneyland.” Their heart lies further north in Neustadt, the “cool neighborhood” full of college students and older freethinkers who are happy to dive right into a philosophical discussion.

We first met Danilo at the heart of Disneyland, right in front of the King John statue outside of the Semperoper–an opera house and architectural favorite of incoming tourists. Danilo was to lead us on a Kurt Vonnegut tour through Dresden where the famous American author was held as a prisoner of war and gained some of his inspiration for Slaughterhouse-Five.

Danilo sprinkled some of his own philosophy and philosophical questions throughout the tour. He liked to dig deep into the meaning behind words.

“Why do you call it a ‘Theater of War’ in English? Is it supposed to be entertainment?”

“Why is ‘human resources’ a job? I’m not a fucking resource, I’m a human being!”

Clouds of air burst out of his mouth with every agitated annunciation in the thick of the Dresden cold. He chastised addiction to mobile devices, money, and he waved to the sky to offer a greeting to the NSA. This conversation proved more memorable than some of the history, which at times had the tendency to go in one ear and out the other. (Perhaps that’s why we seem continuously doomed to repeat it. So it goes.)

Much of the tour’s focus is placed on the firebombing itself. Namely, was it justified? Historians continue to argue over this. For some, we were at war and had to obliterate Nazism. For others, Dresden served no military purpose and the war was all but won by the Allies by the time British bombers took flight. All we know for sure is that it happened and tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives in the initial attack and the ensuing days as the city burned.

“They say wherever you walk in Dresden, you’re walking over the bones of those who were incinerated in the bombing,” punctuated Danilo.

So it goes.

•    •    •

I don’t think we appreciate how far Germany has come since those darkest chapters of the 20th Century. Living and traveling in Germany today, it’s practically inconceivable to me that this place I happily call home remained a dark spot on the globe through the early days of my life. Even the simplest of life’s pleasures are now back in Dresden. Namely, good alcohol.

Dresden is not the epicenter of German beer culture, but you could’ve told me it was after visiting Watzke Brauhaus in nearby Pieschen. Watzke had the feel of any other German brewery I’ve visited. Warm lighting, hearty meals, and a 19th-century ambiance in its wooden construction. The beer is what changes the most from region to region. This is Pilsen territory, which is all well and good, but the waitress gave me an Alt Pieschner after I asked for a recommendation. It had an amber body with a hint of the hops I had been missing from the States.

A Watzke employee met us for a tour of the brewery. Our conversation quickly turned away from technical functionality and towards the brewery’s survival through the GDR days. The communists weren’t ideologically opposed to beer, but they weren’t very good at making it.

“We’re getting some bad press at the moment,” our Watzke host lamented in quiet reference to recent deportations, “But I tell everyone that this is the best city.” His argument leaned heavily on the cultural scene of Dresden and nearby natural escapes, like Saxon Switzerland National Park. From what I could see, he wasn’t wrong about Dresden. I could very easily see why, say, refugees would want to live there.

•    •    •

Danilo met us again, this time for a Dresden Nightwalk through his neighborhood–Neustadt. Temperatures plummeted considerably with the sun long beneath the horizon. Danilo wore tall tan boots with his jeans tucked in and a furry brown sweater that looked like it was ripped right off a brown bear’s body. I imagined him as a general in a dystopian future after nuclear fallout divides remaining mankind into savage warring factions. So it goes.

A young woman from Hamburg and a middle-aged couple from Aachen joined the tour as well. Street art covered almost every wall and alleyway as soon as we made the turn onto Alaunstraße. Red anarchy “As” were on the lower-end of the creativity spectrum while intricate displays of artistic ability were just as popular.

“Architects take resources from the Earth and don’t give back. Street artists do nothing but give people something to enjoy and yet they’re the criminals,” said Danilo, continuing his philosophical lecture from earlier in the day.

We paused for a drink and more conversation. Here Danilo asked what we knew about “micro republics.”

“Not much,” I admitted.

He slapped onto the table a passport consisted of ragged pieces of laminated paper. His photo? Danilo in a horse mask.

This was the passport of the Bunte Republik Neustadt (or the Colorful Republic of Neustadt), represented by a smiling Mickey Mouse head on the German flag. The Mickey Mouse was meant to be an ironic admission of the reality that is modern-day consumerism… I think. We really needed Danilo to explain the flag.

“We acknowledge that it’s there,” he said, referencing the evils of consumerism. “But we don’t like it.”

Their primary mission seemed to be to stem the flow of unfettered capitalism in the neighborhood and offer residents a peaceful existence. I gathered this when Danilo noted the lack of a Starbucks or McDonald’s in the neighborhood as a measurement of success. Incredibly, they also had their own currency that was accepted as legal tender and even valued at a one-to-one ratio with the West German currency in the immediate years following unification. Today the republic lives on in the form of an annual festival.

•    •    •

The sun rose as much as we could tell through the thick tide of gray clouds. The Christmas markets were already opening as we left for the train station. Passersby were already helping themselves to a Thüringer Bratwurst—the kind of bratwurst we typically think of in the States.

Protesting Syrians held another anti-deportation rally over the weekend that made local and national headlines. News would soon hit that the Russian ambassador to Turkey had been assassinated. So it goes.

Later that night, a terrorist would run a truck into a crowd of pedestrians at a Berlin Christmas market, killing twelve. So it goes. Anti-immigrant populists are already blaming refugees wholesale for the crimes of an individual.

On the train home from Dresden, I looked through my photos and paused on one of the first I had taken. It was a Syrian protesting with his sign.

“We are humans, right?”

Click here for more Dresden photos.

Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in GermanyGerman language tips, and how to ride the German train system.

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  • Katie Featherstone
    December 23, 2016 at 10:21 am

    This was a fascinating read. Thanks Joe.

    • Joe Baur
      December 23, 2016 at 11:21 am

      Thanks for the kind words, Katie. Glad you enjoyed the piece. I must admit I enjoyed putting it together.