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Wednesday, April 2

German protesters remember Dresden, reject war with Iraq

By William Boston | The Detroit News

DRESDEN, Germany - A cool wind rushes out as Joachim Zirchler, a pale-skinned Lutheran minister with a graying mustache, pushes open the heavy wooden door of the Church of the Holy Cross.

The air tastes old and musty as it winds its way down the twisted stone, across the sanctuary where the Dresden Boys Choir performs, and over the broken heads of angels. The gutted church still bears the scars of Feb. 13, 1945, when, just after 10 p.m., 650,000 bombs ignited a firestorm in the city, killing more than 100,000.

"My grave doubts about the war in Iraq are connected to this day (to) my memories as a child playing in the ruins of Dresden," Zirchler says. "We were the perpetrators because we started the war, but we were also victims."

Germany's opposition to the war in Iraq is in part a reflection of the country's own struggle to come to terms with this paradox of its wartime experience. The images of Baghdad in flames bring back memories to a generation that experienced war in Europe.

The anti-war demonstration in Dresden that drew 1,000 protesters Monday was not held in isolation. In nearby Leipzig, which is evolving into a kind of spiritual home for German resistance to the war, more than 30,000 took to the streets. Over the weekend, about 50,000 people marched for an end to the war in Berlin, the capital.

Dresden is a stark symbol of the destructive power of war. The Church of the Holy Cross, the largest church in the city, is near the Old Market, the epicenter of the firestorm from 1945. The city's heritage of baroque architecture is still reflected in the few surviving buildings.

But under Communism, little was done to restore the city's past splendor. Instead there are gaping expanses where the old city once stood. And the city is still repairing the war damage.

Loyal protester

Christina Oettel, who was born in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war, is a faithful participant in the anti-war demonstrations held every Monday.

As a young child, her family was bombed out of their home in Duisburg, an industrial city in the Ruhr Valley across the country in the west. They moved east to Penig, and were bombed out again. After the war, they settled in Dresden.

"I am afraid that a third world war is approaching," says the gray-haired religion teacher, fixing her glasses. "I already lived through World War II and still have dreams about it."

More than memory is moving Germans and Europeans as a whole to reject the war in Iraq. Germany was America's staunchest ally during the Cold War. And even here in what used to be East Germany, many people dreamed of America and rejected the Communist teachings that Western capitalism inevitably led to war.

"Now, some of the old Communists are coming out and saying: 'I told you so.' And, when we see what's happening, you can't say they're entirely wrong," says Benedikt Antkoviak, a 44-year-old technical director at a workshop for the handicapped.

There is a widespread feeling of disappointment with the United States. Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men" book has been on the best-seller list for months in Germany. Other books that describe the United States as a world power seeking domination for its own self-interest also top the list.

"For half a century, the United States stood for political and economic freedom. But today it appears more as a factor of international disorder, spreading instability and conflict wherever it can," writes Emmanuel Todd, the French author of a popular book in Germany called "World Power USA: An Obituary.''

Such sentiment, which has been gaining ground over the past several years, is unrelated to Iraq. The U.S. decision to reject treaties on reducing global warming and establishing the International Court of Justice angered Europeans as evidence of American unilateralism. The U.S. decision to go to war against Iraq without a United Nations mandate is for many an affront.

"How could the Americans just completely ignore the rest of the world?" asks Sigurd Frohner, a 61-year-old retired pastor.

Disappointment, anger voiced

Some among the crowd that has gathered at the Church of the Holy Cross in Dresden on Monday as the light fades over the Old Market speak of their disappointment in America. Others are angry at Bush and say Germany should close its airspace to the American military. A few people, too young to remember either the war or Communism, mill about, drink beer and wave banners with peace signs and rainbows.

Back inside the church, Zirchler points to the walls, which have been plastered over, but still reveal damage from the fire. The church has more than one war in its past. It got its name in 1230, when the parish received a splinter from the cross as a gift. Since then, it has been called Church of the Holy Cross. In 1760, it was completely destroyed by Prussia during the Seven Years' War.

When the church was renovated in 1955, Zirchler says, its leaders decided to leave the walls bare rather than replace the wood paneling.

"The effects of the war should be noticeable," he says. "That's the most important thing we learned growing up: War - never again."