Dresden’s Frauenkirche, bombed by British and American forces nearly fifty years ago, is to be rebuilt: this month, work will start on the controversial reconstruction of one of Europe’s finest baroque churches. The Frauenkirche project is expected to take at least ten years and cost over £100 million.
The foundation stone of the new Frauenkirche was laid on 27 May, the twenty-fifth anniversary of its original construction. Known as the “Bell of Stone”, because of its huge cupola, the church, designed by Georg Bahr and built in 1726-43, dominated Dresden’s historic centre until the last months of World War II. From its destruction until after reunification it was deliberately left a pile of rubble, a memorial to the city’s razing, and an obligatory stop on any guided tour of Dresden. Last month, the last of the rubble was cleared. One of the most exciting discoveries was the gilded cross which had crowned the Frauenkirche’s 300-foot dome. Partly melted by the intense heat which followed the bombing raid, it is a poignant reminder of the city’s loss. The cross is likely to be kept in a shrine inside the church, with a replica placed on top of the reconstructed cupola. Other items found among the rubble include the twisted remains of one of the spire clocks and fragments of the Silbermann organ on which Bach once played. A reminder of more recent history was the cache of Nazi propaganda films which had been stored in the crypt in the 1930s.
It was on the night of 13 February 1945 that the British and American bombers pounded the historic centre of Dresden, killing at least 100,000 people. Despite receiving direct hits, the Frauenkirche initially survived the blast, but fire quickly spread inside the church and two days later it collapsed. Its 12,000-ton stone cupola, only exceeded in size by that of St Peter’s in Rome and the Duomo in Florence, crashed to the ground.
The rebuilding of the “Bell of Stone” remains controversial. Some Germans still feel that the ruins should be left as a memorial and others believe that the money would be better spent on housing or hospitals, but since reunification there has been growing enthusiasm to see the Frauenkirche rise from the ruins.
Two years ago work began on clearing the remains of the 60,000 stones. These have all been photographed, numbered, logged in a computer and their original position in the building located. It has now been decided that at least a quarter of the original stones can be reused, a much higher proportion than was originally anticipated. Local sandstone from the Elbe Valley is being quarried to fill the gaps. The new sandstone will initially stand out from the blackened original stones, emphasising the extent of the war-time destruction, but gradually the new stone will weather and blend in.
The Frauenkirche is to be restored to its appearance as in 1743. Detailed records of the building survive and paintings done in the late 1740s by Bellotto, Canaletto’s nephew, reveal details of its original exterior appearance. Inside, the baroque interior will be recreated, with its magnificent altar, the towering Silbermann, and the fine ceiling paintings of the inside of the cupola.
Initial estimates suggest that DM250 million (£101.2 million; $151.8 million), will be required although the final cost could be higher. So far, the Frauenkirche Foundation has raised DM15 million from private sources, much of it through a scheme whereby donors contribute DM2,500 for an individual, numbered stone. Commercial sponsorship has come from Dresdner Bank, Porsche and Liebherr. The most important contribution has been DM1 million raised in a campaign launched by the Chancellor Helmut Kohl to mark his sixtieth birthday. It is hoped that the German federal government and Saxony state government will eventually agree to match funds raised elsewhere.
Support is also being sought from the old enemy, Britain. The Sussex-based Dresden Trust hopes to raise at least £100,000, which will probably be spent on a specific part of the church, such as some of the windows. “We are seeking donations from the British people and would also welcome a contribution from the government”, said Dresden Trust chairman Dr Alan Russell.
The bombing of Dresden remains a highly controversial issue in the UK, supported by many as a necessary war-time operation and condemned by others as an act of destructive barbarism. Until now, “Establishment” figures have tended to back the raid, a position symbolised by the Queen Mother’s decision two years ago to unveil a statue to “Bomber” Sir Arthur Harris, who directed the saturation bombing of Nazi Germany. The Queen herself became embroiled in the controversy on her visit to Dresden in October 1992. In what was widely regarded as a major diplomatic gaffe, she drove past the blackened ruins of the Frauenkirche without making even a brief stop to pay tribute to those who had died from the British bombs.
Signs are now emerging of a major change in UK policy. The Art Newspaper understands that the Foreign Office is considering a proposal to support the Frauenkirche reconstruction and may well make a financial contribution. An announcement is likely before next February’s ceremonies to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the raid.