Germany Dresden Anniversary

People gather in front of the Frauenkirche for the opening event of the human chain on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the destruction of Dresden in the Second World War, in Dresden, Germany, Thursday Feb. 13, 2020. A 1945 allied bombing campaign reduced the centre of Dresden to rubble leaving up to 25,000 people dead. (Jens B'ttner/dpa via AP)

DRESDEN, Germany — Germany’s president called Thursday for his countrymen to stand up to extremism and nationalism, warning that hatred and a desire for authoritarianism are on the rise again in Europe, including in his country.

Speaking at a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden ‘s bombing by allied forces at the end of World War II, Frank-Walter Steinmeier said it was important to recall who had started the devastating conflict.

The man-made firestorm, vividly captured by American author Kurt Vonnegut in his book “Slaughterhouse - Five,” and the destruction of large parts of the baroque eastern German city have become a rallying point for those seeking to portray Germans as victims in the war.

“It was Germans who began this gruesome war,” Steinmeier said.

“We won’t forget the German guilt,” he added.

Still, Steinmeier said those who perished in the Dresden bombings deserved to be commemorated, just like those killed by Nazi Germany’s aerial bombings in Guernica, Coventry, Naples, Le Havre and the Polish town of Wielun, where 1,200 people were killed by the Luftwaffe in the first hours of World War II.

Historians say the Feb. 13-15, 1945, bombardment of Dresden by American and British planes killed up to 25,000 people, including refugees and prisoners of war. The toll was comparable to those from aerial bombings of other large German cities.

German nationalists have for decades promoted the myth that as many as half a million civilians were killed in Dresden. Most recently the idea has been taken up by members of the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which has grown into a significant force in German politics since its founding seven years ago.

The party, which goes by the German acronym AfD, has moved steadily to the right over the years. Bjoern Hoecke, a regional AfD leader who once called for a “180-degree turn” in the way Germany commemorates its past, was once considered a fringe figure but now represents the party’s core.

Last week, the far-right party threw German politics into turmoil by unexpectedly backing a centrist candidate as governor in Thuringia state. The fumbled reaction to the situation by two other political parties — including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats — triggered widespread outrage and numerous resignations, including that of Merkel’s heir apparent.

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