“When does the future begin?” asks the opening text of an installation at Dresden’s baroque Japanese Palace. It’s a quizzical start to “The Invention of the Future,” an exhibition housed in one of the most storied buildings of Dresden’s past. Built in 1715 to accommodate its occupant’s collection of Japanese porcelain, its pillars shaped like hulking Oriental strongmen, the Palace is a maximalist setting for an exhibit that tends toward chic minimalism. “The Invention of the Future” juxtaposes the words of young Saxons, drawn from an opinion survey of 15 to 35 year olds, with treasured pieces from across the Dresden State Art Collections. In one room, old golden timepieces are set against teens’ worries about not living up to their parents’ timelines; in another, modernist paintings depict the horrors of 20th-century warfare as respondents fret about its resurgence in the 21st. In yet another, a young Saxon argues that the categorical imperative is the best basis for a moral life, while a pair of Immanuel Kant’s well-worn shoes are preserved in glass below.
Surveying the youths’ responses, one finds that two fears loom largest: war and climate change. This is hardly a surprise; one week before my trip to Dresden, young voters helped Germany’s Green Party surge to second place in the EU parliamentary elections, its best ever showing. The thoughts I read in the Japanese Palace—denunciations of corporate greed and nationalism, appeals to world peace and unity—betray the semi-pacifist sensibility that lies at the heart of the Greens’ political appeal. This is a worldview present in more dilute forms across Germany’s political spectrum, and it’s either admirably idealistic or dangerously naive, depending on whom you ask. For me on this day, walking the streets of a city that was famously reduced to rubble by firebombing, it is at least understandable.
I am in Dresden for a mere two days, taking in the riches of its world-class art collections and trying to understand something of its history. I have meetings with leaders in the art world, a rendezvous with a local politician, and a few scattered hours to explore Dresden’s streets on my own. But even in my brief jaunt through the city, trained like a tourist on the treasures of Dresden’s past, I keep returning to this question of its future.
The exhibition tells one story, and in a way it’s comforting. The myriad survey responses coalesce into a familiar portrait: a Germany that is thoroughly penitent for its past, but secure and prosperous enough to enjoy the luxury of privileging soft power over hard power, and environmental worries over existential ones. Earnest Greens might object that climate change is an existential risk, that a return to large-scale war, too, can never be ruled out. But the very expression of these anxieties suggests that these lessons have been internalized, that the demons have been put away. Activists hankering for sustainability, young people repudiating the horrors of the past: these are the telltale signs of a healthy postwar Germany, a place where history is settled and all the right lessons have been learned. The kids will be alright.
Except that this is not the only story on offer in Dresden—and the more I explore, the more I see cracks in the surface.
“Everyone here is getting nuts about the climate issue,” Antje Hermenau tells me over drinks that same night on Dresden’s historic town square. She would know: a native of nearby Leipzig and longtime resident of Dresden, Hermenau was a Bundestag member for the Greens soon after reunification. But she has since broken with the national party, to great public controversy, seeing the Greens as disconnected from the fundamental concerns of average Saxons. Her complaints can sound familiar. Today’s Greens are urbane bohemians who look down on rural residents, she says, intent on regulating the diesel cars that sustain their livelihoods out of existence. In Bundestag hearings they grandstand about the necessity of installing unisex toilets in Berlin while ignoring the economic plight of their countrymen.
Yet there’s a Saxon variant to her familiar critique of overreaching liberal elites, one that implies a particular reading of local history. Top-down diktats from Berlin are anathema to this part of Germany, Hermenau tells me, with its traditions of strong provincial electors and locally rooted kings. For her, Saxony—a state at Germany’s eastern frontier, bordering the Czech Republic and Poland—is a unique Central European success story. Saxony became the backbone of German productivity beginning in the 11th century, she says, as German-speaking migrants came from Bavaria and Hesse to this land that had been the domain of the Slavic Sorbs. The region’s wealth was forged through honest labor, the Protestant work ethic, and the Mittelstand model of locally rooted businesses. From this soil sprang great leaders—like Martin Luther, who translated the Bible into the local dialect in the 16th century, and Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony, who became Dresden’s royal benefactor at the turn of the 18th—and competition with neighboring states only made Saxony stronger. Until, that is, this natural order was disrupted by the horrors of the 20th century and the globalizing delusions of the 21st.
I have my doubts about this pat narrative of Saxon exceptionalism, with its convenient elisions and nostalgic implications. To smooth the rough edges of Saxon history, as Hermenau does, requires glossing over some ugly episodes—bloody wars of religion and empire, bruising defeats like the 1760 burning of Dresden by Frederick the Great—and occasionally entering into fantasy. At one point, Hermenau even likens her Saxon kinsfolk to the sturdy dwarves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Yet I’m struck by how effectively she sells this populist narrative, with a cheery conviction that is disarming enough to make you overlook its import. Hermenau wants to reclaim pride in certain elements of Saxon history while repudiating the worst of it. In practice, that entails a quarrel with key pillars of the postwar narrative that has bound not just Saxony but Germany as a whole.
For Hermenau, Germany’s 20th century was the disruption, not culmination, of 900 years of history. The Nazi era was one of discontinuity, compounded by the discontinuity of the communist regime that followed. And the experience of both regimes in succession has led to profound cultural dislocation—in the former East Germany, yes, but even more so in the West.
Hermenau has no nostalgia for the communist era. She sees the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as an illegitimate regime that was brutally imposed upon a traditionally conservative populace; she herself was on the front lines opposing it in 1989. But when she talks about the Cold War legacy, she inverts the usual formula: It was the West, not the East, whose development went off track. Even under communist subjugation, she tells me, East Germans knew who they were: 1989 was a “Christian and conservative revolt,” she says, “not a leftist one.” But West Germans, by virtue of their Cold War alliance with the West, came to embrace an identity that was not their own. No longer identifying with Mitteleuropa, they rebranded themselves as Westerners, full stop—and became cut off from their roots and their kinsmen.
She may have a point, if recent election results are any indicator. While the Greens surged to new national prominence this year, Saxony remains a stronghold of Alternative for Germany (AfD), the right-wing populist party that rails against migration, multiculturalism, and out-of-touch elites in Berlin. In this year’s EU elections, AfD was the top vote-getter in Saxony, earning 25.3 percent of the vote. Hermenau’s sympathetic outreach to AfD voters—partly through her volunteer work with the unassociated Freie Wahler (Free Voters)—has earned her the ire of many former Green colleagues.
Hermenau is neither a member of AfD nor a simple apologist for the party. She admits the existence of genuine racists and neo-Nazis within its ranks. But she also believes the party is doing its best to purge them, and that its members have legitimate grievances. At times, the party leadership has used Hermenau’s arguments to buttress their own. On the floor of the Bundestag last year, AfD co-chairman Alexander Gauland delivered a harangue against violence by refugees in Germany and paused to approvingly cite Hermenau’s own words about the injustice of migrants receiving benefits without working. For many of her critics, that kind of common cause is enough to dismiss Hermenau as an AfD stooge.
Chatting with Hermenau for two hours, as she relays earnest anecdotes about finding common ground with disaffected voters, I find it hard to take that guilt-by-association impulse seriously. There is nothing malicious about her. Yet I do wonder about the common thread that binds the two figures. Gauland infamously said that the Nazi regime was just a “speck of bird shit” in a thousand years of “successful German history.” Hermenau argues, in her own way, that the Nazi and Soviet periods were a sudden rupture with the natural, healthy order of Saxon life. Is Gauland’s view a through-the-looking-glass version of Hermenau’s? The question for Germany is whether some kind of benign recovery of German historical pride is possible in the 21st century, or whether, as many fear, all roads lead to Hitlerism.
There’s another historical narrative on offer in Dresden, which combines a resentment of the dominance of Westerners with a soft form of Ostalgie. In the eyes of some former East Germans, reunification brought a form of carpetbagging cultural imperialism, as Wessis flocked to the East to take over its highest institutions of culture while neglecting the contributions of the locals.
This is a debate that has lately played out in dramatic fashion in Dresden’s art world. On my first day in Dresden, I meet with Dirk Burghardt, the managing director of the Dresden State Art Collections, which oversees 15 museums spread across the city. Sitting in his office in Dresden Castle, with a view onto the Zwinger Palace, he tells me of grand ambitions and coming attractions. On offer this season: a classic Vermeer now restored to include a Cupid element overpainted after the artist’s death, a major exhibition called “Rembrandt’s Mark” that looks at the Dutch master’s printmaking, and a re-opening of Dresden’s royal state apartments timed for their 300th anniversary. More modern tastes are accommodated, too. Pulling art books off his shelves, Burghardt tells me proudly of the museum’s Archive of the Avant Garde, a vast research repository of 1.5 million items, and of the museum’s relationship with Gerhard Richter, the East German master whose life was recently fictionalized in the Oscar-nominated Never Look Away.
Burghardt is passionate about art, and brimming with ideas about restoring Dresden’s reputation as the “Florence on the Elbe.” But, like many on the museum’s staff, he is also a native of West Germany—which is enough to make him suspect in the eyes of some locals.
One such local is Paul Kaiser, an art historian who has launched a fiery public campaign against Dresden’s museums. Kaiser, the author of a book called Bohemia in the GDR, penned a blistering op-ed in 2017 denouncing the Albertinum Museum for neglecting the work of East German artists. According to Kaiser, Dresden’s museums are gripped by a “colonial” mindset, dominated by business-minded West Germans intent on erasing the contributions of GDR artists.
Kaiser’s polemic kicked off a minor kerfuffle in Dresden, with AfD parliamentarians subsequently launching an official inquiry into the number of East German artworks on permanent display in the Albertinum. Hilke Wagner, the director of the museum, patiently explained that 70 artworks from the GDR were on display at the time, while others were on loan elsewhere; she soon followed up with an exhibition and lecture series specifically dedicated to East German art. Yet still the hate mail came: “I was shocked by the number of letters and by the tone,” she said. “The vehemence of the debate surprised us all.”
For Kaiser, the debate reflected a longstanding hobbyhorse; his academic scholarship on East German art rejects the distinction between state-approved socialist realism and “countercultural” art as a false dichotomy, which tends to exclude worthwhile artists. But for others who latched on to the controversy, it was about something bigger than art history: namely, the perceived and quite unwelcome power of Westerners in the East since reunification. Whatever the merits of his academic arguments, Kaiser dabbles in such ressentiment, too; at his own Dresden Institute for Cultural Studies, a recent conference was provocatively titled “Colony East? Aspects of Colonization in East Germany Since 1990.” This season, he tells me via e-mail, he is co-curating an exhibit in Leipzig called “Point of No Return,” which addresses the artistic legacy of 1989 and takes sharp issue with the way that East German art has been neglected since the fall. (The exhibition is already attracting international attention.)
Kaiser is not alone in such complaints. On the other side of the Elbe River, I meet with Rudolf Fischer of the Avant Garde Archive, who tells me proudly of a recent exhibition he helped curate on Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Lissitizky, which sought to highlight Dresden’s lost history as a hub of modernist experimentation in the Weimar era. Yet the exhibition was received coolly by locals, he said, who prefer to glory in familiar treasures—the bygone splendor of Augustus the Strong—when they are not grousing about the oversights of the GDR period.
Arcane art-world controversies do not a culture war make. But I sense in these stories a common thread I pick up elsewhere in Dresden: an attempt to relitigate the recent past, while celebrating a sanitized version of the long-ago past. This is nothing so serious as rehabilitating Hitler, but it does entail some strategic loss of memory, a tacit suggestion that the communist era was not so bad, and the implication that in any case, an outsider just can’t understand our history.
Next February marks the 75th anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden. This somber occasion, no doubt, will provide ample fodder for historical revisionists. For most Dresdeners, the bombing is remembered simply as a human tragedy, not as an occasion for historical score-settling. But on past anniversaries, the city has witnessed fringe skinhead marches set to Wagner music, along with perennial debates over the death toll. In 2008, an independent historical commission estimated that 25,000 died in the attacks—a massive loss of human life, but a far cry from the grossly inflated estimates (200,000+) promoted by the Nazis in the aftermath and still held to by Holocaust deniers. Even outside the slim ranks of legitimate neo-Nazis, a popular image persists of wartime Dresden as an innocent city of no military significance, far removed from the Reich’s war machine. This narrative has been convincingly debunked by serious historians, but it still exerts a pull in Dresden. During the Cold War, it was even encouraged by the East German authorities as a way to poison local sentiment against the nefarious, warmongering West.
Such revisionist narratives seem to be getting a bigger hearing in Dresden these days. Official memory still scorns the GDR; in the Loschwitz district, the Stasi’s old regional headquarters and remand prison are preserved as a memorial, a vivid testament of the regime’s repressions. Just across the street, on leafy Angelika Strasse, stands the former KGB headquarters where a young Vladimir Putin cut his teeth—and supposedly stood down a crowd of protesters in 1989, threatening to use force if the crowd did not disperse.
These events are not ancient history. And yet the further they recede into memory, the more they seem to be either minimized or else used as a cudgel in today’s politics. Dovishness toward Russia and a certain admiration for Putin are staples of the political discourse here, and not just in AfD. (“I hope he comes to visit us soon,” said the CDU Governor of Saxony about Putin this month, while calling for sanctions on Russia to be lifted.) Meanwhile, Susanne Dagen, a local bookseller who has been boycotted for associating with the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement, compares the climate in today’s Germany to the censorious East Germany she grew up in. Two years ago, she circulated a manifesto provocatively titled Charta 2017—a riff on the Charta 77 document penned by dissidents in communist Czechoslovakia—and signed by dozens of other literati, complaining that freedom of expression was eroding across Germany and that “our society is no longer far from a dictatorship.”
All this suggests to me that the consensus about Germany’s past is cracking. Perhaps it was never a real consensus to begin with.
And perhaps what follows will be healthy enough—a normal political pushback against overreach, a benign recovery of localism and historical tradition in places like Saxony that feel “left behind” by Berlin. The east-west divide still needs bridging, and national shame cannot be the only sentiment that binds Germany in perpetuity.
Yet if the future of Dresden does not look like Hermenau’s vision, it may look darker. Two years ago, AfD lawmaker Björn Höcke demagogued in Dresden about the “mentality of a totally vanquished people” in Germany, complaining of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial that Germans were “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of its capital.” Today, AfD is the fastest-growing party in Dresden—and Björn Höcke leads the party in neighboring Thuringia. Elections this fall in both states will be closely watched for signs of AfD’s staying power. AfD could become the most popular party in Saxony, and leaders of the CDU are already entertaining a potential coalition at the regional level. Would this be the co-option of a legitimate minor party or capitulation to an extremist one? The answer depends, in part, on which elements of AfD would be elevated into power.
Pondering all this as I leave the city behind, it occurs to me that the future has already begun in places like Dresden. We’ve just been slow to notice.
Hanging over Dresden’s reconstructed center, amid its lovely cobblestone streets and restored palaces, one can still see burnt-out figures along the roofline of the Catholic Hofkirche: icons of saints and dignitaries, still blackened and charred as if the bombing happened yesterday. For me, they are ominous: a sign of history looming large, as a city moves into the future with no settled narrative about its past.