An American socialite who was being “finished” in Europe in 1909 recorded that Dresden impressed her more than any other city, and was “infinitely superior to Paris or Berlin so far as climate, pretty surroundings, opportunity for artistic and musical education”. More sophisticated folk conferred less banal praise, recalling that Hamlet was first performed in Dresden just 10 years after Shakespeare’s death; that its baroque churches and Old Master collections ranked among the finest in the world; and that 20th-century painters such as Emil Nolde and Otto Dix had incubated their genius there. Dresden-born Erich Kastner, author of the children’s classic Emil and the Detectives, wrote of it: “History, art and nature intermingled in town and valley in an incomparable accord.”
By 1945, however, even before the bombers came, spectres were haunting the city. Its Jewish population had shrunk from 6,000 to 198, among whom was the peerless diarist Victor Klemperer. Factories feeding the Nazi war machine were sustained by slave labour, including that of the American PoW Kurt Vonnegut, later the author of Slaughterhouse-Five. On February 8, Margarete Blank, a 43-year-old country doctor, was guillotined in the city’s courthouse yard: while treating an officer’s children, she had expressed scepticism about Germany’s prospects of winning the war.