Beyond a doubt, 41 years of communism left their mark on Dresden. But the deeper scars, both to the city's fabric and to its psyche, were inflicted in the space of just 48 hours.
From Feb. 13-15, 1945, British and American airplanes droned overhead, thousands of bombs rained down, and one of Europe's most beautiful cities was reduced to rubble and ash.
The scars remain raw. On the fringes of Neumarkt, the cobbled square at the heart of the Old Town, excavations have exposed the soot-blackened ruins of the private cellars in which terrified citizens sheltered during the attack.
At least 30,000 people died in the maelstrom, and a city once known as Florence on the Elbe assumed a new mantle: Ever since, for people in Germany and beyond, the word Dresden has had a ring as mournful and tragic as a funeral bell.
When Germany split in two after the war, it was Dresden's geographic fate to languish in the communist East. The authorities had neither the inclination nor the money to restore fully the bomb-shattered Old Town. It remained largely in ruins, providing propagandists with an enduring symbol of the supposed threat posed by the capitalist West.
Outlying areas were leveled and rebuilt as a socialist showcase of apartment blocks and paved boulevards. In place of the destroyed palaces and churches, the Old Town gained a new focal point: the modernist Kulturpalast (Culture Palace) adorned with a mural featuring heroic workers.
The socialist experiment ended in 1990. Amid the euphoria of German reunification, ambitious plans were drawn up to return old Dresden to its former glory. The centerpiece would be the city's spectacular domed church, the Frauenkirche, which survived the worst of the bombing only to collapse the day after the bombs stopped falling.
The modern restorers painstakingly sifted through the overgrown remnants, salvaging 3,634 original limestone blocks to incorporate into the $250-million reconstruction. Work began in 1994 and was completed in 2005.
The result is remarkable. About 45 percent of the stonework is original, burnished black by the cataclysmic firestorm that raged through the city more than 60 years ago. The original segments of the building, as well as the dozens of isolated blackened blocks that dapple the exterior, seem to hang in suspension, bolstered by pristine new stonework. The dreadful moment of destruction appears to have been frozen in time.
Step through the doors and you enter Dresden's golden age. Soaring columns and curved balconies, all painted in pastel hues, recapture the exuberance of the original Baroque interior. This is no musty relic of history. It is like stepping back in time to the 1730s to experience the nave of the Frauenkirche exactly as it was then, fresh and new.
Between the interior and exterior walls of the dome, a ramp spirals up to a viewing platform 200 feet above the city. From here it is possible to gain an impression of Dresden's rebirth. Cranes hover above the Old Town, gradually restoring the red-roofed townhouses that fringe the medieval maze of winding streets and narrow alleys.
Most of the important palaces and churches have already been reconstructed. From the Frauenkirche looking down, you can see them lining the Elbe. But this is not the angle from which they were meant to be seen.
Old Dresden was conceived with a sense of theater, and its jostle of Baroque façades, ornate spires and domes is best viewed from the river itself.
Tourist cruises shuttle back and forth along the Elbe, and though it can be a challenge to tune out the multi-lingual loudspeaker commentaries, it is from here that you can see Dresden as it appears in old postcards. It is almost as if the catastrophic events of February 1945 were all a bad dream.
Raised above the southern bank, with the Old Town as its stunning backdrop, is the Büuhlsche Terrasse, a beautiful promenade which, in Dresden's heyday, was known as the Balcony of Europe. As you s troll along it, the legacy of the terrible past is unavoidable. Every building bears the marks of the firestorm.
The justifications for the bombing of Dresden remain controversial. Today the city stands as a stark illustration of the fragility of human civilization. We can create works of extreme beauty over the course of centuries, and we can destroy them in an instant.
Although Dresden is being reborn, it will always remain under the shadow of 1945. Atop the Frauenkirche, a golden cross glints in the afternoon sunshine. It was donated by the United Kingdom and was forged in London by the son of a bomber pilot who took part in the Dresden raid. Against the blue sky, it is a silent clarion to forgive and not to forget.