It has become an annual tradition in Dresden. Every year on Feb. 14, thousands of neo-Nazis descend on the eastern German city and march through its historical center. They call it a "march of mourning," a commemoration of the city's almost complete destruction in the Allied bombing raids of Feb. 13-14, 1945.
The attacks were indeed appalling. According to the most recent research, up to 25,000 people died in the bombing runs and resulting firestorm and much of Dresden's sublimely beautiful city center was obliterated. The stench of death wafted through the rubble for weeks after the last fires had burned themselves out.
For the extreme right, Dresden has become a symbol -- an important indicator that the Allies, too, were brutal. Neo-Nazis have chosen to ignore the lower death toll now accepted by most and continue to speak of hundreds of thousands killed, saying the Allies were only interested in slaughtering civilians and that there was no military logic to the attack. They refer to the attack as a "bomb Holocaust" -- a position that goes far in relativizing the crimes committed by Nazi Germany.
Most in Dresden, of course, would like to commemorate the bombing absent the political wrangling over its historical meaning. Instead, each year turns into an absurd competition over which side can produce the most demonstrators, the neo-Nazis or the anti-Nazis. This year, there were some 10,000 marchers -- including leaders from the Social Democrats, Greens and Left Party -- against roughly 6,000 neo-Nazis, one of the largest such right-extremist gatherings since 1945. The first speaker at Saturday's demonstration yelled to the crowd, "there are really a lot of us! There are many more of us than there are Nazis this year, thank God!"
Indeed, the fact that the demonstration is now little more than a numbers game, say German commentators, means that the neo-Nazis have found a fair amount of success in coopting the date for their own purposes. Commentators in Germany's daily papers take a closer look on Monday.
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"A democracy and its citizens cannot, of course, allow an audacious Nazi mob to create the impression that decades of historical confrontation in Germany are being undone. But it is also true that all attempts to mobilize against the contamination of Dresden's commemoration have resulted in the opposite. The louder the indignation against the neo-Nazis, the more they are incited to continue their provocations. It creates for them a perfect stage for their hateful lies and propaganda and they can see the effects of their strategy, aimed as it is at creating horror and fear among reasonable people."
"Civil society cannot gain the upper hand by mobilizing counter demonstrations. If such a defensive logic is followed, then it looks like a defeat when, as in this year, 'only' 10,000 people took to the streets against a larger-than-ever Nazi crowd of 6,000. The badly needed discussion as to how one can better isolate and condemn the hordes of neo-Nazis must begin with the admission that nobody has an effective recipe (for dealing with the problem) at the moment."
The left-leaning newspaper Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Feb. 14, 2009 in Dresden was a defeat for all democratic powers. Guilty for the failure are the Christian Democrats (CDU)."
"The (anti-Nazis) were marked by more infighting than ever before. When it came to preparation, the CDU in the state of Saxony, as usual, refused to join a confederation which included the Antifas (anti-fascist, left-wing activists) and the (far left) Left Party. The Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left party, each represented in Dresden by their party leaders, recognized that the Dresden demonstration was not just another neo-Nazi march of the type which, unfortunately, takes place in some small town every weekend. The CDU leadership relinquished the task to its state organization in Saxony, which found it more important to distance itself from the left than from the far right."
"In 2010, Dresden will observe the 65th anniversary of the bombing. For committed democrats, there is no alternative to a civil-society protest against the historical revisionism of the neo-Nazis. The CDU can no longer refuse to participate."
The Dresden daily Sächsische Zeitung writes:
"Feb. 13, 1945 is not merely a concrete event from the past. It is a symbol of European significance and reach -- an admonition to peace, conciliation and tolerance both for the present and the future. Thus, it is important and correct that not just people from Dresden take part in the pro-democracy, anti-right wing march, but people from across Germany and Europe."
"But it is even more important that in 2010, all political parties, and more than just a few thousand citizens, unite in an active demonstration in favor of tolerance and democracy. ... Because, as we saw this weekend, a fragmented group of counter-marchers doesn't impress the Nazis a bit. Perhaps the city's only chance is to come together to form a collective symbol of well-fortified democracy -- leaving aside party politics. At least for these two days in February."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"The example of Dresden shows how institutionalized anti-right wing protests have become. One constantly sees the same reflexes: If there is a neo-Nazi demonstration or attack, political parties and labor unions speak out. They demand that the (right-extremist political party) NPD be banned and a counter-demonstration is organized at which rock bands play and politicians speak. The vast majority of residents remain at home and take part via the media."
"In Dresden, one can see where this is leading. Now that huge neo-Nazi gatherings have been banned (elsewhere), the right-wing has adopted the capital of Saxony as its premiere march location. The citizens of Dresden must take action and can no longer leave it to their politicians to save their city's reputation."