On the one hand … and on the other
Dresden does not only suffer from xenophobia against itself, it also has someone who can write about that very dilemma – a certain Peter Richter. The journalist and author left the city of his birth 25 years ago to go to university. But as he puts it himself: “In the rear-view mirror, you see things in close-up” and “It’s my considered opinion that you remain a Dresdener even when you’ve left the place, not least because you are constantly required to serve as an apologist for it.”
In writing his autobiographical novel – ‘89/90’ – about the period immediately before and after the demise of the GDR, Richter delivered a lucid commentary on the people who live in this part of the Elbe valley. In a subsequent volume of essays, ‘Dresden Revisited’, he once again asks the right questions – or elicits them from others. For example from Tom Hanks who wanted to know what it was like growing up in the ‘Valley of the Clueless’, a far-off land behind the Iron Curtain. As exemplars of this mystical place, Richter cites the villas of Blasewitz and Loschwitz with their charmingly overgrown gardens and their vibrant social mix – which have since been transformed into respectable family homes amidst carefully manicured gardens. But sentimentality doesn’t enter into it.
“Could it be that this city is one big shape-shifting hologram?” he asks, finding innumerable examples of “on the one hand this, on the other hand that”, which suggest a Dresden mentality that veers between cosmopolitanism and narrow-minded stubbornness, between the Protestant work ethic and the Catholic way of holding court, between the Reform movement of the early twentieth century and its more radical offshoots, between the sort of social democracy preached by August Bebel and the particularly virulent anti-Semitism that reared its head in the interwar period, between Romanticism and New Objectivity (and the first exhibition venue for degenerate art).