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Opera and politics: Dresden celebrates its once-famous culture

Last night's gala reopening of the Semper Opera 40 years after the firebombing of Dresden may be the most heartfelt of all this year's end-of-war celebrations for Germans. All Germans.

To be sure, the Semper Opera is the latest East German cultural showpiece -- and it's the Dresdeners who are especially glad that their contributions to the reconstruction have gone to their intended purpose rather than being siphoned off to the rebuilding of East Berlin.

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But Berliners, Stuttgarters, and Hamburgers are just as proud of the new opera as are Dresdeners -- and one famous Hamburger, ex-Chan-cellor Helmut Schmidt, is in Dresden to demonstrate this. West German television transmitted the performance live along with East German TV.

The West German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung spoke for many in its lead editorial Feb. 13:

``The German reconstruction has a new monument: the Semper Opera in Dresden. The locale, the construction, the architect -- every aspect in itself embodies German history.'' The newspaper pointedly did not say East German reconstruction.

Appropriately, the premi`ere was Carl Maria von Weber's ``Der Freischuetz,'' the quintessential German Romantic opera. The reason for this may be coincidental -- the Semper is reopening with the last opera performed in 1944 before Dresden was bombed -- but the overtones of common German heritage are still welcome.

This is a quiet kind of national cultural pride, however, not the bombastic nationalism of the late 19th century. It is Weber and not Wagner. And in remarks before the premi`ere to a crowd of 200,000 that had gathered to honor the war dead, East German state chairman and party secretary Erich Honecker stressed peace rather than nationalism.

There must never be a third world war, he warned. It is insane to think that there can be any winners in a nuclear war.

Dresden and the Semper in fact make an ideal setting for the message Mr. Honecker has been giving out in the past year: that war must never again proceed from German soil, that the two German states share a special responsibility to see that this is so -- and that it's excellent that the two superpowers are again negotiating in Geneva.

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In such a forum, Honecker did not lay special blame on the bombers of Dresden -- Britain and the US. In retrospect, that firebombing of a civilian city and architectural jewel in the last months of World War II is widely viewed as a horror story in the US and Britain as well as in Germany.

On Feb. 13, 1945, three waves of more than 1,000 bombers dropped 60,000 explosive and fire bombs on the city. The pilot of the last plane in the second wave reported he could feel the heat from the oven below even at his elevation. At least 35,000 persons were killed. Dresden was so totally annihilated that refugees straggling back into the city afterward had no idea where their houses and streets had been.

After the war, Coventry, England, a city buzzbombed by the Germans, and Dresden became sister cities. In recognition of this relationship, the Semper Opera invited the bishop of Canterbury and 50 Canterbury youths to attend the anniversary premi`ere.

Other honored guests included visitors from the siege city of Leningrad as well as the British, US, and French ambassadors to East Germany.

Despite the conscious German aspect of the reopening, no representative of the West German government was present apart from Bonn's standing representative in East Berlin, Hans-Otto Br"autigam. This apparently was because of Bonn's sensitivity about World War II anniversary celebrations rather than any chill between the two governments.

For its part, East Germany has been signaling Bonn at every point that it wants to resume good working relations once this is again possible. This is understood to mean sometime after May 8, when the Soviet Union finishes its massive celebrations of Germany's defeat. -- 30 --

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