Dresden: A Metropolitan Studies Student Studies a Metropolis

Michelle Berger
September 23, 2016
Buildings in Dresden's Altstadt, with the Frauenkirche in the background

In contrast to my easy-reading post from last week, buckle your seat belts this time for some academic reflection as I review my weekend trip to Dresden, framed in terms of my courses this semester.

Dresden seemed to me, in a few words, as lively as it is solemn and as orchestrated as it is unpretentious.


Dresden by the Numbers:

I knew some demographic background on Dresden, located in the former East Germany, due to a previous lesson in my Urban Studies course in which we reviewed metrics, all from the year 2011:

By some measures, Dresden is confronting many of the difficulties shared by cities throughout the former GDR. Similarly to Berlin, Dresden has surprisingly few doctors per capita, and 8-10% of the population does not have a high school certificate—a phenomenon generally not seen in the former West. (This is not a reflection, necessarily, of education under communism—but rather of who has moved in and who has moved out since it collapsed. And, while this figure seems incredibly high to me, it is better than in some of the most Northern regions of the former East Germany.) A final relevant point: Though the unemployment level here is less than it is in Berlin, it hovers above the average in the former West.

However, that’s not the whole story. Rent is comparable to Berlin (excluding Berlin’s expensive, most central district), and that means far lower than cities in the former West, such as Munich. Like Berlin, Dresden is a highly accessible and well connected city in terms of international and national travel by train, plane and automobile. The population in Dresden is increasing—people want to live here. And after my visit, I completely understand why. 


Two Perfectly Rainy Days:

It was cloudy and often drizzling, and occasionally pouring, during our time in Dresden—but the calm grayness and crisp stormy air provided a fitting backdrop. We started by walking around the Neustadt (new city) District, a hip,* trendy area full of Dresden’s eclectic cafes, bars, shops, restaurants, performance venues, and street art. What immediately struck me was that Dresden has a distinctive character. Sometimes in Berlin, I feel overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the city—but that doesn’t happen on the far quieter streets of Dresden, and so the soul and vibe of the city comes through.


After lunch at a typical German restaurant (read: potatoes and cabbage galore), we had our first encounter with the Old City of Dresden. Hopefully my pictures will speak for themselves, because the architecture here, gothic and baroque buildings from when Dresden was the capital of Saxony and residence of Saxony’s royal family, is gorgeous. Like elsewhere in Germany, though, these buildings have a difficult and fascinating history.




Destruction, Rebuilding, and What Happens In Between

Dresden was completely and utterly destroyed by the Allied forces—primarily the RAF and US Air Force—during WWII. The firebombing of Dresden systematically gutted homes, infrastructure and historic sites. Tactics targeted civilians and ensured maximum devastation. After WWII, the East German government had no desire to repair the remnants of imperialism, and it was only a lack of funds that saved the buildings from being dynamited. Centuries of history sat in ruins for decades. Rebuilding of Old Dresden began with reunification in 1989.

Our tour guide shared with us an incredible anecdote about the Frauenkirche, the commanding, central Protestant churh in Dresden: Dresden appealed to Great Britain and the United States in order to help repair the church as an act of healing and reconciliation between the former enemies. Both countries agreed to the request. In rebuilding the church, any remaining brick from the original façade was saved. The result is a checkerboard of stones, since the original sandstones are black from years of exposure. The church now stands as a constant reminder of both the horrors of war and the promise of peacetime cooperation.

My courses this last week have focused often on the question of remembering. Germany constantly struggles with its past, and the questions of exactly whether, when, how, what and who to remember encumber seemingly every monument and building. For me, Dresden’s Frauenkirche is an example of memory done right.

After learning this incredible historical context from our tour, we were more excited than ever to see what Dresden had to offer.


Nightlife, Museums, and the Ghost of Christmas Future?

I spent our one night in Dresden with some friends back in Neustadt, which is even more lively and quirky at night than during the day. The next morning, we headed out to the many museums Dresden has to offer. After spending the morning inspecting artifacts collected over the years by the royal family of Saxony (and an excellent photography exhibit from far more recent history!), we had another very German meal (read: more potatoes, more cabbage). I then spent my last few hours in Dresden at the Royal Art Museum, where I became completely entranced by a 16th century artist’s rendition of a mythological scene and stared at it for longer than I care to admit.

For my last stop, I loitered around Dresden’s lovely “fall market,” which is basically a Christmas market waiting for Christmas-time. Hopefully, this will be an excuse to go back in a few months!



*A frequent conversation I’ve had with my classmates is that people who actually are hip would not be caught dead using that word. But since I won’t even pretend to be “hip,” I’m going to use it. 

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Michelle Berger

<p>My name is Michelle, and I&#39;m a junior from The George Washington University, where I study Sociology with a minor in Classics.&nbsp;&nbsp;I&#39;m looking forward to gaining a global perspective during my semester in Berlin and sharing it with others!&nbsp;At school I&#39;m involved in student theater and community service, and I love to explore to DC with friends.</p>

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