Waving black flags and carrying banners, thousands of neo-Nazis marched in Dresden on Sunday, marring the official 60th anniversary commemoration of one of the fiercest Allied bombing raids of World War II.
Police said around 5,000 people joined the march in the eastern German city, making it one of the biggest far-right demonstrations since the war. Around 70 people, including anti-fascist protesters, were arrested after minor clashes.
Once on the fringe, far-right parties have seized on Germany's recent public discussion of its own wartime suffering to grab headlines and forge political gains, especially in the east where unemployment remains high 15 years after unification.
The far right is hoping to repeat its electoral successes next week in the western state of Schleswig Holstein and in May in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous region.
An Infratest Dimap poll for WDR television on Sunday put support for far-right parties in North Rhine-Westphalia at three percent, up one percent from January, but still below the five percent threshold needed to enter parliament there.
Before the march, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pledged to stop far-right groups exploiting the anniversary and portraying Germany as a war victim while ignoring Nazi atrocities.
Thousands of police, backed by water cannon, were drafted into Dresden to stop clashes.
Far-right supporters -- banned from wearing bomber jackets and boots -- marched to the music of Wagner, carrying balloons saying: "Allied bomb terror -- then as now. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden and today Baghdad. No forgiveness, no forgetting."
Several hundred anti-fascist activists chanted "Nazis out" from neighboring streets and threw pink paper airplanes with the markings of Britain's Royal Air Force.
SCHROEDER PLEDGES TOUGH LINE
Dresden, dubbed the Florence of the north and untouched by bombing until months before the end of World War II, was nearly destroyed by two waves of British bombers on the night of Feb. 13, 1945. U.S. planes blasted the city the next day.
The official death toll from the raids is put at around 35,000 but many survivors believe the actual number was higher as bodies were reduced to ashes in the ensuing firestorm.
The day's official commemorations began with a wreath-laying ceremony at a mass grave for 20,000 victims attended by British, American, French and Russian dignitaries.
More than 10,000 residents, wearing white roses in a symbol of reconciliation, later lit candles in memory of all victims of war in the city's main square.
"We want to make clear that we in Dresden are for democracy and remembrance and don't want this event to be disturbed by others," said Saxony state premier Georg Milbradt.
The city's pride -- the baroque Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) -- was due to open its doors briefly to the public for the first time since being rebuilt from the pile of rubble that had remained practically untouched from 1945 to 1990.
The church, topped with a cross made by the son of a British bomber pilot, will not be officially consecrated until October.
Schroeder pledged to counter all attempts to distort history and hinted he would make a fresh attempt to ban the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) which helped organize the march.
"We will use all means to counter these attempts to re-interpret history," Schroeder said in a statement.
The NPD provoked outrage last month by walking out of an event at Saxony state's Dresden-based parliament to mark the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp and calling the air raids a "bombing holocaust."
NPD leader Udo Voigt was quoted in an interview with Die Welt newspaper on Saturday expressing admiration for Adolf Hitler. "Only great leaders can commit great crimes," he was quoted as saying.
The Nazis killed six million Jews in the Holocaust during World War II.
Dresden Remembers Bombing
LONDON (Reuters) - Germany on Sunday marked the 60th anniversary of one of the fiercest and most controversial Allied bombing raids of World War II.
Here are some key facts about the bombing:
- In January 1945, the British drew up a plan (Thunderclap) to attack Berlin and other population centers.
- Dresden, untouched by bombing just months before the end of World War II, was attacked by two waves of British bombers, three hours apart, on the night of Feb. 13, 1945.
- 796 RAF Lancaster bombers let loose 1,182 tons of incendiaries and 1,478 tons of high explosives creating a firestorm that destroyed the city.
- The next day, the Americans sent 311 B-17 Flying Fortress long-range bombers, adding to the damage.
- The official death toll is put at around 35,000. Many survivors believe the number was higher as bodies were reduced to ashes in the firestorm.
- Once dubbed the Florence of northern Europe for architectural jewels such as the Zwinger palace and the Semper Opera, the city was reduced to smoldering ruins.
- Wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later said: "The destruction of the city remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing."
Source: Reuters/Oxford Companion to Second World War.
Sun Feb 13, 2005 01:37 PM ET By Alexandra Hudson DRESDEN, Germany
© Reuters 2005