For many years after the reunification of Germany, you could tell if you were in the East or the West just by looking around. You knew you were in the East if even the relatively new buildings were crudely designed, cheaply thrown together and streaked with rust and algae from leaking pipes; if the render was flaking and clumps of buddleia and elder sprouted from walls and roof-gutters; if the pavements alongside the crumbling, pot-holed roads were broken and rubbish-strewn. But for the absence of disfiguring mastic joints in any of its buildings, you could get to thinking that East Germany had been specially designed to make Scottish visitors feel at home.
But Dresden was a little different. While it shared with the rest of the East much in the way of unsightly Soviet-style buildings and shabby blocks of stack-a-comrade housing, the centre of the old city on the south bank of the Elbe was still relatively pretty, if not quite the gorgeous fairy tale that it is now.
When we first went there, not long after the reunification, there was a large stone-paved area at the heart of the old city. In the middle of that there was a pile of old stones. This was the remains of the Frauenkirche, a once majestic and imposing Lutheran church. Although it had not sustained a direct hit during the allied bombing of the city, the Frauenkirche had collapsed in on itself due to the intense heat of the firestorm that surrounded it.
The communists had left the pile as it was so that the locals would not forget how evil and bestial their cold war enemies were. Bestial enough, seemingly, to justify the protective functions of the substantial Stasi offices and prison only a short distance away. I wonder what comrades Corbyn and Abbott made of it all as they cycled by.
A few years after German reunification, financed by public subscription, donations and Government assistance, the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche began. The first step was to dig up the immediate surrounding area so as to expose the cellars in which Dresdeners had sought shelter from the bombing. Not all had survived, and not all the bodies had been recovered. There were still a few in the cellars around the church, some having been either drowned when the underground pipes burst, or cooked to death when the water turned into superheated steam.
While the cellars were being cleared, efforts got underway to gather together as many of the remaining fragments of the Frauenkirche as could be found. These were scattered all over the city, the locals, in the lean communist years, being inclined to make use of anything they could find. Many a garden wall or rockery contained bits of the Frauenkirche, and no doubt so did the hardcore beneath some of the concrete paths. Those fragments that could be retrieved, large and small, including bits of statuary, were collected and numbered and laid out methodically in fenced-off areas around the site.
The next time we visited the city, the outer walls of the Frauenkirche were rising again. Tradesmen and women were swarming over them, complete with builders' bums, a phenomenon evidently not confined to the UK, or to men for that matter. The work they were doing was highly skilled. Where bits of the jigsaw were missing, new stonework had been fashioned to fill the gaps, some of that stone being shaped or at least tweaked on-site. Columns of old, smoke-blackened stones would rise so far and then a biscuit-coloured new stone would appear; or a column of new, biscuit-coloured stones would rise so far and then an old smoke-blackened stone would appear. A statue might be biscuit-coloured up to the knee, smoke-blackened to the neck, and the head biscuit-coloured again.
However, the vaulted underground crypt had been completed and visitors could go in and hear a talk about the reconstruction. So we went in. At the end of the talk, the man giving it told his audience that on the way out we would see collection boxes into which any money we put would help with the reconstruction. Then he added that if we were British or American we might like to put in more money since we had bombed the place.
Suddenly irked, I put my hand up meaning to challenge him on this. We had driven into Dresden a couple of days before from Mauthausen in Austria (where my father had been part of the military conquest and had seen the horrors close up). Places like Mauthausen make your blood run cold, and mine hadn't yet quite warmed up. My impulse was to ask the man if he had ever entertained the possibility that his own country had been responsible for whatever it got, although that would almost certainly have come out in a more sneaky way: 'Um, well, you know, perhaps there might have been, um, maybe a bit of contributory negligence in there...'.
Some of my irritation, though, was to do with something less high-minded. I was jealous that the Germans could mount such an impressive project while we seem incapable of creating, let alone maintaining, much that doesn't look as if it were the product of competencies nowhere near up to the job. Even at Government level, Germans get competent politicians and a competent civil service, while we get ones skilled only in brass-neckery and in telling us how well they are doing while everything around them is falling apart. And so the difference goes on, its latest manifestation being the coronavirus shambles.
Fortunately, that day in the Frauenkirche, a wiser counsel was on hand to offer guidance before I could open my mouth: 'Put your hand down!' she hissed.
We went outside and headed for a nearby pavement cafe. As the young waiter served us, he asked if we'd come from the Frauenkirche. Yes, we told him, adding that the skill evident in the rebuilding was most impressive. I said I hadn't thought people these days had the skills necessary to do such things. 'We Germans!' he said, 'We can do anything!' The young man probably meant nothing by it but my blood ran cold all over again. And again there was the accompanying jealousy, since, compared to us at any rate, his claim may not have been far wrong.