Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the 70th anniversary commemorations of the bombing of Dresden.
My Lords, as the Minister knows, for some months I have been encouraging the Government to engage in an appropriate way with the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden. I should say at the outset how grateful I am for the graciousness of the Minister’s responses to me on several occasions. I also express my appreciation to David Lidington, Minister of State for European issues and NATO, for the serious consideration that he gave to my approaches; and to Sir Simon McDonald, the British ambassador to Germany, for the fine words of the statement that he released on 13 February, the day of the anniversary.
I have been clear throughout that my intention has not been to enter the continuing debate over the moral propriety or military value of the bombing of Dresden. Without denying the seriousness of such questions, my focus has been on the words and gestures that may help to heal the wound of history which the events of 13 and 14 February 1945 represent and thus to take our two countries, which have travelled so far already along the long road to lasting reconciliation, a few more steps along the way. In my own mind this debate serves the same purpose, focused as it is on the 70th anniversary commemoration rather than the bombing itself. I would like to make four comments that arise from my own participation in the commemoration.
The first is on the hospitality of the city of Dresden to the many visitors who came from across Europe to join in the commemoration, and the dignity with which the events were conducted. The bombing of Dresden, with its scale of destruction and death, touches many nerves—many of them still exposed in Germany and elsewhere, including here in the UK. The mayor, Oberbürgermeisterin Helma Orosz, navigated the city through the commemoration with great skill. She was determined that it should reflect the city’s key values of,
“openness to the world and tolerance”,
values which she knows only too well are regularly under threat and need to be guarded vigilantly. The mayor’s call to the people of Dresden to form a circle of peace around the old city to stand against the far right’s demonstrations has become a regular and moving feature of the annual commemorations. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government may take this opportunity to congratulate Mayor Orosz and her colleagues on their resolve to lead the commemoration in ways that served the purposes of peace and reconciliation.
The second area of my comments is the value to those purposes of British guests sharing in the remembrance of the suffering of the country that was once our enemy and on which we, in the dreadful storms of war, rained death. As I know from Coventry’s commemoration of its own bombing, the participation of such representatives in the pain of remembrance forges deeper solidarity in our common humanity and brings about a transformation of relationships. It is important for our own country not only to participate respectfully in the remembrance of the allied raids that brought death to up to 25,000 people and injury to thousands more but to look into the faces of the survivors, who were then children. For example, Eberhard Renner, who was 12 at the time, tells us that the sight of the,
“charred corpse of one woman … on a pavement”,
lying with wedding ring on her outstretched hand gleaming in the sun, “still haunts me today”. To stand with a city that experienced such extremes of suffering is to be reminded of the hell into which Europe descended, and galvanized to work for peace in places that are today spiralling deeper into the madness of war.
The healing effect of well chosen words and generous gestures over a number of years was proven by Dresden’s decision to award its prestigious peace prize to His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent. I am sure that noble Lords and the Government will want to congratulate both His Royal Highness on his award and the city of Dresden on generously granting it, in this of all years, to a senior representative of the UK. Our country was ably represented by the Duke of Kent, by the British ambassador, by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, by the Lord Mayor of Coventry and, I am proud to say, by many other Coventrians. I understand that, for reasons of protocol, Her Majesty’s Government were not represented in person. May I therefore ask the Minister whether the Government will consider other ways that they might relate to the city of Dresden? One such appropriate occasion would be the 10th anniversary of the reconsecration of the Frauenkirche in October this year.
The third area worthy of comment is the address of President Gauck, which was a remarkable reflection on what makes for good remembrance—the sort of remembrance that leads to learning and better ways of living for the future. In his speech in the Frauenkirche, he showed that good remembrance is honest: the “murderous war”, he said, began with Germany. Good remembrance is disciplined: it refuses, he argued, to “instrumentalise remembrance” either to “relativise German guilt” for,
“National Socialist crimes against humanity”,
or, on the other side, to coldly justify Dresden’s destruction as punishment for that guilt. Good remembrance, the President explained, is empathetic, honouring all who suffered as a consequence of war. It is healing, freeing people from self-pity and victimhood. I would be glad to know whether the Government agree with these principles of good remembrance.
This leads me to my final area of comment, which is the contrasting approach to remembrance displayed by a section—only a section, I should say—of the British press, which elicited comments from sections of the British public that were far from disciplined, empathetic or healing. The catalyst to these comments were the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury who, shortly before President Gauck spoke, said,
“as a follower of Jesus I stand here among you with a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow”.
It would have been not only an abnegation of spiritual responsibility to have failed on such an occasion to express regret and sorrow at the loss of so many lives, but an abandonment of human decency. His was not a judgment on the moral or military efficacy of the hard decisions that were taken in the heat of war when its end was not necessarily determined; nor was it any denial of the extraordinary bravery of the British and American airmen caught up in the conflict, with so many of them dying courageously for our freedom during the course of the war. It was a simple statement of compassion and sympathy, without which the commemorations would have been incomplete.
I have described the bombing of Dresden as a “wound of history”. The reaction to the most reverend Primate’s words in some quarters proved to me that it remains an open wound in our own land, as well as, of course, among some in Germany. I hope that this debate and the response of the Minister may help to heal that which still hurts here as well as there. I hope that it will also be an occasion to celebrate the length of the road towards reconciliation that has already been travelled by our nations. I hope that we will be ready to proclaim afresh to the world that the story of our nations over the last 70 years proves that peace is possible and that friendship is better than enmity.
My Lords, I am sure that we are all grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry for the lead he has given in this great campaign to make sure that we remember correctly the horrors of that night of bombing in Dresden in 1945. He has taken a lead and given us an example of how the church, given its legitimate interest in matters of international peace and reconciliation, has such an important role to play. I also thank the Minister for coming today. We all know she has a very hectic schedule, which she fulfils with great skill. It is good of her to come today to reply to this debate.
I am a very proud patron of the Dresden Trust as well as a great lover of Germany. I first went to Germany as a penniless student in 1958 and worked in various very mundane and badly paid occupations. I was deeply impressed by the spectacular return of Germany to being a wonderful example of a democratic and, indeed, economically extremely successful country, which has maintained its moderate attitude in all respects. Eccentric extremists do not get a very good time in Germany, and we should all rejoice about that. Yet again, they have a grand coalition there. That might not be a good example for the general election period, but I will avoid that subject.
As a patron of the Dresden Trust, I am very proud of our commemorative book, which gives all the details, and of the leadership of our royal patron the Duke of Kent, who has spent a lot of time on this. I remember that on one occasion we were watching the preparations for building the orb and cross on the top of the dome of the Frauenkirche, the church of Our Lady, which we paid for. It was done by a young goldsmith in the City of London whose father was, I think, involved in the bombing—it was an extraordinary aspect of coincidental history. The Duke was assailed by elderly people, mostly ladies for obvious reasons but also elderly gentlemen, saying “Thank you very much for coming” and “We appreciate it”.
Reconciliation with Germany—and the reconciliation of France and Germany is a very important subject which gives me great pride as I live in France as well—has been a matter of great joy. We rejoice in having a German lady, Eveline, as the chairman of the Dresden Trust. She attended on 13 February, as did the right reverend Prelate, as he said. She is now developing the Dresden Trust’s new plans, including avenues of trees and commemorative benches in the parks and so on in Dresden so that people can make a further contribution to the reconciliation and friendship that is so important to us all.
I was quite disturbed by the reflection that there was a tendency after the Second World War to be nasty about the German population as well as about the horrible Government they had in the Third Reich—one of the nastiest regimes in European history which ended in tears, murder and mayhem for all. We did not do that with Iraq, and I was very impressed by that. When Saddam Hussein, apparently a brutal dictator, was running Iraq, we did not blame the Iraqi people; we criticised him. When the war was on, we lamented the severe loss of life—which will eventually come out in the Chilcot report when it is published—in Iraq as a result of that war, a war which my party, the Liberal Democrats, proudly refused to support. Like a million and half people in London, we marched against that war.
In Germany, the case was different. I know that it was a massive world war with a lot of suffering on all sides, so there are reasons and excuses for that, but none the less we should not single out a population for the terrible behaviour of what was, in effect, in the Third Reich a criminal regime. If you disagreed with that regime, you could easily be killed. Most people would not do that, but a lot of Germans also suffered in the Third Reich. They lost their lives as a result of opposing that regime. There were many brave people who sheltered Jews, for example, which was a capital offence, and there have been films ever since on that subject.
More recently, on a joyous occasion rather than a sombre one, there was the amazing spectacle of the football World Cup held in Germany. Germany came third; it was rather dignified to ensure that they were not too successful. It was a wonderful occasion because a lot of British people went there for the first time. Germany has never promoted itself as holiday country in Britain, which is a great mistake. Particularly in the south, the weather is very good in the summer. The British were interviewed when they came back, or sometimes there, too, and they said what amazing pubs Germany had and that when you asked the police for directions they answered in fluent English. The German capacity for learning other languages is now renowned.
We must remember that the city centre was not a military zone at all. That myth developed after the war because some people in Britain felt guilty about what had happened right at the end of the war when Germany was on its knees anyway. The military targets on the outskirts of Dresden were ignored while that most beautiful of cities—the fabulous and historical “Florence of the North”—was attacked right in the centre, with huge loss of life. I suppose that it can be compared only with the awful example of the Hamburg firestorm. Of course we lament and regret the tragic loss of life of the bomber crews. Even worse than the British losses, which were very severe indeed, were the American losses because of the daylight bombing raids, which were even more hazardous. All these things are part of the city’s memorial and they fit together as people come together now.
I am thinking of the Queen’s visit to Ireland and the reconciliation that took place there; that is now the name of the game everywhere. It is a moving and remarkable thing which has to be built on in the future so that we can maintain peace. There are some people who even now are saying what I think are the wrong things about Ukraine, which is a difficult subject to grasp. They are talking about quasi-military responses, but we now live in a world where the West, along with other parts of the world, must give a lead in the maintenance of peace and the avoidance of war. We must make sure that the Geneva conventions and all the additions to them really outlaw war, because that is the way for the world to prosper. That is one of the important lessons of the example of the reconciliation and the friendship that developed in Dresden. As a patron of the Dresden Trust I have visited around 10 times, including making some tedious speeches about which they were very polite and applauded at the end.
I mention also the remarkable gastronomy of Dresden that is becoming legendary again, including the hotel ships on the famous and wonderful river Elbe because there is not enough accommodation in the town, although new hotels are now being built. The Hilton hotel just by the Church of Our Lady, the Frauenkirche, in the centre of Dresden, is a meeting place for German, British and American people to come together. Indeed, Allied POWs were in the area when the bombings took place and many of them took a very dim view of the campaign—as, indeed, did Harold Nicolson when he said that what happened on those terrible nights was manifestly not something that could be justified militarily.
We also thank the series of ambassadors who have come from Germany to represent their country here. They have been people of outstanding quality. I pay tribute to the present ambassador, Peter Ammon, who had served previously in Washington DC. Friendships are being created between two countries which are very similar in attitude; indeed, the psyche of the personalities of their citizens are very similar. There is a great meeting of minds, and Germany is now a popular country in the minds of British people, and that is a great achievement.
I thank my noble friend the right reverend Prelate, if I may refer to him in that way, for the lead he has given on this subject, and all the people in Coventry of English and German origin for the great reconciliation that has taken place between the two cities. It is an object lesson for the future, which is what it is all about. It must be developed further.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to take part in this debate, which was opened so movingly by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry. There could be no more appropriate person to bring this great issue before us. There are many noble Lords who cannot be present in the Chamber today who will read this debate in Hansard with great interest.
I should like to begin by commenting briefly on the views of Winston Churchill. According to Jock Colville, his private secretary, Churchill was not consulted about the attack on Dresden. It was not felt necessary, Colville recalled, because it was in accord with the general policy of bombing German towns massively so as to shatter German morale. But after it was over and the extent of death and devastation had become clear, Churchill was deeply troubled. More than a month later, on 28 March 1945, he recorded his feelings in a private minute which he sent to the chiefs of staff committee marked “top secret”:
“The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing … I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battlezone … rather than mere acts of terror and wanton destruction”.
Churchill was persuaded by the chiefs of staff to tone down the rough terms of his minute, as they described them, before it was circulated more widely. The cardinal feature of bombing policy as explained by the Government to the country at large was that it had as its aim the destruction of industries and transport services in large German cities, not the terrorising or slaughter of the civilian population. But there was a gap between the formal intention of policy and what actually happened.
Churchill would have been aware of the serious queries about the reality of bombing policy raised by a number of prominent churchmen. His Secretary of State for Air, Archie Sinclair, had told him about his difficulty in satisfying the inquiries of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and other significant religious leaders inclined towards the moral condemnation of the bombing offensive. Solemn warnings were heard in your Lordships’ House in February 1944, a year before the attack on Dresden, from Bishop George Bell of Chichester. Bishop Bell pointed out:
“What we do in war—which, after all, lasts a comparatively short time—affects the whole character of peace, which covers a much longer period”.—[Official Report, 9/2/1944; col. 746.]
He foresaw Dresden’s fate a year before it was engulfed so tragically in firestorms.
None of this diminishes or detracts from our debt to all those who served our country in the RAF during the war. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his moving address in Dresden last month, of which my noble friend Lord Dykes and the right reverend Prelate made mention, we must never forget the terrible losses of the heroic crews of Bomber Command. Almost half were killed during the war, carrying out difficult, demanding and exhausting duties in the cause of freedom. Courage is the greatest of all human virtues, said Churchill, because all other virtues depend on it. The courage of our airmen played a vital part in securing the peace that western Europe has enjoyed for 70 years. That brings me to the present day and the recent 70th anniversary commemoration of the bombing of Dresden.
The theme of these annual commemorations is one of reconciliation, as the right reverend Prelate so rightly stressed, a theme reinforced by the presence in Dresden on these occasions of representatives of bombed cities outside Germany, notably Coventry, as well as solemn remembrance of all victims of war and persecution. The city of Dresden achieved particular prominence and its destruction particular notoriety because of its status as one of the greatest centres of European civilisation, represented in its architecture, music, art and scientific and intellectual life. That is why, after German unification, the determination to rebuild the city met with an international response. The response from the United Kingdom involved the founding, in 1993, of the Dresden Trust, a charity whose representatives are present at the annual commemorations of the city’s destruction. My noble friend Lord Dykes, who has played so prominent a part in the trust, has described its magnificent work.
The trust continues to fulfil its mission of furthering reconciliation between Britain and Dresden through educational, cultural and other initiatives. One of the most interesting and important of these, which has a profound impact on the lives of individuals, demonstrates living reconciliation through personal contacts between young people in Saxony and Britain. The Dresden Scholars’ Scheme, founded in 2000, by David Woodhead, a personal friend and former colleague in the world of education, has enabled about 300 boys and girls from schools in Saxony to attend British independent schools thanks to scholarships provided by these schools. They come in gratifying numbers, usually for a full school year. Some choose to stay longer in the schools, and some even opt to go on to British universities. Their appreciation of the opportunities that the Dresden Scholars’ Scheme provides is heartfelt and never fails to highlight the making of lasting friendships. One, typical of many, wrote that he,
“very much enjoyed every single day and it enabled me not only to get to know quite a different way of life but also to meet some really good friends. This was all made possible by the Dresden Scholars’ Scheme and therefore I would like to thank you for this opportunity which I hope lots of students will use in the future”.
A few weeks ago, the headmaster of Brighton College drew attention to what he called,
“a sub-culture of anti-German feeling among young people in Britain”,
having heard on a visit to Berlin, as he put it,
“young Brits chanting pathetically that we had won the war. Young Germans looked on in some disbelief … Seventy years on from the end of the Second World War, they have moved on. Too many in Britain have not”.
He blamed, in part, the excessive emphasis on just 12 years of German history in our school curriculum and the neglect of centuries of positive Anglo-German relations and Germany’s contribution to European culture, of which members of the British-German Association, whose tie I am wearing today, were particularly conscious last year, which marked the 300th anniversary of the succession of the Elector of Hanover to the British Throne—the first monarch to be crowned King of Great Britain as a result of the Act of Union seven years earlier.
Dresden’s place in wartime history is surely fixed—immutably so. Dresden represents profound tragedy which, in this 70th anniversary year, stirs deep feelings of sorrow and will continue to do so in the years ahead. At the same time, we must never forget our enduring gratitude to all those who took to the air over four long years and carried out the decisions of RAF commanders to help rid the world of the evil of Nazi tyranny.
Dresden also represents hope—the hope created by the wonderful story of post-war reconciliation and rebuilding. How we need the hope of Dresden in our hearts as we contemplate the tragic condition of parts of our world today and as my noble friend, who will be replying to this debate, and her colleagues in government wrestle with the terrible international problems to which our contemporary tragedies give rise.
“to hope, till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates”.
Shelley’s famous words convey perhaps the greatest of all the lessons of Dresden.
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry for enabling us to consider the 70th anniversary commemorations of the bombing of Dresden. I say at the outset that I thought the commemorations were sensitive in their handling and appropriate in tone. They reflected a common set of values between Dresden and Coventry today and, through those cities, between Germany and the United Kingdom.
I think everyone recognises that the bombing of Dresden was a terrible event and that it did not shorten the war. Those two conclusions seem today to be self-evident, but new generations need to understand what happened, which is why we have to keep discussing it. It is very important that the twinning relationships that exist between our country and Germany, in particular between Dresden and Coventry, continue those discussions. However, we should beware the application of too much hindsight to what was happening in the early weeks of 1945. At the end of January 1945, two weeks before the bombing of Dresden, the Russians had entered Auschwitz-Birkenau, revealing its horrors to the world. In the west, allied troops were still trying to cross the Rhine and the Ruhr. Even though it was clear that Germany would lose the war, it was unclear how long it might take and how many allied troops would lose their lives in the process. There was, therefore, an understandable desire to push Nazi Germany closer to collapse as quickly as possible.
Dresden lay in the centre of the land area that Nazi Germany controlled. It had a significant productive capacity, a munitions centre—not that large, but it had one—and it was a major communications centre, with a railway system that could funnel troops to the Eastern Front. It was inevitably, therefore, a target, even though the people in Dresden thought that they were not because of their cultural heritage.
Dresden, as we know, had been left unprotected. All its defensive guns had been moved east on the railway system that it was at the centre of. The bombing on 13 and 14 February 1945 left 13 square miles of destruction, and 25,000 people were killed. Some 200 factories were damaged and, although there was serious damage to goods and marshalling yards, it was only in April that further bombing destroyed the railway system fully.
Because so much damage was done to the cultural heart of Dresden, as we have heard in this debate, it is clear that no real distinction was made at the planning stage between, on the one hand, civilians and their homes and Dresden’s civic and religious buildings, and, on the other hand, industrial and communications installations. For that reason, and given the impossibility of precision bombing in World War II, the destruction of so much of central Dresden must have been understood and accepted in advance. We have to remember that fact and that decision. As we heard in the quotations from my noble friend Lord Lexden, that issue came to the fore in the days after the bombing of Dresden. That is why the remembrance that takes place each year between Dresden and Coventry remains so important.
We can argue, and some do, that we were simply responding to what Nazi Germany had done to us. The problem with that argument is that we were fighting for a set of values that would not target innocent people and destroy buildings for the sake of it. Such destruction is what happened in Coventry. The city of Coventry was bombed 40 times from November 1940. On 14 November 1940, over 500 German planes bombed the city, including the new use of incendiary bombs. It is difficult to conclude anything other than that the Luftwaffe was trying to destroy Coventry and its people. Some 500 tonnes of high explosives were dropped on Coventry and 30,000 incendiary bombs. Over 550 people were killed. This was, at that time in World War II, a new level of attempted destruction. The Germans in fact created their own word for any town or city receiving a similar level of destruction. They said that that town or city was coventriert—coventrated.
My father was an auxiliary fireman during the worst of the attacks on Coventry. Teaching by day in Bromsgrove, he was in Coventry at night. I recall as a child his talking about it occasionally at mealtimes. I realise now that he missed out a great deal of the detail to spare us some of the things that he must have seen.
I think we all would conclude that war is a terrible thing. As we have heard, 55,000 aircrew in Bomber Command lost their lives in World War II. In the months from September 1940 to March 1941, the Luftwaffe bombers launched many raids across Britain, including on Liverpool, Portsmouth and Glasgow, killing over 40,000 British civilians; 14,000 were killed in the London blitz, and London was attacked on 57 separate nights.
In the immediate post-war period, many town and city twinning initiatives were put in place, as I referred to earlier. Most have lasted well. One that has lasted well is that between Dresden and Coventry to remember, through such a twinning relationship, a conflict that had such terrible consequences. I pay my own tribute to the work of the Dresden Trust, which has done so much to help the recent truly impressive restoration work in Dresden. The twinning of the Frauenkirche with Coventry Cathedral symbolises a lasting rejection of Nazi ideology and a love of peace, democracy, tolerance and friendship between peoples. We should thank the people of Coventry and Dresden for the leadership that they show us.
My Lords, looking around the Chamber, I do not believe that there is anyone else who was in their 20s at the time of the bombing of Dresden. I certainly was, and I was serving as a driver in the Air Force. I remember very well that there was a great deal of criticism at the time of the bombing of Dresden, which I understood. However, the majority of us felt very strongly that the war would come to an end sooner—and I think we were proved right. I support the commemoration; it is an extremely good idea.
My Lords, this has been a remarkable debate. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, is respected around the House as an expert on Europe generally but particularly on Germany. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is a distinguished historian and constitutionalist who is always worth listening to. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in a remarkable speech, taught me a great deal about what happened in the last months of the war. It is always a delight to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, and I have to confess that I wish she had spoken for a little longer about her experience. Of course, we have not yet had the pleasure of hearing from the Minister.
I reserve special praise for the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, not just for securing this debate but for his fantastic efforts to bring the people of Dresden and Coventry closer together. They are two great cities which suffered terribly in World War 2 but have since recovered, and are now essential parts of a new Europe that has for the most part rejected the wars of the past. I have had the pleasure of speaking to the right reverend Prelate about this passion of his. He has taught himself German, although I think he is too modest to tell that to the House. Obviously, he has made numerous visits to Dresden, and campaigned endlessly for closer ties and, of course, the proper recognition that took place on the 70th anniversary a month or so ago. The House should be proud of what he has done.
I have to confess that my knowledge of Dresden is sorely lacking. I have never visited that marvellous city and I am now resolved to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, talked about Dresden being called the “Florence of the North”—the expression I read about was “Florence of the Elbe”—and that is a pretty good recommendation for any city. From television and photographs, it clearly is magnificent and beautiful, and, of course, is again the capital of a major Land in a peaceful and united Germany.
The right reverend Prelate drew attention to, and I have followed, the unhappy news of Monday night’s demonstrations by the anti-immigrant, seemingly far-right, group, organised under the name “PEGIDA”. By any standards it is depressing to see this in any country and, in particular, in Germany. But it is hard not to be impressed, even cheered, by the resolute condemnation of these very unwelcome rallies by leading politicians in the country, including the Chancellor herself. I, too, admire those who turn out, no doubt week after week, to express peacefully their disgust at this campaign.
As we have heard, Dresden and Coventry will forever be twinned, not just formally as they were more than 50 years ago in 1959 but because of the common suffering that both cities and their populations endured 70 or more years ago. I may not know Dresden, but I know Coventry pretty well. I live 15 miles away and visit it often. Perhaps I may just mention that I am extremely proud of being patron of the Coventry Law Centre, which around the country is widely known as possibly the best law centre in the whole of the United Kingdom. I want to make the point that it continues to be funded by Coventry City Council under political control of all kinds over the last number of years.
Like Dresden, Coventry miraculously recovered and grew following the destruction of the centre of the city and, indeed, the city as a whole, and the large number of deaths that we have heard about. Anyone who has been to Coventry and seen the ruins of the bombed cathedral is both shocked and moved by it, and by its proximity to the wonderful post-war cathedral. It is an extraordinary symbol. Close to the cathedrals, right in the city centre, is the university, where young people of all cultures, races and nations throng together peacefully. Of course, Coventry also has much poverty and a number of the manufacturing companies that made it so successful have now gone, although some remain along with other new forms of employment. However, the city and the city council do not forget the marginalised.
Surely, one of the major lessons that the renewal of Coventry and Dresden teach us is that we must never again let our continent descend into war. In all the arguments that rage around the European Union, it seems to me that one crucial point is sometimes drowned out these days. Simply put, it is that however powerful or weak the economic arguments may be, the central principle underpinning a closer, more united Europe—this has been the case ever since the end of the Second World War—is that never again should blood be spilt or countries destroyed in Europe. Dresden and Coventry are, and will remain, symbols of reconciliation and hope.
My Lords, in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry on securing this debate and thanking all noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions, I take the opportunity to commend the work of the Dresden Trust, of which the right reverend Prelate is an active member, as is my noble friend Lord Dykes. I also pay tribute to the work of the trust’s royal patron, His Royal Highness, the Duke of Kent, whose own significant contribution has done so much to foster reconciliation between the United Kingdom and Germany.
Today’s debate falls, of course, amid a series of important anniversaries as we approach the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of hostilities in the Second World War, marking the end of a devastating chapter of European history. I share the moving and thoughtful comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, calling on us all to note recent events in European history, and stressing that Europe must never again descend into war.
From the moment the war ended, a new path opened: a path towards reconciliation, not conflict; friendship, not enmity; and shared values, not bitter division. This path to reconciliation led to the twinning of Dresden and Coventry in 1959. Britain and Germany are now close allies, of course, with a relationship that has never been better. The upcoming state visit of Her Majesty the Queen to Germany in June is a powerful symbol of the value we place on that relationship.
These anniversaries take on even greater significance when we consider that they may be our final opportunities to remember our past with those who witnessed the events at the time. In that spirit, I was grateful to hear from my noble friend Lady Sharples about her contemporary memories and her support for reconciliation.
As noble Lords have outlined so movingly, aerial bombardment of British and German cities during the Second World War caused destruction and loss of life on an immense scale. Cities from Leipzig to London and Hamburg to Bristol suffered terrible damage, but it is the magnitude of the devastation to Coventry and Dresden that gives our remembrance particular resonance. My noble friends Lord Lexden and Lord Shipley reminded us of the historical context in which the devastation of Coventry and Dresden took place. My noble friends Lord Dykes and Lord Shipley reminded us eloquently of the rationale behind and the need for remembrance.
It is difficult for those who have grown up in a Europe of peace and prosperity to comprehend the scale of the suffering or the legacy it left. Nevertheless, we have a solemn duty to pass our remembrance and our reflection on to the younger generation to ensure that these terrible events are neither forgotten nor repeated. It is right that we show our recognition of all those who survived such horrific nights in cities such as Dresden and Coventry as a consequence of the struggle to rid Europe of the forces of National Socialism.
The right reverend Prelate asked whether the Government might consider their approach to the 10th anniversary of the reconsecration of the Frauenkirche, which takes place in October this year. We have not taken any decision on this matter but I will certainly take his remarks into consideration when we do so.
My noble friend Lord Lexden referred in particular to the role of British airmen. It is important that we all recognise the contribution of the young men of Bomber Command, more than 55,000 of whom died, and the heroic sacrifice they made to liberate Germany and Europe from the Nazi regime.
It is also right that such an important anniversary should be marked by the United Kingdom in an appropriate way. That is why, at the invitation of Mayor Orosz of Dresden, His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent joined others, including the federal President of Germany, Joachim Gauck, in the Frauenkirche on 13 February to commemorate this sombre event in the city’s history. As a member of the Dresden Trust, His Royal Highness is a much respected figure in Dresden for the tireless work he has undertaken in support of reconciliation over the past 20 years. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, I recognise the resolve of Mayor Orosz and her colleagues to lead the commemoration in ways that served the purposes of peace and reconciliation.
I am also particularly grateful to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for his participation in the service of remembrance, as well as to the members of the Dresden Trust, not least the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, for providing such an appropriately strong presence from the United Kingdom at the commemoration in Dresden. Through the presence of His Royal Highness, the most reverend Primate and Her Majesty’s ambassador to Berlin, the UK played a prominent role in the commemoration—one that was greatly welcomed and appreciated by our German hosts.
The relationships we have formed with our former adversaries enable us to join together and remember all the victims of war while commemorating specific events. This was underlined by President Gauck on 13 February when he said that,
“we will never forget the victims of German warfare, even as we remember here and now the German victims”.
In answer to the right reverend Prelate, we agree with President Gauck’s principles of good remembrance. I recall that, having had the opportunity to hear him at an earlier occasion when I visited Dresden and the Frauenkirche—and, separately, Coventry—those were the very thoughts that underpinned my own reflections.
It is right that former adversaries and their descendants continue to work with each other to remember the suffering caused by war and to learn from the past. We will see the same spirit of remembrance and reconciliation as we approach the commemorations of VE Day and VJ Day later this year. I return to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bach: we must never again let ourselves descend into war against our colleagues across western Europe. It is in that spirit that I hope we will inspire all those alive today and in the future to work to end conflict around the world. This House takes its duties very seriously. In its debates in recent months when it has observed some of the disturbing events in countries close to Russia, I know that this House has reflected carefully on what war really means and what we need to do to avoid it, and then to remember what it causes.