DRESDEN, Germany, Feb. 13 -- Several thousand neo-Nazis and skinheads marched through the heart of this meticulously restored city Sunday to protest its incendiary destruction by Allied forces 60 years ago, the biggest effort yet by fringe groups to portray Germans as equal victims of World War II.
The demonstration was among the largest gatherings of Nazi sympathizers in Germany since the end of the war and overshadowed Dresden's official commemoration of the city's virtual annihilation by British and U.S. bombers on Feb. 13 and 14, 1945.
Later Sunday, more than 10,000 people met by candlelight in the city's baroque center to remember the war, but also to acknowledge Germany's responsibility for unleashing it and Nazi abuses.
City leaders temporarily reopened the Church of Our Lady, the largest Protestant church in Germany and for two centuries the most visible symbol of the old town's baroque skyline. The sandstone church was reduced to rubble during the firebombing but has been pieced back together over the past 12 years, part of a campaign to rebuild the historic district of Dresden, founded nearly 800 years ago and a major European cultural center known as "Florence on the Elbe" before its destruction.
Police estimated that 5,000 neo-Nazis and other extremists attended their rally, which began outside the parliament building for the east German state of Saxony and continued past the renovated Semper Opera building and over the Elbe River, which bisects Dresden. Most of the marchers wore black clothes and carried black balloons and banners as dark-sounding classical music blared over loudspeakers.
"Here in Dresden, genocide took place in 1945, just like it did in Hiroshima," said Franz Schoenhuber, a former Nazi SS officer from Munich and a longtime far-right politician. "We're not afraid to call them war crimes."
An equivalent number of counter-protesters assembled several blocks away, decrying the presence of Nazi supporters in the city. Several hundred police officers, many dressed in riot gear, manned security checkpoints and roadblocks to keep the two groups apart, though several minor confrontations and shouting matches broke out.
The U.S. ambassador to Germany, Daniel R. Coats, joined dignitaries from several countries who laid wreaths at a mass grave of those who died in the firebombings. Most historians estimate that 25,000 to 40,000 people were killed, though extremist groups and a significant number of Germans insist that the number exceeded 100,000.
German officials are considering new restrictions on public protests by neo-Nazi groups, which are planning an even bigger turnout in Berlin in May to mark the 60th anniversary of the surrender of the Nazi government. In Berlin, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder issued a statement criticizing extremists for trying to minimize the Third Reich's responsibility for the war and for the Holocaust, during which an estimated 6 million Jews and several million others were killed.
"Today we grieve for the victims of war and the Nazi reign of terror in Dresden, in Germany and in Europe," Schroeder said. "We will oppose in every way these attempts to reinterpret history. We will not allow cause and effect to be reversed."
Nazi symbols and public denial of the Holocaust are prohibited by law in Germany. But the government has reported a substantial increase in the past two years in the number of hard-core Nazis and their sympathizers. The trend has been fueled partly by the highest unemployment rates in Germany since the 1940s, anti-foreigner sentiment and a general dissatisfaction with mainstream politics.
Last September, the National Democrats, a far-right political party that attracts support from neo-Nazis, won more than 9 percent of the vote in Saxony, the eastern German state of which Dresden is the capital. Since then, they have forged an alliance with other groups in a bid to win representation in the federal parliament.
Emboldened by their electoral success, the National Democrats have courted controversy in recent weeks by arguing that the degree of German suffering during the end of World War II has been unfairly repressed or minimized. Last month, party leaders walked out of a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, complaining that the Holocaust was being overemphasized at the expense of the bombing victims in Dresden.
"There is no morality, no justification for the murder of so many people, so many women and children, so close to the end of the war," Gerhard Frey, a far-right publisher from Munich, said Sunday in a speech to the neo-Nazi protesters in Dresden that echoed the National Democrat party line.