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As Dresden Recalls Days of Ruin, Neo-Nazis Issue a Rallying Cry

Historians and political analysts said that only a small fraction of Germans subscribe to the neo-Nazi notion that German wartime suffering was comparable to the atrocities committed by the Third Reich.

But they said there remains a widespread belief, especially in Saxony and other parts of the former East Germany, that the people who died in the Dresden firebombings were innocent victims and that the city had little or no role in supporting the German military machine or the Nazi government.

At left, a photo of Dresden's ruins taken from atop the town hall after the bombings in 1945. At right, a photo taken last week from the same location. (Photo At Left Richard Petersen -- AP; Photo At Right By Matthia)

"There is a myth, the myth of the innocent Dresden," said Gerhard Besier, director of the Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarian Research, a political think tank in Dresden that studies extremist groups. "People don't realize that the Nazis had been very strong in Dresden and in Saxony. They insist that the population of Dresden was innocent and was murdered, and that this bombing didn't make any sense."

That idea was emphasized for 40 years after the war by the East German government, which blamed Britain and the United States for attacking Dresden as part of a capitalist conspiracy to destroy parts of Germany that the Allies knew would fall under Soviet control. Besier noted that East Germany adopted terminology first used by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who referred to the Dresden attacks as the "Anglo-American terror bombing."

Oliver Reinhard, a Dresden journalist who co-authored a history of the firebombings titled "The Red Glow," said such sentiments remain commonplace in Saxony.

"For a long time it was attractive to say that Dresden and its people were only victims," he said. "People still stand up and say, 'Let's face it: The Americans didn't bomb Dresden to hurt Hitler. They did it to hit and destroy all the big cities in the Soviet zone.' "

In one sign of how Germans are still trying to reconcile what happened to Dresden, the city recently appointed a historical commission to come up with an official death toll from the firebombings. Neo-Nazi groups are already attacking the commission, portraying its work as a deliberate attempt to minimize German suffering during the war.

Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.

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