The fleet of 800 British planes swooped in under cover of darkness, dropping the heavy explosives that destroyed blocks of medieval buildings and then releasing the firebombs that turned the entire city into a ghastly inferno.

Survivors recall staggering across tracts of charred corpses to seek refuge by the river from the choking soot and smoke, only to face a final wave of strafings from 400 U.S. fighters the next day.

The Anglo-American air raids on Dresden unleashed 40 years ago today have been described as the most devastating attacks in World War II. East German officials say that 35,000 people died, but some western historians say as many as 150,000 may have perished, or twice the number killed at Hiroshima.

Like that first city destroyed by a nuclear bomb, Dresden has acquired a particular emotional significance.

A debate still rages whether the bombing was an unspeakable slaughter with no redeeming military purpose, or whether it knocked out a key communications center and hastened the Nazi surrender.

As one of the more controversial milestones in the closing phase of the war, Dresden is being invested by East Germany with special political and propaganda value.

Predictably, East Germany's communist authorities are using the anniversary to launch strident warnings that the past is prologue to future dangers from "western imperialist aggression."

But the dominant themes in the ceremonies surrounding the bombing date have emphasized the Soviet-led liberation from the Nazi regime and the resurrection of German cultural glories from the ruins of war. Soviet troops, whose relentless advance drove more than a million refugees into Dresden before the bombing, are being honored for helping to rebuild the city.

The anniversary's highlight will be the reopening of the famous Semper opera house, finally restored to its former elegance after its near destruction 40 years ago.

The dual message in these events reflects East Germany's fine-tuned quest to reassure Moscow of loyalty while also reasserting pride in historical roots to fend off the attractions of the West among the 17 million citizens.

In West Germany, the May 8 anniversary of the end of World War II has provoked an agonized debate over how to reconcile a tragic defeat that divided Germany, yet also ushered in a postwar generation of peace, democracy and affluence. East Germany, which rejects any linkage with the Nazi era, is officially observing remembrances of the war in a spirit of joyful emancipation from the shackles of fascism.

"The firebombing of our city meant the end of the anti-Nazi alliance and the start of the postwar struggle between socialist and capitalist blocs," said Gerhard Schill, the mayor of Dresden, to visiting reporters.

But even communist party figures like Schill admit that important distinctions will inhibit East Germans from sharing in celebrations with their triumphant Soviet allies.

"Even though we had nothing to do with the Nazis, we cannot join others in saying this was a heroic victory," Schill said. "The Dresden bombing was mass murder, but we also realize that Germans started the war."

East Germany is seeking to drown such ambiguities in cultural pride in the reconstruction of Dresden, whose renowned architecture, art treasures and music once gave the city its reputation as the "Florence on the Elbe."

The cultural rebirth is part of a sustained campaign in recent years to depict East Germany as the rightful heir to "good" German history while saddling capitalist brethren in West Germany with the burden of guilt for the Nazi legacy.

Amid the sterile apartment compounds and soulless malls that sprouted after the war in the self-styled state of the "workers and peasants," Dresden's precommunist past is coming to life again in the ornate palaces and gleaming monuments that recall the days of Saxon monarchs. The Zwinger, an 18th century complex of baroque pavilions and galleries enveloping a garden, has also been meticulously repaired.

Other sites in the city center still lie in ruins, offering vivid testimony to the massive destruction wrought by the night of bombing 40 years ago.

But the jewel of Dresden's renaissance is the restoration of the famous 19th century opera house, built by the architect Gottfried Semper.

During the past seven years, at a cost of $85 million, the multitiered structure has been refurbished down to the smallest detail in the frescoes of the arched ceiling.

Once one of Europe's leading shrines for music, the Dresden opera house will anoint its reawakening with a performance of Karl Maria von Weber's "Der Freischuetz," the last piece played before the Nazis closed the house in August 1944.

Heinz Michalk, the city architect who supervised the rebuilding, dismisses complaints about its cost by insisting that Dresden's culture and history is a fundamental part of its citizens' existence.

The substantial face lift for the city is also intended to persuade young people to stay. West German officials say that Dresden residents accounted for a high proportion of the 40,000 East Germans who emigrated to the West last year.

Bonn officials speculate that Dresden's relative isolation may nurture an exaggerated sense of wealth and happiness to be found in the West.

Dresden is known as the "valley of the blind" because its location in a shallow depression along the Elbe prevents its citizens from receiving West German television, which can be watched by an estimated 70 percent of the East German population.

Among those who do choose to remain in Dresden, the frightening scenes caused by the intensive bombing 40 years ago still traumatize some lives. Traute Richert, 60, an actress with the Dresden state theater, said she rushed into the cellar when the bombing began and put on a gas mask, fearing a chemical attack.

When her home was destroyed by the encroaching fire, she escaped from the burning city to her parents' farm 30 miles away, where she awaited the Nazi capitulation nearly three months later. "There was little food and no money," Richert recalled. "

She said she enjoyed the restored cultural life of the city but said it could never recapture its former role because the wartime experience had transformed its historical message. "We want no more war, only peace. I hope people who never experienced the last war will understand that."