DRESDEN, GERMANY, FEB. 14 -- Even now, 46 years later, they remember those childhood days in bunkers deep below the city. They could not see or hear anything, but they remember knowing that bombs were falling, that fires were raging through their homes, through the Baroque treasures of the city they called Florence on the Elbe.

This is the anniversary of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, an act of rage and revenge that killed 35,000 people on Feb. 13 and 14, 1945, ruining forever one of the most spectacular places on the planet.

Last night, led by German President Richard von Weizsaecker, tens of thousands of Dresdeners -- old widows and young couples crying together -- held candles and walked through a bitterly cold, snowy night from the Catholic cathedral to the pile of rubble that was -- until that February night three months before the end of World War II -- the Evangelical Church of Our Lady.

Their march this year could have been another in the troubling series of anti-American, anti-war demonstrations that have made many Germans question the direction of their own country, but the speeches inside the cathedral and the voices outside were less strident, more struggling.

In this city, which knows war as few others, the Persian Gulf conflict seems neither black nor white, but the same frustrating gray that keeps alive the trauma and tragedy of what happened in Dresden nearly half a century ago.

"What's happening in Baghdad now is what we lived through," said Peter Berger, 51, a machinist who was only 5 years old when he and his mother descended into the bunker, remaining there for days that seemed like months. "There is even a good comparison between Saddam Hussein and Hitler. He must be done away with. But such bombing. What do you solve from the air? What was solved here? What will be solved there?"

Germany's leaders have been sharply criticized both at home and abroad for their relative silence in the early days of the gulf war, a silence that seemed to show sympathy for, if not agreement with, the pacifist mood in the streets.

But von Weizsaecker, a thoughtful patrician who has tackled Germany's Nazi legacy more directly than most German politicians, brought a clear message to the Dresden memorial service, confronting those mostly young Germans who have studied the crimes of their fathers and grandfathers and concluded that no war can be just.

"Who can endure the sacrifices of war?" the president asked. "War brings unspeakable human suffering, irretrievable losses for culture and civilization, and destructive risks to nature. Who can accept responsibility for this?

"But by the same token, who can accept responsibility for allowing injustice and violence to go unanswered? Who can watch with easy conscience without doing anything when peace is broken and human rights trampled upon? Would inaction in the end not exact far more victims than responsible action?"

Thousands of Dresdeners packed in the cathedral listened silently as von Weizsaecker went on to compare Iraq's Saddam with Germany's Hitler, calling both dictators enemies of mankind. The only answer, even in Dresden, is a "hard, inescapable and necessary" decision, a choice that can even mean using terrifying force.

The president quoted German clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for his opposition to Hitler, as saying that those who survive against oppressors are people who are prepared to sacrifice even their "reason, principles, conscience, freedom and virtues" to a responsible battle.

That seemed too harsh to some Dresdeners whose mothers had told them about the 800 British planes that came in the night, wiped away entire neighborhoods of medieval structures and then dropped the firebombs that ensured that nothing would remain. Another 400 U.S. planes arrived the next day to deliver the final punch.

Now, emerging from nearly 60 years of Nazi and Communist dictatorship, Dresdeners who live surrounded by reminders of the cruelty of war are reluctant to advocate destruction anywhere else. Their city is a sad landscape of palaces and churches still in ruins and bland, thoughtless housing blocks from a Communist building binge that paid no homage to the past.

Von Weizsaecker agreed that the city's fate was "a hard, bitter injustice" that can only hope for forgiveness. "The lesson of the Dresden inferno is to think daily about the terrible sacrifice of innocent people," he said. "We are beholden to them for this lesson for our times."

That mixture of sorrow for past suffering and resolve to fight future tyranny is the apparent contradiction that has divided Germany in the debate over the latest war. It is an argument about the slight difference between two slogans seen at demonstrations here -- "Never Again War" and "Never Again Dictators."

Dave Edwards, the mayor-elect of Coventry, a British city that the Germans bombed to rubble, was in Dresden today because "I feel the same in front of a memorial here as I do in front of ours. We in both these cities know what bombing means. Every city in Europe that has gone through devastation is reluctant to support war. Time heals, but the suffering is never forgotten."

Edwards talked of letting the sanctions against Iraq work, of the patriotic duty to stand beside your country's troops. And finally he said, "It is very difficult to justify not forcing a dictator out of another country."

In the Albertinium, one of the city's spectacular museums, the first painting a visitor sees in the entrance hall is "The Death of Dresden," painted in 1945 by Wilhelm Lachnit. The figure of death and a mother sit side by side, their heads collapsed into their hands, the ruins of the city stacked behind them in the spoiled light of a powerless sun.

The mother's son stares out from the picture, his small hands draped over his mother's lap, his palm facing out, toward what remains.