BONN — ONCE known as ``Florence on the Elbe'' for its beauty, the eastern German city of Dresden now bears little of its former aesthetic grandeur, having been replaced with featureless facades under nearly a half-century of Communist rule.
Hard to detect beneath is the physical legacy of Feb. 13-14, 1945, when the old Dresden was obliterated in the final months of World War II by three waves of British and American bombers, killing an estimated 35,000.
Dresdeners are now working to restore some of the lost distinctiveness. Beginning under the Communists, some of Dresden's most important sites were rebuilt, and reconstruction has been stepped up since reunification - as in the case of the 18th-century baroque church Frauenkirche.
Though few traces of the Dresden firebombing remain, strong emotions have stayed with the survivors.
There are Dresdeners who portray the raid as an unjustifiable excess, and some call it a war crime that the Allies never properly acknowledged, because they won the war. While dozens of German cities were pummeled during the conflict, Dresden has assumed a symbolic importance in the German consciousness.
``It used to be a precious city,'' says writer and antiwar activist Peter Grohmann, who lived through the firebombing as a child.
``This fact, combined with the extent of the damage and the high number of casualties, makes it special,'' Mr. Grohmann continued. ``Compared to Hamburg, it [Dresden] was a purely civilian city with no war-related industry.''
The approaching 50th anniversary of the firebombing presents German officials with a problem of how to remember the dead without stirring new controversy.
City officials stress that commemoration events next Monday will focus on reconciliation between the bombers and the bombed, and remembrance of the victims. But some people - Germans and foreigners alike - are concerned that the commemoration may be misinterpreted, sending the wrong signal to some who may be looking for an excuse to forget about the Nazi era.
As the reconstruction of the city proceeds, some caution that historical memory could simultaneously undergo a revision.
``The way the commemoration is organized it subconsciously implies that with Dresden, we should forget Auschwitz,'' says Grohmann, referring to the Nazi death camp in Poland where up to 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, were exterminated. ``There is a tendency that as we enter the 21st century we should leave everything else behind.''
Attempts to forget or reinterpret the past have frequently caused disaster to compound tragedy. Hitler's attempt to revise and then reverse the results of World War I is partly responsible for the even greater calamity of World War II.
Remembering the lessons of World War II continue to be important, civil rights activists say. If the Dresden commemoration ends up promoting wiping the historical slate clean, that could encourage present-day nationalists in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
``Our concern is to see that doesn't happen,'' says Rabbi Andrew Baker, head of the European department of the New York-based American Jewish Committee. ``The present and future must be viewed through the filter of the past.''
Experts generally concede that the Dresden firebombing was brutal, and there would seem to be little that could shake the conviction of many Dresdeners that the Allies aimed more to terrorize civilians than to achieve a military objective.
But some add that it is a mistake to view Dresden as special. The war witnessed many heinous attacks on civilian centers, starting with the bombings of London and Rotterdam in 1940. By the time the tide of the war had shifted in 1943, the Allies were paying back the brutalities in kind. A raid on German port of Hamburg in June 1943 killed 30,000 and destroyed 80 percent of the city's buildings.
``It was Hitler who had the phrase `total war,' '' says Jiri Musil, a sociologist and head of the Prague College of Central European University. ``Looking back, one may see it [Dresden] as an attack against civilians. But the war against civilians was started by the Nazis.
``It was a new step in a new type of war. It all started in World War I, but World War II took it to a new level,'' continues Mr. Musil, who 50 years ago was interned in a German concentration camp in then-Czechoslovakia, and says he remembers when the Allied bombers flew overhead on their Dresden mission.
The primary responsibility for ensuring that the Dresden commemoration promotes reconciliation rests with German President Roman Herzog, who is scheduled to deliver a major speech on the occasion.
Mr. Herzog, who was elected to the largely ceremonial presidency last May, has so far spoken out strongly against revisionism and forgetting.
``There is no way we can interpret history away. Our past is as it was and we must take full responsibility for that,'' Herzog recently told the General Anzeiger, a Bonn daily.