OFFICIALS in this eastern German city on the Elbe River are hoping an architectural-restoration project will help foster a revival of long-lost, and much-needed, values.
Ask anyone here old enough to remember and they'll tell you what a jewel Dresden used to be - one of the prettiest cities in Central Europe. The city center's grandeur, with its ornate palaces, churches, and opera house, was a source of great civic pride. And the centerpiece of it all was the Frauenkirche - the Church of Our Lady - whose Baroque dome rose nearly 200 feet above street level to dominate the cityscape.
``It was the most beautiful church in a beautiful city,'' says Heinz Eifurt, a pensioner and lifelong Dresden resident.
The Dresden of old disappeared forever nearly 50 years ago, during the infamous firebombing raid of Feb. 13 and 14, 1945, in which hundreds of Allied bombers melted the city down. Virtually no building in the center remained intact, and as many as 100,000 people perished.
Under Communist authorities - East Germany's new masters at war's end - the royal palace, opera house, and some other historic sites were eventually restored. But the Communists pointedly left untouched the Frauenkirche's bombed-out shell to serve as a reminder of the horrors of fascism. They also made an effective anti-Western propaganda statement, a not-so-subtle denunciation of what was felt to be the excessive and unjustified punishment administered by British bombers.
But now that the Berlin Wall is gone, Communist rule is swept away, and Germany is reunified, local officials are placing great importance on the effort to rebuild the church.
Just as the church's ruins served the Communists' purposes, Dresden's current political order wants a restored Frauenkirche to embody the new era, restoring a measure of pride to a city disoriented by a jarring economic transformation from communism to capitalism.
``It's an important symbol of the people,'' says Karl-Heinz Kunckel, the Social Democratic Party leader in the legislature of Saxony state, of which Dresden is the capital. ``A free people need it as a symbol of enlightenment.''
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of reunification for eastern Germans has been making the mental adjustments to the new economic and political reality. Practically everything eastern Germans learned during the cold-war era now must be unlearned. Many, especially those between the ages of 35 and 55, have trouble with the changes, creating a sense of frustration. Many western Germans, meanwhile, are just beginning to appreciate the breadth of the attitudinal divide that separates them from eastern Germans.
Though divided for only 40-plus years, broad differences in outlook between East and West developed. That's because in order for a Soviet-type society to function, Communist governments needed to alter the attitudes of their citizens. Perhaps to a greater extent than most realized at first, eastern German authorities were successful in instilling a collective instinct, while essentially eradicating individuality and personal initiative.
Communist architecture played a role in the remolding of ideas, as ornate and original designs gave way to look-alike, prefab concrete slabs. Row after row of these gray apartment monoliths grew up in cities across the Soviet bloc, reducing many urban centers to faceless population-production complexes.
Because of the destruction suffered in World War II, eastern German cities - including Dresden, Leipzig, and Magdeburg - serve today as examples of Communist construction conformism.
Rebuilding the Frauenkirche would give Dresden something that would again distinguish it from others, officials say. In its day, the Frauenkirche attracted some of the cultural greats of German history. Johann Sebastian Bach played the organ there, and Richard Wagner utilized the church for the premiere of one of his operas.
If all goes according to plan, the church reconstruction will take eight to 10 years and cost upwards of $175 million, according to Eberhard Burger, the project's chief engineer.
The reconstruction's first phase, which consisted of cleaning the site and salvaging the stones, has been completed, Mr. Burger says. As many as 10,000 of the original 60,000 stones may be used to rebuild the church, he continued, something that could help cut several million dollars off the final cost.
When reconstruction is completed the church will not be an exact replica of the original, which was designed by Georg Baehr and was built between 1726 and 1742. In particular, the dome will feature a slightly different, sturdier design.
The cleanup and cataloging of the stones may prove to be the easiest part of the job. As with many projects of this nature, funding is a big problem. City officials may want the church rebuilt, but with the region struggling to recover from a depression, they are loath to divert precious tax funds to complete the project. A recent poll showed 85 percent of the population is against using tax revenue to fund the Frauenkirche reconstruction.
The city runs a special lottery, with proceeds going to the rebuilding effort. A new foundation has also been established to solicit donations. And Burger says a commemorative coin could soon be issued that he hopes will help raise about $27 million.
``It could prove a problem that we had no pre-financing. It could cause some setbacks,'' Burger says. ``We have no cash to prepare the reconstruction site for winter.''
The Frauenkirche may rise again, but whether it is able to recapture the lost spirit of Dresden and serve as the symbol of the new era remains to be seen. For those who grew up after the war, maybe. But many of the survivors of the firestorm of 50 years ago feel that nothing can bring back the old days.
``This city can never be the same,'' says Mr. Eifurt, the pensioner, who lost his wife and two children during the raid.