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Dresden Facts and History

Updated on April 13, 2014
Dresden
Dresden | Source

Dresden is a city in Germany and the capital of the state of Saxony. It lies on the Elbe River, 20 miles (30 km) from the Czech Republic border and 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Berlin. Almost completely destroyed by bombing in World War II, it has since been rebuilt. Today Dresden is a manufacturing center of great importance and one of Germany's largest cities. It is an important railroad junction for Saxony and is closely linked with Berlin and Prague. The Elbe is navigable for barges of medium size and the traffic on it is considerable. The river also links Dresden to an inland waterway network that connects the city to Hamburg and extends into the Czech Republic.

Dresden's somewhat belated development as a center of manufacturing industry in the 19th century was assisted by the dense population and large market in the Saxon plain, by the ease of land transportation, and by the navigability of the Elbe. The vicinity of the city, however, is lacking in most of the raw materials and fuels necessary for modern industry. The coalfields of the nearby Erzgebirge are very small, and heavy industry is almost completely absent from the city.

Downtown Dresden
Downtown Dresden | Source

Instead, manufacturing is centered on goods to which skilled labor contributes the chief value. Foremost among these are precision-engineered products, cameras, and optical equipment. Other industries include the manufacture of electronic equipment, fine-quality printing, and food processing. Much of Dresden's industry lies along the Elbe Valley, to the east and west of the city proper, where transportation by river, road, and rail is most highly developed.

As the capital of the duchy and later the kingdom of Saxony, which was one of the more important of the German principalities, Dresden was a flourishing artistic center. In the early 18th century the manufacture of fine porcelain was established at Meissen, 12 miles (19 km) to the north, and much of the product was marketed in the city as "Dresden" china. The painter Bernardo Bellotto was engaged as court artist by the king of Saxony in the 18th century and left a collection of pictures of the city. Dresden was also a major center of music and drama, and its opera was one of the most renowned in Europe. The Saxon kings contributed greatly to the planning and embellishment of the city that earned it the reputation of being the "Florence of the Elbe."

Bombing of Dresden in World War II
Bombing of Dresden in World War II | Source

The city as it existed until it was almost totally destroyed by bombing in 1945 was largely the creation of the 18th and 19th centuries. On the south bank of the Elbe lay the Altstadt, or Old City, an area of prevailingly baroque character. The Altstadt was noted for the number of its baroque churches, very few of which survived the bombing, and for the rococo Zwinger, which was built as the forecourt of a palace. It underwent restoration after the war and houses one of the world's finest collections of porcelain as well as a superb collection of pewter. It also houses several scientific museums that cover interests as varied as zoology, mineralogy, and mathematics. Restored and reopened in 1960, the Semper Gallery is also a part of the Zwinger. The gallery contains some of the world's finest paintings; chief among the large numbers of works by Italian, Flemish, and Dutch masters is Raphael's Sistine Madonna.

Semper Gallery
Semper Gallery | Source

The palace of the Saxon kings, which stood beside the Elbe, was greatly altered in the late 19th century and was extensively damaged in World War II. Today most of the ruins of the Altstadt have been cleared; very wide streets have been laid out, flanked by multistoried blocks of offices and apartment houses. The new architecture in the Old City is functional but plain to the point of ugliness.

The New City lies north of the river. It developed in the 19th century into an important residential and industrial suburb. At that time Dresden also expanded southward into the low hills that border the Erzgebirge.

Dresden was founded early in the 13th century, by German settlers from the west, on the site of a Slav village. It guarded an important crossing of the Elbe and grew into a small commercial town during the Middle Ages. Dresden belonged at first to the margraves of Meissen; it was then occupied in turn by the kings of Bohemia and the margraves of Brandenburg but was ultimately incorporated into Saxony. It was Saxony's capital from the 16th century until 1871, when Saxony ceased to be a separate political entity. Dresden's strategic position on the Elbe caused it to play an important role in many military campaigns, and the city was severely damaged on several occasions prior to its near-destruction in World War II.

Dresden experienced its most severe bombing during World War II on the nights of Feb. 13–14, 1945, when approximately 800 American and British aircraft blanketed the city with bombs. Although the February raids were the most severe, bombing of the city continued until the middle of April.

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