Overview and History
Dresden sits on the Elbe river in a bend that was occupied by people since before written history emerged from the mists of time. Around the sixth century A.D. Germanic tribes moved westward from their woolly environs into the area of the Elbe. They were followed by Bohemian Slavs who founded a city called Drezdany, and there we begin. By the beginning of the 10th century the German armies under King Heinrich had conquered the Slavonic lands and opened them to German settlers.
The original town of Drezdany can still be found within the "old city" district of modern Dresden, on the left bank. By the 13th century Dresden had a small local economy centered around a Franciscan monastery and agricultural trade, plus fishing. It took several centuries for Dresden to grow up and jump across the river to occupy both sides.
The year was 1500 and Dresden had established "Altendresden" on the opposite bank of the Elbe. Things were looking up, but Hussite preachers were active and the Hussite army laid siege to the town. Hussites were early Protestants, so it's likely they were "protesting" against the Catholic Franciscan monastery. (See the defenestration of Prague for Hussites throwing priests out the windows.)
Dresden struck gold in 1485 when the Albertine bloodline chose to hold court here. They transformed Dresden into a town crowned with royalty under Duke George the Bearded, who was a loyal Catholic. Whatever economic stability came along with the Albertines, however, was accompanied by increased religious turmoil. After the Hussite siege, Martin Luther's teachings of Reformation assaulted the Catholic authority. Duke George resisted the Reformation until his death in 1539 -- but his successor held the opposite view and brought the Reformation to Dresden anyway. Such is life. As with every medieval town embroiled in political and religious dispute, Dresden just grew more sheep and grain so they could pay their taxes.
Dresden got a bigger pair of boots in 1547 when the Albertine princes were given electoral privileges. This made Dresden into the capital of the most important Protestant land and the most powerful German state after the Hapsburg territory. The castle became a palace, wood was replaced with stone and the medieval town became a fortified city complete with an armory and reinforced city wall. Along with these physical improvements came a new support for refined culture, including royal collections of art and the predecessor of the Staatskapelle Orchestra. Between 1500 and 1600 the population of Dresden tripled.
Dresden became a champion of Baroque art and architecture following the Thirty Years' War. The first European porcelain manufacturer started here and many lavish festivals flaunted the musical and artistic status of the city. These had no small second purpose as political claims to power, it may be noted. The population tripled AGAIN by 1755.
The Seven Years' War put the brakes on Dresden's development. Prussian artillery bombarded the city center and whole suburbs were burned down. Politics came through with a firebrand when Napoleon arrived in 1805 and occupied the city and soon afterwards Saxony was placed under Prussian-Russian government.
Industry took over from arts and culture in the years following the Napoleonic wars. A long-distance railroad was built from Dresden to Leipzig and the city was totally redesigned with expanded new districts. Political reformers inspired by the French Revolution sprang up and were squashed, during the May Uprising of 1849.
But industry kept going and new bridges popped across the Elbe to help the railway lines and stations handle the increased trade. Optics, chocolate, cigarettes and precision machines were streaming out of Dresden to reach the German Empire. At the turn of the 20th century Dresden was the fourth largest city of the Empire and hosted more than half a million people. This is amazing progress for a region which came from a disorganized batch of minor territories only a few centuries earlier!
World War One arrived and transformed the Kingdom of Freidrich August III into the Free State of Saxony. The 1918 November Revolution forced the King to step down and Dresden enjoyed relative political stability for another decade of cultural growth.
This came to an end when the National Socialists took power in 1933 and promptly repressed all political opponents -- never a good time for artists. This led straight into WWII when all of Dresden's industrial developments made it a target for extensive and thorough carpet bombing, reducing the city to rubble. The Soviet army entered in May of 1945 to occupy the city.
For the next several years volunteers worked to clear the wrecked city and prepare it for rebuilding. By the 1950's reconstruction had begun in the city center with a focus on residential buildings and selected symbolic monuments such as the Zwinger Palace. Dresden again became a regional capital, this time within the German Democratic Republic. Rebuilding continued as the city took a technical path towards its future, building nine colleges and embracing computer technology among its nascent industries.
The revolution which ended the German Democratic Revolution had roots in Dresden. Mass demonstrations and occupation of the State Security headquarters forced peaceful changes to occur.
Finally, the re-unification of Germany replaced Dresden in its former status as the capital of Saxony.
By plane you will fly into the Dresden Airport, which has its own S-bahn metro station and direct highway access for cars. The new station focuses on easy connections between all forms of transportation. It's about 9km north of the city and, historically, was a major air base for Soviet flight training during the Cold War.
It's more scenic to come over land to the Dresden Hauptbahnhof train station. This station has eighteen tracks for both through trains and terminal trains.
Immediately outside the station there's a sports arena. If you're coming or going on game day you will see many football fans drinking beer all over the place, and lots of extra police. Renting a bicycle under such circumstances may prove impossible, take it from one who knows.
Text by Steve Smith.