The graffito made famous by American GIs as a marker of place, of having been somewhere, stands rewritten as the name for a travel agency on Zellescher Weg in Dresden: “Kilroy Travels.” This phrase, printed in English over a stylized map that depicts no recognizable part of the world, says much about the story of Dresden in the recent past. The world changes. Kilroy is no longer here or there, leaving graffiti scars behind. He’s out of town, on the road, somewhere else. So says the sign on the Reisebüro. He’s everywhere and become anyone. Or, more complicated, he’s become anyone in this city that until a few years ago was nestled deep in East Germany (GDR).
The numerous travel agencies in ex-GDR cities are continual reminders of the changes worked in 1989 by East Germans who went as tourists to other former communist bloc countries like Czechoslovakia or Hungary and, from there, made their way to the West. Every travel agency with posters for Asia and the Mediterranean, with low fares to London, Los Angeles, or Bangkok, marks out the changes of a decade, the possibility of unrestricted and cheap travel.
To see Kilroy the wandering GI celebrated in Dresden seemed odd, even disturbing, in the summer of 2000. For what an American brings to this city is above all the story of the firebombing of February 1945 or, more likely, Kurt Vonnegut’s version of it in Slaughterhouse Five. Any American who read books as a kid in the late 1960s or early 1970s knew that story. Or at least this one thought he did. That the firebombing of the largely non-industrial city of Dresden—filled with thousands of civilians and war refugees fleeing Russian troops as they advanced through the eastern parts of the Reich—was an anticipation in Europe of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That it was proof Americans and their allies, waging what they believed to be a noble crusade, were fully as capable of war crimes as those they fought against. Anyone looking at Dresden in 2000, though, needs also to remember Hermann Göring’s visionary dream of destroying London from the air with incendiaries rather than high explosives. And with that remembering comes the sense that Vonnegut was not writing about Dresden in 1969 so much as he was writing about the cold war and the napalm bombings of Vietnam. History opens the way to allegory, one place morphs into another, the burden of war guilt looks for some moral repose. But being somewhere means that you have to separate history and allegory for a time so you can begin to see the place as it stands today.
The sections of the city built after World War II can be identified from their poured-concrete buildings, known in German as Plattenbauten; they are most visible as you emerge from the train station and look across the plaza on Pragerstrasse. Equally visible, once you wander around Dresden, is the fact that not all of the city was leveled or burned to the ground i…