The pleasure boats that cruise down the Elbe River in this historic city meander through an almost fairy-tale landscape of tree-shaded castles, gracious villas, peaceful glades and lazy vineyards. Photo-snapping passengers don’t need to be told why the United Nations designated this 11-mile stretch of the Elbe Valley a World Heritage Site in 2004.
But what the U.N. giveth, the U.N. taketh away.
Dresden city officials are forging ahead with construction of a hulking four-lane bridge across the Elbe, which they say is key to solving the city’s traffic woes. But for UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural arm, it’s a bridge too far, one that threatens to destroy the gorgeous views the area has become famous for.
And so in June, the agency did something it had never done before: It stripped the Dresden Elbe Valley of its World Heritage title, striking it off the list of such man-made and natural marvels as the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis and the Grand Canyon.
The very public expulsion was an embarrassing blot on the reputation of a city that is used to being praised for its conservation efforts. Once synonymous with the fine china that bore its name, Dresden was nearly obliterated by Allied bombs during World War II, then clawed its way back to life out of the rubble, its splendid restoration of the Baroque city center a monument to triumph over adversity.
Now Germany’s comeback kid is engulfed in a nasty war of words that has officials, diplomats and activists not just in this country but around the world strafing one another with hyperbole and metaphor.
“Dresden was bombed, but the vineyards and meadows and the valleys were not destroyed -- until now,” lamented Gunter Blobel, a German-born Nobel Prize-winning scientist in New York and an outspoken critic of the bridge. “It’s like self-immolation.”
Not so fast, opponents retort. The bridge, under construction since 2007, represents the will of the people, who approved it in a popular referendum. Who are outsiders like Blobel and UNESCO to tell the citizens of Dresden what they can and can’t do?
“We are not living in a dictatorship. We are a democracy, and I want to decide for myself how I go from A to B,” attorney Nikolaus Koehler-Totzki said crisply. “It may be by train, it may be by bicycle, it may be by car, but I want to have the freedom to decide.”
Koehler-Totzki heads the state of Saxony’s automobile club, an organization that ardently supports the bridge. Ask him when the span was originally proposed and he likes to reply, “In 1868,” when Dresden’s planners first suggested a new crossing for the Elbe that would connect the city’s university, on one side, with the community of Waldschloesschen on the other.
In reality, the design for the current bridge, a modern structure made of iron, was chosen by the city only at the beginning of this decade.
Motorists weary of worsening congestion had clamored for a new span to fill in the gap between two crossings a mile away on either side, Koehler-Totzki said.
In 2005, residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of the $232-million project. But as critics note, they did not know at the time that the bridge could cost them World Heritage status, an accolade that brings no concrete reward but can have an effect on the important tourist industry.
For their part, officials with UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, complained that the city had not bothered to submit a blueprint of the bridge in its application for World Heritage status for its stretch of the scenic Elbe Valley. (Dresden’s lovingly restored city center was not itself eligible because the buildings are reconstructions, not originals.)
The portfolio contained only a discussion of various possibilities for a new crossing, without the specific design that was eventually adopted.
“Every time a major project is going on, the parties have to inform UNESCO,” said Mechtild Roessler, chief of the European and North American unit of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center. “They didn’t do that. We learned about it from the press.”
As a warning, the center slapped an “endangered” label on the Dresden Elbe Valley in 2006 -- the only site in Western Europe to go on the danger list. Defiant, the city began construction of the bridge anyway two years ago.
It has all added up to an ugly atmosphere of dissension over a region eulogized for the harmony of its natural and built environment, a combination of verdant countryside and palaces and monuments from the 18th and 19th centuries.
UNESCO extolled the site as “an outstanding cultural landscape, an ensemble that integrates the celebrated baroque setting and suburban garden city into an artistic whole within the river valley.”
The Elbe, one of Europe’s major waterways, connecting Germany and the Czech Republic, flows beneath other modern bridges, some not particularly attractive, on its journey through Dresden.
But the new span under construction is particularly problematic, Roessler said.
“We got an independent study that this specific bridge would cut the valley into two parts and would obstruct some of the most important views across the valley,” she said. “Following that, we advised the government of Germany to look for other options, and they did not.”
Detractors of the bridge favor a tunnel beneath the river instead. But Koehler-Totzki dismisses the idea, saying it would cost far more and require much more complicated engineering.
So construction continues, to the outrage of Dresden lovers such as Blobel, a professor at Rockefeller University and a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in New York.
He founded an American charity several years ago to help restore the city, which he saw, still intact, as a boy just days before the Allied aerial assault in February 1945. In 1999, Blobel donated the proceeds of his Nobel Prize in Medicine -- almost a million dollars -- to conservation efforts there, which is why the new bridge sets his blood boiling.
“A bridge that is 30 meters high and is four lanes -- that is not just an optical problem. It is also a pollution problem, and it’s a noise problem,” he said. “At this moment you don’t see much, but when the bridge is built, you will see a 30-meter-high monster.”
June was supposed to be a proud month for Dresden. The city basked in playing host to President Obama, who is wildly popular in Germany, as part of his European visit in the early part of the month.
But the spotlight turned harsh a few weeks later when UNESCO, at a meeting in Spain, kicked Dresden and the Elbe Valley off the World Heritage list.
The only other site ever delisted was an antelope sanctuary in Oman, but in that case, the removal was at the Omani government’s request.
Whether Dresdeners are greatly perturbed by what happened is hard to say. In a snap poll of 500 people by a local newspaper, 57% said World Heritage status wasn’t crucial to their city’s image.
There are certainly dissenters, such as the person who scrawled “Defiled” on a now-inaccurate sign in the city center proclaiming, “UNESCO World Heritage, Elbe Valley.”
Koehler-Totzki shrugs. As far as he’s concerned, the bridge is the right thing for Dresden, and UNESCO’s withdrawal of its endorsement doesn’t change that.
“This town must live with this decision,” he said. “But it’s OK.”