Building bridges and living reconciliation

2019 marks 60 years since Coventry and Dresden became twin cities. As part of the celebrations I was so pleased to be invited to come and read excerpts of “Dreams of Dresden” at the Kreuzkirche, Dresden yesterday (11th February) for their service, Prayer for Peace.

Andy March traces the life of his grandfather Frederick Clayton. Fred came to Dresden in 1936, as a teacher at the Kreuzschule he established friendly relations and sought even in war-time to overcome hatred: 1942 there appeared in England his novel “The Cloven Pine”, based on his Dresden experiences. Clayton makes amply clear that German boys earned love and understanding, that they were victims of the Nazi regime and that they should be helped. When after the war, Fred entered into correspondence with the daughter of a Dresden family he had known, this step was to bring them both the consolation they yearned for.


Good evening everyone! I’m so pleased to be visiting Dresden today. This city is very important to me, because it was the hometown of my Grandmother and her family for many generations.

When I visited Dresden with a group from Coventry for the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, I was overwhelmed by the friendliness and welcome that I received. We travelled to Dresden in 2015 because our cities shared the same tragic experience in the second world war, but I had another reason for my visit. My Grandfather loved Dresden. He loved the people that he met. Especially one family made him feel welcome: the Büttner-Wobst family become his friends. Through the second world war, when our countries were enemies, my Grandfather was determined that he would not hate the German people. He was also determined that the friendship with the Büttner-Wobst family and other people would survive. Eventually the youngest daughter, Rike Büttner-Wobst, fell in love with him and they married in 1948.

Their story is still very important and I feel that it is my privilege to tell this story. I’ve written a historical novel about my grandparents and this evening I’d like to read you excerpts of this book.

Part 1, Dresden 1936/37

Dreams of Dresden is based on the true story of my grandfather Fred Clayton a Classics scholar from King’s College, Cambridge, who, after having visited Vienna and read Mein Kampf, became obsessed with Hitler. He wondered how much the German population really believed the Nazi doctrine and what it was like to live under the Nazis. There was really only one way to find out; by experiencing it first-hand. He also wanted to see if he could build bridges and whether he could make a difference. And so Fred travelled to Dresden in the late summer of 1936, a fresh-faced twenty-two year-old, to take up a one-year teaching role at the Kreuzschule. >> A


Fred’s first class was with one of the English teachers, teaching the fifteen and sixteen-year old boys. The first awkward moment came immediately with the Hitler salute. “Heil Hitler!” barked Klinge. The class chorused, “Heil Hitler!” in unison and Fred knew he was being watched. How would this foreigner react to the greeting? He found himself mumbling, “Heil Hitler” along with everyone else, although with distinctly less enthusiasm. The boys would certainly learn that Fred was no devotee of Herr Hitler.

“You’ll notice we have a guest among us. This is Herr Clayton from England,” the teacher said. “He has come to teach with us this year.” Fred’s face flushed – he felt the eyes of sixteen pupils continue to bore into him, some were welcoming, others challenging and others simply disinterested. One pair of eyes stood out, piercing blue eyes, belonging to a boy wearing a sky blue pullover and black corduroy shorts, no tie – there was nothing very uniform about the lads’ attire in the school. Fred noticed his oddly mulish mouth, serious and somehow on the defensive a little against the world, as if you weren’t going to catch him all that easily, as if Fred might be one more person trying to get at him.

Fred wanted to find out what he could about the boy with those blue eyes. As they were walking together to the staff room, Fred asked as casually as he could, “Herr Klinge, tell me about the class baby with the short blonde hair and blue eyes.”

Klinge looked quizzically at him. “Young Götz Büttner-Wobst, I think you mean. Young Büttner-Wobst is not really up to standard. He is undersized, unathletic, no great scholar.”

“Does he live in Dresden like the other boys?”

“No, he travels from Langebrück, outside the city by train and walks from the Hauptbahnhof to the school.

Fred made a mental note of this information – Götz’s walk to school passed near Fred’s digs; perhaps it wouldn’t be so difficult to get to know the young man after all. Was this the opportunity to build bridges, and make connections for which he so desperately longed?


Fred then managed to get himself invited to the Büttner-Wobst home in Langebrück and spent the afternoon there, where he met Götz’s parents, Werner and Dora, and his younger brother Wolf and elder sisters Traudi and Mädi.

>> B


Fred left the Büttner-Wobst family that afternoon with a peculiar mixture of perplexity and excitement. He certainly wanted to see the family again, to continue to build the bridge that had begun to be built and wondered whether the feeling was mutual.

While Fred found himself forming a bond with Wolf and indeed the boys’ father, Werner, the relationship with Götz was more difficult. In Götz, Fred saw a young man, who was struggling, and not least, he struggled with the tumult of the world around him – the politics that were all around him, at home and at school, and in the streets. …

Fred couldn’t help but admire the way Götz was trying to brave the gathering storm. He was nearing the end of his school life, and soon would be thrown into the Reichsarbeitsdienst where he would serve for at least six months. It was difficult for Götz and his contemporaries; they had no real power over their future. All power, it seemed, was in the hands of the state. Could Götz really afford to rebel?

One day after school, Fred and Götz walked together down the Prager Straße to the Hauptbahnhof. As they were talking on the street corner, a group of boys from the school passed them. Two were from Götz’s class. “Heil Hitler!” they cried, with a mixture of friendliness and mockery; more friendliness, perhaps, in each, more mockery in the mass. Fred flushed, frowned, smiled, gave a perfunctory greeting in reply.

“You don’t like doing that,” said Götz sharply, clearly ruffled and feeling he was somehow being laughed at.


“The German greeting.”

“In Rome one does as Rome does.”

“But it goes against the grain.”

“It becomes a habit.”

“But you don’t like it,” Götz persisted.

Fred frowned. “Why do you want me to admit that?”

“Oh I don’t know,” began Götz, but then it all came pouring out. “You can’t be expected to understand it all. … You think of the poor Jews and the poor Communists and the terrible concentration camps. Why did you come here, if you’re so anti-German?”

“I’m not,” Fred protested, “I may be anti-Hitler – “

“Ach, it’s the same thing, and you know it. What do you want? Why don’t you leave me alone? Why can’t you go and find some other victim of your propaganda campaign?“

“What’s the matter?” Fred asked, taken aback. “Has something happened?”

“No,” Götz shook his head, “It’s no good. Look, I’ve got to go now.” He turned and almost ran away. Fred felt numb, hoping their relationship hadn’t completely disintegrated.


Various experiences, discussions with colleagues of the Kreuzschule and in particular the friendship with the Büttner-Wobst family gave Fred much food for thought. And eventually his time in Dresden was drawing to a close. >> C


While Fred knew he was powerless to stop Hitler and his cronies, he did still hope to be able to win the hearts of the boys in his care and his colleagues. He hoped to alert people to the dangers of the Nazi creed, and to demonstrate that the boys shouldn’t simply heed every word of Hitler’s speeches and everything produced by Goebbels’ propaganda machine unquestioningly. More than that, Fred hoped to show the boys that he loved and pitied them, and that his nationality was no bar to him doing so.

The months rolled on, and Fred began to prepare for his return to England, and to say farewell. He knew it was difficult, particularly bidding farewell to the Büttner-Wobst boys he had grown to love. While he knew that he would stay in touch with Wolf and a few others he’d met in Dresden, Fred doubted that he’d hear from Götz again and, if he was honest, he feared for the young man over whom the shadow of the Nazi regime loomed large. Fred packed up his bags, and took one last walk through the Altstadt, meandering through its beautiful streets – through this city that he’d grown to love above all others – and he sought to drink it all in, recalling conversations, laughter, moments he’d shared. As well as a profound sense of sadness, Fred felt fear. He feared for the future of this city and for its people.

Above all, Fred found he had got emotionally involved with the people he’d met in Dresden. It was made worse – almost like a fever at times – by the feeling that these kids were trapped by a system, about which they’d no choice at all, and the fear that the English really might find themselves fighting them, and their generation might well be the main victims. His attention and sympathy had been first drawn to Götz and Wolf and their whole family, but by other pupils too, for whom Fred could not help feeling moments of pity and affection mixed with foreboding, though his youthful English optimism kept reasserting itself. He’d come to Dresden with vague ideas of platonic bridge building and felt at least that some bridges had been built. Whether they would stand the test of time he could only guess.

Part 2, Dresden, 1946

In 1937 Fred returned to England where he took up his Fellowship at King’s College, Cambridge, living there until 1940. The outbreak of war brought a determination within him to write one book while he still had time – a book which would depict German boys as creatures to be loved and pitied, and not guilty, while he himself could still feel this, before he and his countrymen began to hate too much. The result was a semi-autobiographical novel, “The Cloven Pine”. In 1940 he was called up to serve in the war, ending up in India once the Japanese entered the war, where he served as a codebreaker until the end of 1945. It was there that he heard about the bombing of Dresden. The coming of peace allowed him to resume friendship with those whom he’d never forgotten.

So far, Dreams of Dresden has given us an insight into what life has been like for Fred during the war years. We’ve been left in suspense regarding the fate of the Büttner-Wobst family, so now the book begins to tell their story, from the perspective of Rike, who was a girl aged 10 when Fred knew her. Now, in 1946, she is 20. She sees that a letter has arrived. >> D


Rike went to the front door and saw on the mat a letter postmarked Scotland. Surely she didn’t know anyone from Scotland? They rarely received mail any more, let alone mail from somewhere as exotic as Scotland. The letter was addressed to Götz Büttner-Wobst. Intrigued, she sat down, opened the envelope and began to read.

Dear Götz,

I know it has been a long time since I last wrote to you. Over the past seven years since war broke out, I have thought of you and your family often. I deeply regret the enmity that sprang up between our nations. I have never thought of you all without a deep sense of love and friendship. I was always very grateful for the kindness you all showed me during my time in Dresden, which seems such a long time ago now.

I am writing simply to ask how you have fared in these difficult times? I spent most of the war years in India as part of the Allied forces fighting against the Japanese. These were difficult times, but I’m sure that is no different from many other people.

I was horrified when I heard about the bombing of Dresden and thought about you all and your wellbeing. Please write whenever you can; I am anxious to know how you all are. With kindest greetings

Fred Clayton

As Rike begins to reply to Fred’s letter, we then discover what life had been like for the family since 1937 from her point of view. Rike began to write her response that evening. Where to begin? So much had happened since those pre-war days of peace that simply seemed a lifetime ago; there was so much to tell. >> E


Rike’s parents had done all they could to shield her from the maelstrom of politics that was sweeping the entire country, but they didn’t, couldn’t entirely succeed. And there had been that time when her parents had been really afraid – the only time they’d ever displayed true fear. Two men in black uniform with SS badges on their badges, carrying guns, had appeared at the door, asking for Götz, then only thirteen or fourteen. Despite Dora’s frantic protestations and pleading, Götz was taken away. He still hadn’t returned when Rike was ushered to bed. She remembered being very relieved to see him the next morning, although he was very quiet and pale and after that moment and seemed very reluctant to join in with the family’s criticism of the regime. In fact, he did his best to fall in line and be a good little Nazi. Although she never found out the exact details, Rike later learned that Götz had been taken away that evening because of his association with another boy whose unorthodoxy had landed him in a concentration camp for a time. Götz had been taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Dresden and shown a thing or two which might make rebellious boys think twice. The lesson did its job and Götz wasn’t quite the same boy she remembered afterwards.

This is just a short extract from what happened during that time. Rike now writes her reply. >> F:


Dear Mr Clayton

Thank you so much for your letter. It was such a lovely surprise to hear from you; you were always such a valued friend to our family. Wolf in particular saw you as the greatest of friends.

Firstly, I need to tell you about Götz. As you know he was part of the German army, He marched with the German army into Poland in the first days of the war, but was shot and killed outside Warsaw.

As you will remember, my dear father had been very ill for a long time. The terrible death of his eldest son had a profound effect on his health. He died of a broken heart, just six months later. I still miss him very much. Our beloved mother was reunited with our father, as she too died in November that year. We were all devastated.

We have not heard from Wolf for quite some time, but we live in hope he is a prisoner of war somewhere, nothing worse.

I am sorry for the pain and sorrow that this letter will bring you. It seems that we were all victims of this war.

With heartfelt greetings Friederike Büttner-Wobst

How would Fred react to the letter? >> G


Fred was reeling. He sat on his bed with Friederike’s letter in his hand, and it was all too much. Götz, Werner, and Dora all dead. Wolf missing. He thought back to the family whose lives had been the inspiration for his novel. The Cloven Pine had ended with the suicide of Götz’s father and Götz still trapped in the net of Nazism, facing an uncertain future but determined to find what freedom he could. But the truth was stranger and more tragic: Götz died, aged just 18, within three weeks of the war’s beginning, before Fred had written a word of the book. The conclusion of the half-fiction he wrote five long years previously was lame and artificial; the reality brought a more poignant, definite end – war, Götz killed in Poland, his parents dying of grief in one year. He would have done anything to rewrite that horrific ending.

But he felt the warmth of restored contact with Rike and, so he hoped, her brother Wolf above all, but also with surviving Dresden boys and teachers. He found these comforting; they made him feel that he had, after all, built a few slender bridges, which survived – and a new one was being built with Rike. In one of his letters, Wolf remarked, “I’m so happy that all the unpleasant things between our peoples haven’t destroyed friendly relations that have existed between us.” Yes, Fred thought, hatred hadn’t completely won out, although it came pretty close. He at least was able still to love, and he felt that there was more, somehow, to come.

Afterwards I was interviewed briefly in German!

Interview questions & answers

• When did you first discover about your grandfather’s connections with Dresden? Did they play a role in your family’s life?

I always knew that my grandmother was German, but the connection with Dresden particularly wasn’t very significant to me until my grandfather’s funeral. His brother delivered the eulogy and I discovered so much about his life, that I had never known before. I was 18 when he died, I was still a child. I wish that I had known him better in his life. Now having written the book, I feel like I understand him better.

• Your grandfather never returned to Dresden after the war, did he? Why do you think that was?

This is a good question! There are a few personal reasons. The Büttner-Wobst children left Dresden between the end of the war and the partition of Germany. only Mädi stayed. Wolf and Traudi lived in West Germany and my grandparents visited them and their families. I believe that they didn’t want to visit Dresden during the Communist era, and when the Berlin Wall fell, my grandfather was already in his late 70s. Perhaps it was too late for him to visit Dresden.

• Your grandfather put his experiences down in a novel. In which way is your book different from the novel?

when my grandfather wrote his book, England and Germany were enemies. He was worried that the people in the book would be recognised and therefore he didn’t name the city and he changed many details about the people. He wanted to protect those that he’d loved.

I don’t need to do that. I can tell the whole story.

Another difference is that his book tells everything from only one perspective but my book shows the experiences of both my grandfather and my grandmother.

Finally my grandfather’s book ended before the Second World War. my novel is almost a sequel – we can discover what happened in the lives of my grandparents during and after the Second World War.

• So Dresden was well known in your family – but how did you discover the link between Coventry and Dresden?

I only discovered the connection between Dresden and Coventry after I have had arrived in the city in 2012. In 2014 our Bishop Christopher Cocksworth had announced that he was going to Dresden with a group from Coventry for the commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the city the following year. I was amazed and that strongly felt that I needed to make this visit.

• What is the relevance of the Coventry-Dresden twinning for you today?

The Coventry-Dresden twinning is still so important, for two reasons. First it reminds us of the cost of hate. We must never forget this. Secondly the partnership reminds us that love is stronger than hate and it’s possible for former enemies to become friends. Love has the power to break down barriers. This is also the meaning of my book.

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