“Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”

dresden.jpeg

Dresden after its WWII bombing.

Thus, nuclear physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer after witnessing a nuclear explosion. In Ken’s post on literature and world events, Stephen astutely cited the work of W. G. Sebald.

A novelist, academic and critic, Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgau in Germany in 1944. From 1970, he lived in the United Kingdom. Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia at the time of his untimely death in 2001, he was the author of five novels, including The Emigrants, which won the Berlin Literature Prize, the Heinrich Boll Prize, the Heinrich Heine Prize and the Joseph Breitback Prize.

But the work I’m thinking of in the context of literary reflections on world-historical events is his collection of essays, On The Natural History of Destruction. In ‘Air War and Literature’, Sebald reflects on the amnesia in both literature and history that has been the fate of the memory of the Allied bombing of German cities during World War Two.

First, the historical context:

It is true that the strategic bombing surveys published by the Allies, together with the records of the Federal German Statistics Office and other official sources, show that the Royal Air Force alone dropped 1 million tons of bombs on enemy territory; it is true that of the 131 towns and cities attacked, some only once and some repeatedly, many were entirely flattened, that about 600,000 German civilians fell victim to the air raids and 3.5 million homes were destroyed, while at the end of the war 7.5 million people were left homeless, and there were 31.1 cubic metres of rubble for everyone in Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant of Dresden – but we do not grasp what it actually meant.

Literature has often been seen as a mirror of meaning, a way of sense-making, what the literary scholar Erich Auerbach called, following Aristotle, Mimesis. To take the example of the hitherto unparalleled destruction wrought by the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648, German literature produced such classics as Johann Jakob Von Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus (first published in 1669) and much more recently, Gunter Grass’ The Meeting at Telgte.

There is a massive, and often fine, literature of the Holocaust. But going in search of a similar literature of the suffering of German citizens during the Second World War, Sebald was surprised to find it scant, and largely unsatisfactory:

In spite of strenuous attempts to come to terms with the past, as people like to put it, it seems to me that we as Germans today are a nation strikingly blind to history and lacking in tradition. We do not feel any passionate interest in our earlier way of life and the specific features of our own civilisation, of the kind universally perceptible, for instance, in the culture of the British Isles. And when we turn to take a backward view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, we are always looking and looking away at the same time. As a result, the works produced by German authors after the war are often marked by a half-consciousness or false consciousness designed to consolidate the extremely precarious position of those writers in a society that was morally almost entirely discredited. To the overwhelming majority of writers who stayed on in Germany under the Third Reich, the redefinition of their idea of themselves after 1945 was a more urgent business than depiction of the real conditions surrounding them.

“Always looking and looking away at the same time.” And at what?

Sebald quotes a diary entry from 20 August 1943 by Friedrich Reck, writing in this instance of a group of refugees from an air raid on Hamburg, “trying to force their way into a train at a station in Upper Bavaria. As they do so, a cardboard suitcase –

falls on the platform, bursts open and spills its contents. Toys, a manicure case, singed underwear. And last of all, the roasted corpse of a child, shrunk like a mummy, which its half-deranged mother has been carrying about with her, a relic of a past that was still intact a few days ago.

Sebald’s book caused quite a stir. Some were affronted that he brought into daylight memories best elided. Certainly, Sebald bought into an emotive debate. German historiography has inevitably been marked by the experience of the Holocaust and the Third Reich. Even to write of social history in the Third Reich has a political import. As several contributors to Peter Baldwin’s edited book Reworking the Past note, Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s attempts to develop a sustainable sense of German nationalism in the 1980s and after the re-unification of Germany in 1990 became mired in a highly politicised debate over how Nazism related to the course of German history, the Historikerstreit. Arcane historical and sociological debates over state-formation and the notion of a Sonderweig, or deviant path to modernity in Germany, are debated in the popular press. And German foreign policy in Kosovo, and in the Iraq War, and questions regarding the EU, are marked by this history, and these wounds of the past. So Australia is not the only country to experience “history wars”.

As Sebald writes, initial interest in the texts of his lectures given in Zurich which form the basis for the essay ‘Air War and Literature’ was in part motivated by “a need to see the Germans depicted, for once, as victims”.

One of the most significant aspects of the history of the short 20th century, argues Eric Hobsbawm in The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 was what the great Jewish German sociologist Norbert Elias would have called a “decivilising process”. War, its violence previously contained within law, spilled out to an attempt to utterly destroy the enemy, its territory, and unarmed civilians. Sebald notes that Churchill, in initiating the terrible destruction caused by the bombing campaign of Germany, could be seen as acting irrationally. Far from destroying the morale of the civilian population, indiscriminate bombing heightened it. Nor did German industrial capacity suffer much. Rather, Churchill’s actions can be perceived as a pure exercise in the terrifying projection of force by an embattled power unable in 1941 to intervene directly on the Continent in any other way. Lord Solly Zuckerman, involved in the strategic planning of the air campaign, agreed to write after seeing the destruction in Cologne an article for Horizon titled ‘The Natural History of Destruction’. He never did.

Sebald writes:

When I questioned Lord Zuckerman on the subject in the 1980s, he could no longer remember in detail what he had wanted to say at the time. All that remained in his mind was the image of the blackened cathedral rising from the stony desert around it, and the memory of a severed finger that he had found on a heap of rubble.

Sebald reflects:

Yes, there are a few relevant texts, but what little has been recorded in literature, in terms of both quantity and quality, stands in no relation to the extreme collective experiences of the time. The destruction of all the larger German cities and many of the smaller ones, which one must assume could hardly be over-looked at the time and which marks the face of the country to this day, is reflected in works written after 1945 by a self-imposed silence, an absence also typical of other areas of discourse, from family conversations to historical writings.

How does one come to terms with “monstrous events” – through a silence and an absence that contain a memory that threatens to disrupt all understanding?

So, Sebald poses the question – “How ought such a natural history of destruction to begin?”

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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DREADNOUGHT
2022 years ago

I come to terms with the ‘monstrous events’ visited upon Nazi Germany by looking at my Grandparents. Until liberated by the Allies, they were slave labourers in a work camp run – and supported by, the majority of the populations in ‘the larger German cities’. Without Churchill’s ‘irrational’ bombing campaigns they might have been enslaved forever. Indeed, if they’d have been Jewish they’d have perished for sure.

Blinkered revisionism published fifty years after the fact is at least disingenuous if not morally repugnant. By divorcing the German crimes from their just recompense (the Allied bombing campaign) an insidious moral equivalence – not shared by historians at the time and certainly not by those millions who suffered and died under the German’s yoke – creeps in.

I suppose, however, if one proudly declares oneself ‘post-moral’ then anything goes. No wonder you are happy to apologise for the Nazi’s, they liked Nietsche too.

DREADNOUGHT
2022 years ago

Nietzsche, argh! His ghost afflicts my keyboard!

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Point me to one actual instance where I have “apologised for the Nazis”, Dreadnought. Over here at Troppo, we believe in civility and making judicious claims. Nota bene!

Churchill’s bombing campaigns had no discernible effect on the progress of the war, and may have even slowed it, as one-third of Britain’s war production was devoted to this particular strategy.

Oh, and you might be taking the tag “post-moral” too seriously. There’s a dash of irony, there, I’m sure. I, for one, believe in truth and ethics.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

In addition, in this case, the “moral equivalence” claim falls short. Little was known in 1941 about German crimes in the UK, and to the degree that the plight of Jews and others interned and killed was known, Roosevelt and Churchill were not particularly sympathetic to any action to save them. Roosevelt, whom I greatly admire, at least felt that the best means to the end of saving the victims of Nazism was to win the war. That’s not revisionism, that’s historical consensus.

And it’s quite odd to suggest that the Allied bombing was “just recompense”. Surely that’s a species of the invidious moral equivalence? Unlike the fashionable doctrines of the New World Order, the Allies in WW2 held the war criminals (note the term) to account through a judicial process of law rather than killing them or locking them up in Guantanamo Bay. Another instance where we are less civilised than the world of 1946. History doesn’t run in a straight line, I’m afraid.

DREADNOUGHT
2022 years ago

Nonsense, sheer nonsense Mark. Your claim re the bombing and its effect on the war effort is incredible. If only to demonstrate (to the Axis and the Allies) that the UK was on the offensive and not another France, the bombing campaign was worthwhile. This was, inter alia, how we won the war. I cannot imagine what contrary consensus you are consulting. It is not mainstream.

I am an advocate of just war theory, the crimes of Hitler perpetrated by the German people were so unjust that they deserved, no demanded righteous intervention, urgently to stop the manifest barbarity being carried out. I cannot believe anyone would consider this a controversial position. Once again, a contrary view is not mainstream, it is extremist. It is not even the German view!

The Nuremburg trials, relying on shoddy legal precedent, actually relied more on just war theory than perhaps you’d imagine. The people prosecuted were uniformed military combatants. Terrorists are not. They are not accurately described as such even under the most strained readings of the Geneva Conventions. Again, claiming otherwise puts you outside mainstream legal opinion. Most people claim they could/should be treated as such, but very few if any claim that it is established legal thinking they they must be. Certainly opinion juris is against you http://anthonydamato.law.northwestern.edu/Adobefiles/a87a-trashing.pdf

Excuse my vehemence, but I cannot understand why an otherwise seemingly intelligent and humane individual would insist on defending terrorists and Nazis while randomly spraying vitriol at Western or WWII Allied interests.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

The point about the bombing campaign is that it was not restricted to military targets but was indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Indiscriminate only in the sense that it didn’t discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Against much opposition from the British military itself, Churchill insisted on specifically targetting working class residential neighbourhoods in Germany’s largest cities. His actions were courageously severely censured in the House of Lords by former Conservative ministers and Anglican Bishops.

It would have been possible to make the symbolic point that Britain was still in the way by bombing military targets. I have no doubt that justice was on the side of the Allies in World War II, but an understanding of war and history requires us to be critical of unjust actions no matter who their originator.

As to just war theory, I’d suggest you reflect on the requirement that the means be “proportionate”.

Many of those interned in Guantanamo Bay are in fact combatants. And, additionally, precedents were set for treating terrorists as criminals in the trials of the Al-Qaeda perpetrators of the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993.

It’s off topic for this thread, really, but I’d make two quick points on this question:

1. Treating terrorists as criminals rather than an enemy to be destroyed would be a more sustainable strategy in building support for the West and undermining support for Al-Qaeda and militant Political Islamism;

2. The invasion of Iraq in no way meets the requirements of just war theory.

But as I said, I don’t want to get into this debate at length here.

Thanks for your acknowledgement that I’m a “an otherwise seemingly intelligent and humane individual” but I repeat that I am not “defending terrorists and Nazis”. That contention betrays a wiful failure to read, and understand. Nor am I “randomly straying vitriol”. The intent of my post is to open a debate on historical memory and its representation in literature. Your response, Dreadnought, rather proves my contention that such debates are inevitably politicised, but I’d prefer that discussion on this thread stay closer to the issues core to my post.

Thanks.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

I think that Mark is right here. However much one can despise the Nazis, it’s not as though Churchill was the lamb, spotless and without sin.

The deliberate mass bombing of civilians was horrific. So to was the firebombing of Japanese cities. More people died in the first night of firebombing in Hiroshima than were later to die in the atomic explosion.

These events were the apogee of total war. Let’s hope it never gets that far again.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks Jacques, and I agree with you.

Incidentally, contrary to what was said at the time, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not necessary to end the war – the Imperial government of Japan had already put out peace feelers to Washington. Truman was trying to show the world the power the US had with the possession of atomic weapons, and to put Stalin back in his box. It’s unlikely it would have played out that way had FDR been alive.

MarkL
MarkL
2022 years ago

You miss the impact of technology. In the early 1940s, it was quite difficult to find a city in Germany at night, let alone hit a discrete target within it. That was impossible. Area bombing was used because it was the ONLY way the British had to hit back at the Germans directly. Sure, the blockade was at least as effective, but there simply was no other way, until OBOE was invented in ’44.

By then, area bombing had assumed institutional inertia, of course. But you can really only apply just war principles after a possible alternative to area bombing became technologically feasible. The entire campaign before that is attributable to there being no alternative within the realms of technology.

As for the effectiveness of the campaign, that is yet to be determined. Certainly, the British assumed that the Germans had mobilised their economy for war as efficiently as they themselves had. They were shocked and amazed to find out about the ‘Blitzkreig Economy Theory’ they used, and astonished to find out that the Germans did not actually mobilise for War until late 1943! So the area bombing campaign was based on false assumptions from the start. That does not mean they were wrong to do it.

But in the end, and bearing in mind that we now know the depth to which German society was nazified and popularly supported the vile ideologies of that regime, it is very difficult to argue against area bombing. You may be aware of the recent German scholarship on this subject, which is still causing so much controversy in that country.

Did the Germans suffer for their longstanding and ingrained popular support of the Nazi regime? Yes. They did – but not nearly as much as Soviet, Polish, and Dutch people did (to name a few) as victims of that regime. I simply cannot regard their suffering as a bad thing irrespective of how much I can empathise with it on the personal level.

But I believe that they certainly remember the lessons they learned, to this day. And that is good thing, surely?

MarkL
Canberra

DREADNOUGHT
2022 years ago

Yes MarkL, I agree with your post, I certainly value the contribution of an actual military analyst.

Mark your ‘former Conservative ministers and Anglican Bishops’ are the Chamberlain appeasers. Surely a less than credible voice in WWII unless perhaps I misjudge your position. It is entirely rational to conclude from your posts that you would have supported Chamberlain over Churchill.

Your just war analysis of the Iraq operations is an assertion, not a rebuttal. George Weigel wrote authoritatively on the issue pre and post the conflict. Certainly your claim that the WWII bombing of Nazi cities was not proportionate is misguided if not just wrong.

Closer to your core issues? Well any natural history of anything, let alone something as serious as the 20th Century catalogue of egregious destruction of human life should not begin with obfuscation and moral equivalence. It does not honour the dead and it does not help us to avoid such catastrophies in the future.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks, Mark – I should clarify that my criticism goes to the targetting of particular districts and cities.

For instance, Dresden:

“Dresden was widely considered a city of little war-related industrial or strategic importance. Dresden itself was most noted as a cultural centre, with noted architecture in the Zwinger Palace, the Dresden State Opera House and its historic churches. It has been claimed that the bombing was at the request of Russia, to attack a German armoured division in transit through the city. However, RAF briefing notes indicate that one of the motives was to show “the Russians when they arrive, what Bomber Command can do” (that is, to intimidate the Russians).

At the time, town was full of refugees fleeing from the advancing Red Army. Bomber Command was ordered to attack Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and other east German cities to “cause confusion in the evacuation from the east” and “hamper the movements of troops from the west”. This directive led to the raid on Dresden and marked the erosion of one last moral restriction in the bombing war: the term “evacuation from the east” did not refer to retreating troops but to the civilian refugees fleeing from the advancing Russians. Although these refugees clearly did not contribute to the German war effort, they were considered legitimate targets simply because the chaos caused by attacks on them might obstruct German troop reinforcements to the Eastern Front. There are reports that even civilians fleeing the firestorm engulfing Dresden in February 1945 were strafed by British and American aircraft.

The fire-bombing consisted of dropping large amounts of high-explosive to expose the timbers within buildings, followed by incendiary devices (fire-sticks) to ignite them and then more high-explosives to hamper the efforts of the fire services. This eventually created a self-sustaining ‘fire storm’ with temperatures peaking at over 1500 degrees C. After the area caught fire, the air above the bombed area, become extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside and people were sucked into the fire.

3,900 tonnes of bombs were dropped. Out of 28,410 houses in the inner city of Dresden, 24,866 were destroyed. An area of 15 square kilometers was totally destroyed, among that: 14,000 homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 19 churches, 5 theaters, 50 bank and insurance companies, 31 department stores, 31 large hotels, and 62 administration buildings.”

http://www.artpolitic.org/infopedia/bo/Bombing_of_Dresden_in_World_War_II.html

I don’t agree with what you say regarding the popular support for Nazism justifying disregarding the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. I am aware of the recent German scholarship on this – and it’s certainly changed the picture. But I can’t see how justice is served in any way by targetting non-combatants. Even if one assumes that those who give material support to a despotic regime are targets (and this assumption was certainly made by the French Resistance), indiscriminate bombing will inevitably kill opponents of the regime, or people who are indifferent to it. The safest ethical position is to observe the distinction between civilian and military targets, and if the available technology makes this difficult, then it should be used with extreme care.

I agree with your last comment.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Dreadnought, you seem to have a serious problem with understanding nuance in people’s positions – for instance your sweeping statement that “‘former Conservative ministers and Anglican Bishops’ are the Chamberlain appeasers”. How do you know this? The position that Bishop Bell of Chichester took was also supported by several Labour MPs in the House of Commons who cannot be categorised in these terms. You really do seem to have a very black and white view of things.

Incidentally, and with no disrespect whatsoever to MarkL, how do you know that he is an “actual military analyst”?

Fyodor
2022 years ago

Mark,

I’m with Dreadnought on this one. As Basil Fawlty said, the Germans started it.

They chose to bomb civilian targets in Britain, for much the same reason that the British reciprocated. The true horrors of the concentration camps may not have been known at the time, but the Germans had racked up plenty of misdemeanors by the time the allies eventually got around to strategic bombing.

Eventually, the stronger side prevailed. Fortunately for us they were the good guys.

blank
blank
2022 years ago

Certainly a great lack of coherent thought here!

What does ‘popular support’ for the Nazis mean? In the 1932 elections Hilter got 37.3% of the vote, and after that the Nazis took over everything. Hiler did not get 50% in the 1933 election. There is no way of knowing that the ‘popular will’ was after that date.

Before WW2, Hitler made many declarations that he would never start a war, he went on about how he had been an ordinary soldier in WW1 and knew what war meant, &c.

Consider the access there is present-day America to information. Consider the attitudes of many Americans on Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider that every source of knowledge for Germans from 1933 was in the hands of the Nazi party.

It would have been a very brave (or very stupid) person who voiced opposition to the government during war – and that applies equally to Britain at the time.

The ordinary German civilians who were bombed during the war, and later were ‘ethnically cleansed’ from East Prussia and Czechoslovakia immediately after the war paid a very heavy price for the one-third who voted for Hitler in 1932.

BigBob
2022 years ago

I believe Mark is being quite reasonable.

In the end, the magnitude of what happened here is obscene.

It needs to be recognised as a failure of humanity on an incredible scale.

That does not mean that other events are excusable or diminished, just that we recognise that even the good guys commit gross acts.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

blank, on the access to information about the Iraq situation in the American press, this article by Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books is excellent reading:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17633

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Churchill himself had once recognised the moral decay that war brings.

From a purely military point of view, the British bombing effort in World War 2 must be accounted as a failure; it consumed immense resources that might have been much more usefully employed in developing a decent battle-tank, and the manpower could have gone into at least a couple of more field armies.

In addition, German production in the latter part of the war was prodigious; what, in the end, brought the German war economy down was lack of oil and the destruction of Germany’s internal transport links.

There is a place for the heavy bomber in war, and that would be it- destroying the logisitic and energy capabilities of a state is far quicker then what was attempted in the Second World War.

But I might also add that the only way to preserve ‘moral purity’, if you will, is to not fight at all.

And I’m afraid Mark is joking if he thinks we live in a less civillised world then in 1946. I suspect he’s wearing rose coloured glasses again. He might forget, or perhaps he never knew, of the West’s complicity with some of Stalin’s worst atrocities. Many Russians who were liberated from slavery by British arms had no desire to return to the USSR. Stalin insisted they be returned to him, and the British supinely agreed. The Foreign Office legal advisor put out a memo.

This is purely a question for the Soviet authorities and does not concern His Majesty’s Government. In due course all those with whom the Soviet authorities desire to deal with must be handed over to them, and we are not concerned with the fact that they may be shot or otherwise more harshly dealt with then they might be under English law.

The West routinely committed acts which if they happened now by American forces would produce howls of outrage. (For some reason, the French get a free pass.) The fact that people now question US motives and behavior is, in the long run, a massive advantage to the United States.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Okay the blockquote didnt work.. the previous comment has a blockquote in it.. will fix it up later.

Mork
Mork
2022 years ago

***But in the end, and bearing in mind that we now know the depth to which German society was nazified and popularly supported the vile ideologies of that regime, it is very difficult to argue against area bombing. You may be aware of the recent German scholarship on this subject, which is still causing so much controversy in that country.***

I find the idea that populations as a whole can be held morally responsible for the acts of the state morally troubling. I don’t deny the extent of the complicity. The difficulty is evaluating the morality of individual actions in isolation from the circumstances in which they were carried out.

Presumably, Dreadnought does not believe that Germans could be killed with impunity after 1945, even though they were the very same people who he thinks deserved to die between 1940 and 1945.

Once you recognise that, I think you see what flimsy foundations the moral argument rests on: we obviously don’t think that they deserve punishment after the war ended, because we recognise that outside of the particular circumstnaces, there is nothing inherently collectively evil in those people.

I might go further and say that I have very little confidence that any of us could predict accurately what we would do as individuals in a set of circumstances like that. If you think of the range of things that a large section of the American public has come to embrace since 2001, for example, compared with what you might imagine their views might have been in the absence of the attack and the Administration’s exploitation of it, it’s difficult to believe that any society is immune to voluntarily acting in ways that are collectively wrong. (And no, I don’t think that Nazi Germany and post 2001 America are similar: the point is that it only took a comparatively trivial event like September 11 together with a cynical and manipulative government to cause a whole lot of people to reassess – without even thinking about it too much – some fairly fundamental beliefs of right and wrong.)

Peter Murphy
2022 years ago

“He might forget, or perhaps he never knew, of the West’s complicity with some of Stalin’s worst atrocities.”

That’s a bit unfair on Mark. I think Australians would be far more aware of Stalin’s atrocities than most other countries because of it’s high post-WWII immigration. People hear things. One of my friends was the daughter of a refugee from East Prussia, circa 1944. Another was the the son of an Russian POW, who ended up killing some guards rather than be repatriated to the U.S.S.R. Both of these people ended up running to Australia. Only in this country could you make a movie like “Children of the Revolution”…

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

The whole issue of whether and to what extent it is legitimate to target cities with civilian populations is a very current one given US actions in Falluja and earlier in Serbia during the Kosovo conflict. The Geneva Conventions quite explicitly outlaw such actions. But what should one do when terrorist/insurgent groups quite calculatedly establish their military forces in the midst of densely populated urban areas? They do this quite specifically to negate the advantage otherwise enjoyed by their more militarily powerful adversary: the adversary has the choice of bombing the terrorist installations in the near-certain knowledge that there will be significant “collateral” civilian casualties (despite “smart” bombs) and thereby potentially playing into the terrorists’ hands in the propaganda war, or leaving the terrorists to operate with impunity and cause ever-increasing death and chaos (and therefore win the propaganda war anyway)?

The WWII bombing of European cities was slightly different: it was total war, where the Germans first implemented the strategy of bombing cities, but the Allies quickly responded in kind. It was a “total war” situation because Britain was on the verge of being invaded and conquered, and that may well have occurred had the Allies not fought back with everything they had, including seeking to degrade the Germans’ industrial capacity by bombing productive industrial sites in and near cities. It certainly breached the Geneva Conventions, but was it “wrong”? I wouldn’t be prepared to condemn it even now; it was a life or death situation, and it may well have been death had the Allies not been prepared to do to the enemy what the enemy was already doing to them.

I don’t know about Scott’s comment that British bombing of German cities was ineffective anyway, because (he observes) German industrial production remained “prodigious” even in the latter stages of the war. That may be so, but might it not have been even more prodigious had the bombing not taken place? How much longer would the war then have been prolonged and how many more might then have died? It might well be true that the Allies would have been better advised to concentrate on energy and communication/transport targets, but that’s more a tactical than moral argument, and it’s by no means obvious that concentrating on those sorts of targets would have resulted in lower civilian casualties in any event.

Finally, I should note that we ought to be able to debate about whether and to what extent bombing of civilian areas (deliberately or as “collateral” damage) in WWII was justified, without having malicious point-scoring troublemakers labelling contributors (i.e. Mark Bahnisch) as “starting to feel bad for Hitler”. Mark’s contributions could not honestly be characterised in that way or anything like it. Despite the fact that Mark has drawn the unfair (and defamatory) characterisation to the gentleman’s attention, he has not seen fit either to apologise or correct it. The gentleman who did this professes to be a conservative christian, but doesn’t seem to acknowledge or practise standards of basic honesty or decency in the way he discusses issues. If he’s unwilling to practise either honesty or civility, then he simply isn’t welcome here, and others should easily be able to judge the sincerity and depth of his professed christian values.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Many thanks, Ken.

On Scott’s point, I should clarify that when I said that history doesn’t go in a straight line, what I intended by that remark was that in some respects we can be both more and less civilised than people were at any given point in time. For instance, if one were to look at the impact of war on non-combatants, it was massive in the 17th century, very low in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and massive again in the 20th century. But it would be wrong to look at the 19th century as some sort of panacea. The murder rate in Australia, for instance, was much higher in the 1890s than in any decade of the twentieth century. And at the same time that Metternich’s “Concert of Europe” produced (relative) peace in Europe from 1815 to 1848, freedoms which we take for granted – for instance, freedom of the press were heavily restricted. Not to mention – in the German context – a distinct coarsening of manners in the middle class as compared to the cultural heights of the late 18th century and early 19th century and a preference for militaristic arrogance.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

The following day (February 15, 1942) the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, wrote to Bottomley to clarify the intent of the orders: “Ref the new bombing directive: I suppose it is clear the aiming-points are to be the built-up areas, not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories… This must be made quite clear if it is not already understood.”
http://www.valourandhorror.com/P_Reply/BC.htm#Morality

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

As something of an addendum to Ken’s comment, I thought I’d offer some personal background to why I find Dreadnought’s comments so offensive (although they would be in any event).

My family has two branches in Australia – in SA and Qld (originally settled on the Darling Downs). As with a lot of other German-Australians, my ancestors’ motivation for emigrating in was (in part) religious and political freedom. Again, in common with others, the community into which my father was born was very resistant to Nazi overtures in the 30s. Most people probably know that most of the German place names in Queensland were changed in WW1 – Marburg being the only exception, I think.

My grandfather grew up with his first language being German, but he was of the last generation (I think)to have that full linguistic/cultural inheritance.

There is some historical literature on the Germans in Australia, but not a lot. An actor of my acquaintance with a similar background was writing a play about all this, but I lost touch with her when she moved to Melbourne a few years ago.

I may be wrong on some of the details. Brian might correct me if I am – he knows the stories far better than I.

But it’s one reason I deeply resent the imputation that I am in some way defending Hitler and Nazism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

DREADNOUGHT
2022 years ago

I agree with Ken’s comments re: ‘I wouldn’t be prepared to condemn it even now; it was a life or death situation…’ It’s easy to revise history when you live in a free nation fifty years after the brutal fact of war.

I know MarkL is a military analyst because he regularly reads DREADNOUGHT too.

Defamation? My comments were neither malicious, nor a manifestly untrue reading given the subject matter. I wonder at the quality of debate at Troppo if one can only post fawning comments supportive of the post in question, no matter how morally questionable. Especially if strongly worded but otherwise civil comments leave one open to disparaging attacks on the quality or otherwise of one’s Christian virtues.

My background is Polish, I am investing emotional capital in a Jew and I am also a human being. Perhaps that’s why I found a post that felt it was time to finally ‘see Germans (which means Nazis, don’t forget) as the victims’ deeply offensive.

Perhaps Mark you need to publish such a post in the mainstream media to judge how truly offensive your comments were. In a bubble of sympathetic opinion extremist claims often start to sound reasonable.

DREADNOUGHT
2022 years ago

Finally, I always get more than a little wary when people request that posts be removed. If you cannot defeat me at argument then you were wrong in the first place.

But if you defeat me, I apologise. Just ask Mike Jericho.

Your post seriously disturbed me Mark.

To the grandson of labour camp internees and a survivor of Dachau your post was tremendously upsetting. To a man concerned with human rights it was alarming. To an Australian aware of the noble sacrifice of fallen fighters it came close to being an outrage.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

Let me see if I can summarise DREADNOUGHT’s argument.

1. All germans were Nazis. All of them! In fact they were turned out of giant factories, marching lockstep and signing nazi songs. Nobody supported the regime because they were afraid of dying.

2. Anyone who thinks Nazis are humans, is a nazi! Anyone! That’s you, Mark! You are a nazi!

3. Anyone who think that the allies in WW2 should be held to at least the same moral standard as axis were, is a nazi! Good guys don’t need moral standards, you idiot, they’re GOOD GUYS. Duh!

4. You support nazis! Nerni nerni ner ner! Hey! You must actually BE a nazi!

5.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

To give some context to Dreadnought’s remarks for Troppo readers, he posted on his comments at Troppo on his own blog.

His post is here:

http://johnheard.blogspot.com/2004/12/dont-mention-armadillo.html

Troppo readers can form their own judgement as to whether the way in which he misrepresented my opinions was in the spirit of reasonable argument, and whether or not it is defamatory, as Ken suggested.

In any event, it ought to become clear from reading Dreadnought’s post why I find his characterisation of my intention and the views he wrongly and falsely imputes to me so offensive.

All I wish to do at this time is endorse Ken’s remarks again, and also to note that my intention with my post was certainly not to engage in the sort of argument that Dreadnought (for one) evidently thinks is occurring here. I’d further note that Troppo debates are usually characterised by reasoned argument, and that’s the way I think all of us would like the blog to remain. Troppo certainly isn’t a place where the object is to “defeat” people.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Dreadnought

There’s a rather significant gulf between “fawning” comments and accusing someone of “starting to feel bad for Hitler” or “historical revisionism carried out to make Nazis look better”, let alone suggesting that Mark “need/s to see a psychiatrist”. If you can’t see that your post is way over the top and illegitimate debate, then we have very little in common to enable a civil discussion to take place.

Your misunderstanding (to characterise it charitably) seems to flow from your making an assumption that Mark’s daring to suggest that the German civilian population suffered horribly during WWII from indiscriminate Allied bombing campaigns is somehow tantamount to an apologia or covert support/sympathy for Hitler. Yet clearly all Mark is saying is that war is horrible per se, and gross excesses commonly occur on both sides. Few if any serious historical students of war would argue with that proposition. Moreover, it in no sense negates the validity of the “just war” concept. I’m sure Mark would agree that WWII was a “just war” (leaving aside whether it could have been prevented by resolute opposition rather than appeasement through the 1930s). Pointing out that German civilians suffered horribly from large-scale indiscriminate Allied bombing of cities, and that there has been something of a conspiracy of silence about this ever since, in no sense negates that proposition.

That in turn doesn’t of itself imply a conclusion that the bombing was militarily unnecessary, although Mark also notes that Sebald suggests Churchill’s orders to bomb German cities were rather ineffective in degrading its industrial capacity, and even counterproductive in heightening civilian resentment and resolve. Whether that’s correct or not is open to debate, and not a proposition I would necessarily accept, but again it in no sense implies any form of support or “feeling bad” for Hitler.

I can accept the inevitability/unavoidability of the bombing of German cities in a total war situation, without believing that Germans deserved it, which seems to be your position (and incidentally one I find quite morally repugnant). Similarly, Mark Bahnisch can (and does) lament the appalling destruction of innocent human lives on a massive scale perpetrated by the Allied bombing of German cities, without in any sense supporting or condoning Hitler or his actions and monstrous aims and plans. You do yourself no favours by equating one position with another that manifestly doesn’t flow from it as a matter of both logic and commonsense.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, yes, I wholeheartedly agree that WW2 was a just war and you’ve characterised the spirit of my argument very neatly.

My final word to Dreadnought:

Your suggestion that you “found a post that felt it was time to finally ‘see Germans (which means Nazis, don’t forget) as the victims’ deeply offensive” is a wilful misreading of what I wrote:

“As Sebald writes, initial interest in the texts of his lectures given in Zurich which form the basis for the essay ‘Air War and Literature’ was in part motivated by “a need to see the Germans depicted, for once, as victims”.”

There is no sense in which it would be legitimate for you to assume from those words that I feel that need.

MarkL
MarkL
2022 years ago

Some commentary. Yes, I am a military man with over 2 decades of service, and an analyst of military affairs. I am published in the arena of Imperial Studies, in specialist area, but mostly I have a deep and abiding interest in military history.

The area bombing campaign is one of the most vexed issues of WWII. How can moral, civilised nations conduct a war against something like National Socialist Germany? We will take decades more to get an answer to this. I suggest a reading of Michael Walzer’s classic “Just and Unjust Wars” as a starting point.

MB noted:
I don’t agree with what you say regarding the popular support for Nazism justifying disregarding the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. I am aware of the recent German scholarship on this – and it’s certainly changed the picture. But I can’t see how justice is served in any way by targetting non-combatants. Even if one assumes that those who give material support to a despotic regime are targets (and this assumption was certainly made by the French Resistance), indiscriminate bombing will inevitably kill opponents of the regime, or people who are indifferent to it. The safest ethical position is to observe the distinction between civilian and military targets, and if the available technology makes this difficult, then it should be used with extreme care.

This is the solidly moral view of a careful mind, but it does reveal some gaps in knowledge.

The military technological point is that, at the time, the smallest object which could be targetted was a large city. Even then, in 1943 (the Bomber Command accuracy studies), up to 25% of the bomber crews MISSED THE CITY. Usually by 5 or more miles.

Area Bombing was a strategy made up to justfiy bombing the Germans at all with such appalling levels of accuracy. Was it right or wrong? That may be debated. But at the time it was all they could actually do. And something had to be done to hit the Germans.

This leads to the grim calculus of collateral damage. To hit the Nazis, we had to kill some of our friends BECAUSE THERE WAS NO CHOICE. But war, let alone total war, is a grim and bloody business, and some truly terrible decisions have to be made.

Be thankful you do not have to make them, but those men did.

BTW, I regard the single instance of a demonstrable war crime in the guise of area bombing as Dresden. The city was of no military significance and was not defended. But Hamburg, for example, the first firestorm (read The End), was perfectly justifiable. Every attack on Berlin was justifiable. The hideous Soviet behaviour as they smashed their way into the Reich was not justifiable, but it was perfectly understandable in context. If you can read Omar Bartovs ‘The Barbarisation of Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-45’ without feelings of disgusted, horrified rage, then you have no emotions.

MarkL
Canberra

DREADNOUGHT
2022 years ago

I have posted an update. I now accept your clarification Mark but I stand my my initial claim that such a conclusion is open to be reasonably deduced from your original post. Indeed other posters here agreed with me.

You are wrong Jacques, your arguments don’t merit a reply.

MarkL, you once again get to the point of the matter with a technical knowledge that I cannot emulate.

Ken, I find your re-working of Mark’s argument manifestly more appealing. This only points up, however, the flaws in the initial text. Of course all human suffering is a tragedy, but it was the perceived moral equivalence of the post that I was protesting.

Finally Mark, thinkers defeat ideas which are attached to/emerge from thinkers, that is what I was getting at. I am well aware now, however, that my rules of engagement are arguably more robust and certainly less inhibited than yours.

I will try to find less obvious, more ‘nice’ ways to disagree with you.

DREADNOUGHT
2022 years ago

Oh and Ken I never said Mark needs to see a psychiatrist or a priest and I never said he felt sorry for Hitler. Let’s be honest about all this.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

Sebald’s book has been published by the mainstream media and to the credit of the global community, it has generally been discussed with a maturity that goes beyond emotive cheap-shots.
To suggest that W.G. Sebald is in any way an apologist for Nazism is to display obvious ignorance of his work.

Sebald’s fiction is indellibly marked by a desparate quest for recovering a Germany that was extinguished by the Nazis. The Jewish experience is very much at the centre of this. In all of his works, he is attempting to come to terms with the scope of such events, and how such a cataclysm affected so many people. This ranges from the heartbreaking experiences of “The Emigrants” (one of the finest works of the last decade) to the fragments of memories in “Austerlitz” (I just deleted the detail of this book so as not to spoil the novel’s conclusion for the reader). To suggest that Sebald cannot attempt to depict the many victims of one of history’s great traumas is in its own way a form of historical revisionism. Sebald’s work is very much about attempting to grapple with this past in a mature manner, which recognises the horrific destruction of a cosmopolitan society. That its victims include Germans as well as Jews does not in any way diminish the unspeakable suffering experienced by millions of Jews throughout Europe. But there is evidence that many other Germans did suffer horrific fates in Dresden and that many are entitled to some form of remembrance (many of whom had little or no association with Hitler’s murderous regime). I don’t see how Sebald or Gunter Grass in “Crabwalk” in any way attempt to provide even the slightest apologia for Nazism, both writers are just displaying a willingness to look at the overarching victims of a time or rampart militarism.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

Another interesting literary text to consider is Knut Vonnegut Jnr’s “Slaughterhouse Five”, which is based on the author’s troubled remembrance of being a captured soldier during the bombing of Dresden.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

MarkL, I’d be the first to admit that my expertise doesn’t lie in matters military, so thank you for your contribution.

DREADNOUGHT
2022 years ago

David Irving’s rubbish is frequently cited as a key precursor to Sebald’s work and most reviews did not greet his lectures on the bombings with universal acceptance, despite claims here to the contrary.

I am not banging away mindlessly here:

Most reviews raised the same kind of reasonable issues I raised: http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/sebaldwg/luftlit.htm#ours ;

Even a Brit in the Independent lamented the way Sebald’s works are used to diminish Nazi atrocities: http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/reviews/story.jsp?story=490747 ;

it is this truly mainstream context that informed my initial comments. As far as I am concerned it is not worth arguing the point with people who cannot admit things that are obvious to the rest of the sane world.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Dreadnought, I accept your apology. I, in turn, want to make it clear that I had no intention of upsetting you regarding your own family background, and I’m sorry if you felt that my post was challenging. Certainly, I had no intention of being offensive. As Peter Murphy indicated, there are some strong emotions involved and I think you can see that’s the case for me as well.

I’d also endorse Stephen’s point about Sebald and Ken’s comment that:

“we ought to be able to debate about whether and to what extent bombing of civilian areas (deliberately or as “collateral” damage) in WWII was justified.”

Indeed, we should. As processes such as that of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa demonstrate, an honest and intellectually rigorous examination of past traumatic events goes a significant way both to healing remaining wounds, and ensuring that such events (on whatever side) do not recur.

With regard to this particular thread, I don’t intend to engage further with your arguments as I suspect that emotions have become rather heated on both sides. I’d close by adding that I am always happy to have my own ideas challenged, but reiterate my belief that this is best done on the basis of a genuine attempt to understand the interlocutor’s position and to attempt to persuade by adducing arguments and evidence rather than seeing a discussion as a matter of “who wins”.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Dreadnought

As a Christian, I’m surprised that you find an argument lamenting “the way Sebald’s works are used to diminish Nazi atrocities” to be persuasive. People on all sides of politics purport to use the Bible to justify all manner of appalling behaviour. The way they distort Christ’s teachings in no way reflects adversely on them. Christ’s message stands on its own terms, as does that of any other writer. As the po-mo crowd tell us, though, readers will interpet an author’s words through the prism of their own experiences, perceptions and biases. That is true for Sebald and any other author as much as for Jesus.

As for your link to Complete Reviews, as far as I can see on a quick scan, neither the mainstream media review extracts of Sebald’s work nor their own review takes the stance you do: suggesting that Sebald is some sort of pale imitation of David Irving. I haven’t read Sebald’s work so I can’t judge definitively, but it looks as if you’re misjudging his meaning and intentions as much as you’ve done with Mark Bahnisch. It’s a shame, because you make some good points and I reckon you’d be a good, challenging participant in blogosphere discussions here and elsewhere if you could manage to resist the temptation to go over the top into ad hominem abuse (as opposed to good-natured but robust debate). We all get carried away sometimes, but it’s important to know when to pull back and agree to disagree in good faith.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

For sixty years people have debated whether the Allies needed to bomb German cities so heavily. Given the objective – to end the war as fast as possible – the issues are largely technical, even if the psychological impact is hard to quantify. Those technical issues are suficiently unresolved that it has always been considered as quite legitimate to speculate that the bombing was excessive, and it’s completely obviously that to do so carries no implication of sympathy with Nazis. Dreadnought is intelligent enough to know this, therefore his shock over Mark’s post was completely phoney. No apology is necesssary, and I’m amazed that his attention-seeking antics, here and elsewhere, are paying off so handsomely.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

“You are wrong Jacques, your arguments don’t merit a reply.”

Who said I was arguing? It was satire. You handed me a free kick, in fact.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

James, you’re absolutely right that it’s a legitimate discussion.

So, following on from Stephen’s welcome attempt to re-orient the thread to something like its original purpose, does anyone have any comments on the issue of how literature works/doesn’t work to memorise or elide traumatic collective events?

MarkL
MarkL
2022 years ago

Overall, this seems to me to have been a reasonably well conducted discourse, which has not tipped over in to a nasty slanging match despite the efforts of a few obvious (but marginal) folks who appear to have wanted that, from their posts.

The possibility of such a discourse is a big part of the value of the blogosphere, and a major reason to treasure it. It is also a major reason to listen and calmly parse the words of people one does not agree with; for that is a good way to locate intellectual surprises. There are few better things than that, IMVHO.

Being, as I am, a follower of Schuurman’s long-marginalised Imperial Studies School, and a very minor military historian, I am consistently surprised, though, at the lack of basic knowledge in otherwise serious posts, where things military are concerned.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the long campaign fought by Bomber Command. I am heartened that people have rarely been so intemperate as to blame the men of Bomber Command for area bombing. But like most others who have studied the legal and moral implications of that campaign, I find the higher command’s rationalisations of their continued area bombing campaign very shaky indeed ONCE THEY STARTED TO QUANTIFY ITS REAL IMPACT on the German War effort. But even that you have to qualify, for the last thing that any Allied military man of senior civilian decision maker would have believed in WWII was that the legendarily efficient Germans simply had not mobilised for war at all until late 1943!

In the context of the time, area bombing and ‘de-housing’ were all you could actually do. Attacks had to be indiscriminate. But, bearing in mind the stark revelations of the Gestapo local archives discovered after the collapse of East Germany, it is difficult to argue that the bulk of the German populace (or even a major fraction of it) was morally innocent by 1940, let alone 1943. Germany was far more Nazified than post-war protestations would have had us believe.

That said, morally, it would be easier to justify the bombing that by simply saying that it was all that could be done, rather than using the specious inventions Harris actually used.

It is at this point that we get to the really difficult moral issue: what is NOT morally justified when in total war against a regime as vile as National Socialism?

TO even start that one, we need a large supply of port!

MarkL
Canberra

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

This might be going out a little on a tangent, but I was recently reading the introduction of Paul Virilio’s “Art and Fear”. What shocked me was how fervently Virilio’s linked his argument that art had lost its “pity” to the Holocaust Museum.

Having never had the good-fortune to be able to afford to go overseas I really don’t know how the museum was going to satisfy Virilio. How do you represent such a horror? Is the Holocaust “representable”? From what I can gather of the museum it seems to have maintained an austerity of purpose, but I’d be interested what other people’s impressions were. (I must admit I felt Virilio’s work was somewhat hysteric, he also has the habbit of placing the quotations of surrealists and dadaists out of context, which tended to make me resist his argument even more.)

But this does leave us with questions on how we narratise such a horror for historians/curators/writers are still left with the dilemma of what to include and exclude. How does one represent a period in which several million people were exterminated, with many more ruined lives, that somehow has both a depth and breadth that can represent such shattering events. There are many fine documentary accounts and much non-fiction, e.g. Primo Levi’s “If This is a Man” which evocatively describes the severity of existence and simultaneously the courageous struggle for survival. Yet there are so many stories that the options of narrativising both the social upheaval and the particular individual trumour leaves one scrambling to find a definitive way to signify these experiences. There are as you said a range of historigraphical challenges but what is frightening is how much is missing, how do we know the stories of the many people who never voiced their experiences and how do we find the authentic reactions when memory often rationalises experiences, paraphrasing Kierkegaard if life was lived backwards we would gain understanding, but life has already passed. What we are left with is only fragments of the picture, that is why we need more stories even if I can see how this may seem like a form of exhaustion. I think this is why we have to look into this history despite its uncomfortable nature for their is something galling in human nature that cannot be reduced to a simplistic cause, I could bang on about the “sublimity of evil” but I’ll leave that to Zizek and Lacan.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Stephen, I think the notion that the Holocaust is “unrepresentable” goes back to Primo Levi. It may also be a claim related to the uniqueness or incommensurability of the Holocaust.

On a broader level, anyone who like me has spent time trying to get a diagnosis for a serious illness will know it’s very difficult to describe pain – except to say it’s pain. And it becomes harder, the stronger it gets. There’s possibly an analogy with metaphysical or spiritual pain, or the pain of loss, of forgetting, of remembering.

The aptly named Elaine Scarry, in her book ‘The Body in Pain’ makes this argument, or a similar one – that pain exceeds representation and figuration. It’s been ages since I’ve read it but there’s a valuable note on the book here:

http://endeavor.med.nyu.edu/lit-med/lit-med-db/webdocs/webdescrips/scarry309-des-.html

As to Virilio, I haven’t tried to read him seriously but I haven’t also been able to make much of what he wrote. That may be my fault. I remember first coming across Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s essay ‘The War Has Taken Place’ and realising that Jean Baudrillard’s controversial piece on the Gulf War, ‘The War Will Not Take Place’ was a reference to it. This gave me a useful context – it was surprising that so many commentators thought Baudrillard was literally arguing that the Gulf War did not happen and contested his thesis with stats on casualties etc. Merleau-Ponty’s essay was a powerful piece on the impact of the war on the lived experience of his generation, and Baudrillard, I think, was arguing that we precisely did not live through the Gulf War so mediated was its representation. M-P was the missing key, if you will. There’s certainly something in the concept of intertextuality. There’s also a story to be told as to how the pace of translations of French authors (often out of synch with the order of original publication and after a significant lag) contributes to a certain decontextualisation, which creates a gap on which the first interpretations in English speaking thought inscribe a lens through which the author’s work is henceforth read.

Herman Rapaport’s ‘The Theory Mess’ sorts this tangled thread out well:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0231121350/qid=1102424003/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-0828244-4797752?v=glance&s=books

Incidentally, as I’m meandering too, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s post war essays are brilliant meditations on the problems of collective guilt and redemption which faced France after WW2.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, incidentally, I don’t know if I brought this out in the post – but Sebald is a fine literary stylist. The essay in question is only about 100 pages and it makes for an interesting read… I’m looking forward to tackling his novels – particularly the one Stephen referred to – when I can relax my self-imposed fiction ban after the PhD is out of my life!

DREADNOUGHT
2022 years ago

There is something in all of this to be said for silence. This is the most common reaction to places like Auschwitz or Yad Vashem: a profound, pregnant silence. It is this deep seriousness, like the shock that follows an unexpected slap to the face, that potentially explains the German reluctance to engage with past horrors.

I believe this is what Levi was getting at, art after the Shoah operates like a boisterous child suddenly burst into a room where a body lies in state. In the face of such magnificent suffering, such cruel ingenuity, art and literature risk appearing either trivial at best or collaboratively insensitive at worst. In this light Sebald’s indictment of his fellow Germans for not writing about the horrors they suffered is a little harsh and perhaps misses the point.

A rapt silence, however, is what is at stake here and it is not empty and meaningless. It usually veils an inner din in which guilt, wrath, terror, perverse desires or any other possible emotion writhe and shout. It is truly pregnant with meaning. Sublime art/literature I believe can harness or at least channel this fecundity into strikingly arresting images and literary conceits, but sublime art is rare.

I am thinking here of Picasso’s blue period ‘The Tragedy’ with its obvious, mournful, immediate power and the manic, frightened cacophony of Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’ that says so much about emotional confinement, the will anxious/defiant and the body constricted.

Maybe something of Kant’s freeplay of imagination and understanding comes into play here too. Perhaps the Shoah and the German crises Mark posted on present just those situations where humans glimpse pain an sich. Faced with such a mighty reality, any attempt at mimesis would represent a necessary diminuation of its relative power.

Viewed in this light, German artists and writers could be seen to have accorded the tragedies that nation faced a peculiarly touching respect: not wanting to rush green into a room full of mourners, widows, orphans and ghosts.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well said, Dreadnought…

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Things have settled down here a bit, so perhaps I should just let it be. I don’t get upset myself very easily these days, but I don’t like to see others upset. I’d better put the family history straight.

Dreadnought, I’m 64 and Mark is my son. On your blog you refer to me as his cousin. This to me illustrates one of your problems. You add 2+2 and get 5.

Our ancestor came to Australia in 1848 from a place near what used to be Breslau and is now Wroclaw in southern Poland. At that time it was, I understand, a part of Prussia and as far as I know our mob were Prussians, though I have recently been told that the name is a Germanified version of the Czech Benis.

I was told at school that many Germans left Prussia at that time because the ruler of Prussia had declared the Prussian Union Church the state religion. I’d never heard of it before (or since). Our mob were Lutherans and certainly took their religion exceedingly seriuosly.

I grew up in a German enclave of farmers who had migrated to Qld from South Aust about 1914. My father didn’t learn English until he was 12. In our district people were bilingual up to 1940. Most of the farmers had ‘working men’ on the farms who were ‘Australian’ and the practice of speaking in German stopped right there.

I remember being a loyal little Brit when I first went to school. I sat next to a large map of the world and spent much time finding all the bits of red on the map. From what I heard from the adults, I think most of them were loyal Aussies and were certainly afraid of being interned. However, they were producing stuff (like cotton) that conceivably contributed to the war effort and I guess they were a fair way out in the bush.

After the war there were quite a few European migrants around the district. We had a man who had been in a special forces unit of about 175 in the german Wehrmacht. Every time the unit was reduced to about 25 it was withdrawn and reconstituted. This happened about 15 times until he took a bullet in the hand swimming a river to escape the Russians (he’d fought the lot and respected the Russians most as fighters.) I certainly felt sorry for him as he carried some mental scars, as did an Aussie worker who had fought in New Guinea.

I do recall people asking the Germans what they knew about the holocaust. My memory is that they said the knew nothing.

To me Hitler was simply the enemy, but I did hear views expressed that at least he got the country going again after the horrific period post-WW1 when there was hyper-inflation from the reparations exacted from Germany. I think most people thought he was mad from how he carried on but you have to understand that we only had radio. I saw maybe 4 or 5 films before I went away to boarding school.

Sorry for this ramble. Mark on your substantive question I’m sure literature does help to come to terms with the past. I’m not sure that it is possible though to fully comprehend and incorporate such a truly horrible experience. There was certainly a lot of Angst about it in Germans I knew at university in the 1960s. But recently I read Johan Galtung who said that the Germans invaded 22 countries and are now on good terms with all of them. That at least is an achievement not yet matched perhaps by the Japanese. I do believe that within the EU the Germans try strenuously to be good citizens and the French are not past taking advantage of that. I recall a German lecturer saying the Germans have been admired and respected, but never loved.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Thanks, Brian.