Dresden after its WWII bombing.
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.
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.
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?”