Voices of the still tortured

On the Natural History of Destruction
February 28, 2003

André Engel considers the fate of the German victims of Bomber Command.

Hitler's architect and later armaments minister, Albert Speer, described the Führer in 1940 at a dinner in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin imagining the total destruction of the capital of the British empire: "Have you ever seen a map of London? It is so densely built that one fire alone would be enough to destroy the whole city, just as it did over 200 years ago. Göring will start fires all over London, fires everywhere, with countless incendiary bombs of an entirely new type. Thousands of fires. They will unite in one huge blaze over the whole area. Göring has the right idea: high explosives don't work, but we can do it with incendiaries; we can destroy London completely. What will their firemen be able to do once it's really burning?"

"The majority of Germans today know, or so at least it is to be hoped," writes W. G. Sebald at the end of his eloquent, moving and controversial essay "Air war and literature", translated from the German in On the Natural History of Destruction , "that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived. Scarcely anybody can now doubt that Air Marshal Göring would have wiped out London if his technical resources had allowed him to do so... The real pioneering achievements in bomb warfare - Guernica, Warsaw, Belgrade, Rotterdam - were the work of the Germans. And when we think of the nights when the fires raged in Cologne and Hamburg and Dresden, we ought also to remember that as early as August 1942, when the vanguard of the Sixth Army had reached the Volga and not a few were dreaming of settling down after the war on an estate in the cherry orchards besides the quiet Don, the city of Stalingrad, then swollen (like Dresden later) by an influx of refugees, was under assault from 1,200 bombers, and that during this raid alone, which caused elation among the German troops stationed on the opposite bank, 40,000 people lost their lives."

Earlier in the book, Sebald remembers the incineration of Hamburg on July 28 1943 after massive bombing raids by the Royal Air Force, supported by the US Eighth Army Air Force - in language of stunning force. "At 1.20am, a firestorm of an intensity that no one would ever before have thought possible arose. The fire, now rising 2,000 metres into the sky, snatched oxygen to itself so violently that the air currents reached hurricane force, resonating like mighty organs with all their stops pulled out at once. The fire burned like this for three hours. At its height, the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising hoardings through the air, tore trees from the ground and drove human beings before it like living torches. Behind collapsing facades the flames shot up as high as houses, rolled like a tidal wave through the streets at a speed of over 150km an hour, spun across open squares in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders of fire. The water in some of the canals was ablaze. The glass in the tramcar windows melted; stocks of sugar boiled in the bakery cellars. Those who had fled from their air-raid shelters sank, with grotesque contortions, in the thick bubbles thrown up by the melting asphalt. No one knows for certain how many lost their lives that night, or how many went mad before they died."

Sebald's novels in English translation, such as The Emigrants and Austerlitz , have long attracted admiring attention. How he arrives, through his melancholic style, at his effect on the reader, is always his secret.

There are writers who take you places you do not want to go, certainly not on your own. I have never opened a book by Sebald without trepidation.

Here, for the first time, English readers get to know him as a literary essayist (he was professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia). Sadly, the four essays are published posthumously, following his death in a car crash at the end of 2001. Two of them, the one on the air war and another on the novelist Alfred Andersch, appeared together in Germany in 1999; the other two essays, on the Holocaust survivor and writer Jean Améry and the painter and writer Peter Weiss, were added after Sebald's death.

"Air war and literature" is the longest and most important of the four - as is reflected in the title of the book, borrowed from the title of a proposed postwar report abandoned by Solly Zuckerman, a scientist who advised the British government on the most effective way to destroy the German cities. What drove Sebald to write this essay was his awareness that hardly any Germans in the decades after 1945 had produced writing that coped with, or even responded to, the calamity of 1942-45, during which 600,000 German civilians died, 80,000 of them children.

One reason for the near-total German silence on the bombing, Sebald thinks, is that the returning soldiers were so full of what they had seen and had done and what was done to them that the writing down of their experience took precedence over all else. But much more important, he suggests, is that those who suffered on the home front were unable to write about their disaster out of a sense of shame, humiliation and guilt. Some 40 million people died in the second world war in Europe alone. They died in a war started by Germany, deliberately and greedily. And here is the problem: when perpetrators become victims, do they deserve sympathy? Sebald does not tell us, but he is clear that we must remember those who died in the bombing of Germany and how horribly they died.

He knows, of course, about the demand by Primo Levi and Améry, among others, that we have a duty to keep memory alive, and he shares with us the reaction of Alfred Döblin ( Berlin Alexanderplatz) who on his return to Germany wrote: "They have not yet experienced, what they have experienced.

It is difficult. I would like to help." A disillusioned Doblin left for Paris in 1953. Sebald was under no illusion.

"Air war and literature" was first delivered as lectures in Zurich in the autumn of 1997. When reports of them reached the Fatherland, there was uproar. The text printed here is part lectures and part Sebald's commentary on the letters he received, some helpful, such as the eyewitness reports, some hostile and some crazy. A Dr H. from Darmstadt - too young to have been a Nazi - argues that the destruction was a plot by foreign Jews to separate the nation from its roots and cultural heritage and so make the Germans more like them , the wandering Jews . Sebald compares Dr H. to Dr Mabuse in Fritz Lang's film.

What book(s) about the air war would Sebald want? He carefully examines what was written. Diaries of the time he seems to reject as insufficient to the horror, though he admires some, for example by Hans Erich Nossack and Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen. What of novels with the emotional scope of the roman engagé ? Sebald mentions two such novels he admires: Heinrich Böll's Der Engel Schwieg and Gert Ledig's brutal Vergeltung . But the first, though written in 1949, was published only posthumously in 1992, and the second, published in 1956, disappeared immediately and was not republished until 2001. Sebald's admiration is surprising as his own novels show little interest in plot. They may be based on facts, yet they transport the reader into a near dream-like state where the overwhelming feeling is one of immense sadness for people lost.

What has unfolded in Germany in the past year or so might well have astonished Sebald. There have been large newspaper and magazine articles, and books, about the harrowing treks of the German refugees from the East; detailed coverage of the "rape" of Berlin by Russian soldiers; Jorg Friedrich's huge volume on the bombing raids, Der Brand , and a serial in Der Spiegel about the air war. Even Günter Grass chimed in with a novel about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff , in which 10,000 German refugees drowned.

But there is a blemish on this new-found German plea that "we suffered too". Sixty years after German industry exploited slave labourers by the million, the very same companies have still not contributed funds to pay pensions to the last survivors.

The essay on Andersch, whose novels are well known in Germany, makes a good complement to "Air war and literature". Sebald sees Andersch, born in 1914, as the prototype of all writers who behaved in an opportunistic manner during and after the war. He provokes the nearest we get to a joke in the book, an epigraph to the essay: "In Alfred Andersch, German literature has discovered one of its soundest and most individual talents", followed by the attribution "- Alfred Andersch, book jacket text written by himself".

When Sebald is done, little is left of the man who once talked of himself as writing better than Thomas Mann and being destined for even greater fame.

The last two essays are perhaps less relevant to the main one and of more specialised interest. Améry (born Hans Mayer), like Primo Levi, was a Jew who survived Auschwitz and wrote some bitter essays about his experience, before taking his own life at the age of 66. I understand that Sebald studied with Amery and was devastated by his suicide. What makes Amery's writing so frightening, nearly unbearable to read, is that, like Levi, when it comes to the death camps, Amery is telling us only what he personally endured. And then there is his devastating conclusion: "Whoever was tortured, stays tortured."

Peter Weiss, also a generation older, was an observer, unflinching and perceptive, like Sebald. He could be so because he fled Germany in time.

Beginning as a painter and avant-garde film-maker, in the 1960s Weiss turned to writing and made his international breakthrough with the play Marat/Sade , brilliantly produced by Peter Brook. His major work is the three-volume Aesthetic of Resistance , in which, writes Sebald, "the struggle against 'the art of forgetting' is as much part of life as melancholy is of death, a struggle consisting in the constant transfer of recollection into written signs".

This is a hard book, not at all forgiving and forgetting - but how could it be otherwise? Sebald, Améry and Weiss insist, demand, in their different ways, that the memory must be kept alive, must be protected, and must be handed on, because if it is not, we are bound to live through the same tragedies again or at the very least to observe them from a distance.

André Engel was born in Berlin in 1942 and came to London in 1968, where he founded the film distributor Artificial Eye.

On the Natural History of Destruction

Author - W. G. Sebald
ISBN - 0 241 14126 5
Publisher - Hamish Hamilton
Price - £16.99
Pages - 205
Translator - Anthea Bell

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