On the Natural History of Destruction 
by W.G. Sebald, translated by Anthea Bell.
Hamish Hamilton, 205 pp., £16.99, February 2003, 0 241 14126 5
Show More
Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-45 
by Jörg Friedrich.
Propyläen, 592 pp., €25, November 2002, 3 549 07165 5
Show More
by Gert Ledig, translated by Shaun Whiteside.
Granta, 200 pp., £8.99, May 2003, 1 86207 565 4
Show More
Show More

In a series of lectures on German responses to the wartime bombing of their country, delivered in Zurich in the autumn of 1997, W.G. Sebald asked why ‘the sense of unparalleled national humiliation felt by millions in the last years of the war had never really found verbal expression, and those directly affected by the experience neither shared it with each other nor passed it on to the next generation.’ Destruction on a scale without historical precedent – 600,000 dead civilians, 131 burned-out or devastated cities, 43 cubic metres of rubble for every inhabitant of Dresden, 7,500,000 people left homeless – entered the annals of the new nation in the form of vague generalisations, seemingly without leaving any trace of pain. Years of blank terror and sleepless nights, hunger and destitution, spent in a landscape of rubble colonised by rats and heavy with the smell of pestilence and decay, might have been expected to stifle any positive attitude to life. Instead, the Germans began to clear up. And, as Alfred Döblin wrote at the end of 1945, they walked ‘down the street and past the dreadful ruins, as if nothing had happened’.

Why did the epic history of the raids never get written? Sebald suspects a process of ‘pre-conscious self-censorship: a way of obscuring a world that could no longer be presented in comprehensible terms’. The ‘now legendary and in some respects genuinely admirable’ reconstruction prevented any backward view. There was a silent agreement, equally binding on everyone, not to speak about what they had experienced, to relegate the events of their own history to the back of the mind. The ‘rise from total degradation’ was acknowledged, but eliminated from the stock of emotions or even, as Sebald speculates, chalked up as one more item on the credit account: how much we’ve overcome without showing any signs of weakness. In any event, the established German writers who had survived the Nazi period through ‘inner emigration’ (if only at the cost of various kinds of compromise and distortion), and who might have been expected to tackle the subject, were absorbed in the task of touching up their own biographies.

Sebald is not the only writer to have ask-ed these questions. Hans Magnus Enzens-berger and Alexander Kluge, too, observed signs of individual and collective amnesia, an obsession with the future, a dogged desire to lose oneself in work, above all an ‘inability to mourn’ (the title of a well-known book by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich). What they failed to suggest was the form the mourning should have taken. Should the Germans, perched on the ruins of their cities, have bemoaned their fate to the world? When someone did wail the critics were severe. Didn’t you shout ‘yes’ when Goebbels asked you on 18 February 1943 in the Berlin Sportpalast: ‘Do you want total war?’

Expressions such as ‘national humiliation’ or the ‘rise from total degradation’ reveal Sebald to have been a child of the postwar period and a writer significantly moulded by years spent in a country which never experienced a comparable historical rupture. One year old at the war’s end, he grew up in the Allgäu, a region in the foothills of the Alps that was largely spared the war’s effects. He was to hear about it, but too little, to his regret. Enzensberger (born 1929) and Kluge (born 1932) were just old enough to be scarred by it. Anyone who was older than, say, 16 by 1944-45 had stared death in the face more than a few times: that generation still dreams at night of bombs falling and remembers the overwhelming sense of relief at having escaped the slaughter, a sense which anyone younger could not have experienced with such intensity. It was a heady feeling of liberation, and gratitude that on the other side of the rubble there was the possibility of a new life. National humiliation was felt only by Nazis and dyed-in-the-wool militarists.

Survivors were alone in their grief. Collective laments were ruled out by the pictures that were shown of Oradour and Stalingrad, Ravensbrück and Auschwitz. Many found satisfaction in the fact that the world order had been restored. Nemesis had followed hubris; crime had received its just punishment. Thomas Mann said it, too: everything must be paid for. Expressions of self-pity were rare. Even before 1945, there were rumblings of guilt. ‘Ja, wir tragen unser Leiden mit Geduld, an der ganzen Scheisse sind wir selber schuld,’ people sang under their breath, recognising that they themselves were responsible for ‘this bloody mess’. Soldiers returning from the First World War had shown their scars and boasted about what they’d done; they felt undefeated. After the Second, they said nothing about what they’d experienced, mumbled in monosyllables about POW camps and, as members of a guilt-laden, defeated army, refused to pass on details to their children and grandchildren. Sebald grants them an individual ‘right to remain silent’.

The views he expressed in his lectures brought him a few letters which reinforced his suspicion that unconscious linguistic rules had been operating. People talked about the catastrophe only in the conversational tone reserved for Kaffee und Kuchen among the petty bourgeoisie, or in hollow formulations such as ‘on that terrible night when . . .’ The discussion following his lectures didn’t reach a wider public: there seemed to be no demand for recollections of the bombing.

All that changed last autumn with the publication of Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand (‘The Blaze’), which remained in the top ten of the German bestseller lists for months on end. Extracts appeared in the mass-circulation Bild; there were reviews everywhere; some readers, old Nazis mainly, felt obliged to point out that ‘war crimes had been committed by the victors, too.’ A spate of TV documentaries, rapidly put together from archive material, followed. ‘Eye-witnesses’ gave an account of what it had been like in the air-raid shelters, and explained how they had managed to carry their children through the firestorms. Considered opinion on the larger historical and political context was scarce. In many cases, the words people used further confirmed Sebald’s impression that they thought in stereotypes. Sixty years had blunted their memories. ‘We felt no hatred for the Allied pilots’ was a recurrent motif. The pilots, too, got a chance to speak. Watching footage of the fires they had started, they said they hadn’t thought anything of it at the time. Now, some said they felt sad; others, that if the circumstances were the same they’d do it again. Friedrich himself was omnipresent in the media, giving interviews and taking part in discussions. Two generations after the events, ‘critical appraisal’ was in full swing.

Most interviewers and commentators have been suspicious about this. Had the settling of accounts really come out of the blue? Nothing much had happened on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the large-scale bombing of Lübeck and Hamburg. Why now? The claim that Friedrich’s book had broken a taboo was effective in PR terms, but it was incorrect. Long before his book appeared, there had been studies of the air war, reports by local writers and, on the anniversaries of the attacks, endless articles in newspapers and the illustrated weeklies. In 1985, one of the main television channels showed a four-hour documentary on the subject. Even today there are continuing controversies about particular events. For instance: were Dresden refugees on the banks of the Elbe shot by low-flying planes as some of the terror-stricken inhabitants claimed?

During the Cold War, no East German article recalling the destruction of Dresden’s ‘cultural treasure’ was complete without reference to the ‘US killer pilots’ and ‘Anglo-American air gangsters’; GDR propaganda took, word for word, phrases that Goebbels had rubber-stamped. In West Germany, the bombing of the civilian population was the preserve of the radical press, right and left-wing, which treated it in an essentially identical manner. As far as the democratic majority was concerned, it wasn’t appropriate to accuse their new Nato allies and protectors of former misdeeds. Thus when Friedrich’s book appeared a number of critics wondered sneeringly why the courage to demand a reckoning had been found only now that the Cold War was at an end. Others asked whether Friedrich had pointed out sufficiently clearly that Germany had actually started the war.

Friedrich says he isn’t interested in settling accounts: he wants to make good a deficiency. The most serious historical work on the bombing war so far has been concerned with its politics, strategy, techniques and organisation, giving the view from the strategist’s desk or the pilot’s cockpit. Born like Sebald in 1944, Friedrich describes what the air war did on the ground.

Even before they had read the book, reviewers, mindful of Günter Grass’s recent novel, Crabwalk,* about the fate of the refugees who went down in the Wilhelm Gustloff, were certain they were about to hear a great lament about German suffering. Friedrich’s book is not a lament but it is, in parts, an indictment. It describes in overabundant detail an orgy of devastation which came to an end only in April 1945, when Air Marshal ‘Bomber’ Harris established (to his regret) that there were no targets left for Bomber Command to hit. Friedrich’s charge is that the outcome of the war was already clear, and many German cities were destroyed for no military reason. In Pforzheim, a town on the edge of the Black Forest, one third of the inhabitants were killed. The devastation was motivated solely by a wish to punish the German population.

Friedrich provides many particulars on the millennial history of cities reduced to ashes in a matter of hours; he can recite anecdotes, legends, myths and prophecies of disaster that came to pass. And by way of contrast he describes the scientific studies carried out by British incendiary experts on the combustibility of medieval German towns. Because the book takes the form of a montage, the effect is polemical, however laconic the accompanying text. It is a modern, dramatic way to write history: the narrative is punctuated by citations from diaries, flashbacks, commentaries, documents, verification of sources and interpretations of why those involved did what they did.

Friedrich’s method turns on a variety of causally linked images. A fanatical officer plans to defend a village on the edge of the Ruhr with a couple of members of the Hitler Youth. Rather than put any of his soldiers at risk, the American general has the village destroyed by bombs. In the process a Gothic chapel unique to the region is hit. Thirty bodies are pulled from the ruins: Sisters of Charity and wounded German soldiers, Russian and French prisoners of war and Ukrainian labourers who had thought the church was a safe haven. Perhaps some of them had stealthily waved to the bombers, as happened with concentration camp internees or Jews in hiding. The writer and broadcaster Ralph Giordano, who had to live in hiding as a young Jewish boy in Hamburg and was lucky to escape with his life from the Operation Gomorrah raid of July 1943, acknowledged on television that the sight of the bombers had filled him with jubilation: ‘We were overjoyed: they were our liberators. But I don’t have this feeling any more.’ He has criticised Friedrich, in the weekly Jüdische Allgemeine, on the grounds that it is inadmissible ‘to single out Bomber Command from the larger history of that terrible event’. Was Friedrich, he asked, ministering to the wish of some Germans to see themselves as special victims?

But the book’s central contention is that after the First World War civilised values went by the board. Military planners in the 1920s stopped regarding war as a contest between soldiers on a battleground. Once it became possible for bombers to penetrate deep into the enemy’s hinterland and demolish the key sources of his strength, the arms factories, war became a Volkskrieg – every factory worker was a soldier and every nurse a combatant. In Britain, Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard developed an effective theory of air warfare based on this approach. In Germany, it merged effortlessly with the heroic ideology expounded by National Socialism’s chief theorist, Alfred Rosenberg. Hitler was delighted: there would be no more civilians sitting in front of their warm stoves, allowing the soldiers to do the dirty work for them. Everybody a warrior!

Friedrich gives a painstaking description of the way the concept of ‘moral bombing’ came into being. In 1941, following the loss of war matériel at Dunkirk, the most effective instrument available to the British for participating in the war and relieving its ally the Soviet Union was its (initially small) bomber fleet. Churchill decided to whip up ‘a mighty fire’ in Hitler’s own ‘backyard’, and Harris wanted to set up ‘an extremely interesting experiment with the Germans’. In May 1940, three German planes on a mission to bomb a French airfield near Dijon went off course and bombed Freiburg. Hitler blamed it on the British and pledged a fivefold revenge. The war of terror was underway. Each side was going to put the other’s population to the test. Which would hold out longer, before it overthrew its government and ended the war?

As we know, the theory got it wrong. The Germans didn’t have heavy bombers, and the British were mistaken about the way bomb victims would react, despite their own experiences in 1940-41. The air raids, Friedrich argues, didn’t provoke anything more insurrectionary than the craving for a bowl of hot soup. There was ‘an overriding need for sleep and absolutely no desire to overthrow Hitler’. Churchill had hoped that the sailors and workers who had brought revolution to the streets of Berlin in 1918 would reappear, but they had long ceased to exist. Instead, there was an omnipresent surveillance machinery, which, in 1944 alone, brought 25,297 Volksgenossen (‘national comrades’) to trial for undermining military morale, looting or listening to enemy broadcasts; between 1941 and 1945 fifteen thousand German civilians were executed as parasites or defeatists.

On the other hand, those who obligingly kept quiet about the loss of their houses and families received special concessions from Party organisations – bread, butter, ration cards for clothes and furniture, even coffee beans – as well as a promise from the Führer that they would be in the vanguard of the revenge that would be exacted with the new ‘wonder weapons’. Air-raid bunkers were built, but Hitler didn’t set much store by them: terror could only be conquered by terror.

The unarmed ‘warriors’ were therefore delivered up to the bombs, as required by the new rules of war, and the bombs shredded, entombed, suffocated or incinerated women and children, old people and infants, POWs and hospital patients, friend and foe, Nazis and concentration camp internees, guilty and innocent. As Friedrich puts it: ‘The bombing war was the product of the industrial era, and Germany’s ruin the product of Hitler’s.’

After the Ardennes offensive in the winter of 1944-45, the outcome of the war was a foregone conclusion – but it hadn’t ended. An uprising was far from the minds of the German population, most of whom simply wanted to surrender. The representatives of the system were still strong enough to organise sporadic resistance, however, and this provoked further bombing raids from an overwhelmingly superior Allied air fleet. Friedrich points out that many of the final episodes of destruction, labelled as ‘meaningless’ by the Germans, were responses to equally meaningless acts of resistance – a connection all too readily overlooked. But Allied interviewees admitted, too, that there was no stopping ‘the largest war machine ever assembled’. The bombers and bombs had been procured at enormous cost: they couldn’t be left to rot.

In 1985, Harris stated on German television that the war would have been brought to a speedy end, and contemporary Europe made to look quite different, had he been given four thousand bombers for a single all-out assault that would have eradicated any will to resist. Friedrich shares his view. The attack never took place; instead, the raids were mounted and the cities bombed one by one. Bomber Command’s technique was already honed to perfection by 1943, and by 1945 the skies over Germany had gone ‘raving mad’. First, a hundred thousand incendiary bombs, then mines, which ripped away windows, doors and roofs, so creating a draught for the firestorm. Within half an hour individual fires had coalesced into one massive conflagration. Finally came the high-explosive bombs that ruptured the water supply and forced the fire brigades to seek cover. Nobody could stay outside the shelters, but those inside were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide or shrivelled by the heat. Just by describing how people died and neighbourhoods were laid waste, Friedrich makes it plain that there was no logical justification for what took place. But he also cites reports from the Luftwaffe on the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 and Rotterdam in 1940, which read, he says, like an ‘instruction manual for Bomber Command’.

Interviewers asked Friedrich whether writing his book had made him a pacifist and whether he would demonstrate against the war in Iraq. Quite the opposite, he replied. Why? Because bombs are no longer ‘blind’, provided they are used properly, and civilian casualties can be avoided. Friedrich makes no concession to bourgeois pieties. He speaks of fighter planes ‘bagging’ forty people, describes bombers as ‘Einsatzgruppen’ and bomb victims as ‘Ausgerottete’, which equates them with those systematically killed in the concentration camps.

Friedrich is exhaustingly thorough in counting up just how many bombs of what type were dropped from how many planes on which German, British, French, Belgian or Italian city. His concern is not with the accountancy of war, however, but with the suffering inflicted. This includes the suffering of the pilots, whose chances of surviving their allotted 30 missions was low; their casualty rate by the end of the war was 44 per cent, that of their civilian victims 1.5 per cent. It is hardly surprising that they wanted to give the Germans, who had started it all, a taste of their own medicine.

By quoting the accounts of survivors, Friedrich gives a vivid sense of what exactly this meant. In mid-March 1945, the city of Swinemünde on the Baltic was filled to bursting with half-starved and exhausted refugees from East Prussia and Pomerania. After an American air raid, a young boy, who had taken refuge with his family in a railway wagon, wrote:

We could still hear the early warning siren, but I don’t remember anything at all about the bombing raid. When I woke, it was dark. People were lying on top of me and I couldn’t breathe. I asked the boy who was lying on me to get off, but he only groaned out loud and got heavier. Wherever I put my hand it was all slippery. When I managed to lift myself up, I saw my brothers sitting there, the tops of their heads blown off.

According to official estimates, the raid killed 23,000, a count which Friedrich finds hard to believe. Of the victims, 1667 were named, but most of the dead were not identified, their remains buried in bomb craters or carted to a mass grave. Thousands of other refugees were pressing in behind. According to the flight log of the 8th US Air Fleet, the massacre of Swinemünde was an attack on marshalling yards.

What helped people in Germany to survive the bombing war was suppressing the sympathy they felt and getting on with the practical business of restoring their lives. Friedrich suggests that the same attitude helped them later to get over their memories. Anyone who has read his book may feel they know the answer to the question posed by Sebald and others: the great epic of the bombing will never be written because there is no need to intensify the reality. Yet intensification was what Gert Ledig attempted with his novel Payback, which first appeared in 1956. Sebald believes it failed then because it ‘went beyond anything Germans were willing to read about their recent past’. In the story of a one-hour bombing raid, Ledig compresses a dozen simultaneous narratives: the most brutal forms of death are described, people are driven to suicide because of unendurable burns, women are raped beneath the ruins, an American pilot parachutes down into the inferno he has helped to create, goes mad and is lynched.

Ledig portrays scenes which were still common knowledge in 1956, either through first-hand experience or from hearsay; he contrives to make them both shocking and hackneyed. His flickering chamber of horrors was outstripped or refuted by personal experience. Why would anyone want to read it? A new edition appeared in 1999, now followed by an English translation. If Der Brand is bought by those who survived the bombing in order to refresh their memories (which alone would ensure its bestseller status), and also manages to appeal to the second postwar generation, then Payback will no doubt be recognised by that same generation as an impressive attempt to speak about what is usually referred to as ‘unspeakable’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 25 No. 17 · 11 September 2003

Christian Schütze’s article on German responses to the wartime bombing of their country (LRB, 21 August) reminded me of a story my German mother told me when I was a child about how, during a visit to an aunt in Berlin, she took refuge from the bombing in the cellar of a hotel. The hotel started to burn and the people in the cellar got thirsty with the heat, so they raided the wine cellar. She described a macabre scene of champagne corks popping, couples dancing and wild singing as the shelterers got increasingly drunk. Luckily they were dug out. Later, she wrote a memoir in which she muted the story: ‘Someone from somewhere gets wine into which we dip our handkerchiefs, which we then hold over mouth and nose.’ I am inclined to believe the first account, if only because I know that my English father, who helped her with the autobiography, censored quite a few details which he thought distasteful. I can also remember her stating, quite matter-of-factly, that after the Hamburg raid the SS ‘had to’ shoot people who were too badly injured to be saved.

Leslie Wilson

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences