On That Terrible Night …

Christian Schütze

  • On the Natural History of Destruction by W.G. Sebald, translated by Anthea Bell
    Hamish Hamilton, 205 pp, £16.99, February 2003, ISBN 0 241 14126 5
  • Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-45 by Jörg Friedrich
    Propyläen, 592 pp, €25.00, November 2002, ISBN 3 549 07165 5
  • Payback by Gert Ledig, translated by Shaun Whiteside
    Granta, 200 pp, £8.99, May 2003, ISBN 1 86207 565 4

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’.

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[*] Reviewed in the LRB by David Blackbourn, 27 June 2002.