Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4


Natural History of Destruction

W.G. Sebald
On the Natural History of Destruction
Penguin, Harmondsworth 2003, pp. 205, £16.99

W.G. SEBALD wrote the above book in order to examine why, following the Second World War, German writers were silent on the suffering resulting from the mass destruction of German cities. He took the title for the English translation of Luftkrieg und Literatur (first published in German in 1999) from a proposed article for Horizon by Solly Zuckerman following a visit to Cologne shortly after the war. However, this article never came to fruition for Zuckerman decided that his first view of the destroyed Cologne demanded a more eloquent piece than he could ever have written.

Kurt Vonnegut, the American writer, suffered the same difficulties in writing about the aerial bombing of Dresden. During the bombing he had been one of a number of prisoners of war in Dresden, housed in a slaughterhouse. When he came to write Slaughterhouse Five ostensibly about the fire bombing, he sidestepped into science fiction and took refuge on the fictional planet Tralfamadore. He says:

I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. But not many words about Dresden came from my mind … and not many words come now, either. Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what book I’m working on and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

During the last years of the war, a million tons of bombs were dropped by the Allies on 131 German towns and cities. As a result, 600,000 civilians died and 3.5 million homes were destroyed. This bombing, sanctioned by the British government in 1943, was ‘to destroy the morale of the enemy civilian population and in particular the industrial workers’. It was sustained even when selective attacks could be made from the air with far greater precision on targets like factories making ball-bearings, oil and fuel installations, railway junctions and the main transport arteries, operations, which Albert Speer was later to comment, ‘would very soon have paralysed the entire system of production’.

In 1952, during an interview with a Halberstadt journalist, Brigadier L. Anderson of the US Eighth Army Airforce, a discussion took place as to whether the hoisting of a white flag made from six sheets would have saved the city. Brigadier Anderson replied that bombs were expensive items and could not have been dropped over mountains or open country after so much labour had gone into making them at home. As we know, under capitalism production and destruction are entwined.

In examining the failure of German writers to record these catastrophic events, Sebald writes that Heinrich Böll had written Der Engel Schwieg (The Angel was Silent) in the late 1940s which gave some idea of the depths of the horror which threatened those who really looked at the ruins around them, but Böll’s book was not published until 1992.

He considers that ‘the younger generation of writers who had just returned home were so intent on their own wartime experiences, described in a style constantly lapsing into maudlin sentimentality, that they hardly seemed to notice the horrors which at that time surrounded them on all sides’ (p. 9). Sebald writes that apart from Böll, only a few other authors – Herman Kasack, Hans Erich Nossack, Arno Schmidt and Peter de Mendelssohn – ventured to break the taboo on any mention of the inward and outward destruction, and they generally did so rather equivocally.

Kasack’s book Stadt Hinter dem Strom (The City Beyond the River) appeared in the spring of 1947. However, Sebald says that the novel ignores the appalling reality of the collective catastrophe, and the author writes very much in the style of his time by invoking pseudo-humanist and Far Eastern philosophical notions, with a great deal of symbolist jargon. Kasack’s novel encouraged Nossack to write Nekyia, but, Sebald remarks, he too succumbs to the temptation to make the real horrors of the time disappear through the artifice of abstraction and metaphysical fraudulence. But he praises Kasack for attempting to record the destruction of Hamburg and on the whole primarily concerning himself with plain facts – the season of the year, the weather, the drone of the approaching squadrons, the red firelight on the horizon, the physical and mental condition of refugees from the city.

Peter de Mendelssohn’s Die Kathedral lay unpublished for a long time – Sebald remarking ‘and a good thing too’. He continues:

It would be difficult to surpass the page after page of embarrassing writing. The egomaniacal viewpoint in this novel about the aftermath of an air-raid concerns itself with the arrogance of technological man and borrowed its grandiose triviality from the mega-production Metropolis. (p. 54)

To this day, Sebald writes, ‘the real scenes of horror … still have an aura of the forbidden about it, even of voyeurism’. So he was not surprised when he was told by a man that when a boy in the immediate postwar years, ‘photographs of corpses lying in the streets’ were ‘brought out from under the counter of a Hamburg bookshop, to be fingered and examined in a way usually reserved for pornography’ (p. 99).

Sebald considers that when in the later years local and amateur war historians began documenting the fall of the German cities, their studies did not alter the fact that the image of this horrifying chapter have never really crossed into the national consciousness. He sees no understanding in a community that seemed to have emerged from a war of annihilation without any signs of psychological impairment. Instead, and with remarkable speed, social life revived. People’s ability to forget what they do not want to know, to overlook what is before their eyes, was seldom put to the test better than in Germany at that time. Therefore, Frau Schroder, employed at a local cinema, gets to work with a shovel immediately after the bomb falls, hoping to clear the rubble away before the two o’clock matinee. Down in the cellar where she finds various cooked body parts, she tidies up by dumping them in the washhouse boiler for the time being. Another woman cleans the windows of a building that stood alone and undamaged in the middle of the desert of ruins.

Sebald chafes at such normality for he sees it as blindness in a population which cannot admit the truth of a catastrophe. He quotes from Alexander Kluge – ‘the most enlightened of writers’ – whom he says suspects that we are unable to learn from the misfortunes we bring upon ourselves, and that we will continue along the beaten tracks that bear some relation to the old road network. This puts me in mind of T.S. Eliot who wrote that humankind cannot bear too much reality.

From my own experience of the aerial bombing raids on London, I remember that following a raid shops with shattered windows proudly put up the sign ‘Business as Usual’, and the slogan was coined ‘Britain Can Take It’. Government, media and film all worked in concert to maintain what they called the morale of the population so that they accepted the war and raids almost as normality. Admittedly, the bombing was not so widespread or devastating as that which was directed at Germany – the Germans apparently lacking the technological means of the Allies – but it was bad enough, and in today’s terms would have called for counselling!

Sebald, himself German, born in Wertach im Allgäu in 1944, writes that he sees himself in his cot as an infant, while a pall of smoke is in the air all over Europe, East and West, over the ruins of German cities, over the camps where untold numbers of people were burnt, deported to their deaths, people from Berlin and Frankfurt, from Wuppertal and Vienna, from Wierzburg and Kissengen, from Hilversum and the Hague, Naumur and Thionville, Lyon and Bordeaux, Kraków and Łódź, Szeged and Sarajevo, Salonika and Rhodes, Ferrara and Venice … He had seen memorial tablets even in the most remote villages on the island of Corsica reading ‘Morte à Auschwitz’. Because of this he sees the German people as suffering from vague feelings of guilt, and the majority feeling that they provoked the annihilation.

But Sebald is concerned that the generations born after the war who rely upon the testimony of writers would scarcely be able to form any idea of the extent, nature and consequences of the catastrophe inflicted on Germany by the air raids. I feel that he fears that if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. However, he considers that the population were actively dissuaded from recalling or learning from the past by governments, which were supported by the media. The government was intent upon the postwar Economic Miracle. Enormous sums had been invested in the country under the Marshall Plan. Outdated industrial complexes had been wiped out and all energies were to be put to reconstruction, the Germans having learned an unquestioning work ethic in a totalitarian society. Additionally, the Cold War broke out, Germany itself being divided between a Western and Eastern zone. Attention was directed away from the past and towards what was seen as fears for the future.

Therefore, it is no wonder that those books which dealt at length with the bombing of German cities which were brought to Sebald’s attention following the publication of lectures he had given in Zurich, have fallen into obscurity. The best of these were by Gert Ledig, who published Die Stalinorgel (The Stalin Organ) in 1955 and Die Vergeltung (Retribution) in 1956:

These went beyond anything the Germans were willing to read about their recent past. His deliberately uncompromising style, designed to evoke disgust and revulsion, once again conjured up the ghost of anarchy at a time when the economic miracle was already on its way … (p. 97)

In reviewing this book, I have followed the main themes, but there is very much more and it is unfortunate that Sebald, who was Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia, was killed in a car crash in Norwich in 2001. Had he lived, I am sure he would have written many more interesting and thought-provoking books. I have to say that included at the end of this volume are assessments of three German writers: Alfred Andersch, Jean Améry and Peter Weiss. I have not read these writers, and so do not feel competent to comment.

Sheila Lahr

Updated by ETOL: 27.10.2011