When published in English in 2003, W.G. Sebald’s collection of lectures, On the Natural History of Destruction, touched off a storm of critical response. One might wonder why these lectures didn’t drum up so much conversation–in English–when they were first delivered in 1997, but that is a question for another time. The point is that seemingly everyone had something to say about this book, and much of it was not good.
What is this book about? During World War II, Germany was subject to terror bombings which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. These bombings have been debated–were the civilians “innocent” in the sense that most non-combatants are considered innocent, or did their complicity in the Nazi regime make them acceptable targets? Was it morally acceptable to kill German civilians–innocent or otherwise–to save Jews in concentration camps?
Sebald does not take up these questions. Rather, he asks why there has been such little German literature on the terror bombings. He then examines the few books that have been written on the topic, and finally suggests what he thinks German authors should do about this state of affairs. After that, there are three short chapters discussing notable German authors who wrote about other aspects of the war.
What of the very lively critical response to this book? Most critics rightly lauded Sebald for bringing up an important topic: the dearth of German literature dealing with the terror bombing of German cities during World War II. (Six-hundred-thousand civilians are estimated to have died; 50,000 in Hamburg alone on one awful night.) From this premise, Sebald probes the thorny issues surrounding the question of why there is no literature on the topic.
One point Sebald makes is that this lack of response is related to the German ability to go on in the face of massive destruction during the war. He points, with horror, to Germans cheerily having coffee within sight of a neighborhood that had been reduced–completely–to rubble. Could Germany’s unnatural repression after the war, asks Sebald, be because of its unnatural repression during the war?
William T. Vollmann begs to differ. Writing in The Believer,
Vollmann (who was then working on Europe Central, his novel of linked stories set in wartime Germany and Russia and which later won the National Book Award) attacked Sebald’s premise that the German lack of response to the often horrific deaths of their fellow Germans was unnatural:
Over and over, Sebald finds himself appalled by the inappropriate cheerfulness, busyness, et cetera, of the people he studies. “You do not expect an insect colony to be transfixed with grief at the destruction of a neighboring anthill” (p. 42), but it does seem inhuman to him that in not-yet-destroyed slices of German cities people could be sitting on their balconies drinking coffee, while a few steps away everyone is dead and rat-eaten. How inhuman is this, actually? I’d say, not at all. “You get numb to it after awhile,” I was told by people in besieged Sarajevo who lost a friend every week or two. “I was determined to suppress the unpleasant things.”
I would have to disagree with Vollmann on two grounds. Firstly, the fact that one group of people (or, actually, in Vollmann’s example an unnamed number from a larger group) in Sarajevo have grown callous to suffering does not prove that a completely different group in Germany should also be callous as well. Certainly there are some traits shared by all people, but I think the particulars of country and time (especially when we’re talking about people living in the relatively naive 1940s versus the 1990s) matter enough to make such comparisons difficult, at best.
Secondly, I think Vollmann misses the point. It’s not that Sebald is disappointed in how the Germans behaved so much as that he’s bothered that they could behave this way. "You do not expect an insect colony to be transfixed with grief at the destruction of a neighboring anthill" he writes, but you do expect humans to be at least a little bothered when they can see death and destruction right next door. How is it, first of all, that humans can even have the choice to disregard this kind of suffering? and then secondly, Why did the Germans choose to act this way?
And third of all, Even if Germans repressed during the war, why did they continue to repress afterward?
Vollmann’s shrugging explanation doesn’t help matters, but neither does Sebald. He raises these questions, but, as Susie Linfield rightly claims the Boston Review, he doesn’t do much else with them. Beyond some tautological answers (Lord Zuckerman didn’t write about it because he couldn’t find the words; "keeping up everyday routines . . . is a tried and true method of preserving what is thought of as healthy human reason"), there’s not much in On the Natural History of Destruction to say how Germany could go on without creating literature about the civilian bombings.
One wonders why an intellect as strong and as literary as Sebald’s didn’t advance more thoughtful answers to this powerful question. Certainly this is a question that requires multiple explanations; didn’t Sebald have at least one?
Well, Linfield does, and it’s a good one:
Sebald writes that after the war the quasi-natural reflex” of the Germans “was to keep quiet and look the other way”; he describes what he calls the Germans’ “extraordinary faculty for self-anesthesia”; he speaks of the Germans’ “ability to forget what they do not want to know, to overlook what is before their eyes”; and he reports how, even during the bombings, one native observer noted “a lack of moral sensitivity bordering on inhumanity” among Hamburg residents. Yet Sebald never connects this silence, this looking away, this numbness, this forgetfulness, and this inhumanity to the more general moral collapse of Germany as it sunk into barbarism in the 1930s. Sebald’s vision can be admirably unstinting, but ultimately he fails to realize, or at least to articulate, that the “perfectly functioning mechanism of repression” he describes had been polished and honed by the Germans years before the bombs finally fell on them. It is precisely what allowed the Holocaust to occur. Silence and denial enabled the process at every hideous step of the way: the hysterical propaganda, the rise of the death squads, the Nuremberg laws, the torture centers, the deportations, the camps, and finally the gas chambers.
Beyond this answer, I would wonder about the state of German publishing. Sebald tells us that a novel about the bombing by Peter de Mendellssohn written in the 1940s was only published in 1983 and one by Henrich Boll (which Sebald considers to be among the best novels on the matter) was written in 1948, but sat until the 1980s. Although two writers hardly equals a trend, it’s still significant that these two had written about the events and that they books were shelved for decades. Yet the lecture says nothing about why these books were shelved. Was it the author? Nervous publishers? Censorship?
Perhaps if these two authors had published, others might have been encouraged to do the same. Sebald finds at least one book published during the ’40s on the bombing, so if those other two were published there would have been at least three before the end of the decade. Again, that’s not necessarily an outpouring, but it is something. A start? Sebald would have done better to ask these questions.
The unnamed reviewer at the Complete Review also has an argument as to why there were so few books published on the topic:
The idea that distance might be required, especially to creatively use this material is also something he doesn’t consider: it took decades for the Napoleonic wars and the worst of their destruction to be adequately literarily addressed (in Tolstoy’s War and Peace), and arguably the most extensive fictional consideration of the World War II fire-bombings to date is American author Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (a book not mentioned by Sebald).
I would agree, but not entirely. Although it’s true that good literature is often only written decades after an historical event, it’s not true that there’s nothing directly after. Literature of the more reportorial type (the type Sebald seems most interested in, especially least here) often appears shortly after an event. For instance, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead was published just a few years after he returned from war in the Pacific. Moreover, it sold in large quantities to a public thirsty for information about the war–quite different from the German experience.
I’m more sympathetic to the Complete Review’s contention that in Natural History Sebald is putting forward a very narrow idea of literature. After the titular essay (half the book), Sebald discusses the work of three Germans who wrote about the war (although not about the bombing).
Sebald heaps scorn on the first, Alfred Andersch. One of the Andersch novels that Sebald tars is autobiographical, and it’s here that the Complete Review steps in:
Sebald readily finds in Andersch’s "autobiographical novel" that:
an essentially apologetic attitude dominates the urge Andersch sometimes feels for unreserved confession. Memory acts very selectively: decisive tracts of experience are entirely omitted, an editing technique which runs counter to the objectivity announced by the subtitle Ein Bericht ("An Account").
The idea that it is artistic license — a conscious decision by Andersch — as to what to include and what to omit doesn’t occur to Sebald. And the possible motives in subtitling a work of fiction (it’s a novel, after all, no matter how autobiographical) "An Account" is apparently completely lost on Sebald, who is only concerned with facts.
The facts regarding Andersch, as Sebald recounts them, are fairly damning — but focussing almost solely on these (and their relation to Andersch’s output) remains a questionable (and limited) approach to literature. Andersch’s writing doesn’t rely on authenticity in the manner Sebald wants (or rather: demands) from fiction-writers; that alone should not be enough to dismiss it — and arguably it is not even a fair point on which to judge it. It is one way of looking at literature, but it is an extremely limited one.
Throughout my reading of Natural History, I was troubled by this as well. For instance, while discussing German books that have tried to describe the air bombing, Sebald utterly dismisses Arno Schmidt’s Scenes from the Life of a Faun. After excoriating a paragraph from Schmidt’s book, Sebald writes
I do not think my dislike for the ostentatious avant-gardist style of Schmidt’s study of the moment of destruction derives from a fundamentally conservative attitude to form and language, for unlike this five-finger exercise the discontinuous notes made by Jacki in Hubert Fichte’s novel Detlevs Imitationen "Grunspan" (Detlev’s Imitations) during his researches on the Hamburg air raid seem to me a very plausible literary approach, probably mainly because they are not abstract and imaginary in character, but concrete and documentary. It is with this documentary approach, which has an early precursor in Nossack’s Der Untergang, that German postwar literature really comes into its own and begins the serious study of material incommensurable with traditional aesthetics. [italics mine]
So Sebald doesn’t mind literary experimentation as long as it is not abstract and imaginary? It’s troubling, at the least, to hear Sebald say that literature that seeks to make sense of the air raids must be fundamentally "concrete and documentary," and that the air raids are material that is "incommensurable with traditional aesthetics."
Against this rather narrow verdict, one might hold up the fiction of Haruki Murakami, who has probed the ghosts of Japan’s World War II guilt (as well as more recent disasters in that country’s history) with an approach that is anything but concrete and documentary.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Murakami reflected on his style.
If you say, "I’m very sad, my dog died," it’s a message–a statement. Nobody sympathizes with you. In that case, you have to change your statement into another kind of story. When you’re sad, when you lost your dog, you should not write about your dog. You should write about another thing. If you write about the dog, it’s an essay, not fiction.
Not, apparently, according to Sebald.
I can see the value of both approaches, and I think that with his barely hidden scorn for the more abstract one, Sebald does himself a disservice. Further, I think that his apparent argument–that literature is some kind of documentary service that should endeavor to tell Germans "how it was"–does literature a disservice.
One last point about Sebald’s book that I did not see touched on in any of the review coverage: now the genie is out of the bottle. Perhaps partly in response to Sebald, the German author Joerg Friedrich has written The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, all about the bombing of German civilians.
Books like these herald a more complete picture of Germany during World War II, but they might also herald a new revision of history. Now that Sebald has emboldened German authors to look at how Germans were victims during World War II, might this country–which today very much builds its identity around the idea of Nazi guilt–begin to see itself differently?
This is exactly the argument put forth by Jack R. Fischel in his review of The Fire.
The Fire is a landmark event in German historiography on the subject of World War II and the Holocaust. The continued popularity of the book demonstrates that it obviously has resonated with the German public, and as time distances us from the Holocaust, Friedrich’s charge, tu quoque (“you did it, too”), will have contributed to a revision of the horrendous crimes of the Third Reich. The argument for moral equivalency suggests a trend in Germany’s political culture that portends a retreat for its responsibility for the Holocaust. It may be only a question of time, therefore, before memorials for the victims of Allied bombings will find their place alongside the victims of the Holocaust; and future generations of Germans will comfort themselves with the conviction that the crime of their fathers was no worse than that of their enemies.
Clearly, this is not Sebald’s intention: "The majority of Germans today know, or so at least it is to be hoped, that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived." But now that Sebald has begun the conversation, it is not for him to say where it will end.
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