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Death from above

On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald, Translated from the German by Anthea Bell, Random House: 205 pp., $23.95

March 23, 2003|James J. Sheehan | James J. Sheehan is the author of numerous books, including "German History, 1770-1866" and "Museums in the German Art World." He is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University.

In Gunter Grass' great novel "The Tin Drum," there is a description of a nightclub called the Onion Cellar, where the customers, drawn from the postwar German elite, are given raw onions and paring knives. Slicing the onions, Grass writes, "did what the world and the sorrows of the world could not do; it brought forth a round human tear.... At last they were able to cry again. To cry properly, without restraint, to cry like mad." There was, of course, a great deal for Germans to cry about in the years after World War II: millions dead and missing, ruined cities, a devastated economy and the largest number of refugees in modern history. But, as Grass recognized, in the late 1940s tears were hard for Germans to produce, in part because they were physically and morally exhausted, in part because the struggle to survive consumed what energy they could muster and in part because the Germans' own suffering was inescapably compromised by the suffering they had inflicted on others.

Germans did not forget the horrors of the war, and most of them mourned privately for what they had lost. But Germans' private sorrows did not play a prominent role in the public culture of either East or West Germany. Postwar novelists, most of whom were deeply concerned with the German past, quite properly concentrated their attention on Nazism's crimes rather than on the anguish of their fellow countrymen. People did know and care about the German dead and wounded, but there was no way to memorialize them without seeming to shirk the moral burdens of the Nazi past. Efforts to do so, like Chancellor Helmut Kohl's suggestion that Ronald Reagan visit the military cemetery at Bitburg, were deeply embarrassing for all concerned. Nor did the East German regime have much success in its campaign to turn the destruction of Dresden into a Cold War propaganda weapon against the West. Germans have never had a Hiroshima, a site where their own victims could be presented as examples of war's universal inhumanity.

Suddenly, German victims have begun to receive more public attention. Last year, Grass, whose books have probed German history's wounds for almost half a century, published a short novel called "Crabwalk" (available in English this April), which treats the sinking of the Gustloff by a Russian submarine in spring 1945, drowning some 9,000 German refugees. On the German nonfiction bestseller list is a book entitled "Der Brand" ("The Fire"), in which military historian Jorg Friedrich presents a scholarly but impassioned account of what the Allied air war meant for the inhabitants of German cities. Der Spiegel, a weekly news magazine, is now running a series on the bombing, which has also been the subject of television documentaries and newspaper articles.

"On the Natural History of Destruction" is a translation of one of the first and still one of the most profound expressions of this new interest, the lectures on "The Air War and Literature," which W.G. Sebald delivered in Zurich in 1997 and published two years later. Sebald, born in an Alpine village in 1944, was not personally touched by the war, but like every German of his age, he grew up under its long, dark shadow. From 1966 until his death in December 2001, Sebald lived in England, where he wrote (in German) a series of complex, elusive novels that simultaneously examine and exemplify language's struggle to reconcile experience and memory.

In his first lecture, Sebald unflinchingly portrays the horrors of the bombing campaign that killed more than 600,000 German civilians, damaged or destroyed 130 cities, and left 3.5 million people homeless. His descriptions are scenes from some terrible modernist Inferno: whole neighborhoods turned to ashes in the great fire bombing of Hamburg, terrified survivors sinking into molten asphalt as they try to get away from the flames, women fleeing ruined cities carrying the charred corpses of their infants.

Ordinary language, Sebald argued, could not contain the scale and intensity of this devastation: "The death by fire within a few hours of an entire city, with all its buildings and its trees, its inhabitants, its domestic pets, its fixtures and fittings of every kind, must inevitably have led to overload, to paralysis of the capacity to think and feel in those who succeeded in escaping." No less striking was the failure of postwar literature to find a way of dealing with these disasters. Significantly, the most powerful literary description of the bombing, Heinrich Boll's short novel, "The Angel Was Silent," though written in the late 1940s, was not published until 1992. There was, Sebald concluded, "a tacit agreement, equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described." The letters that Sebald received in response to his lectures reflect that mixture of anguish and relief that comes when a taboo of silence is broken.

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