In the summer of 1943, the British Royal Air Force (with support from the Eighth Army Air Force of the United States) flew a series of raids on Hamburg, Germany. Dubbed “Operation Gomorrah,” the bombing missions did not target factories or fuel installations, railway junctions or transportation arteries. Their aim, in the words of acclaimed German novelist and essayist W. G. Sebald, “was to destroy the city and reduce it as completely as possible to ashes.”
On one such raid, early in the morning of July 27, ten thousand tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs were intentionally dropped on the city’s densely populated residential districts. Twenty minutes after the bombing commenced, the city was engulfed by flames rising a mile into the air. As Sebald writes in On the Natural History of Destruction, the inferno consumed so much oxygen so quickly that it stirred up hurricane-force winds that “lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising billboards through the air, tore trees from the ground, and drove human beings before it like living torches.” A few hours later, as smoke continued to pour from the smoldering ruins, survivors surveyed a scene of stunning desolation:
Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere. Bluish little phosphorous flames still flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size. They lay doubled up in pools of their own melted fat, which was sometimes already congealed. . . . [C]lumps of flesh and bone or whole heaps of bodies had cooked in the water gushing from bursting boilers. Other victims had been so badly charred and reduced to ashes by the heat, which had risen to a thousand degrees or more, that the remains of families consisting of several people could be carried away in a single laundry basket.
The horror in Hamburg that day was hardly unique; Allied bombs targeted 131 German cities and towns during World War II, killing a total of 600,000 civilians and leaving 7.5 million people homeless. Indeed, it is the near ubiquity of such experiences in Germany during the final years of the war—and the subsequent silence about them at all levels of German culture after 1945—that interests, even obsesses, Sebald in this, what would prove to be his final, book (he died in December 2001).
The core of On the Natural History of Destruction is a lengthy essay based on a series of highly controversial lectures that Sebald delivered in Zürich in 1997 on the subject of “Air War and Literature.” The German edition of the book, which took its title from these lectures, combined this adaptation with a much shorter essay on the postwar attempts of the writer Alfred Andersch to conceal his own morally compromised actions and attitudes during the Third Reich. The English translation includes these pieces and adds two additional brief essays, written earlier in Sebald’s career, on two writers—Jean Améry and Peter Weiss—who, in his view, more successfully confronted their own painful pasts.
For all of its power and persuasiveness, the resulting two-hundred-page book never quite fulfills the expectations set by the overly broad and faintly pretentious title chosen by Sebald’s American publisher (based on a passing comment in the lead essay). Far from offering us a “natural history” of the “destruction” wrought by the total wars of the modern age, Sebald’s more modest (though still ambitious) goal is to ponder the often subterranean effects of such destruction on a single culture. On the Natural History of Destruction is first and foremost a book about Germany.
And it is a chilling one. Sebald’s lengthy opening chapter uses a detached, documentary style to recount a representative handful of gruesome stories from the last years of the war. We learn of how bombed-out cities quickly became so infected with flies and “slippery, finger-length maggots” that flamethrowers had to be used to disperse them. We hear about the supposedly bomb-proof bunker sheltering 1,400 civilians that received a direct hit, leaving behind “mountains of corpses, some completely dismembered.” And, most devastating of all, we are told of half-deranged, traumatized women who, desperately fleeing the carnage, carried with them suitcases filled with the charred remains of their children.
Much of the controversy surrounding Sebald’s original lectures was generated by the charge that he focused so resolutely on such hellish details in order to blame the Allies for the immense suffering they caused the German people (as did, for example, the Communist government of East Germany, which readily described the Allied bombing as an attempted “extermination” [Vernichtung] of the Germans). Such charges are groundless. Sebald knows full well that the Nazis set the murderous violence in motion—and that they would have done as bad or worse to their enemies if they could have. The blame in the book—and there is quite a lot of it—is reserved, not for Great Britain and the United States, but for Sebald’s fellow Germans.
Sebald effectively eviscerates numerous authors and visual artists for producing works of kitsch and cheap sentimentality when they set out to think about the experience of the war. None is dealt with more mercilessly than Andersch, who wrote a series of books in which, through “tactful omissions and other revisions,” he actively dodged the truth about his own and his country’s past. But at least Andersch and the others made some attempt, however inadequate, to contemplate the events they endured. Much more offensive, in Sebald’s view, is the thoroughgoing evasiveness of countless Germans who chose not to reflect on or otherwise keep alive the terrible memory of those years.
In pressing this argument, Sebald contributes to a uniquely German genre of literary and social criticism—one that first emerged in the years immediately following the war and gained considerable influence and attention for its role in motivating the student revolts of the late 1960s. That Sebald’s lectures sparked such controversy testifies to its continued ability to generate headlines. The writers and intellectuals who have contributed to this form of criticism have lodged many charges against the German people, but they can be boiled down to one: Germany has failed, will likely continue to fail, but must nevertheless strive ever harder not to fail in the ongoing process of “coming to terms with the past” (Vergangenheitsbewältigung). Never has a society attacked itself so relentlessly for failing to attack itself with adequate relentlessness.
The charge that from 1933 to 1945 Germany largely cut itself off from the moral content of the common human world in order to pursue a particularistic extra-moral enterprise is obviously true. As is the accusation that certain members of German high culture emerged from the experience of National Socialism and total war utterly incapable of comprehending the madness that had gripped the nation for over a decade. Historian Friedrich Meinecke’s 1946 statement that the rise of Nazism could be traced to a failure of the German people to read sufficient quantities of Goethe stands as one example of such incomprehension; philosopher Martin Heidegger’s 1953 affirmation of the “inner truth and greatness of National Socialism” exhibits another.
Yet Sebald’s hostility to his fellow Germans is noteworthy, if not in its intensity, then at least in its object. Rather than directing his ire at those Nazi party members, apologists, and fellow travelers who failed to confront their role in contributing to the functioning of the National Socialist state, as most critics have done, Sebald chooses to rail against ordinary German civilians who suffered enormous, almost unspeakable, pain and hardship in the cataclysm unleashed by Hitler—and then had the audacity to go on with their lives.
In the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche describes a human drive toward “active forgetfulness” that serves as “a doorkeeper, a preserver of psychic order, repose, and etiquette.” Without this power of forgetting the ugliness in human life, “there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present.” Whether or not we accept that such an “apparatus of repression” is necessary to protect us from the supposed horrors of human existence in general, it is surely true that for those who lived through the kinds of events that Sebald so searingly recounts in his book, such a capacity was a minimum requirement for continuing to function and thrive, even to continue living at all.
At moments, Sebald seems to recognize this and shows sympathy for those survivors who did not devote what remained of their lives to mulling over the suffering they endured (and, in some cases, inflicted). Yet, more often than not, he treats these same individuals with contempt, turning a more admiring eye toward those few who insisted on living in the constant, blinding light of what he calls “reality”—by which he really means the outer limits of human experience and endurance that, for a brief, awful time in history, became the norm. Hence his veneration for the work of Jean Améry, in many ways the hero of the book, who, like Primo Levi, died by suicide after several years of engaging in precisely the form of fixated scar-gazing that Sebald advocates.
Sebald never clarifies why he thinks it wise or admirable to follow Améry’s example (especially for those who, like Sebald himself, born in 1944, did not experience much hardship from the war first-hand). Indeed, judging from the evidence of Sebald’s own book, such dogged devotion to the commemoration of suffering does not necessarily lead to clarity of historical or moral thinking. Toward the end of his moving chapter on Peter Weiss, for example, Sebald wonders if the attempt to represent unspeakable cruelty in literature is a pointless pursuit, since, he asserts, “our species is unable to learn from its mistakes.” The same outlook can be detected at points in the opening essay. Writing of Sir Arthur Harris, commander-in-chief of the British Bomber Command during World War II and the man responsible for prosecuting the fire-bombing of German cities, Sebald concludes that, in his attachment to “destruction for its own sake,” Harris was in “perfect sympathy with the innermost principle of every war, which is to aim for as wholesale an annihilation of the enemy with his dwellings, his history, and his natural environment as can possibly be achieved.”
To this non-German, the pitch-black pessimism of both statements seems profoundly ill-considered. Surely the dramatic swing on the part of the German state since 1945 from the purest militarism to near-total pacifism shows that its citizens have learned quite a lot from their mistakes—perhaps even a bit too much. Then there is Sebald’s view regarding the “innermost principle of every war.” Looking back on the last ninety years from the standpoint of the present, we find reason to hope that the indiscriminate brutality that so often marked warfare during that period has finally become a thing of the past, at least on the part of the West. Something that looks suspiciously like moral progress, along with advances in military technology, has restored the traditional distinction between soldiers and civilians that was lost during the bloody middle decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, America’s current “war on terror” can be understood as the attempt to uphold such hard-won moral distinctions against an enemy that refuses to abide by them—and, like the Nazis, treats that refusal as a badge of honor.
But Sebald appears not to see such subtleties; in the glare of the fires of Hamburg, it seems, all cows are black. Which is a pity, for there is much to admire in his final book—above all, the quiet power, and the pathos, of its prose (even in translation). Yet surely when a book ends up making the case for a position that is diametrically opposed to the one that the author intends it to make, this must be judged a defect. On the Natural History of Destruction, an enormously eloquent and passionate brief for greater German attention to its past, ultimately shows that Germany requires no such thing.
Damon Linker is Associate Editor of First Things