On the Natural History of Destruction Summary

W. G. Sebald


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

W. G. Sebald loved photography, but he was deeply troubled by the contrasting pictures he reproduced in “Air War and Literature,” the chapter that is both the opening and the centerpiece of his notable bookOn the Natural History of Destruction. One postcard pairing shows the German city of Frankfurt am Main Gestern (yesterday) and Heute(today). Although the same cityscape is depicted, the scenes are utterly different. Dated 1947, one photograph shows a bombed and ruined city; the other, dated 1997, portrays glistening skyscrapers that seemingly bear no witness to the wasteland that existed fifty years earlier.

Sebald understands that Frankfurt’s ruins in 1947 required the kind of rebuilding that directed attention toward the future. He acknowledges that the contrasting photographs reveal an impressive postwar reconstruction. His concern, however, is that the reconstruction also produced what he calls “a second liquidation in successive phases of the nation’s own past history.” Rebuilding, which was not confined to bricks and mortar but included personal and national identities, went hand in hand with evasion of the past.

That burial included more than the removal of physical debris; it involved repressing, if not forgetting, what Germans had experienced and done during the Third Reich. Thus, there is irony in the title that Sebald gave this book. Destruction may have a “natural history,” for there is a logic in its unfolding. In Sebald’s view, however, the postwar reinvention of German life, necessary though it has been, brought with it silence, problematic rationalization, and dishonesty that remain as harmful as they were understandable. Although German reluctance to confront—or, in some cases, to keep confronting—the Nazi past may be “natural,” Sebald writes to resist that tendency. More pathologist than therapist, he offers no easy cure for the afflictions he studies, but his book thoughtfully identifies the conditions—geographical, psychological, spiritual—in which they are embedded.

While acknowledging that he cannot deal with all the subject’s complexities, Sebald ensures that his mapping is not a one-way indictment that simply faults Germany for failing to come to terms with its Nazi past. On the contrary, Sebald concentrates specifically on a topic that has received less attention than many other aspects of World War II: the massive Allied bombing attacks on German cities and the immense death and suffering that those raids inflicted on German civilians and families. Sebald begins by observing that it is scarcely possible to visualize the destruction of German cities in the war’s last years, nor can imagination fathom the hideous maiming and death that firestorm bombing produced in Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden, and many other large population centers.

During the bombing, temperatures soared to a thousand degrees as flames rose two thousand meters into the sky. Asphalt melted; even canals blazed. Air raid shelters became ovens that roasted people to death. Filled with rats, flies, and the rotting flesh on which they feasted, metropolis became necropolis. Sebald’s statistics may not produce sympathy, let alone forgiveness, for citizens of Nazi Germany, who for the most part were willing followers of Adolf Hitler, but his data compel attention, and his concise, matter-of-fact descriptions merit heartache for the wasting of human life that they encompass. According to Sebald, for example, a million tons of British bombs alone fell on Germany. Air raids leveled scores of cities, destroyed more than three million homes, and left 7.5 million people homeless. The attacks took the lives of 600,000 German civilians. The destruction’s scale, writes Sebald, was “without historical precedent.”

Sebald’s account of the bombing of Germany took shape originally as a series of lectures that he delivered in Zurich, Switzerland, in the autumn of 1997. His commitment to write on the topic grew from links between his life and the air war. Although those links, he indicates, have been “entirely insignificant in themselves, they have nonetheless haunted my mind.” Born “on the northern outskirts of the Alps” in rural Germany, Sebald was only a year old when the war ended. As time passed, he became increasingly gripped by the fact that “at the time, when I was lying in my bassinet on the balcony . . . and looking up at the pale blue sky, there was a pall of smoke in the air all over Europe, over the rearguard actions in the east and west, over the ruins of the German cities, over the camps where untold numbers of people were burnt.”

He also realized that he had grown up with the absence of reflection by German writers about “the monstrous events in the background of my own life.” Furthermore, as he spent his scholarly life in eastern England, Sebald knew that his British home stood near one of the seventy airfields...

(The entire section is 2010 words.)