On the Natural History of Destruction

by W. G. Sebald
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2010

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.

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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 that had been departure points for the bombing runs on his native Germany. The silence of those places—“most were abandoned after the war”—added to his puzzlement.

Such experiences, the author explains, “impelled me to go at least a little way into the question of why German writers would not or could not describe the destruction of the German cities as millions experienced it.” His analysis focuses primarily on four factors, the first pointing back to the bombing descriptions with which his book begins. The bombing raids were catastrophic. Nazi Germany’s governmental agencies were completely untrustworthy sources for truth about the devastation, and eyewitness accounts from reliable sources were not easily available at the time.

Stunned and traumatized, most survivors—many of them fleeing refugees “vacillating between a hysterical will to survive and leaden apathy”—were in no condition to write, although some diarists, Friedrich Reck and Victor Klemperer prominent among them, tried their best to describe as much as the limitations of information and language permitted. Noting that “the need to know was at odds with a desire to close down the senses,” Sebald sums ups the situation by adding that “on the one hand, large quantities of disinformation were circulating; on the other, there were true stories that exceeded anyone’s capacity to grasp them.”

Sebald’s analysis helps to show why immediately written eyewitness accounts about this chapter of German history are scarce. These gaps, moreover, do not strike him as the most decisive, because he believes that the bombing attacks must have paralyzed clear thinking among those who narrowly escaped them. Even when eyewitness accounts exist, Sebald thinks they have “only qualified value,” which needs to be supplemented by careful historical study and what he calls synoptic perspectives. The gaps in these latter areas are what trouble him most. While Sebald continues to understand how natural it is that Germans have not accurately written the full story of their own destruction, his voice becomes more critical as he explores three more reasons for that outcome.

To grasp the significance of these three factors—humiliation, moral discrediting, and redefinition of identity—it is helpful to see more of what Sebald means by the natural history of destruction. Where, he asks, should such a history begin? Part of the answer is found in the abandoned British airfields. At first the bombing of German cities took place because the Western Allies needed to bring the war home to Germany. The strategy was to shatter German home-front morale, particularly among industrial workers. It remains arguable whether that strategy worked as well as expected, but as the bombing campaign ramped up, it took on a life of its own. The destruction of German cities, as Sebald sees it, became both the means to end the war and an end in itself. In that sense, the bombing was less strategic than total. The devastation escalated accordingly. If the immediate impact for Germans caught in the catastrophic raids was traumatizing horror, the aftermath brought humiliation, which is the second factor that Sebald identifies in his account of German inability or unwillingness to write about the devastation.

On February 18, 1943, with the tides of war already turned decisively against the Third Reich, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, urged the German people to devote themselves to “total war.” Nazi Germany fought on for more than two years, but when unconditional surrender came in early May, 1945, the German price paid for Nazism was evident. Sebald underscores “the sense of unparalleled national humiliation felt by millions.” Nazi ideology had proclaimed the German people to be superior in every way. There was some German dissent from those views, but it was insufficient to displace the welcome that Germans gave them. Crushing military defeat turned those claims to rubble. The ruins were uninhabitable, psychologically and spiritually, if not physically. Even when there were retrospective literary glances that focused upon them, the looking, says Sebald, was often an evasive “looking away at the same time.”

The silence and evasion caused by humiliating defeat might have been more easily broken if the majority of Germans—many writers among them—had been less loyal to the Third Reich, “a society,” says Sebald, “that was morally almost entirely discredited.” Loyalty to a morally discredited regime could not be defended. One result, Sebald believes, is that for many Germans the horror of the Nazi period, including the bombing raids, became “taboo like a shameful family secret.” Germans did not even debate openly whether the fire bombings were justified ethically, although in light of the fact that the nation “had murdered and worked to death millions of people in its camps,” there were some Germans who “regarded the great firestorms as a just punishment, even an act of retribution on the part of a higher power with which there could be no dispute.”

A sense of shame, however, was by no means the only explanation for the lack of a full and honest reckoning with the past. Sebald is most searing when he deals with writers who found that “the redefinition of their idea of themselves after 1945 was a more urgent business than depiction of the real conditions surrounding them.” Sebald’s essay on the German novelist Alfred Andersch epitomizes what he takes to be a widespread phenomenon. Andersch’s fiction and self-estimate highlighted the concept of innere Emigration (inner emigration). Accepting an ambiguous identity, “inner emigrants” were those Germans who rejected National Socialism or claimed they did but chose not to leave Nazi Germany. Sebald measures Andersch’s autobiographical fiction and postwar self-characterization against his actual life during the Third Reich. At best, Sebald concludes, Andersch turned out to be a compromised “inner emigrant,” for he benefited from National Socialism more than he resisted it. What Sebald ironically calls “tactful omissions and other revisions” in Andersch’s writing reflected postwar German tendencies for self-reinvention that did little to encourage openness and honesty about Germany’s Nazi past.

In contrast to Andersch and those like him, Sebald ends his book with two essays that pay tribute to writers who are his soul mates. In German writings and radio talks, Jean Améry, an Austrian Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, spoke profoundly and honestly about the resentment he felt because Germans under Hitler had destroyed what Améry called trust in the world. In the German Jewish author and artist Peter Weiss, Sebald finds a voice insistent on remembering the past with passion, and persistence, which can make possible the recovery that only remorse can bring. At the end of this courageous book, Sebald’s call for German honesty about the Nazi past comes full circle. He wants modern Germans to be able to know about and grieve openly over the destruction brought by the Allied bombing raids, but Sebald concludes that the price for release from silence and repression must include remorseful awareness that Germans themselves “provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived.”

Review Sources

Christian Century 120, no. 22 (November 1, 2003): 38-41.

Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 21 (November 1, 2002): 1599.

Library Journal 128, no. 1 (January 1, 2003): 134.

Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2003, p. R9.

Maclean’s 116, no. 19 (May 12, 2003): 59.

New Statesman 132, no. 4626 (February 24, 2003): 48-49.

The New York Review of Books 50, no. 3 (February 27, 2003): 8-10.

The New York Times, February 5, 2003, p. E8.

The New York Times Book Review, April 6, 2003, pp. 13-14.

Publishers Weekly 249, no. 50 (December 16, 2002): 58.

The Washington Post, March 23, 2003, p. T3.

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