It’s been 70 years since the Allies bombed Dresden. Soviet propaganda liked to insinuate that the rationale for the bombing was to destroy as much as possible of the part of Germany bound to fall under Communist control – the part that was also being disproportionately destroyed by fierce fighting in addition to being less economically developed that the West. East Germany also used the bombings in its own anti-Western propaganda.

Leaving aside the Communist and revisionist speculations, the firebombing of German cities was so without precedent that it’s a wonder how Germany managed to rebuild itself at all, and without much ado and whining.

…while at the end of the war seven and a half million people were left homeless, and there were 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for every person in Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant of Dresden – but we do not grasp what it all actually meant. The destruction, on a scale without historical precedent, entered the annals of the nation, as it set about rebuilding itself, only in the form of vague generalizations. It seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the collective consciousness… This is highly paradoxical in view of the large numbers of people exposed to the campaign day after day, month after month, year after year, and the length of time – well into the postwar period – during which they still faced its real consequences, which might have been expected to stifle any positive attitude to life.

So wrote W.G. Sebald in his non-fiction book, originally published in 1999, On the Natural History of Destruction. It consists of four parts with a foreword. Part one, by far the longest, deals with the Allied bombings and a strangely muted response to that disaster in post-war Germany, both in private conversations and printed literature. It makes clear the extent of the destruction, but mostly as a prerequisite for the study of the silence that followed. Sebald looks into different ways Germans blocked out the trauma of the air war while rebuilding the country, and draws parallels between the raging fires of 1943-45 and apocalyptic reveries of German expressionists.

Part two is a story of a German fiction writer, Alfred Andersch, who tried to relive his life more virtuously, and less cowardly, through his fiction. Parts three and four deal with work by Jean Améry, Sebald’s mentor, and Peter Weiss. Améry’s subjects – torture, pain, limitations to one’s humanity – won’t make for easy reading but at least some of his work is available in English. Weiss is well known for his play Marat/Sade and less so for his three-volume novel, The Aesthetics of Resistance, but only the first volume has been translated into English.

John Banville’s 2003 review of the book in The Guardian is highly recommended.


  1. Leaving aside the Communist and revisionist speculations, the firebombing of German cities was so without precedent that it’s a wonder how Germany managed to rebuild itself at all, and without much ado and whining.

    A lot of it had to do with the enormous material and financial assistance provided to them by the US (particularly through the Marshall Plan). Knowing the threat Stalin’s USSR posed, it was remarkable how quickly the Western allies got the Germans on their feet and even ready to bear arms again.

    I was watching a documentary the other day about the people who made the films of the Holocaust. By the time the main British film was finished, edited, and ready for release the British government, with approval of the Americans, buried it because they thought it would severely hinder relations with Germany whose cooperation they needed to rebuild Europe and keep the Soviets out. This was mere months after the war’s end: it was an astonishing turnaround.

    • The Marshall plan had a huge impact, of course, and Erhard’s free-market policies must have helped too. I can understand why the Holocaust film was suppressed. Germany had just suffered a near-deadly blow to its labor force, industrial capacity and housing, and 12 million Germans had just been expelled from countries to the East, so further moral humiliation (if well-deserved) would have been untimely and would have only helped the Reds. Interestingly, the “Holocaust will be exploited by the Communists” meme survived into the early 1960s: The National Review opined that Eichmann’s trial would be counterproductive to the Cold War effort.

      In the Soviet Union, especially in Belarus, Ukraine and Southern Russia, but elsewhere as well, post-war years were very hard (there was a famine in Black-earth Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova in 1946-7) but that was after a total victory in a just war.

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