February 15, 2015 by AK
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.