Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Review: "On the Natural History of Destruction" by W.G. Sebald

I first came across the thesis of W.G. Sebald's essay "Air War and Literature" on Arsen Darnay's Ghulf Genes blog in the post Shock and Awe in 1940s Style. Sebald's essay, which forms the first half of his book of literary essays On the Natural History of Destruction, is based on a series of lectures he delivered in Zurich in Fall 1997.

In "Air War and Literature" Sebald examines the lack of substantive German literature about the terrible air bombings that devastated German cities during World War II. There are three other essays in the book: on Alfred Andersch, Jean Amery, and Peter Weiss. I read them all and found interesting bits and pieces in each. But I can't honestly say they're likely to be of much broad interest beyond those who care about Andersch, Amery, and Weiss.

But the opening essay on the air war in Germany is fascinating. How terrible were the bombings in Germany? According to the beginning of the essay:

... the Royal Air Force alone dropped a million tons of bombs on enemy territory; it is true that of the 131 towns and cities attacked ... many were entirely flattened, that 600,000 German civilians fell victim to the air raids, and that three and a half million homes were destroyed, while at the end of the war seven and a half million people were left homeless.

Sounds like a lot? It is. Here are a few points of comparison:

--The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima exploded with 13 kilotons of force, while the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki exploded with 21 kilotons of force.
--The combined explosive force of those bombs was only 1/27th the combined million tons of bombs dropped on Germany by the RAF alone.
--The United States and Britain combined are estimated to have dropped 2.75 million tons of bombs in Europe.
--About 1.6 million tons of that total was dropped on Germany.
--Strategic bombing was dangerous for the bombers, too. More than 160,000 allied airmen died in the European theater.
--The single worst air raid during the war was probably not either one of the atomic bombings, but was instead the March 9, 1945, American firebombing of Tokyo in which it is likely that more than 100,000 people perished.
--About 500,000 Japanese civilians perished during the air raids on Japan, and another five million were left homeless.

It would be easy to go on and on with a statistical roll-call of misery, but the point is that this was one of the single most terrible experiences of the Twentieth Century, and indeed in all of human history. And so Sebald asks, "Why is it that this experience has been nearly entirely ignored in German literature?"

It's a good question. On Arsen's original post I hadn't realized that Sebald was discussing German literature and mentioned several bits of American and British literature that mentioned the air war, especially the London Blitz. (Not to add to the roll-call of misery, but more than 43,000 British civilians died from air raids during the Battle of the Blitz in 1940.)

The Blitz, however, is pretty well represented in British literature. Indeed, in many ways it seems to have been the formative experience of post-World-War-II British literature, since it was the primary point of contact with the war for the vast majority of British citizens.

But what of the German devastatation, which was so many times worse? Sebald claims that German literature is silent.

In truth, I'm not quite so sure how true that is, but I'm in no position to judge because I have read very little Germany post-war literature. I will say, however, that at times Sebald seems to be at pains to exclude writings that deal with the air raids from his argument -- either by claiming they are mere popular entertainments and not worthy of inclusion, by claiming that some works by more famed German authors were inferior and didn't reach the literary heights such a devastating event merits, or by claiming that other works were commercial failures.

So as I read the essay his assertion of this void struck me as a bit of an odd deconstructionist argument. He posits that something is missing in the literature, and then spends much of the rest of his time claiming that those things that seem applicable should not be included. Still, despite that quibble I'm willing to grant his assertion that the experience of the air raids is disproportionately absent in the German literary memory.

It's his examination of some of the possible reasons for this absence that are most striking. Sebald's exploration of this void is truly thought-provoking and ranges from the sheer inability of language to convey such horror to the cumulative guilt of the German people in having brought such a terrible punishment upon themselves. That is what makes this essay well worth reading.

Before closing, I should note that at least one highly regarded English-language book came out of the German air raids, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, which was based on Vonnegut's experience as a prisoner of war during the air raid on Dresden. I'm not sure how many German translations of that book have been sold over the years, but I see in our old friend Wikipedia that a German opera based on the book made its premier in Munich in July 1996, so it can hardly be unknown. I'm sure Sebald would exclude Vonnegut from consideration in his basic thesis, since Vonnegut was an American writer, and an extremely American writer at that. But I would have thought the novel at least worthy of mention in an essay commenting on the lack of literature on the topic of the air war against Germany from the perspective of those who were beneath the bombs.

Neither Sebald nor I have much to say on Japanese literature of the air war. But the Japanese post-war film phenomenon Godzilla is a creature straight from the devastation of the nuclear blasts and the terrible destruction of the air war. Indeed, the shift in Godzilla's role from a terrible destructive force in the early movies to a protector of Japan by the 1970s is undoubtedly worthy of its own essays and lectures.

One last possible cause for this void in Germany literature wasn't examined much by Sebald, but struck me as worthy of greater examination. Many Germans simply didn't survive World War II, especially those who were beneath these air raids. Numbers and estimates vary, but somewhere around 10% of Germany's prewar population of 80 million people died in the war. The toll among the civilian population was highest in the very urban areas that tend to generate literary movements. And the toll among those at the heart of the air war against Germany was truly devastating. I can't help but wonder if the potential literary genius who might have told the epochal story of this tragedy simply died along with millions of others.

Who will tell the tale when the author and all his characters are already dead?


  1. Appreciate the review. I think you're doing a service. Michelle's equal half (men have to be careful), Thierry, sent me the original essay as a gift. Despite having lucked out by living through that time in Europe as a child, the facts shocked me in advancing years. I'd read countless books about the war, but always from the pleasing *military* perspective. The gruesome facts of civilian populations being bombed will undoubted be forgotten over time--at least at the visceral level. And abstract wars don't seem so horrible. Lest we forget...

  2. During the last two war years, at age 11 to 12, I experienced air raids almost nightly, including in two larger German cities. This was during my "months in the wilderness" when the group of 8 of us, two teachers and six students were making our way on foot from Poland into the German territory, ahead of the Russian Army. In the city of Chemnitz we were enlisted to help clear rubble and help find survivors in the ruins of large apartment buildings. In return for such service we were given food, a rare luxury. I have not forgotten the acrid smells, the choking dust from crashing buildings and the attending noise.
    The memories of all the victims of this terrible war will die when all of us have gone to our rewards.

  3. Very interesting review, John. Yes, those stats, some of which you'd chared with me as your ead, are most striking. One forgets the extent of the devastation and I suspect that many young people may think that it was mostly the Jews who died in WWII.