SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
The publication in The New Yorker of W. G. Sebald’s essay "A Natural History of Destruction" in the fall of 2002 provoked several letters to the editor declaring as immoral any sympathy for German wartime experiences. One reader was "shocked and offended" by the text "with its implicit suggestion that the Allied bombing of German cities was distinguished by ruthless aggression. It was only towards the end that Sebald fully brought home the point that the Germans were themselves responsible for this suffering." Another found suggestions of "Nazi rhetoric" in Sebald's description of air raids, quoting as evidence the phrase "wholesale annihilation" and asserting that “Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin will be forever trumped by Auschwitz, Sobibor and Buchenwald, a fact that may explain why Germans have continued to show penitence in public for the horrors that they visited on others but have chosen to regret in more secluded ways the sufferings that others brought on them." 1
Memories of W.W. II where they concern German civilians seem still sufficiently impregnated with "Nazi Evil" to spook otherwise competent readers. Sebald's text could not have been clearer on the issue of German "suffering": it did not interest him; nor did the morality of Allied bombing. What fascinated him was the phenomenon of the huge firestorms--hurricanes, tidal-waves, moving mountains of fire--that from September 1944 to mid-April 1945 raged through German cities. Set off by the ingenious new British combination of high-explosive and incendiary bombs, they caused unimaginable devastation; but Sebald was mainly intrigued by the stylistic problems for the literary representation of that fiery apocalypse.
Sebald’s concentration on the literariness of remembrance—his recalling the sublime power of fire by merging and reshaping the memory stories of individual eyewitnesses--detracted from the terrifying but common experiences of ordinary Germans caught in the extreme dynamics of modern hyper-technological warfare. He was interested exclusively in the hyper-physical end-effects of destruction by huge masses of fire falling from the sky that he described in the sharply detailed, enameled style of a miniature: the fantastic rock formations of ruined cities, the shrunk purple corpses, the yellow puddles of congealed fat of the bodies cured by fire. Confronted with that surreal, incomprehensible mass transformation, Sebald focused on its meta-physical horror beyond any moral imagination and responsibility because “the Germans” had abdicated all morality and responsibility. He is very clear on that abdication also in the New Yorker excerpt from a longer text, "Air War and Literature," where he had pointed out that there had been almost no literary representation of Allied bombing in postwar Germany. Some German critics refuted this claim by maintaining that the "self-pitying" Germans had always remembered their own suffering. But Sebald had not referred to their memories; and it was simply true that German collective memory of that near-total destruction of their cities by Allied bombs had been safely put to sleep for many decades to reserve plenty of room for the "guilt and shame" of their "bad past."
This public deep sleep (advised by the letter to the New Yorker) has been largely responsible for a politicized history of the 20th century, the more so the closer one gets to W.W.II. There has been strong resistance to any shift in the interpretive conventions that have controlled postwar German historical memory; and all public critique of this control has been rejected as heretical "revisionism" and "anti-Semitism." It was precisely the exclusion of all German wartime experiences from historical memory that motivated the military historian Joerg Friedrich to write his provocative, powerful documentary of Allied bombing to re-acquaint ordinary Germans with that still largely hidden Part of the second World War. 2Der Brand (the burning) came out in the fall of 2002, preceded by Grass’s Im Krebsgang (Crab Walk 2003) in the early spring of that year, a novel that seemed to signal the possibility of a greater public openness on the subject of the troubled German past. Its center is the description of the sinking by a Soviet submarine of a German ship vastly overloaded with German refugees and wounded soldiers on January 30, 1945, one of the greatest disasters in marine history with 9300 lives lost in the Baltic Sea, most of them women and children. The novel's great commercial and critical success can be attributed to Grass’s realistic, virtuoso descriptions of the sinking ship, the fearful chaos of women and children screaming and flailing helplessly in the icy huge black waves; and the terrible silence of the mass drowning. Such focus on German wartime experiences was completely new to German audiences almost six decades after the end of the war, and they responded with gratitude to Grass’s narrative of that dramatic, tragic scene. Arguably, they were less interested in the surrounding meandering moralizing stories with which Grass, as has been his pedagogical habit for half a century, tried to diffuse his German readers’ politically incorrect feelings of loss—of their families, of cities, of sacral and secular buildings, artifacts, land- and seascapes, memories.
The positive reception of Grass's novel certainly helped Deer Brand, but more important was the publisher's marketing strategy to serialize excerpts in the mass-circulation daily Bildzeitung—a strategy invariably denounced in negative reviews of the book because of that paper's largely conservative readership. Der Brand became a bestseller, surpassing Grass's Krebsgang, because many ordinary Germans wanted to understand better what they had actually experienced. Since a skeptical perspective on waging war has been characteristic of postwar Germany across the political spectrum, it seems plausible to assume that many readers refreshed, with their memories, also their anti-war sentiments.
A nicely neutral review in the Economist quoted Friedrich that the Allied air raids were “’the biggest catastrophe on German soil since the Thirty Years War ‘”and that “‘apart from the firebombing of Dresden and Hamburg, it is barely registered in the official German collective memory’.” The review comments that “it is still rare for a German to take a public look at the second world war from a German perspective. But things are changing. Earlier this year, Guenter Grass, a Nobel prize winner, caused a tidal wave of agonized German heart-searching with his novel ‘Krebsgang’ . . . . ‘Never,’ says the Old Man, Grass’ alter ego in the book, ‘should we have kept silent about all that suffering simply because our own guilt was overpowering and our professions of regret paramount for all those years, for we abandoned the suppressed reality to the right-wingers.’” 3 It took time and the changes that come with it; and then it took looking more closely at the evidence--the provocation of Friedrich's book.
The title of the American translation of Der Brand, The Fire, is misleading since Friedrich's intent was to describe as precisely as possible the burning, the effect of firebombing on human bodies and natural and man-made material. The translation had few public reviews, whereas the original German edition was widely reviewed in Germany and Great Britain. Most of the British reviews were not as sanguine as the Economist though some of them were fair; most of them mentioned German suffering. 4 Yet Friedrich’s focus is explicitly not on the suffering caused by air raids but on recalling and then reconstructing sensory perceptions of air raids: the multiple particular shapes of the shared experience of being firebombed.
Friedrich links the specifically terrifying passivity of waiting for the man-made bombs to drop to the inherent inability to escape the superhuman natural forces of fire unleashed by them: their programmed and uncontrollable power to annihilate everything in their way. The book is a detailed, in part stunning narrative of all the particular physical and mental aspects of air raids on German cities. In that it is a general indictment of all air raids at any time, in any place--Dresden 1945 as well as Baghdad 2003. In a strangely provocative, troubling sense, it is precisely the extraordinary attention to the detailed historical particularities of extreme destruction that makes Friedrich’s documentary so relevant for understanding the general nature of warfare. His highly specific discussion of the modern technology of an air war much “improved” in the latter half of W.W.II to achieve an ever more spectacular deadliness in the months after Germany's de facto defeat, September 1944 to mid-April 1945, is then “applicable” to the dynamics of other extreme situations in war.
Friedrich is a persuasive but on the whole soberly factual, even distant narrator of what is in effect, a powerful anti-war documentary. The chapters have lapidary titles naming places, events, concepts, objects; and each of them has an introductory summary which is densely conceptualized and carefully formulated. These summaries define the meanings of what is going to be documented, creating a kind of meta-documentary discourse that attempts to be as complete as possible because the documentation itself, a mixture of many mostly unidentified voices and Friedrich’s narration, is by its very nature incomplete. The first chapter, "Weapon," is also the most strictly object-focused. Unprefaced, it goes straight to the description of the air raid as a complex entity comprised of human skills and activities and sophisticated technology. The summary clarifies that “the bomb does not find its way to the target but the target is what the bomb can find,” creating an existential uncertainty for the human beings waiting to become that target. It is the literally and unbearably nerve-wracking, disorienting civilian experience of waiting for the bombs to fall.
"Live” bombs are not self-contained but interactive, in the literal sense of “alive" objects; they are modern technological black magic meant to be as deadly as possible. The extreme destruction wrought by the bomb is caused not by the tonnage of the explosives but by the “self-multiplying” damage done by the mixture of explosives and fire bombs. It took the combination of two scientific disciplines to create this self-multiplication into raging firestorms of heretofore unknown proportions. Over a period of three years, engineers trained in fire-fighting and electro physicists developed the systems that would locate and then target particularly incendiary settlement structures to start the fires. Yet, pumped full with gasoline and bombs, the plane on its way to the target is itself the most sensitive target. Pursued by heavy anti-aircraft guns and small agile anti-aircraft “hunter” planes, the crews charged with the task of mass-killing are almost exclusively concerned with their own survival. War as the paradoxical symbiosis of death and survival has found its most striking allegorical representation in the war in the air when bombers are dropping mass death on civilians and their crews are performing beyond their known limits to get out of the way of death by the fires rising from the earth where they had seeded them. Many did not survive: 55,000 British pilots and crew died in their burning bombers; a death no less gruesome, cruel and, at that late stage of the war, senseless than that of their German victims.
The firestorms that destroyed Pforzheim, Hamburg, Kassel, Dresden, Cologne and many other cities could not be fully staged before September 1944, because they required the symbiosis of "nature’s volcanism" and an overwhelming human desire to destroy. The atmospheric reactions during the attack on Hamburg in the particularly hot summer of 1943 transferred to the incendiary ammunition an unprecedented, untamable rage of aggression. The British saw this as a divine judgment and immediately tried to find its mathematical equation. It took them over a year to figure it out, but from then on there was no limit to Allied bombing. The seduction of having the controllable means to mimic the self-multiplying and then uncontrollably powerful symbiosis of technological and natural forces proved irresistible. The temptation to just go on destroying one city after the other, helped by the increasingly ineffective German anti-air craft (manned by teenagers like Gentler Grass) was just too great. Friedrich’s documentary narrative of Allied total air war, the power of the evidence he compiled, has caused German, British and American critics to brand his book as "revisionist." But these critics have also been notoriously unwilling to question the official narrative of W.W.II; it has been much safer for them to embrace in remembrance the general unchanging Goodness of victory than to consider the terrifying details of defeat.
In his lengthy review of Der Brand, “The Destruction of Germany" (NYRB, October 21, 2004), Jan Buruma was mainly interested in an enduring German collective guilt and suspicious of Friedrich’s motivations for researching and writing the book. Asking “why a former leftist Holocaust researcher and neo-Nazi hunter would do this,” he thinks that some people just switch "from one form of radicalism to another.” Provoked by the book's detailed evidence of Allied total air war, Buruma is highly critical of its serialization in Bildzeitung : “It is as though he deliberately aimed his message at the crudest readership—not Neo-Nazi, to be sure, but relatively ill-informed, mostly illiberal, and prone to sensationalism." Their suspect "illiberalism" fits what Buruma, without any explanation, repeatedly refers to as Friedrich’s conservatism. He also reprimands Friedrich for ending his book with a “highly conservative lament” for the destruction of books and archival materials “as though, the loss of books, in the end, is even worse than the loss of people"—a perspective that he does not find ”morally attractive." Friedrich never makes his comparison; but Buruma is offended by his not mentioning “that by far the bigger blow to German Kultur was the murder and expulsion of the best and most intelligent people of an entire generation.” Thousands of books have been written about this loss and millions of readers have read them. For once, Friedrich’s concern is not the Nazi Holocaust but the Allied burning of German cities, which Buruma still thinks a morally suspect choice of subject.
Charting the reactions of individuals to the extreme experience of bombing in the penultimate chapter "Ich," the cool and precise narrating voice lists the effects of the attack on all the senses as if they were man-made instruments: the feeling of horror when the roar of the falling bomb is heard, the nose registering burning and the smell of gases, the skin sensing the rising temperature and air rushing in. In contrast, the concluding chapter “Stone” deals with the burned buildings, sculptures, archival materials, and books as if they had been alive, once the conscious creations of a now horribly diminished culture. If Friedrich shows any emotion, it is in this chapter: mourning the irredeemable loss of so many cultural objects and their living history, he mourns the impotence of the vanquished. It is an impotence that does not release them from whatever responsibility they might have had for preventing the Nazis’ rise to power. The issue is, rather, the terrible, humanly shameful pity of total warfare with its radical moral inversion when death and destruction reign supreme: 47 % of Potsdam’s historical buildings were destroyed in the evening hours of April 14, 1945. It took Bomber Command 500 planes and 1700 tons of bombs. It was its last big attack, with an imposing target.
The attack erased whole streets of buildings admired for their restrained neo-classical beauty because the material of which they were built, stone, had been shaped to teach beauty, form, proportion and purpose. The bomb, too, Friedrich writes, “was an educator passing judgment on power and impotence. The impotent vanquished are defenseless, without the possibility of an appeal. . . The victor cannot be indicted in the name of religion, human rights or morals because he is the religion, the rights and morals." It was in the interest of the victor that the vanquished not look back, not dwell on their country's devastation, but move on. More than sixty years later, it confirms the victor's enduring power that Friedrich's looking back at and mourning that devastation still seems dangerous to many readers.
1 The New Yorker November 4, 2002, 66-77. The essay is excerpted from “Air War and Literature,” On the Natural History of Destruction (New York: Random House, 2003), 1-104. The letters were published in The New Yorker, Dec. 2, 2002.
2 Among Friedrich's publications: Das Gesetz des Krieges Das deutsche Heer in Russland 1941 bis 1945:der Prozess gegen das Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (1993); Die kalte Amnestie: NS-Täter in derBundesrepublik (1984); Freispruch für die Nazi-Justiz : die Urteile gegen NS-Richter seit 1948: eine Dokumentation (1983); he also contributed to the Enzyklopaedie des Holocaust.
3 “Another taboo broken A German historian describes German civilian suffering in the last world war,” The Economist, November 23, 2002, 26. On the occasion of the publication of The Fire in late 2006, the Economist's opinion would not be quite that balanced. Praising Friedrich "for both his diligence and his descriptive powers," it also asserts now that "Mr. Friedrich's desire to puncture Anglo-American self-satisfaction comes perilously close to suggesting that the Germans were right to defend Nazism, and the allies were wrong to attack it." There is no proof for this in the book.
4 Among the newspapers notably The Times (19 November 2002) with a good summary of Friedrich’s arguments in contrastto the Daily Telegraph (19 November 2002) and Daily Mail (20 November 2002) where almost nothing is said about the book’s arguments and Friedrich’s Churchill critique summarily rejected. Supporting some of Friedrich's arguments: Mark Connelly, “The British People, the Press, and the Strategic Air Campaign against Germany, 1939-45,“ Contemporary British History 16/2 (Summer 2002), 39-58. On the basis of press reports, Connelly documents an explicit general informed British approval of the increasingly destructive all-out air war against Germany. The lead article in the Daily Mirror of 12 September 1940 had already called for limitless air attacks, arguing that the distinction between combatants and civilians was no longer valid in modern warfare and thereby anticipating Churchill’s stated position two years later. See also Mark Connelly, Reaching for the Stars: A New Interpretation of Bomber Command in the Second World War (2001). See the well balanced collection of German and British responses to Der Brand in Lothar Kettenacker, ed., Ein Volk von Opfern? Die neue Debatte um den Bombenkrieg 1940-45 (2003).