09 November 2009

On the Natural History of Destruction

Another chance finding in Catford library, Sebald's essay on the response of Germans to the destruction of so many towns and cities by allied air-raids in the second world war was an appropriate read in the remembrance season.

What an astonishingly fair and sane view he has! He scarcely looks at the morality of the raids - that's not the point, but he does comment that after Dunkirk, air-raids on Germany were the only practical way Britain could be involved in the war in Europe, and recognises too that Germany would have similarly flattened British cities, if it could.

What concerns him is that German culture knows that

about 600,000 German civilians fell victim to the air raids and 3.5 million homes were destroyed, while at the end of the war 7.5 million people were left homeless ... but we do not grasp what it all actually meant.

He then surveys the literature that covers the experience, finding it either superficial or self-serving. Instead, he finds that Germany appeared to have treated 1945 as a start from scratch: people have overlooked the history, including the Nazis and the consequences they brought upon the country. It doesn't seem to have been driven by a sense of shame, but was an act of dislocation: the new Germany has little to do with the old. (I have a feeling there's been a similar process at work in East Germany after re-unification: a failure to consider how the system of neighbourhood surveillance sustained the government for so long. If anyone wants to know how that worked, though, just wait around and look at Britain in 2015.)

The essay started life as lectures in Zurich, and provoked a lot of response, including one from a Doctor H of Darmstadt, whose views are quoted extensively. His view is that
the Allies waged war in the air with the aim of cutting off the Germans from their origins and inheritance by destroying their cities, thus paving the way for the cultural invasion and general Americanization that ensure in the post-war period. This deliberate strategy ... was devised by Jews living abroad, exploiting the special knowledge of the human psyche, foreign cultures and foreign mentalities that they are known to have acquire on their wanderings.

The book also contains an essay on Alfred Andersch, a German post-war novelist. Apparently quite successful in his time, but, says Sebald, hopelessly morally compromised and therefore unequipped to write about the real experience of the country. Obviously, I have not read and never will read anything by Andersch. Reading the essay raises the question of how removed from actual literature literary studies can be. What does come out of the essay is Sebald's view of what qualifies literature to be valued: it's a question of moral integrity that's at the basis. Although Sebald uses some modern techniques of analysis, his judgement eventually comes down to that question. I think that's inherent in his own novels, which, with this new insight into his mind, I am looking forward to reading again.

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