ON THE NATURAL HISTORY

OF DESTRUCTION

By W.G. Sebald

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Random House. 202 pp. $23.95

"How I wished," admits the German narrator of one of W.G. Sebald's novels, "that I belonged to a different nation." And there it is in a nutshell, the torment of at least three generations. After World War II, who wanted to be German? The burden of the Teutonic identity was so heavy then, the knowledge of what Germany had done so huge, there was only one way for those who lived out the war to deal with it -- they simply didn't talk about it. A decades-long pall fell over the country, at least that portion of it that accrued to the West, and the past was shrouded over. This was a state that lasted about as long as it took the next generation to grow up, learn a little history, and start asking those dreaded What-did-you-do-in-the-war-Daddy questions.

Even then, forced to come clean, the war generation couldn't go all the way and give in to a relieved outpouring of memories and a full face-off with the truth, Willy Brandt's 1970 obeisance at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial notwithstanding. The German acknowledgment of the nation's mid-20th-century history has been a stuttering thing. When I lived in West Germany in the 1980s, nearly 40 years after the war, all the talk was still about how people hadn't talked about it, couldn't talk about it, didn't want to talk about it, or talked about only certain things, or the wrong things, or not enough things. And a postwar generation struggled to know who and what it was, and how it was supposed to live with the guilt that soaked its nation's past.

Among that generation -- the children born during the last years of the war or soon after it -- few have wrestled more openly with that past and that guilt than Sebald, who repeatedly confronted both in his writing. Stoking memory, bringing the past back to life, recalling the dead from their graves and giving them back their voices -- that was his stock-in-trade until his too-early death in 2001. With his novels The Emigrants and Austerlitz he recalled, in a peerless feat of imagination, a Jewish society he could never have known, since it had been wiped out of the world he grew up in. That gave him a reputation as a scribe of the Holocaust, but his service to memory was more sweeping than that, as On the Natural History of Destruction now attests.

Four years before he died, Sebald delivered a series of lectures in Zurich under the rubric "Air War and Literature," questioning why German writers of the postwar years were all but silent on the horrors of the Allied firebombing of German cities during the war, and the devastation and ruins that marked them afterward. Those lectures, which unleashed a torrent of discussion in Germany when they were published there in 1999, make up the leading piece in this collection. Three essays on the German writers Alfred Andersch, Jean Ame{acute}ry and Peter Weiss likewise consider the writer's duty to remember and bear witness to the truth, whatever the cost to himself. This may well be the last of Sebald's writing we'll ever have, so how amazing -- and fitting -- it is that it seems, in a fashion as uncanny as his prose and perceptions could often be, to close the circle of the ruminations that preoccupied his writing life.

This was the outcome of the Allied bombing raids: 131 German cities and towns were all but flattened, 600,000 people were killed -- most of them gruesomely incinerated in the flash fires that swept through whole blocks in seconds -- and 7.5 million were left homeless. And yet, Sebald writes, "we do not grasp what it all actually meant. The destruction, on a scale without historical precedent, entered the annals of the nation . . . only in the form of vague generalizations. It seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the collective consciousness."

Why is this? Moreover, how could it be? After all, there were substantial numbers of survivors who had been "exposed to the campaign day after day, month after month, year after year," and the visible signs of destruction haunted the cities long after the war was over: "Even after 1950 wooden crosses still stood on the piles of rubble in towns like Pforzheim," Sebald writes. In fact, his own childhood memories of a visit to Munich and the sight of the ruins there helped inspire his need to know what Germany was hiding in its past. As he liked to relate, he also thought for many years that this was simply what cities were supposed to look like: vast expanses of rubble punctuated by an occasional wall with sightless windows. In this, he was heir to the people whom the German novelist Alfred Do{dier}blin described after the war, walking "down the street and past the dreadful ruins as if nothing had happened, and . . . the town had always looked like that."

Instead of pondering their ruin, the Germans stuffed their memories away, rolled up their sleeves and bent to the task of rebuilding, to "the creation of a new, faceless reality, pointing the population exclusively towards the future and enjoining on it silence about the past." This was, Sebald maintains, "a reconstruction tantamount to a second liquidation in successive phases of the nation's own past history." Anyone who lived in or visited West Germany in the years when its citizens obdurately referred to it only as the "Bundesrepublik" (any greenhorn foreigner who clumsily said "Deutschland" was immediately made aware of the error of her speech) knows exactly what Sebald's talking about here. The pride in all that had been wiederaufgebaut -- buildings were routinely marked with the date and legend of their reconstruction -- was vast, but no one ever referred to what had made the rebuilding necessary in any but the vaguest, most guarded, terms.

Sebald, like everyone else, knows of course why this was. His challenge to postwar writers who ignored the holocaust that consumed Germany's cities is only rhetorical. Why didn't they write about it? Here's why: because of "the well-kept secret of the corpses built into the foundations of our state, a secret that bound all Germans together in the postwar years, and indeed still binds them, more closely than any positive goal such as the realization of democracy ever could." Sebald isn't really interested in taking others to task for what they didn't do. He just wants an excuse for doing it instead. And so he does. Meticulously, point by point, detail by detail, he reconstructs the destruction that was visited upon his land, sparing no horror. "Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere," he writes. "Bluish little phosphorus flames still flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their size. They lay doubled up in pools of their own melted fat, which had sometimes already congealed." He describes bodies so reduced to ashes by the heat "that the remains of families consisting of several people could be carried away in a single laundry basket." He tells awful tales, of crazed mothers, escaping to safety, carrying the roasted bodies of their children in their suitcases. Here, he says, look at what we were reduced to, look at the agony we brought upon ourselves.

A lot has been made of Sebald's boldness in opening up a taboo subject in his air wars lectures. The Germans, Germans say, have never been able to talk about what happened to them, as a people, as a result of Hitler's mad vision. At last, the feeling is, we Germans, too, can say we're victims. But it's likely Sebald would only have been dismayed at the appearance of works like German historian Jo{dier}rg Friedrich's Der Brand (The Fire), a strictly-the-facts but somehow self-pitying examination of the firebombings that was recently released in Germany.

It's hard to miss what he was really saying. Just as Germany was wiederaufgebaut, reconstructed, so Sebald, in this work, reconstructs the reality of what was visited upon Germany. He doesn't do it to give Germans license to say "Look, hey, we suffered too." He does it to remind them of the price they paid for their nation's grievous sin. The silence that was imposed about the firebombing horror is "very understandable," he writes, "if one remembers that the Germans, who had proposed to cleanse and sanitize all Europe, now had to contend with a rising fear that they themselves were the rat people." Yet in Sebald's thinking, facing that reality is the only way to come to terms with it. In that sense, On the Natural History of Destruction is but the final piece of the work of expiation this audacious writer spent his life putting together. Work undertaken, as he confesses in his essay on the playwright Peter Weiss, "in order to set memory to work, since it alone justifies survival in the shadow of a mountain of guilt." *

Zofia Smardz writes frequently for Book World.

View of Pforzheim after the war