Books January 2003

The Wartime Toll on Germany

W. G. Sebald wrote of the pain of belonging to a nation that, in Thomas Mann's words, "cannot show its face"
More

The narrator of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (1947) is relating his story against the clock, as the German homeland finds itself pulverized and encircled in the spring of 1945. He punctuates almost every chapter with contemporary tidings of apocalypse.

This earth-shaking, plummeting havoc has come breathtakingly close to my refuge several times now. The dreadful bombardment of the city of Dürer and Willibald Pirckheimer was no longer some distant event; and as the Last Judgment fell upon Munich as well, I sat here in my study, turning ashen, shaking like the walls, doors, and windowpanes of my house.

A little later comes Leipzig's turn.

Its famous publishing district is, I sadly hear, only a heap of rubble and an immeasurable wealth of literary and educational material is now the spoil of destruction—a heavy loss not only for us Germans, but also for a whole world that cares about culture. That world, however, is apparently willing —whether blindly or correctly, I dare not decide—to take the loss into the bargain.

Almost a hundred pages later comes a thought to balance the preceding one.

Granted, the destruction of our cities from the air has long since turned Germany into an arena of war; and yet we find it inconceivable, impermissible, to think that Germany could ever become such an arena in the true sense, and our propaganda has a curious way of warning the foe against incursion upon our soil, our sacred German soil, as if that would be some grisly atrocity ... Our sacred German soil! As if anything were still sacred about it, as if it had not long ago been desecrated again and again by the immensity of our rape of justice and did not lie naked, both morally and in fact, before the power of divine judgment. Let it come!

Reeling nonetheless from the scarcely bearable consequences of his own wish, he trembles for his home town once more.

Awaiting our fate, beyond whose calamity no man can surmise, I have withdrawn into my hermit's cell in Freising and avoid the sight of our hideously battered Munich—the toppled statues, the façades that gaze from vacant eye sockets to disguise the yawning void behind, and yet seem inclined to reveal it, too, by supplying more of the rubble already strewn over the cobblestones.

By the opening of the penultimate chapter Mann has synthesized the two themes—first the crashing chords of Götterdämmerung, and second the awareness of nemesis.

There is no stopping it: surrender on all sides, everyone scattering. Our shattered and devastated cities fall like ripe plums. Darmstadt, Würzburg, Frankfurt have succumbed. Mannheim and Kassel, even Münster, Leipzig—they all obey strangers now ... Among the regime's great men, who wallowed in power, riches, and injustice, suicide rages, passing its sentence
... Whatever lived as German stands now as an abomination and the epitome of evil. What will it be like to belong to a nation whose history bore this gruesome fiasco within it, a nation that has driven itself mad, gone psychologically bankrupt, that admittedly despairs of governing itself and thinks it best that it become a colony of foreign powers, a nation that will have to live in isolated confinement, like the Jews of the ghetto, because the dreadfully swollen hatred all around it will not permit it to step outside its borders—a nation that cannot show its face? [italics added]

The slightly glib analogy to Jewish ghetto life might have been forgiven by Victor Klemperer, who had been wearing a yellow star since the early 1940s in the doomed city of Dresden, and who had been gradually and humiliatingly stripped of his right to teach, to publish, to travel, to own a car, to own a cat, and to receive standard rations. On January 15, 1945, awaiting with dread the last roundup of Jews like himself, who had "Aryan" spouses, he heard of an anti-Nazi broadcast made by Thomas Mann from America. The fellow sufferer who described the broadcast, as they cowered together in a cellar, told Klemperer, "[It was] splendid—it gave my spirits such a lift!" Klemperer himself was more skeptical, admiring Mann as he always had, but suspecting him of having taken sides only when the outcome was clear. He also took some dry pleasure in informing his interlocutor that Mann was not a Jew, even though he was wed to one.

How to describe the experience of reading Klemperer's two-volume diary I Will Bear Witness (1998 and 1999) and, so to speak, knowing what is going to happen before he does? He registered every premonition, both of the aerial destruction of Germany and of the simultaneous extirpation of the Jews, an extirpation that became more frenzied and more cold-blooded as the Hitler regime imploded. Klemperer clearly desired that the latter calamity might be forestalled—but without the necessity for the former. In a reckoning so ironic and fateful that even Faustus himself might have gasped at it, he and his wife were saved by the immolation of Dresden, on February 13 and 14, 1945, beginning just a few hours after they had been informed that all remaining Jewish spouses must report for deportation, which they both understood to be the end. The now overworked word "holocaust" means literally "destruction by fire": the old Klemperer couple escaped holocaust in one sense by passing through it in another. On the smoldering morrow they took advantage of the utter havoc, removed Victor's yellow star, and set off on foot toward survival and, ultimately, liberation.

Klemperer's journals have in common with Mann's writing an extraordinary and admirable quality: the blunt refusal to concede a particle of German pride to the gangrenous rabble of the Nazi Party. This is why both writers lend such emphasis to the magnificence of German civilization, whether expressed in architecture or painting or philosophy, and it is also why neither does so uncritically. Mann argued with himself in California, in what must have been exceedingly dark nights of the soul, by balancing his horror of a German defeat against his loathing for a German victory. Klemperer, for all his liberalism and all his rooted distrust for the similarity between Nazi slogans and Communist ones, eventually opted for East Germany as the inheritor of the "better" tradition. For those of us who never had to face such appalling choices, the question to be resolved at a distance and after a lengthy pause is, Can the survival of the Klemperers, weighed on a scale of ultimate judgment, balance or cancel the mass killing in Dresden? This is, without its being defined quite so strenuously, the question confronted by the author of On the Natural History of Destruction.

W. G. Sebald, whose premature death, in December of 2001, is still being mourned by all who love writing for its own sake, was quite willing to face the quasi-biblical implications that are involved here. And he could not avoid references to Teutonic antiquity and the ghastly, sanguinary struggles with Roman imperialism. Here is Sebald in On the Natural History of Destruction:

And while [Fritz] Lang, in Babelsberg, turned Thea von Harbou's visions into images capable of reproduction for German cinema audiences, a decade before Hitler seized power the logisticians of the Wehrmacht were already working on their own Cheruscan fantasy, a truly terrifying script which provided for the annihilation of the French army on German soil, the devastation of whole areas of the country, and high losses among the civilian population. Even the originator and chief advocate of strategic extremism, General von Stülpnagel, could probably not have envisaged the ultimate outcome of this new battle of the Teutoburger Wald, which left great expanses of the German cities in ruins. Later, our vague feelings of shared guilt prevented anyone, including the writers whose task it was to keep the nation's collective memory alive, from being permitted to remind us of such humiliating images as the incident in the Altmarkt in Dresden, where 6,865 corpses were burned on pyres in February 1945 by an SS detachment which had gained its experience at Treblinka.

But even as Sebald underlines a very direct moral connection between the charnel house of Dresden and the revolting crimes of Nazism, he appears to be making his own subtle challenge to the official and unofficial "script." What is meant, for example, by "vague feelings of shared guilt"? Postwar Germans were approximately divided between those who indignantly disowned "guilt"—which ought surely to be placed on the active rather than the passive citizenry—and those who steadily accepted "responsibility." The crucial word here may be the rather weak and compromising "shared." Willy Brandt, who had worn the uniform of another army in combating Hitler (and who was never forgiven for it by the German right), proposed that although not all Germans could or should be held to collective guilt, there was nonetheless a general or collective responsibility. In stating this he was both brave and generous. But then look at Sebald's other weak qualifier. I certainly can't picture Herr Brandt describing this emotion or conviction as "vague." Vague? Remember what we are talking about. And Sebald isn't at all vague when he assigns to "writers" the "task" of keeping "the nation's collective memory alive." Suppose we agree that writers have national "tasks" in the first place, and that we further concede that a battle against amnesia forms a portion of such a task. Vagueness on certain points would then become an enemy to be contested with some vigor.

Quite by accident, the rather prosaic Chancellor Helmut Kohl came up with a sonorous phrase during the 1980s. Weathering one of the many periodic tempests that bring the terrible past to life in his country (it may well have been after his clumsy suggestion that Ronald Reagan lay a wreath at a cemetery where SS members had been interred ["Ich bin ein Bitburger"]), he ingenuously referred to himself as protected by "the grace of late birth." The element of luck, it might be said, was more conspicuous than that of grace. But everybody knew what Kohl meant. As if to demonstrate the burden of history and the uneven distribution of its weight, a huge success has recently attended Antony Beevor's heart-freezing account (The Fall of Berlin 1945) of the rape and murder and humiliation that fell on Germans in the territory taken by the Soviet army in 1945. The book's publication in Germany provoked an uprush of repressed memory and shame that filled pages of newsprint: one of the girls battered and defiled by Stalin's soldiers had been, it turned out, Hannelore Kohl, the late wife of the ex-Chancellor. In common with a rather large number of German women and girls, she had evidently realized in the postwar period that nobody was likely to be very much moved by her story.

Not only was W. G. Sebald protected by "the grace of late birth"—he was born in 1944—but he chose to spend the greater part of his life in England. Indeed, he spent thirty years at the University of East Anglia, in the city of Norwich. The flatness of the East Anglian landscape, and its proximity to the North Sea, made it an ideal launching ground for the Royal Air Force during the war, as it does for the USAF today. As Sebald phrases it,

Many of the more than seventy airfields from which the war of annihilation was waged against Germany were in the county of Norfolk. Some ten of them are still military bases, and a few others are now used by flying clubs, but most were abandoned after the war. Grass has grown over the runways, and the dilapidated control towers, bunkers, and corrugated iron huts stand in an often eerie landscape where you sense the dead souls of the men who never came back from their missions, and of those who perished in the vast fires. I live very close to Seething airfield. I sometimes walk my dog there, and imagine what the place was like when the aircraft took off with their heavy freight and flew out over the sea, making for Germany. Two years before these flights began, a Luftwaffe Dornier plane crashed in a field not far from my house during a raid on Norwich. One of the four crew members who lost their lives, Lieutenant Bollert, shared a birthday with me and was the same age as my father.
So much for the few points at which my own life touches the history of the air war. Entirely insignificant in themselves, they have none the less haunted my mind, and finally impelled me to go at least a little way into the question of why German writers would not or could not describe the destruction of the German cities as millions experienced it.

I feel a tug of empathy when I read this melancholy account, complete with its Dickensian place-name of "Seething." I was born only five years after Sebald, and was brought up on and around British naval and air bases, and spent much time playing on disused airfields. The cities of my boyhood—most notably Portsmouth and Plymouth, but also Valletta, in Malta—still exhibited enormous scars from the Nazi blitzkrieg. Yet for me and for my cohort, all of this was a cause for pride, and excitement, and made us ready to listen to our fathers as they—with sometimes feigned reluctance—unfolded their war stories. What must it be like to have this in one's immediate past, yet with no cause for affirmation, let alone celebration? And why should my German contemporaries feel inhibited about discussing the erasure of great cities and churches and monuments in their country, to say nothing of the killing of numberless civilians? There are many British people who feel that needless harm was done, and cruelty inflicted; and the unveiling in London a decade ago of a statue to Air Chief Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris, the architect of the air campaign against Germany, was attended by some forceful protests in print and on the streets.

Looking over Sebald's evocative paragraphs, though, I find that I pause immediately at the terse way in which he says "war of annihilation." I also wince a bit at the way he mourns the Luftwaffe crew slightly more than he regrets the "raid" on Norwich. I don't do this, I trust, for any insular or tribal reason. In a letter left for his sons, the late Heinrich Böll told them that they would always be able to tell everything about another German by noticing whether this fellow citizen, in conversation, described April 1945 as "the defeat" or as "the liberation." Thomas Mann and Victor Klemperer were quite decided on this point, and they really did write about—and in the latter case endure—the very calamity that Sebald says is somehow unmentionable. (Böll's novel The Silent Angel, a book that unflinchingly discusses the ruins and the corpses, was written at the end of the 1940s but, as Sebald points out, not published until 1992.) Still, if one takes as one's standard the work and thought of the German oppositionists and dissidents, one is employing a measure that does nothing but credit to German culture and tradition.

More recently another book, which seemingly seeks to reopen the same question in a different way, has been published in Germany. Der Brand (The Fire), by the historian Jörg Friedrich, accuses Winston Churchill of a conscious policy of airborne terrorism against civilians. The right-wing mass-circulation tabloid Das Bild has called Churchill a war criminal in its editorial pages and, in serializing Friedrich's work, has demanded recognition of German suffering. The word "brand" in English, of course, carries a distinctly different vernacular meaning.

At times Sebald seems to want to have this both ways. He invites us to read the letters he received from German readers after he first broached this subject, in a series of public lectures in Zurich in 1997, and thus we discover that a certain combination of arrogance and self-pity, of the kind Christopher Isherwood noticed in his landlady in Goodbye to Berlin, is still around, and still tinged with anti-Semitism. Sebald stipulates what otherwise I would find myself pedantically pointing out: that the Nazi regime had its own plans for the destruction of other people's cities. (Even in 1945, when all was lost, the wretches amid the rubble of Germany were officially cheered up by the news that the Führer's ultimate "wonder-weapons"—the guided V1 and V2 missiles—were falling on London.) Indeed, it is possible to imagine that if anti-Jewish paranoia had not deprived the Third Reich of so many gifted physicists, the unthinkable might have occurred. Thus most people outside Germany itself still tend to shrug at the horror, if they agree to discuss it at all, as if to say, Well, what goes around comes around. And those non-Germans who have drawn attention to the promiscuously inflicted devastation are suspected of a covert sympathy for the other side.

This doesn't relieve the rest of us of some responsibility. After all, the firebombing of Dresden was so appallingly total that it might just as easily have killed Victor Klemperer (who was injured in the eye and for a while separated from his wife by the chaos) as rescued him. Few historians or strategists now argue that the bombing made much if any difference to the outcome of the war, and it may have been conducted partly to reassure Joseph Stalin, who always feared that the British and the Americans might conclude a separate peace. The opening of official papers long ago permitted us to read Lord Cherwell's advice to Churchill that bombs should be concentrated on working-class housing, to maximize casualties; and one objects not just to the studied deliberation of this but also to the fact that these districts were the heart of anti-Nazi resistance in anti-Nazi cities like Hamburg. (So that was where all the "good Germans" went—into the firestorms of the RAF.)

Then one has to face the fact that Henry Morgenthau nearly achieved the adoption of his plan, which was to consummate the violent, dramatic depopulation of Germany and a subsequent reduction of its survivors to a servile or peasant status. The Churchill-Roosevelt papers tell the story of how, at the Quebec and Hyde Park conferences of 1944, Churchill accepted this idea (preferring to call it a "pastoral" solution to the German problem) after having initially described it as "unnatural, unChristian and unnecessary." He and Roosevelt then turned their attention to the deployment of nuclear weaponry, first directly against Japan and then—at least in Churchill's mind—as a means of impressing the Soviet Union. Thanks to Cordell Hull and Henry Stimson, the Morgenthau plan was not adopted in the postwar American and British zones, though the USSR did denude eastern Germany of much of its productive industrial capacity. And it might now be admitted that the Cold War's half acceptance of "two Germanys"—a policy that left a new generation of East Germans to grow up without any experience of democracy—was paradoxically conditioned by the same feeling of "woe to the conquered." (Interesting that we still employ the German word schadenfreude when speaking of a cruel sense of satisfaction, as if nationalizing an emotion that is common to all.) However, it can be pointed out without too much defensiveness that American and British soldiers did not, upon their arrival in Germany, commit atrocities against civilians on the ground. This is much more than can be said for the legions of either Hitler or Stalin, and it must qualify any suggestion that the war against Nazism was allowed to become a war of "annihilation."

It is probably the creditably peaceful and democratic reunification of Germany that has impelled—or perhaps permitted—Sebald and other writers to revisit the half-buried past. Even Günter Grass, who opposed what he absurdly called the 1989 "Anschluss" with the eastern lander, and who could never utter a public word on local politics without emphasizing Auschwitz, has now published a novel (Crab Walk) about the suffering of German refugees in the closing moments of the war. I have already mentioned the terrible atrocities committed by the Red Army; the mass expulsion, dispossession, and killing of German-speaking minorities in the Czech lands and Hungary after 1945 has also recently become an issue that respectable people may mention without incurring suspicion. Sebald approaches this thicket very deftly, making good use of his long residence in England. He describes how in the 1980s he went to see Solly Zuckerman, who had been one of Churchill's circle of military-intellectual advisers on "area bombing." After the war Zuckerman had hastened to Cologne, to indulge his professional interest by viewing the results. He found that he was unable to summon any adequate words for what he saw. ("All that remained in his mind was the image of the blackened cathedral rising from the stony desert around it, and the memory of a severed finger that he had found on a heap of rubble.") It had been his intention, Zuckerman told Sebald, to compose an essay for Cyril Connolly's magazine Horizon. But he was unable to produce it. The working title of the never written article was "On the Natural History of Destruction" ...

In Doctor Faustus, Mann stated the problem that Sebald confronts. "It is not far from capitulation to pure abdication and the offer to let the victor go right ahead and govern the affairs of the fallen nation just as he pleases, since for its part that nation no longer knows up from down." Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the most astute and mordant of the German critics, phrased it more dialectically when he argued that this very docility was a source of strength. "The mysterious energy of the Germans" could not be understood, he wrote, "if we refuse to realize that they have made a virtue of their deficiencies. Insensibility was the condition of their success." The British liked to put this in an unworthily scornful tone. The Germans, one used to hear it said in my father's circles, are either at your throat or at your feet ... But Sebald's well-chosen excerpts from Janet Flanner's reportage, and from the Swedish writer Stig Dagerman, suggest a missing element of German stoicism. Dagerman noticed that he could easily be identified as a foreigner on a train passing through the leveled city of Hamburg, because he was the only one staring out the window.

With a part of themselves, thinking Germans obviously understood that their late Führer not only brought this devastation on them but actually wished it on them. He had preferred an immolated nation to a surrendered one. So the surrender was, in an admittedly less than glorious way, a double defeat for the madman. Even though no Western reporter worth his salt has since neglected any story, however trivial, that suggests a stirring of neo-Nazism, no German constituency worth its salt has ever shown any real interest in endorsing such a thing. In European discussions the most punctilious internationalists are the Germans, whose government even surrendered the special symbol of its deutschmark to the idea of a Europeanized Germany. The large majority of refugees from the recent Balkan wars found hospitality on German soil. Nobody except the left-Green Joschka Fischer has really ever been able to commit or persuade Germans to send their troops overseas. Even the provincial-minded campaign run by Gerhard Schröder a few months ago illustrated this same point, in a different if less noble way.

In the past few years I have spent time with courageous Serbian dissidents, including veteran partisans for wartime Yugoslavia, who came to the point at which they welcomed and supported the NATO bombing of Belgrade and the military defeat of Milosevic's "willing executioners." These days I have been talking to a number of Iraqi exiles and oppositionists who, with infinite pain but impressive honesty, have taken a similar position. These patriots do not want their country to humiliate or murder others, and neither do they wish their country to be humiliated or destroyed. (One has not just to hope but to demand that our war planners bear this in mind.) Germany suffered both those disgraces to the fullest possible extent, and Sebald registers that contradiction to the limit of his ability. His opening bid deserves criticism, as I hope I have shown. But how depressing it is to reflect that he did not live to take part in the discussion that his book ought still to inaugurate.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Saving Central: One High School's Struggle After Resegregation

Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In