By W. G. SebaldRandom House
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Awaiting our fate, beyond whose calamity no man can surmise, I have withdrawn into my hermit's cell in Freising and avoid the sight of our hideously battered Munich—the toppled statues, the façades that gaze from vacant eye sockets to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.