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3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
On the Natural History of Destruction
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on 4 November 2011
This book is a little outside of my normal sphere of reading. However, I came to it though the authors remarkable "Rings Of Saturn".
It is an analysis of what the author presents as a startling literary silence from the German people about the impact of the war - and especially the allied air campaign - on them. This seemed such an unlikely proposition to me that I bought the book.

The book itself is presented in four chapters - the first and most accessible of which is the text of a lecture delivered in 1997. The other three chapters concentrate on specific authors (Alfred Andersch, Jean Amery and Peter Weiss). As all three of these authors were essentially unknown to me these sections seemed far more abstract and academic than the first. This is of course a comment on my knowledge of German Literature rather than the chapters themselves.

The first section is an extremely interesting account of the German Literary response to the air war, being both complex and nuanced at the same time. Given the out pouring of books from most modern wars I was surprised at the content of this chapter - but never the less it was extremely interesting.

If, like me you have read some of the more "serious" books to have been produced about the experience of war you may well find this book as interesting as I did. More than anything else I enjoyed the author's willingness to explore complex ideas in a way that did not reduce all arguments to "sound bites". If nothing else, it's a splendid reminder of how complex material can be presented in way that is both readable, but not trivialised.

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on 10 March 2004
In a series of essays, the longest of which on "Air War and Literature," Sebald probes the veil Germans placed over the massive allied bombing campaign that devastated German cities during WWII. He also looks at the Holocaust through the eyes of survivors like Jean Amery and Peter Weiss.
The book gets its title from a report by Solly Zuckerman, who had visited Cologne in the immediate aftermath of the war, and was overwhelmed by the devastation he saw. Sebald, many years later, tries to sift through the various writings on the subject and sort out the most trenchant observations of the war. But, he found this exceedingly difficult since most Germans tended to avoid the subject or treat it in overtly melodramatic tones. But, it was in such novels as Heinrich Boll's "The Silent Angel" and Hermann Kasack's "The City across the River," that Sebald found what he was looking for -- honest depictions of the massive bombing campaign and the impact it had on the German psyche.
In three additional essays, Sebald looks at writers who approached the subject. The first being Alfred Andersch, who he takes to task for his melodramatic depictions of WWII that seemed more an effort to compensate for his own shortcomings than in exploring the depths of the war. Andersch enjoyed wide spread popularity in Germany as a writer. Criticism tended to be muted. Not so with Sebald, who illustrates how Andersch reinvented himself, which served as a parable for the typical German after the war.
Sebald then looks at the writings of Amery and Weiss, who were survivors, and struggled throughout their lives to reconcile their feelings regarding the Holocaust. Sebald looks most closely at Amery whose writings were stripped of any heroic pretensions and gave readers an unvarnished look at the concentration camps. Weiss tried to explore the Holocaust through painting, but then turned to writing in an effort to give his experiences the full weight that bore down on his tortured soul. It is in these two essays that one sees the nexis for Sebald's more extensive book on the subject, "The Emigrants."
The essays are loosely written. The first was a series of lectures he presented in Zurich, and the others serve more as book reviews. But, in them one finds much food for thought as Sebald was one of the more probing writers of our time.
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on 10 May 2003
This posthumous volume of Sebald’s non-fiction writing is a major contribution to German literary criticism and politico-cultural analysis. Accompanying his reflections on the traumatic impact of the air war against German cities are essays studying the very diverse reactions of three ‘witnesses’ of that time as reflected in their post-war literary works. In AIR WAR AND LITERATURE, originally presented as the Zurich Lectures, Sebald delves deeply into some very uncomfortable questions. The air war on 131 German cities killed some six hundred thousand civilians and destroyed more than the homes of seven and a half million people. Why have these events resulted mostly in public silence for decades? Why have so few literary works attempted to speak to the traumatic impact on the population? Most Germans seem to have tried to come to terms with the realities of the war years by suppressing their immediate pain and the longer-term suffering. Sebald has thoroughly researched a multitude of authors, both in fiction and non-fiction. Yet, he deems their explanations unsatisfactory. Heinrich Boell is cited as one of the early exceptions, yet publication of his book, The Silent Angel, was delayed by forty years.
Sebald contemplates the different causes for this persistent silence. For example, basing himself on a range of contemporary sources, he confronts the reader with a detailed description of the Hamburg firestorm. As disturbing as his account is, Sebald’s reflective style makes it readable. His objective reporting neither criticises the Allies’ campaign nor does he apologise for German actions leading to the war. He wonders, though, whether the depth of the traumatic experiences of this and other air attacks may have left many people numb and dazed, unable to express their reactions for a long time. The account of a young mother wandering through the station confused and stunned is one of several examples. Her suitcase suddenly opens onto the platform revealing the charcoaled remains of her baby.
Sebald’s intent is not to shock but to explain the deep sense of loss that must have been felt by people like her. He further contends that at that time in the war, the growing acceptance of guilt for the Nazi’s atrocities led in many civilians to an acknowledgment of justified punishment by the Allied forces. Last, not least, after the war many Germans experienced a ‘lifting of a heavy burden’ that they felt they had lived under during the Nazi regime. Concentrating on building the new Germany focused their minds on a better future. The publication (in German) of his Lectures in 1997 resulted in a range of reactions from readers. He reflects their varied views and comments in a postscript, thereby adding a fascinating 1990’s dimension to his “rough-and-ready collection of various observations, materials, and theses”.
The three authors who are the subject of the essays in this volume may be better known to students of German literature and culture. They represent a fine example of Sebald’s skill as a contemplative and sensitive literary critic. At the same time, these essays complement Sebald’s Lectures in a more fundamental way. In terms of coming to terms with the Nazi period and its atrocities, each one represents a specific type of German with his own means and ways of dealing with the recent past. Alfred Andersch is presented as having reinterpreted his personal history to fit his vision of self-importance in post-war Germany. Jean Amery, of half Jewish parentage, suffered through SS torture and survived various concentration camps. For the rest of his life, which he ended himself, he did not lose the nightmares of his torment. It was not until the mid-sixties, that he found his voice to impart his experiences in the form of essays on exile, genocide and resistance. Peter Weiss, who had lived in exile most of his life, found his self-expression mainly through painting and theatre productions until he published late in life his major fiction work, Aesthetics of Resistance.
This collection of “mediations on natural guilt, national victimhood, and the universal consequences of denying the past” is a significant socio-political document. Its importance for today’s reader goes beyond the concrete German situation. As it addresses more fundamental issues of dealing with a society’s traumatic past experiences, Sebald also confronts the need to develop the capacity to heal while learning and sharing the lessons from that past. Friederike Knabe, Ottawa Ontario
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on 3 September 2012
I was wary when I started this - I bought this a few weeks ago based on the strength of a recommendation from somebody I normally trust, unaware that it was a series of four lectures. And normally that means I'll be bored to tears. (Bad flashbacks ensued from two semesters of studying German literature, an altogether stultifying experience thanks to the toothless and ossified lecturers at my university).

The first lecture, on collective memory regarding the air raids and aftermath, takes about 50% of the book and is a five-star read (all the quotes I marked are from there, and i'll be sure to read this again and again). The clarity and restraint of the prose is awe-inspiring. Writing like *that* about something like *that* is a Herculean achievement.

The next two lectures deal with individual German authors that I'd heard about, Alfred Andersch being drawn as a self-important ass who re-edited his past in a manner that makes you cringe: first divorcing his Jewish wife to gain access to the Nazi-run Writer's Association - a prerequisite to getting published - then claiming her as his wife when it was expedient (in American captivity, though calling her a "half Jewish mongrel"). The next lecture deals with Amery, a survivor of the Nazi terror, adding a very impressive study to my previous knowledge of Primo Levi's account.

I did not care for the last lecture, on Peter Weiss. It just didn't quite hang together for me - and I thought the analysis was the weakest, so a bit of a downer to end the book on. I understand why he was included, as Weiss laboured under being both Jewish and German, so he fits into the larger context, but I enjoyed the other parts of the book a great deal more.

Above all, the sources he cited triggered my historian/packrat reflex and drove me back to buy further books.
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on 30 December 2014
This book is interesting in that whilst it is well written, it is more a work of philosophy than of the human suffering endured in Germany by those under attack. Chapter 1 describes in the evolution of the US and British heavy bombing of Germany, the former by day and the latter by night. The methods adopted by these two air forces and the moral imperatives guiding them are described in a superficial manner. The remaining part of the book is more of a philosophical treatise on the reasons behind the almost total lack of a written record of this disastrous human story from any German literary authority. Try looking for a first-hand account of this bombing campaign from a German author and you will find very little and most of that is not available in English. Sebald offers very little by way of insight into the unspeakable suffering of the civilian population but where it does it is very graphic and troubling. The book does demonstrate very clearly how humans can be induced to inflict massive trauma on others from distance which would be impossible were they to be required to perform the same acts at close quarters. By the end I felt I knew very little more than when I began.
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on 11 December 2010
A review of some post war literature to ask why German writers ignored the bombing offensive and lacked candour and veracity when dealing with the effects of battle and the social consequences of the Nazi regime. A thoughtful book, now a little dated as the German nation, and the British/Americans have moved on
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on 24 February 2011
A rather tedious and single minded view of events. The book is written in a very dry style. This is not surprising as it is based on a series of lectures the author gave in Zurich, sadly that is how the book comes across-as one big droning lecture.
The author does not at any point ask or even suggest why the Allies bombed Germany with such ferocity. The fact that Germany started the war, overran most of continental Europe, declared war on the US, and murdered 6 million Jews is not mentioned. The book is written in such a way as to portray the Allies as gratuitously cruel and the Germans as inncent victims. I am NOT trying to be politically correct or in anyway anti-German: on the contrary, the bravery and stoicism displayed by the bombed populace of cities like Hamburg and Dresden is rightly portrayed in a commendible light. I just feel a more objective approach to the destruction would have been more apropos.
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