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Elimination as Defensive Reflex
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