W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (2003)

Reading Sebald requires a quiet time to think and let oneself be absorbed by his reasoning. It’s a journey where Sebald, as your guide, doesn’t spare you (some images in the book are shocking and stay with you a long time), nor does he tell you exactly the destination on the onset. This book is made of two essays: the main one “Air War and Literature” is about the bombings of German cities during WWII and more particularly about the surprising silence by German people and writers about these horrific events. The second essay is a short biography of Alfred Andersch, a mid-successful German/Swiss writer in the 1940s-60s. As typical of Sebald, these are very personal essays where he doesn’t shun speaking of his own emotions and impressions, and punctuate them with black and white photos.

In the first essay, Sebald wonders why there are no book about the horrible bombings of German cities during WWII. Most majors cities were severely hit and more than half million of citizens were killed in gruesome events. Yet it seems that all Germans endeavored to forget it as soon as possible at the end of the war. Sebald writes a few terrible pages. He explains how the few writers who devoted pages to these events, either were completely ignored, or painted a few lyrical scenes tending to be distastefully aesthetic or melodramatic, but never reflecting the terrible facts. Only in medical or bizarre texts (a photo collection of miserable shoes worn by homeless refugees) could Sebald approach the truth in practical details. There is the trauma to consider (witnesses refuse to look, or don’t remember the worst, or don’t find any word to express it), but Sebald goes way beyond that.

He finds it disturbing that this memory has been completely obliterated, and that Germans have rushed to rebuild everything without acknowledging the destruction, as if destruction and reconstruction were part of the natural circle (that’s my interpretation of the title, at least). Another equally disturbing fact is that the air war at some point seemed to perpetuate itself outside of any larger war strategy, because bombs were being produced en masse in Britain (I don’t remember  the exact quote, but some high-ranking British official said that it seemed such a waste to drop them on open fields…). Still more troubling, it seems that to some people at least, the economic heyday of the 1950s finds its continuation in the Nazi ideology and that the destruction was but a great opportunity to start anew. Sebald seems to hate the hypocrisy of small bourgeois Germany, the Kaffee-Kuchen coziness while horrors are going on untold.

The last part of the book is apparently unrelated but much in the same vein. Sebald writes a scathing critique of Andersch’s novels and examines his small bourgeois life, as he avoided taking position against the Nazis, then pretended to take a stance as “interior resistant”, while he was actually passively collaborating to the regime. He conveniently divorced his Jewish wife to join governmental literary associations, then at the end of the war, reminded the POW authorities that he had a Jewish wife, so that they would pity and release him. After the war though, he managed to become a recognized author in Germany, while never really letting go of the rhetoric of nazi theories. Sebald paints him as an abject, immoral man with no talent and a large ego.

The problem here is that he never tried to amend his way of thinking and that he lied by omission, yet he was no criminal and no official in the regime, just another middle-ranking intellectual. After authoritative or oppressive regimes have been overthrown and the main leaders hopefully tried, many countries have launched reconciliation or amnesty laws, so that victims would not try and seek revenge from the low-level supporters of the regime and put the whole society under strain again. Yet how to change the mind of people who have been living and thinking within this vicious frame?

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3 thoughts on “W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (2003)

  1. After reading your review, I found this book at the library. I am still on the first essay … and had to take a break from it. I did a hons. degree in Weimar German history, so this is especially interesting to me. I am looking forward to reading the Andersch section … will let you know what I think.

    In the meantime, I will try and track down The Emigrants. Hope you are enjoying your holiday.

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