The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 31, 2003

World War II was a tragedy for the Germans too
Amar Nath Wadehra

On the Natural History of Destruction
by W. G. Sebald (translated from German by Anthea Bell). Alfred A. Knopf, Canada. Pages 202. $34.95.

On the Natural History of DestructionTRUTH has many facets, dimensions and phases. This is as true of truths associated with war as with any other phenomenon. It is axiomatic that historical accounts treat the victor more kindly than these treat the victim. Man’s capacity to justify his acts of aggression is infinite.

Sebald reveals truths that emerge from the folds of enigmatic silence as he takes us back to World War II. Till date we have been told of the Holocaust horrors. We know of the agony of the French and the travails of the British, but what happened to the Axis powers’ populace? Nothing much was known really, except for the Hiroshima-Nagasaki abomination. This book presents us with the other side of the coin. The incessant bombing of German cities must have wreaked untold suffering upon hapless civilians —men, women and children. How many writers have given a thought to this? How many attempts have been made to narrate history from the German perspective? These and other questions have been addressed by Sebald.


Hermann Goering’s remarks in the Nuremberg Diary about what prompted the British to enter the World War II, "They entered the war to prevent us from going into the East, not to have the East come to the Atlantic", are echoed by Sebald. He graphically depicts how the British strategy of area bombing brought wretchedness to civilians in 131 cities. The RAF dropped a million tons of bombs, flattening three and half million homes, rendering seven and half million homeless and killing 600,000 civilians. This and other cold figures fail to tell the gruesome story of firestorms charring living humans, of bodies rotting under mounds of rubble, and of rats feeding on human flesh. He recounts several eyewitness accounts. On July 27, 1943, for example, ten thousand tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs were dropped on densely populated residential areas east of Elbe. In his words, "A now familiar sequence of events occurred`85Within a few minutes, huge fires were burning all over the target area`85the whole airspace was a sea of flames as far as the eye could see`85a firestorm of an intensity that no one would ever before have thought possible arose`85two thousand meters into the sky`85burned for three hours." The consequent storm lifted "gables and roofs from buildings`85and drove human beings before it like human torches." Many lost their sanity before dying a terrible death in the melted asphalt as the flames "rolled like a tidal wave through the streets" at a speed of over 150 km/h.

Why have German writers — past and present — not detailed these aspects of the war? Has it something to do with the sense of collective guilt shared by an entire nation for the doings of Hitler and his henchmen? Or did they believe the destruction was a "poetic justice", a "just punishment"? Those German intellectuals who had stayed back "refrained entirely from commenting on the process and outcome of destruction, probably not least for fear that accurate descriptions might get them into trouble with the occupying forces." A process was set into motion that reconstructed Germany in a manner which amounted to a "second liquidation" of the nation’s history, "pointing the population exclusively towards the future and enjoining on it silence about the past." Thus the "literature of ruins" became a victim of collective amnesia. Whatever was published — obscurely symbolic and pseudo-aesthetic — was too little and too late.

And what about the common folk? Did they too "look away" from the destruction surrounding them? The havoc generated a psychic energy among the people that helped their fatherland reclaim its top-of-the-heap status among the comity of nations. These were the people who tried to sustain a modicum of normalcy amidst raging fires by listening to music on radio and even attending or organising operas and symphonies. They went about their normal chores to the best of their ability. There is the story of a woman cleaning the windows of a house — the only one left intact after the bombings. And of another woman who swept the remains of her people killed in air raids into a boiler in order to reach her place of work in time. People cooked food in the open amidst ruins and cadavers, or had evening tea in a seemingly leisurely manner.

Were these people being heroic or plain insensitive to their dead and maimed compatriots? The answer depends upon what dimension of the truth one beholds. But these are the people who have risen from the ashes, despite propaganda of all sorts.

The ethical issues raised by Sebald remain unresolved to this day. The Vietnam and Cambodian bloodbaths should never have happened if morality had anything to do with international power politics. Civilian dwellings were bombed out of existence in Afghanistan and Iraq. The truth of consequent human misery will come out in phases.