Forgotten victims

One dark night during the Second World War, an English police officer waved down a speeding car. ‘The way you’re travelling, sir, you’ll kill someone,’ he scolded the driver. ‘Young man’, came the reply, ‘I kill thousands of people every night!’ The driver was Sir Arthur Harris, the leader of RAF Bomber Command. It was, of course, no idle boast. During the war, Bomber Command dropped about 1 million tons of bombs on enemy territory, attacked over 130 towns and cities, killed more than 600,000 civilians, destroyed 3.5 million homes and left about 7.5 million Germans homeless. The way that this astonishing experience has been dealt with in German thinking and literature is at the heart of W.G. Sebald’s last book to be published in English.

Sebald was born in Germany in 1944. He taught German literature in English universities from 1966 and was Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia when he was tragically killed in a motor accident in 2001. Despite speaking English well he wrote exclusively in German. His acclaimed novels, especially The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz, are well known to Anglophone readers.

On the Natural History of Destruction is his first book of non-fiction to be published in English. It first appeared in Germany in 1999 and provoked considerable debate. The German edition consisted of two lectures and an afterword entitled ‘Air War and Literature’ and an essay on the writer Alfred Andersch. For the English edition two further essays were added, on Jean Améry and Peter Weiss.

It is, as Sebald says in the opening lines of his first lecture on the air war, ‘hard to form an even partly adequate idea of the extent of the devastation suffered by the cities of Germany in the last years of the Second World War, still harder to think about the horrors involved in that devastation’. For Sebald, one of the cultural mysteries of the 20th century is the fact that, despite Germany suffering destruction on an unprecedented scale, the experience ‘seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the collective consciousness’. He observes that the experience of being bombed flat ‘has been largely obliterated from the retrospective understanding of those affected, and it never played any appreciable part in the discussion of the internal constitution of our country’.

On Sebald’s analysis it is not just Basil Fawlty who lived by the rubric ‘Don’t mention the war’—so did the postwar Germans. One explanation for this, he believed, was that after the war the West Germans refused to look backwards. As their country had been burned and smashed during the years 1942–45, so had the prehistory of the Federal Republic of Germany been obliterated with it. Out of the ashes and rubble the West Germans were determined to build a brave new world, acknowledging the Third Reich as little as possible. Indeed, as Sebald saw it, the destruction of German cities lifted ‘the heavy burden of history’ from the survivors who set about building the ‘economic miracle’.

Nonetheless, he said, the rebuilding of Germany was powered by ‘a stream of psychic energy’ which had not dried up and which had its source in ‘the well-kept secret of the corpses built into the foundations of our state’. This secret, he believed, bound all Germans together in the postwar years, and continued to do so, ‘more closely than any positive goal such as the realisation of democracy ever could’.

Sebald was fascinated by the question of why the literally awful experience of the German people under the bombs had made so little impression on German literature since the war. As far as he was concerned in 1997, when his lectures were delivered in Zurich, the great German epic of the war years remained to be written: ‘the unparalleled national humiliation felt by millions in the last years of the war had never really found verbal expression, and those directly affected by the experience neither shared it with each other nor passed it on to the next generation.’

He explained this in terms of German writers who had experienced the war, producing works marked by a false consciousness ‘designed to consolidate the extremely precarious position of writers in a society that was morally almost entirely discredited … [The] redefinition of their idea of themselves was a more urgent business than depiction of the real conditions surrounding them.’ His essay on Alfred Andersch provides one such example.

On the Natural History of Destruction invites us to contemplate the enormity and horror of what was done to the Germans, whether justifiably or not, by focusing on the concrete details of a major air raid: the firestorm created in Hamburg in July 1943. That experience was, for many survivors, literally unspeakable and maddening. Half-deranged women carried the shrivelled, mummified bodies of their children in suitcases onto trains. The Hamburgers of 1943 were undoubtedly shocked and awed by the bombing campaign.

Why has no German written the great novel of that time? Sebald did not provide a hard answer. Perhaps, as he suggested, many Germans felt that their travails were just retribution. Anthony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall 1945 tells the story of a tramload of Berliners being berated for their defeatist talk by a soldier who warned ominously that Germany could not afford to be defeated by the Red Army. Because of what the Germans had done in Russia, the soldier admonished them, there would be no mercy shown if they were beaten. The task of depicting the German experience without implying a moral equivalence with the Holocaust, and with the murder of millions of other victims in German-occupied Europe, no doubt defeated the cream of German literature. Günther Grass’s new novel Crabwalk—about the torpedoing of a German hospital ship crammed with 10,000 refugees in the Baltic in 1945—may be a partial answer to Sebald’s dilemma.

Sebald’s companion essays on Améry and Weiss also confront themes of torture, cruelty, insensibility and remorse arising out of the Second World War. Améry worked in the Belgian Resistance, was tortured by the Gestapo and survived Auschwitz. After the war he wrote extensively on exile, resistance, torture and genocide. His was, Sebald believed, an authentic voice in a sea of comfortable denunciation of the Third Reich by European writers in the ’60s. Peter Weiss, an artist and writer, also received Sebald’s accolade for finding ‘the requisite gravity of language for the subject [of genocide]’. Sebald sees Weiss’s great work, Ästhetik des Widerstands (Aesthetics of Resistance), ‘not only as the expression of an ephemeral wish for redemption, but as an expression of the will to be on the side of the victims at the end of time’.

The essays and lectures hang together extraordinarily well. In no sense does Sebald drop his moral guard and there is a sense of relentlessness in his determination to support a literature of authentic memory and remorse. It only serves to emphasise the gravity of the loss of this fine writer and thinker.

On 20 January 1942, at a large villa set in a shaded garden in the well-to-do Berlin suburb of Wannsee, a tall, blonde secret police officer called a meeting of 14 senior public servants and police officers to order. Sipping cognac as they discussed the agenda, they successfully formulated their plans in a little under two hours. They dispersed to put into operation the Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe. The chairman was Reinhard Heydrich, the SS ruler of the ‘Protectorate’ of Bohemia and Moravia, also known as ‘The Butcher of Prague’. His assistant was Adolf Eichmann.

American historian Christopher Browning has noted that in early 1942, about 80 per cent of the eventual victims of the Holocaust were still alive. By early 1943 the proportions were exactly the opposite. The year 1942 was one of the worst that humanity has yet lived through. Mark Roseman’s pithy and erudite study sets out to scrutinise the evidence and to determine why the meeting was called, what exactly was decided there and by whom. It is a brilliant little piece of historical detective work, a synoptic history of the decision to wipe out the European Jews.

The minutes, or ‘protocol’ as it was called in German, of the Wannsee Conference were copied 30 times. At the end of the Second World War, when the Allies sought to piece together the history of the decision to kill the Jews, one copy, Number 16, was found in captured German documents. For the Nuremburg prosecutors it crystallised the moment at which the decision was taken. Historical research, much of which is encapsulated in this book, suggests that the Protocol may not be exactly what it seems. Roseman calls it ‘a deeply mysterious document’.

The reason it is so deeply mysterious is that Hitler did not attend the meeting, and the group that did attend was not senior enough to take such a momentous decision. No written order signed by Hitler directing that the Jews of Europe be eliminated has ever been found. The evidence against Hitler in that regard is indirect.

Historians argue that the timing is wrong. The mass murder of Russian Jews had begun almost as soon as the Germans crossed the borders in the summer of 1941. Gassings of Jews had begun in Poland in December 1941, and a second extermination camp was in the course of being built. So why was the Wannsee meeting called?

The second big question asked by Roseman is ‘how on earth did they get to that point?’ In his view, the weight of historical evidence shows that ‘in a curious feedback process … the deed of murder begat the idea of genocide as much as the other way around’. The Germans had started to murder Jews en masse in Russia and Poland in 1941. Roseman believes that this led Hitler to make the decision to cleanse first the Reich, then all Europe, of Jews—sometime in the last quarter of 1941, but most likely after the USA entered the war in December.

The men sitting around the conference table that cold day were not merely public servants. They were all educated men, relatively youthful high-flyers in the bureaucracy and the SS-Police and, significantly, virtually all were true believers—none more so than Heydrich himself. He and Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the SS, regarded themselves as the vanguard of a new judenfrei (Jew-free) Germany. They apparently anticipated that much of the rest of the German bureaucracy would resist moving to the Final Solution, if for no other reason than that it would concede turf to the SS in relation to ‘the Jewish Question’.

Roseman’s analysis is that Heydrich’s purpose in calling the Wannsee Conference was to impose his (and Himmler’s and, discreetly, Hitler’s) will upon the civil service. Eichmann reported during his trial in Israel that Heydrich was so pleased with the compliance of the public servants that he drank cognac and smoked a cigar afterwards to celebrate.

Roseman’s little book is a valuable addition to the copious literature of the Third Reich. Some will argue with his conclusions but the analysis is fair, cogent and compelling and this makes it very good history writing indeed. While it lacks the originality of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men and Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, for readers seeking an introduction to the subject of how the Germans became the perpetrators of genocide there are few
better than this. 

On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald. Hamish Hamilton, 2003.
isbn 0 241 14126 5, rrp $39.95
The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution, Mark Roseman. Penguin, 2003.
isbn 0 141 00395 2, rrp $22.95

Hugh Dillon is a Sydney magistrate.



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