WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN

“AND SUPPRESS THE
UNPLEASANT THINGS”

A REVIEW OF ON THE NATURAL HISTORY OF DESTRUCTION BY W.G. SEBALD

DISCUSSED: Shostakovich, Dresden, Propaganda, Tolstoy, Vonnegut, Victor Klemperer, Céline, Complicity, Aida, The Anguish of Jean Améry, Raskolnikov

According to my Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II, RAF Bomber Command dropped 45,517 British tons (2,240 pounds) of bombs on Berlin, 36,420 tons in Essen, 34,711 tons on Cologne,[1] and (as Kurt Vonnegut kept saying in Slaughterhouse-Five) so it goes.

Like Vonnegut, I remain especially haunted by the incineration of Dresden on February 13-14, 1945. Fifty thousand people were killed. I have been told by older Germans, rightly or wrongly I don’t know, that the second wave of planes, the American B-17 bombers, machine-gunned more civilians as they went through. At any rate, this raid eventually discomfited even Winston Churchill. Dresden hangs over me almost as balefully as Auschwitz and Leningrad as I finish writing my collection of short stories set largely in Germany and Russia during World War II. (If the book has a protagonist, it would be Shostakovich, whose Eighth String Quartet [1960] was composed in the course of a visit to the ruins of Dresden. That piece of music is one of the saddest and angriest ever written.)

“Horror” is an inadequate description of what occurred in Dresden, because the horror is almost over now. The broken churches, the roasted children, the black skeletons in their sometimes strangely unburned Nazi uniforms exist in the memories of those who survived, but in a few more decades at most those rememberers and their trauma will all be dead. But when the horror is buried, the loss will remain. Page through any picture-book of Dresden as it used to be, and you’ll see how beautiful the city once was. I happen to own a very thick volume of such photographs, and it never ceases to shock me how many images are captured with such helpful indicators as “1945 zerstört,” or sometimes, more pedantically, “1945 zerstört, später abgebrochen”—“1945 destroyed, later demolished.”[2]

Thus Dresden, and Dresden was but one inferno of many. Multiply Dresden by Nuremberg, Berlin and their kindred German cities sacrificed to the war, and the magnitude of this atrocity begins to emerge—or was it an atrocity? Did the laws of war somehow legitimize it?

In a posthumous collection of essays, entitled On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald reminds us that “the majority of Germans today know, or so at least it is to be hoped, that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived” (p. 103). And obviously World War II was to a great extent Hitler’s war,[3] fought with Hitler’s methods. To what extent World War II was, however, a German war remains less clear. On 31 August 1939, a prominent American journalist in Berlin wrote in his diary: “Everybody against the war. People talking openly. How can a country go into a major war with a population so dead against it?” The journalist then comments: “Despite all my experience in the Third Reich I asked such a naive question! Hitler knew the answer very well.” That answer was propaganda.[4]

To what extent the German people were complicit from the start in the war and the Holocaust, and to what extent they were manipulated into complicity, will never be decided according to any consensus. And in a way the question is irrelevant. It wasn’t Hitler personally who killed the millions of Poles, Russians, Jews, et cetera. Nonetheless, the catastrophe which Germany, considered as a national unit, brought upon itself, would seem more “fair,” partaking of retributive justice to a greater degree, if most Germans could be known to have wholeheartedly supported Hitler’s hideous program—less so if they didn’t. In my thinking about this matter over the past several years, I have not been able to come to any firm conclusions as to the responsibility of “the average German.” In my short stories I fall, perhaps too conveniently, into an empathetic approach. I put myself into the shoes of a person born in Germany (or Russia), and necessarily exposed year after year to nothing but the local totalitarian propaganda, and I’m inclined to say: “They were led.” Then I read the memoirs of a Jew who found himself threatened and tormented daily by his fellow Germans, and my heart hardens again.

Most parties concerned developed pretty hard hearts. To call the Blitzkrieg in Poland “bestial” gives beasts a bad name. The Germans were the first to take up aerial bombing of cities. What we did to Dresden, they did to Warsaw. The conquered Poles couldn’t retaliate; the unconquered British could, and after Pearl Harbor the Americans joined them. The Oxford Companion to World War II notes that the air war against Germany killed a hundred thousand Anglo-Americans and up to a million Germans[5] (the figure employed by Sebald is six hundred thousand). Even had those Germans all been civilians, they got off easily in comparison to the defenseless victims of their Final Solution. Sebald is right. What Germany got is what Germany provoked.

By all means let’s begin with that judgment. The aerial bombing of Germany was, unfortunately, justified. But we need not end there. Sebald’s book, which is frequently brilliant and almost always stylistically felicitous, deals with “the way in which memory… deals with experiences exceeding what is tolerable” (p. 79). (I see a family in an air raid shelter, everybody roasted golden-brown. I hear Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet.) Given the carnage of the air war, why haven’t more Germans written about it? What does their silence say?

We are advised by the former Panzer commander Hans von Luck that the only way to bear the kill-or-be-killed strain of soldiering is: “learn to endure all things with equanimity.” This accomplishment requires that the soldier “builds up an immune system of his own against the feelings of fear and sympathy and probably, to a certain degree, even against matters of ethics, morals and conscience… He learns through a long process of habituation to suppress images of horror, to distance himself from his neighbor in order to remain capable of rational action.”[6]

In his “Notes for Officers,” Tolstoy warns of “that time—and this will soon appear for each one of you—when you will stand face to face with an unarmed crowd of peasants or factory workers, and be ordered to shoot at them. And then, if anything human remains in you, you will have to refuse to obey, and, as a result, to leave the service.”[7] Perhaps soldiers cannot possess the luxury of continuing to be human in Tolstoy’s sense. As I write these words, my foolish, wicked president seems intent on ordering American soldiers to begin raining destruction on Iraqis who in comparison might as well be unarmed, although I am sure they will retaliate in any way they can. What can our soldiers do (unless, of course, they leave the service), except take von Luck’s course of immunizations?

In the fall of 1942, our Panzer leader gets invalided home from Africa. “I was determined to make the most of my enforced leisure and suppress the unpleasant things, as all frontline soldiers do whenever they have the chance.”[8]

In 1956 he visits a former Resistance fighter in Paris. “Two officers, who had once confronted each other as enemies, had become friends in the best sense of the word. Everything divisive was forgotten and forgiven.”[9]

What if that were true? I want it to be true. In his introduction to von Luck’s memoirs, the military historian Stephen Ambrose praises the kindness and gentle compassion of this old man, who had a very rough stint as a POW in the Soviet Union but expresses no bitterness. The only veteran whom Ambrose likes better than von Luck is Eisenhower. “I urge those American readers who still believe, as I once did, that all the good Germans are either dead or long ago emigrated to the United States, to give Hans a fair reading. He deserves your attention and respect.”[10] I do give him that. Moreover, I have, or want to have, an image of a convivial lounge where the former tools of Nazi imperialism clink glasses with the former incinerators of German civilians, each respecting the other’s stories, and remembering without hating to the extent that that’s possible. To the extent that it isn’t, “everything divisive was forgotten and forgiven.” And why shouldn’t it be?

Sebald’s answer to that question is as follows: “Such a preoccupation with retrospective improvement of the self-image they wished to hand down was one of the main reasons for the inability of a whole generation of German authors to describe what they had seen”—Sebald is referring to the air war—“and to convey it to our minds.”[11]

In other words, someone who claims that everything divisive has been forgotten and forgiven might well be lying to us and to himself.

One reads that theatrical performances continued to be held in Berlin’s famous Schauspielhaus right through the air war, that the playhouse caught fire in the course of one raid, that in the final days of the Battle of Berlin, the Berlin Philharmonic performed Aida. I for my part consider this fact to be evidence of nobility and courage; I admire it. Moreover, as a descendant of the victors it behooves me to be kind in my judgments. Sebald seems a trifle less kind: “Who could deny that the audiences of the time, eyes shining as they listened once more to the sound of music rising in the air all over the country, were moved by a sense of gratitude that they had been saved? Yet we may also wonder whether their breasts did not swell with perverse pride to think that no one in human history had ever placed such overwhelming tunes or endured such suffering as the Germans” (p. 44).

What does he want? Does he want them to have stayed home and boycotted any sort of public life? Given that their public life was so thoroughly corrupted by the Third Reich, I could certainly respect any Tolstoyan soul who made that choice. On the other hand, I can hardly condemn people whose brothers and fathers might have already fallen on the Eastern Front, and who themselves might be killed by an American bomb that very night, from trying to “endure all things with equanimity.” Or if they did feel sorry for themselves, why shouldn’t they?

Over and over, Sebald finds himself appalled by the inappropriate cheerfulness, busyness, et cetera, of the people he studies. “You do not expect an insect colony to be transfixed with grief at the destruction of a neighboring anthill” (p. 42), but it does seem inhuman to him that in not-yet-destroyed slices of German cities people could be sitting on their balconies drinking coffee, while a few steps away everyone is dead and rat-eaten. How inhuman is this, actually? I’d say, not at all. “You get numb to it after awhile,” I was told by people in besieged Sarajevo who lost a friend every week or two. “I was determined to suppress the unpleasant things.” I’ve met stoical children of murdered fathers—it doesn’t matter to my sympathy for the child whether the father was guilty of anything—pathologists who joke and drink coffee during autopsies, journalists whose black humor about the suffering they see might appear cynical if you didn’t know it was a defense mechanism. How else can they get by?

Sebald does allow that carrying on in the face of disaster “is a tried and trusted method of preserving what is thought of as healthy human reason” (p. 42), and it is one of the most maddening features of this book, as well as evidence of its author’s anguished sincerity, that he leaves such contradictions hanging in the air without artificially resolving them. By no means do I want to dismiss this book, which I cannot shake from my mind. I disagree with much of what Sebald says, and with the harsh way that he says it. Nonetheless, he has begun something very important. To the extent that World War II remains relevant to our time, it can no longer be relevant through primary perception—the battles are over—but through memory. The war is now a story. How will it get told? What will be repressed, and what will be emphasized? Hitler had his story of World War I: The German military was never defeated on the battlefield, but betrayed by a “stab in the back” from certain government circles, which in due time he associated with “international Jewry.” This dangerous lie was widely believed. And Sebald very urgently and legitimately asks: If Germans tell themselves the story of World War II in a certain consistent way, always omitting what happened during the air war, then could some similarly dangerous purpose be served by that omission?

Accordingly, what he seems to want most of all in his “natural history” is to characterize, analyze, define—above all, to distinter what has been repressed. “We Germans today are a nation strikingly blind to tradition and lacking in history” (p. viii). I myself, a foreigner, can’t say whether or not this is true; but if it is, why might that be? Our author’s answer: Because history shows that Germans were complicit in the Third Reich’s crimes.

In the course of exploring his eminently reasonable thesis, Sebald frequently commits the sort of error which used to prevail under Nazism, or for that matter socialist realism: If I write a fiction, it is acceptable, and frequently appropriate, for me to make my protagonist as meaning-laden as I can, right down to his name and the color of his eyes. But if I categorized real human beings on this basis, I wouldn’t be far removed from the Nazi who imparted all sorts of meanings to the personality, phenotype, politics, et cetera of his Jewish neighbor: Every aspect of each Jew must somehow prove his badness. (This particular interpretation of the other finds its equally debased equivalent in Soviet novels where the landlord’s daughter will always prove treacherous and selfish in the end, and the stern, grizzled old machinist can be relied upon.) It would comfort self-interested categorizers if life were this way; and Sebald, whose intentions are far nobler than theirs, and who remains tortured by “the harmless, conversational tone that is so strikingly disproportionate to the reality of the time” (pp. 84-85), seeks comfort, too; specifically, he seeks the comfort of insight. His mistake is to totalize what insight he finds.

An example: When he savages the author Alfred Andersch, whom he accuses, with some plausibility, of having been morally compromised during the Nazi epoch, he makes great capital out of the man’s egotism, for instance quoting repeatedly from his letters to his mother; he writes that he is “in the middle of working on a great new radio play” (p. 108), et cetera. I can’t help my own reaction; a man’s self-praise to his mother, however extreme, seems harmless to me. But Sebald wishes to present Andersch as a person who is righteously sure of himself, an “extraordinary man,” let’s say, a Raskolnikov. And for Raskolnikov the end justifies the means. Hence Sebald characterizes his quarry as “quick to compromise again at the first opportunity” (p. 112) when he seeks to ingratiate himself with the previously hostile critic Reich-Ranicki.

So far, Andsersch doesn’t sound very different from most writers I know, including myself. I’m guilty of having a high regard for my own work, and while I might not have brown-nosed any critics, I’ve certainly compromised; I survive financially by permitting magazines to butcher my stories for money. I guess that’s just the kind of writer I am. And what kind of writer is Andersch? In Kirschen der Frieheit “memory acts very selectively; decisive tracts of experience are entirely omitted” (p. 114). (This of course is the central thesis of Sebald’s book; this is what makes Andersch relevant.) Among the events which Andersch’s memory has selected out is his temporary union with Angelika Albert, who happened to be of Jewish extraction. He married her in 1935—and divorced her in 1943, an act which of course exposed her (and their child) to imminent risk of being sent to the gas chamber.

In his diaries, which have recently been translated into English[12] and which I highly recommend, Victor Klemperer describes how humiliating and perilous it was to be even the most “privileged” Jew married to an Aryan; in the end, Klemperer was scheduled to be sent off for slaughter just the same, and only one thing saved him—the Allied bombing of Dresden, which destroyed records and kept SS personnel busy burning German bodies.

For Andersch to un-privilege his wife in the midst of the Final Solution therefore seems callous, to say the least, and it scarcely improves our opinion of the man to learn that in 1944 we find him complaining to his Allied captors about the creative shackles he’d endured, “my wife being a mongrel of jewish descent” (p. 119).

(On the other hand, why did he marry her two years after Hitler took power? Every German must have known by then that it would scarcely help one’s prospects in the Third Reich to espouse a Jew. That is why to me Andersch’s acts seem confused, rather than steadily, expediently malignant. I wish that Sebald had made more of that wedding date.)

After citing from Andersch’s Sansibar a descriptive passage which is to me in part accomplished, in part a trifle overblown, Sebald waves his sword some more, insisting that “it is one thing for the words really to take off, another for them to be tastelessly overloaded… with recherché adjectives, nuances of literary color, a tinselly glitter, and other cheap ornaments.” So far, this is just literary criticism. But distaste (or snobbishness) abruptly becomes polemic in the next sentence: “When a morally compromised author claims the field of aesthetics as a value-free area it should make his readers stop and think” (pp. 130-31). I simply cannot agree. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, but that fact cannot invalidate the good that Jefferson did. Céline was a Fascist, and so was Ezra Pound; while it might have been proper to punish those two authors for whatever material support, if any, they lent to the Fascist cause, I see no reason on earth to disavow their aesthetics on any non-aesthetic account. Céline, whose egotism reminds me a bit of Andersch’s, is a great novelist who continues to deserve reading today. Kurt Vonnegut asserts that “every writer is in his debt.” (Vonnegut also argues, as I’m not sure I would, that “since the Nazi nightmare is so long ago now, it may at last be possible to perceive a twisted sort of honor in his declining to speak of remorse or to offer excuses of any kind.”[13]) In any event, Céline’s books are good or bad because they are good or bad, period.

Sebald sums up Andersch, very possibly rightfully, as “plagued by ambition, egotism, resentment, and rancor. His literary work is the cloak in which those qualities wrap themselves, but its lining, which is less attractive, keeps showing through” (p. 142). So what? “When a morally compromised author claims the field of aesthetics as a value-free area it should make his readers stop and think.” I’d revise that sentence thus: When a morally compromised author, a saintly author, or any author at all claims the field of aesthetics as a value-free area, it should make his readers say to themselves: On that much, at least, we’re all in agreement. What is aesthetics if not value-free? What do Andersch’s recherché adjectives have to do with the way he treated his wife, or his reaction to National Socialism? Exactly nothing.

Sebald’s chapter on the anguish of Jean Améry is much better. This writer’s essays “contain insights, based on the most direct experience, into the irreparable condition” of Hitler’s victims—for Améry himself had been tortured until his arms were dislocated. “It is from such insights alone that the true nature of the terror visited upon them can be extrapolated with some precision. It is part of the psychic and social condition of the victim that he cannot receive compensation for what was done to him” (p. 147)—a sentiment obviously at odds with von Luck’s comforting notion that “everything divisive was forgotten and forgiven.” What if Améry rather than von Luck had said this? Would Sebald accept it then? If anyone has the right to forgive and forget, it must be the victim, but it seems to me that even he can invoke that right only on his own behalf. At any rate, Améry doesn’t say this at all; he suffers from his personal form of memory’s pain, “as if every fragment of memory touched a sore point,” writes Sebald, “as if he were compelled to ward off everything immediately and translate it into effective form to make it at all measurable by any standard” (p. 149).

Sebald himself is obviously suffering from this pain. His book is an attempt, both fine and flawed, to translate and measure the agonizing memories of his countrymen. He informs us that he was personally exempt from much of the misery, in part on account of his extreme youth during the war. Nevertheless, he obviously partakes of it; he too is a victim, and my heart goes out to him.

*

Given the times in which we unfortunately live, I would be remiss if I failed to draw some correspondences between the German case and our own.

Obviously, the events of September 11, 2001 traumatized us Americans severely, and our nation will feel the resulting grief, anger, and fear for the indefinite future. I continue to hope that the people who bear direct responsibility for those attacks will be captured or killed.

Unlike the Germans of 1943, the Americans of 2003 are not particularly stoical. There seems to be little danger of our quietly, proudly rebuilding the World Trade Center into something bigger or better than it was before, then moving on. The main reason for that is simple: At the moment we are the most powerful nation on earth, and we are on the warpath. The Germans were losing their unjust war. We are preparing to launch the next phase of a war which many of us believe to be just.

Earlier in this essay, I criticized our President, and I stand by that criticism. This does not mean that I am against attacking nests of terrorists. It simply means that their guilt, and our danger, must first be proved. I do not intend my remarks to be inflammatory. Whether our war against Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, the Philippines, and wherever else we go is just or unjust need not be debated here. And no matter how unjust it might be, I certainly don’t think it will stand comparison with what the Nazis did (the Yemenis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis I’ve interviewed frequently beg, rather stridently, to differ). America is not the Third Reich. The point is this: What happened on September 11 2001 was a tremendous shock to us. None of my fellow citizens expected it. No one saw it coming. Afterward, my phone began to ring. People wanted me to explain “why they hate us.”

The nation in which I live has consistently horrified me with its ability to forget. I remember visiting Iraq in 1998. Although they certainly know it now, the vast majority of my friends and neighbors had no idea then that we were still at war with that country; and one of the most painful things I had to do in Baghdad was listen to Iraqis’ desperately intense questions about what the Americans were thinking about them, and then to honestly answer: “The Americans are not thinking about you at all. They’ve forgotten Iraq, and they don’t care.”

I remember when we invaded Panama and carried off its head of state into an eternal American prison. (He used to “work for us,” I’m told.) Who else remembers?

I remember when we began to bomb Yugoslavia in the interests of the Albanian majority in Kosovo, and I, who felt conflicting emotions, tried to tell a neighbor as accurately as I could how the Serbian Kosovars had also suffered. I have always felt that our intervention in Kosovo would have been arguable either way, and it was not argued. I watched my neighbor going blank. I told her about a certain atrocity committed by Muslims against Serbs, and she cried, “Oh, you’re so right! That’s just what the television says! Oh, those vicious, evil Serbs!”

I remember that all through the Eighties I kept trying to publish articles about the plight of the Afghans under Soviet oppression, and every editor said, “But no one’s interested in the Afghans anymore.”

Sebald believes that Améry’s stance, which is founded on “implacable resentment” (p. 156) “makes no concession to history but exemplifies the necessity of continuing to protest, a dimension so strikingly lacking from postwar German literature” (loc. cit.). What would making a concession to history entail? “Learn to endure all things with equanimity.” After all, I didn’t invade Panama myself, and as I write, the invasion of Iraq will probably happen no matter what I do. Dresden was destroyed; what good would it do to remember the screams? By all means, let’s suppress the unpleasant things.

  1. Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II (New York: Military Press, 1989 repr. of 1946-47 ed.), p. 34 (“Tonnage of Bombs Dropped By Bomber Command by Cities”).
  2. Fritz Löffler, Das Alte Dresden: Geschichte Seiner Bauten (Leipzig: E.A. Seemann Verlag, 1999 repr. of 1995 ed.).
  3. While the appeasers such as Neville Chamberlain come in for their share of blame, appeasement might possibly have been effective with someone other than Hitler, who pretended to be temperate and even peaceful but was really, as hindsight can easily see, determined have his conquests no matter what.
  4. William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), 593.
  5. I.C.B. Dear and M.R.D. Foot, ed., The Oxford Companion to World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 1072 (entry on strategic air offensives).
  6. Panzer Commander: The Memoirs of Colonel Hans von Luck (New York: Random House / Dell, 1989 repr. of undated Praeger ed.), p. 57.
  7. Leo Tolstoy, Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence (Santa Cruz: New Society Publishers, 1987), p. 37 (“Notes for Officers”). I have discussed this passage at more length in my longish essay on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down.
  8. Ibid, p. 104.
  9. Ibid, p. 341.
  10. Ibid, p. 2.
  11. Sebald, pp. ix-x.
  12. Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1942-1945, trans. Martin Chalmers (New York: Random House, 1999).
  13. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Rigadoon, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Penguin Books, 1975; orig. French ed. 1969), pp. xiv, xvi.

William T. Vollmann’s recent books include The Royal Family and The Atlas. His latest, Argall, is the third in his Seven Dreams series. He lives in Sacramento.

What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor

STAY CONNECTED
News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list for periodic announcements about online exclusives and the occasional deal.