On the Natural History of Destruction
W G Sebald, trans. Anthea Bell
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DURING THE Second World War, vast formations of Lancasters, Halifaxes, Liberators and Flying Fortresses dropped a million tons of bombs on 131 German towns and cities, killing 600,000 and rendering 3.5 million homeless. Allied goals - destroying German industry, and breaking civilian morale - stayed unachieved. W G Sebald is concerned in these 1997 Zurich lectures with the immorality of carpet-bombing. He knows that Hitler was meeting a nemesis of his own devising.
But his main subject is in the inability of German writers to bear truthful witness. Sebald condemns their bad faith and selective amnesia, casting himself in the roles of public conscience and seer.
He loved King Lear's lament for Cordelia (quoted in his prose- poem After Nature): "What's dead is gone forever". One writerly task is to recover what's dead, to peer into the dark, to imagine the worst, to think the unthinkable; to remember. The destruction of Dresden provokes anguish: how can everyday language cope?
Sebald wants you to "see", and not forget: here are images to disturb both appetite and sleep. During Operation Gomorrah, the raid on Hamburg that started at 1am on 27 July 1943, 10,000 tons of explosive and incendiary bombs were dropped. Within minutes, 20sq km were alight, and the fire- storm - moving at 150kph - lifted roofs and gables, tore up trees and drove human beings before it like living torches before depositing them, roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size, doubled up in pools of their own melted fat.
Records of autopsies ("heads and extremities could frequently be broken off without difficulty") are impressive. Casualty figures have never been agreed. A surviving mother - half-deranged with grief and shock - carried about in a suitcase the mummified remains of her child. Germans, who had proposed to "sanitise" all Europe, became themselves the rat people, ruled by rodents and "slippery finger- length maggots".
They fell first into lassitude and not-seeing, soon into wilful not-remembering.
There are corpses built into the foundations of the postwar German state whose "economic miracle" needed a destruction of outdated industrial complexes, and exploited the passive yet energetic workforce Nazism
"Sir, if a butcher tells you his heart bleeds for his country" - Samuel Johnson once said - "you may be sure he feels no uneasy sensation".W G Sebald, poet of discomfort, deplored facile un- earned feeling. …