Interconnected essays from the recently deceased German novelist (Austerlitz, 2001, etc.) on his nation’s capacity to cause, absorb, and forget suffering.
“In spite of strenuous efforts to come to terms with the past,” writes Sebald, “it seems to me that we Germans today are a nation strikingly blind to history and lacking in tradition.” Born in 1944 in a corner of the Alps comparatively untouched by the war, his mental landscape was nonetheless populated by the ruins and corpses of the Hitler era. In the first portion of this text, he examines the Allied bombing campaigns that virtually leveled Germany’s cities and towns but—as the Allied commanders well knew, he asserts—did little damage to the Nazi war-making capability; it was punishment for its own sake. Though hundreds of thousands of civilians died, Sebald writes, the destruction “seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the collective consciousness, it has largely been 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.” Sebald lucidly depicts the suffering of his people even as he wonders why contemporaries are unwilling to discuss it. He ventures no apology or claim to victim status; as he carefully notes, “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.” The second half considers the careers of several German writers whose work examines (or fails to examine) the horror of the time. Readers with a background in modern German literature will be at an advantage in following Sebald’s arguments, though this is not a prerequisite to understanding his glum conclusion that literature is essentially powerless in the face of evil.
Somber and moving: a contribution to the literature of WWII from a perspective that will be new to most American readers.