On the Natural History of Destruction, by W.G. Sebald

In World War Two, 131 German cities and towns were bombed by the Allies, and many were entirely destroyed, leaving over seven million homeless, and 600,000 dead–twice the number of all American casualties in the war. The subject of this book is to ask, given the sheer scope of this destruction, why did rarely any German writers describe it in fiction? Why does this destruction seem to have been erased from Germany’s ‘cultural memory’?

The first half of this book is composed of lectures Sebald gave in 1997 in Zurich, and as everything Sebald writes, they are stunning, upsetting, moving, and memorable.

While I had learned of the horrors of the Holocaust in school, I never learned much about the retaliation against Germany. The firebombing of all these German cities, while not a nuclear wiping out like Hiroshima, was just as horrifying in a different way.

Sebald describes the burning of these cities, and the aftermath–the thousands of rotting bodies under the rubble, the maggots and flies, the charred corpses littering the streets in the hundreds–in such an unflinching and straightforward way, that it is not hard to believe that the surviving populace chose to block these memories completely from their minds and to only look forward toward rebuilding.

Only three novels, so Sebald says, even try to accurately describe the experiences of surviving these bombings. And the one that does it best was not able to be published until 50 years later (The Silent Angel, by Heinrich Boll, which I’ve now purchased)

Like all of Sebalds books, he focuses on the properties of memory. In this case, how does the mind deal with traumatic events? It seems, he says, that an entire culture chose to excise this memory. Not only because of the horror and humiliation of it, but because thinking about it or examining it would also require thinking about the events that led up to it. And that, as anyone can imagine, is also hard to do.

The second half of the book is made up of three essays on three writers. By the end, you’ll see why Sebald chose those three, and the progression from the first to the third. There is always a subtext in Sebald’s writing that is just as enjoyable as the words themselves.

I highly recommend this to anyone interested in WW2, or history in general. But be warned, some parts are very difficult to read.

One Reply to “On the Natural History of Destruction, by W.G. Sebald”

  1. Am able to understand why some German’s decided to block this out: it was very shameful for them. However, for the rest of us, who did experience much of the horror, it is never forgotten though we wish we could. The horrific images are just as real now as they were then.

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