On Remembering, and Technological Progress


Houman Barekat in 3:AM Magazine:

The trauma of growing up among the ruins of World War Two was a formative experience, not only for the late WG Sebald (1944-2001), but for the modern German nation as a whole. The memory of the incineration of large swathes of several of its major cities was tucked away in an obscure recess of the collective consciousness, to be occasionally revisited by scholars and historians but largely effaced in the wider society. Sebald’s Zurich lectures, an impassioned yet laconic interrogation of this historical amnesia, became On the Natural History of Destruction. Originally published in German in 1999 under the title Luftrkridg und Literatur, Anthea Bell’s English translation was first published in 2003 by Hamish Hamilton, and reappears here in a slim hardback courtesy of Notting Hill Editions.

For Sebald, the tragedy of the war and its aftermath had its roots in a fundamental weakness in the national character: he traces a link between ‘the German catastrophe ushered in under Hitler’s regime and the regulation of intimate feelings within the German family.’ This notion was subtlety alluded to in Michael Heneke’s 2009 film, White Ribbon, which hints at a connection between the repressed rigidity of social life in early 20th century Germany and the later brutality of the Third Reich. The same emotionally detached Protestant stoicism that had allowed National Socialism to thrive also coloured the character of the post-war rebuilding – the nation became like a family with dark secret about which it dared not speak. Sebald takes us beyond the cordon sanitaire, and back to the burning cities:

At its height the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising hoardings through the air, tore trees from the ground and drove human beings before it like living torches. Behind collapsing facades the flames shot up as high as houses, rolled like a tidal wave through the streets at a speed of over 150 kilometres an hour, spun across open squares in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders of fire. The water in some of the canals was ablaze.

His purpose is not to exculpate or rehabilitate the German nation or even to elicit sympathy as such, but merely to invite recognition on a basic human level, to claw something back for posterity in defiance of that blanket silence. ‘The majority of Germans today know,‘ he candidly maintains, ‘that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived.’