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

The German writer W. G. Sebald was born in 1944, so he had no memories of World War 2. But memory was one of the principal themes of the books he wrote. In 1999, he published the long essay “On the Natural History of Destruction”. Its subject is the Allied aerial bombardment of Germany in the final years of the war, or rather the failure of German writers to properly document and reflect on the effects of that bombing on Germany’s civilian population. Sebald believed that such horrible events deserved to be discussed and written about clearly and honestly. Instead, the survivors of the bombing avoided speaking about it and few German writers addressed the subject at all, or if they did, they did so poorly. Sebald doesn’t defend the German government and doesn’t spend much time criticizing the morality or the rationale behind the bombing. He is trying to understand what the experience was like for the German population and why the memory of it doesn’t seem to have been directly confronted.

There are three shorter essays in the book, each dealing with a writer who lived through the war, none of whom are well-known in America. The essay about the bombing, which is actually titled “Air War and Literature”, is the one that is worth reading.

Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War by Paul Fussell

Paul Fussell’s best-known book is The Great War and Modern Memory. In that book, he wrote about the effect of World War I, especially trench warfare, on British writers. Wartime is Fussell’s similar book about World War II. This one isn’t mainly concerned with the war’s effect on writers, however. It has a much broader scope. There are discussions, for example, of the myth of “precision” bombing; the frequency of military foul-ups; rumors; rationing; stereotypes; accentuating the positive; casualty rates; popular songs; swearing; hunger; and sexual frustration. There is even a whole chapter devoted to “chickenshit” – the petty crap that superiors inflict on subordinates.

Fussell wrote from experience. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart as an infantry officer in France. His goal in Wartime was to capture the reality of World War II as it was endured by American and British soldiers, sailors and airmen, especially those who actually saw combat (a small minority of those who served). He often does this by contrasting military reality with the sanitized version presented to the people back home. If you were in the service but not in combat, your main emotions were boredom and anger. If you were in combat, it was fear and horror.

According to Fussell, the authorities eventually realized that engaging in more than 240 days of combat (not consecutive days, but total days) would drive anyone insane. That sums up World War II for the men who did the actual fighting.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The author Timothy Snyder calculates that Stalin and Hitler were responsible for the murder of 14 million people between 1933 and 1945, mainly in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. This didn’t include those who died from combat. The 14 million were civilians or prisoners of war intentionally killed by starvation, gunshot or gas, including the roughly 5.4 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

It is almost unbelievable that so many innocent people could have been killed. Stalin mostly killed citizens of his own country. Hitler mostly killed citizens of other countries. Stalin began by collectivizing Soviet agriculture and then tried to eliminate anyone who might conceivably pose a threat. Hitler wanted to colonize Eastern Europe and, while doing so, eliminate as many Jews and Slavs as possible. If Germany had conquered the Soviet Union, Hitler intended to kill as many as 30 million. 

I didn’t know that Stalin invaded Poland soon after Hitler in September 1939, while Stalin and Hitler were still allies. Or that relatively few German Jews were killed. The concentration camps that were liberated by the Americans and British weren’t the main site of the Holocaust, which occurred farther east and mostly targeted non-Germans. 

Snyder ends his book with a chapter that tries to explain how this all happened. Part of his explanation is that both Hitler and Stalin had utopian ideas. Stalin wanted to quickly turn the Soviet Union into a socialist paradise. Hitler wanted to quickly defeat the Soviet Union and create a vast empire that would serve Germany alone. In Snyder’s words:

“Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory”.  (1/10/13)

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse

Reading The Emigrants is a strange experience. It is fiction that reads like non-fiction. The novel tells the story of four unrelated people who emigrated from Germany during the 20th century, but it is written in the first person, as if the narrator is recounting these people’s experiences based on his own research. In addition, there are photographs scattered throughout the book that seem to represent the characters and settings that Sebald describes in an apparently realistic way.  

The paperback edition of the book indicates that many early reviewers considered the novel to be a masterpiece. I enjoyed Sebald’s later novel The Rings of Saturn more. I didn’t find the characters in The Emigrants especially interesting. Perhaps the reviewers were influenced by the newness of Sebald’s technique. They must have been impressed by his prose. The English translation is spare and often matter-of-fact but always beautiful. (6/30/12)