‘Luftkrieg und Literatur’ (‘On the Natural History of Destruction’) by W.G. Sebald (Review)

IMG_5333While Basil Fawlty may have urged everyone not to mention the war, it’s fair to say that for many involved in the business of literature, his words fell on deaf ears.  As we find out every year in our shadow panel for the International Foreign Fiction Prize, even today, seventy years after the end of the conflict, World War Two continues to fascinate writers all over Europe, and beyond.  However, in Germany, the situation is a little different, at least that’s what W.G. Sebald claims – in the country which stood at the heart of these terrible events, he believes the war is something which has been more glossed over than taken to heart…

Luftkrieg und Literatur (On The Natural History of Destruction) is a work arising from a series of lectures Sebald held in Zürich on the subject of the bombardment of German cities during the Second World War, and the way German writers of the post-war generation handled, or rather failed to handle, the subject.  Sebald’s central theme is that of a deliberate neglect, whereby authors shied away from showing what life amongst the rubble of the devastated cities was really like, instead focusing on the positive story of the rebuilding and the unbreakable German spirit.

As Sebald rightly points out, the German air attacks on British cities (such as the London Blitz and the partial destruction of my hometown, Coventry, in November 1940) are well known and have been meticulously covered by many writers, yet the Allied attacks on German cities towards the end of the war, and their devastating consequences, have been relegated to the realm of memory.  Sebald, who from a young age was fascinated by the ruins he saw around him, blames this collective amnesia on the writers who refused to, or were unable to, address the problem in their work.

One reason for this, naturally, was that having started this game of aerial destruction, the Germans were in no position to complain about the unfairness of the attacks:

“Die Frage, ob und wie der von Gruppierungen innerhalb der Royal Air Force seit 1940 befürwortete und ab Februar 1942 unter Aufbietung eines ungeheuren Volumens personeller und wehrwirtschaftlicher Ressourcen in die Praxis umgesetzte Plan eines uneingeschränkten Bombenkriegs strategisch oder moralisch zu rechtfertigen war, ist in den Jahrzehnten nach 1945 in Deutschland, soviel ich weiß, nie Gegenstand einer öffentlichen Debatte geworden, vor allem wohl deshalb nicht, weil ein Volk, das Millionen von Menschen in Lagern ermordet und zu Tode geschunden hatte, von den Siegermächten unmöglich Auskunft verlangen konnte über die militärpolitische Logik, die die Zerstörung der deutschen Städte diktierte.”
p.21 (Fischer Verlag, 2013)

“The question whether and how the plan of an unlimited bombing campaign, approved by groups inside the RAF in 1940 and put into action in 1942 using an immense amount of human and economic resources, could be justified strategically or morally was never, as far as I am aware, the subject of a public debate in the decades after 1945 in Germany, above all for the reason that a nation which had murdered and worked to death millions of people in concentration camps simply had no possibility of demanding information from the victorious powers regarding the military and political logic which demanded the destruction of German cities.” *** (my translation)

While this was untenable at the time, Sebald himself examines the problem, questioning the morality, and the effectiveness in bringing the war towards a conclusion, of the carpet bombing of German cities (many of which were dubious targets).  One conclusion he reaches is that the steady bombing of civilian areas was actually the result of an unstoppable move towards the idea on the part of the British military forces; having built up the bombs and the capability to deploy them, it was almost easier to use the technology than to leave it idle.

The ethical question interests Sebald less, however, than the terrible effects of the raids.  As he goes deeper into the subject, he presents the reader with a sobering picture of the reality of the destruction unleashed upon cities like Hamburg and Dresden.  He describes exactly what happened during the raids, focusing on the effects of the incendiary bombs, thousands of smaller fires joining to form a hellish conflagration which incinerated people where they stood, sucking the oxygen from the air and lighting the city up to such an extent that it could be seen from tens of miles away.  Then we are shown the aftermath, with refugees fleeing across the country, mentally and physically scarred by the experience, traumatised women carrying the charred, mummified remains of a child in their suitcases…

And yet, Sebald claims, despite this widespread trauma and shared experience of the destruction, very little of this is depicted in the literature which appeared in the years immediately after.  The third part of the book contains his reflections after receiving feedback on the lectures from those who disagreed with his views, with the writer still convinced of his point:

“Vielmehr hat alles, was mir in Dutzenden von Zuschriften übermittelt wurde, mich in meiner Auffassung bestätigt, daß sich die Nachgeborenen, wenn sie sich einzig auf die Zeugenschaft der Schriftsteller verlassen wollten, kaum ein Bild machen könnten vom Verlauf, von den Ausmaßen, von der Natur und den Folgen der durch den Bombenkrieg über Deutschland gebrachten Katastrophe.” (p.75)

“On the contrary, everything communicated to me in all the post I received served to confirm my opinion that those born after the war, were they only to rely on the eye-witness account of writers, would barely be able to conjure up an image of the progress, of the nature and consequences of the catastrophe brought upon Germany by the bombing campaign.” ***

One of the few books which does deal with the topic is Heinrich Böll’s Der Engel Schwieg (The Silent Angel) – a novel which was only released more than forty years after it was originally written.  At the time, it was considered to be too depressing and dangerous for a recovering population to be exposed to.

After the three-part main course, we are treated to a dessert, one focusing on the specifics of GLM5Sebald’s general idea.  This final essay looks at German writer Alfred Andersch, and if Sebald was blunt in his general look at the failure of German writers to come to terms with the post-war environment, his treatment of Andersch’s legacy is, well, brutal.  He examines the writer’s work and finds him wanting on just about every level imaginable, pulling out the most embarrassing, clichéd, kitsch examples of Andersch’s writing and describing the characters in the novels as thinly disguised versions of the author.

Perhaps more damaging, though, is the investigation into the writer’s private life, particularly his marriage to (and later divorce from) a woman with Jewish origins.  Andersch was one of those German writers who practiced ‘inner emigration’ (remaining in Nazi Germany despite their opposition to the regime), yet Sebald questions this fact and suggests that the writer was prone to bending with the breeze, taking every opportunity to make life as comfortable as possible, even in his army career.  It’s a savage attack, one which would certainly make the casual reader think twice about picking up an Andersch novel for the first time.

There are several English-language versions around in Anthea Bell’s translation (with a couple of bonus essays by the look of things), and I’d certainly recommend it.  While the style is slightly plainer than in Sebald’s fiction, the book is still wonderfully written, full (as you can see from the quotations I’ve pulled from the book) of his meticulously constructed, seemingly never-ending sentences.  Whether you can completely trust his evaluation of post-war German literature is something people more qualified to discuss the subject than I am can decide amongst themselves.  However, even for a layman in the area, Luftkrieg und Literatur is a fascinating read.

5 thoughts on “‘Luftkrieg und Literatur’ (‘On the Natural History of Destruction’) by W.G. Sebald (Review)

  1. Excellent review, as ever, Tony. Have to say this is far from my favourite Sebald book, but a below-average Sebald is still a good read by anyone else’s standards.

    Clive James, in his recent, Last Readings points out that “the prose, being Sebald’s, was exquisite…but the basic idea was, for him. uniquely nonprofound.”. Sebald’s observation, that the bombing of Germany is little treated in literary fiction, may be correct. But his conclusion, that this led to a post-war amnesia, is fatally flawed due to his. “exclusive concerns with serious publications”. The air war over Germany was, James says, covered extensively In the more low-brow reading material consumed by most Germans, e.g. war comics, where the heroic Luftwaffe pilot battling against the US bombers was a frequent lead character.


    1. Paul – That’s very true, but his focus is exclusively on literary fiction, and he isn’t really concerned with how people felt during the war but rather the failure of these writers to reflect the immediate post-war landscape and to deal with the trauma felt on losing the war, living in a devastated country and knowing that they shared a collective guilt worse than any other people in history. It’s not just about the air war but about the failure of Germany as a whole to fully acknowledge what happened, and he claims that this was a collective strategy (forget what happened and move on cheerfully) which serious writers should have poked a hole in.

      Whether this is true or not… 😉


  2. Excellent review, Tony. I can only repeat what the previous poster said: my least favourite Sebald book but still worth reading it. As for his central thesis: I think it says more about Sebald’s perception (and probably also about the relative commercial failure of such books that dealt with the Luftkrieg) than it is reflecting the reality. The bombardment of German cities has been indeed one of the most important topics of German post-WWII literature. Among the authors that wrote about it in their works are Thomas Mann, Brecht, Nossack, Borchert, von Le Fort, Ledig, Giordano, Biermann, Maron, Forte, Hochhuth, Kempowski, G. Roth, Kluge and many others. And what Sebald wrote about Andersch is indeed brutal, self-righteous and partly also factually wrong. Andersch was for sure no hero, but he didn’t deserve such a character assassination.The more interesting question for me in this context would be: why were all these books not popular in Germany and disappeared – like Ledig’s masterpiece Vergeltung that is mentioned but totally misrepresented by Sebald – so quickly from the book market and fell into oblivion for decades?


    1. Thomas – Well, that’s a question I’m certainly not equipped to answer 😉 Perhaps the strongest point I can make in favour of Sebald’s book is that it throws up a number of questions and areas for further reading – it would be all too easy to get lost down a rabbit hole of research in trying to find some answers…


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