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Buried feelings

German authors' handling of the Allied bombing in World War II

No major postwar German novel dealt with the Allied bombing of German cities in World War II: during the Cold War, the echo of the bombs was muffled by the anticipated blast of "the bomb". Nevertheless, argues Volker Hage, wartime experiences pervade the work of all authors who were in the cellars during the air raids. The issue became contemporary only when bombs again fell on European – Yugoslavian – cities: the Kosovan war and the debate about W.G. Sebald's critique of the taboo on the bombing raids sharpened the focus. However, though more and more is being written on the subject, no German author of stature has revised the question of guilt.

"Fliers were over the city, ominous birds"; thus begins Wolfgang Koeppen's novel Tauben im Grass [Pigeons on the Grass],[1] published in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1951. In it, Koeppen conveys an impression of the country shortly after the end of the war. "Daily and nightly, flying in and out, exercises of death, a hollow din, a quaking, a remembering in the ruins. The bomb bays of the airplanes were empty for now. The augurs smiled. No one looked up at the sky." An impassioned start to a novel, which sketches a society between economic breakthrough and renewed fear of war. The newspapers report threats ("War Over Oil", "Conflict Escalates", "Carriers in Persian Gulf", "Atom Tests in New Mexico", "Atom Factories in Urals"), one lived in a divided country, in the "field of tension" between the eastern and western worlds, "on the seam, perhaps where the seam would tear open", because, "Here and there they were hoarding the powder to blow the planet earth to bits."

European histories

The comfortable historical consensus long obtained within and among western European countries has been undermined by the eastern enlargement of the EU. Europeans are still far from an all-embracing "grand narrative", assuming this is worth striving for at all. [more]
In a foreword to the second edition, Koeppen explained that he had written the novel shortly before the currency reform, "when the German economic miracle was rising in the West." Heads were "still a bit muddled from hunger and bomb blasts", and "all the senses sought gratification, before maybe World War III arrived". Koeppen was not alone in his observations: many authors at the time were gripped by fear of nuclear war – a fear that was a permanent accompaniment to cultural life in Germany from autumn 1945 until far into the 1980s, and the end of the conflict between East and West.

Hans Henry Jahn, writing in 1945, was also convinced that "Atom bombs and V2-weapons will decide the wars of the future".[2] Ernst Jünger, when he heard in August 1945 that the first atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, resorted to biblical comparisons. "It appears one can knock down walls by radiation", he noted in his diary. "It outdoes the trumpets of Jericho." It cannot have been only Jünger who toyed with the idea of what would have happened "had we been able to draw the war out a little longer", in other words, if the war in Europe had not ended in May 1945 – "we could have been served up with one of these things, to universal and profound satisfaction".[3]

In his diary of 6 August, the day the bombs were dropped, Thomas Mann noted: "The first attack on Japan with bombs using the force of the exploded atom (uranium)." This remained the main subject of his notebooks during subsequent days. He wrote of the "eerie" destruction of the city, and the "enormous cloud of dust rising skywards". [4] Bertolt Brecht, in his diaries of September 1945, expressed his disgust even more bluntly: "To those waiting impatiently for their husbands and sons to return, the victory in Japan has been soured. This giant fart has drowned out the victory bells."[5]

Another of those who had survived in exile in the US, the Jewish author and philosopher Günther Anders, made it his life's mission and central theme of his writing in the following decades to warn of the dangers of the atom bomb. Up until his death, he inveighed tirelessly against its apocalyptic potential. Hiroshima and Auschwitz were for him the symbols of the homicidal malaise of the twentieth century. He visited the sites of the horrors: Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1958, Auschwitz in 1966. He published his travel notes as Der Mann auf der Brücke [The man on the bridge] (1959), and Die Schrift an der Wand [The writing on the wall] (1967) – the second diary covered the years 1941 to 1966.[6]

In the young Federal Republic, the growth of awareness about the crimes of the Nazis was as painstaking as the development of the new threat posed by the atom bomb was quick and uninterrupted. It is probably not too conjectural to say that many Germans in the Association of International Anti-Nuclear Movements (one of whose leading figures was Anders, who contributed his "Thesis on the Nuclear Age" in 1959) secretly remembered the fear they suffered during the nights of bombing, so that fantasies of the horror to come were mixed with images of events already experienced. Behind the wave of protests against nuclear armament in Germany, the first large-scale extra-parliamentary opposition movement in the FRG, there hid an unacknowledged sense of outrage over the real bombing of Germany, and over the thought of how closely Berlin, or other German cities, had escaped being a nuclear target in 1945.[7]

It is noticeable in any case that especially in German literature a preference for nuclear war scenarios established itself. In loving detail, authors depicted the nightmares that were to be expected, wrote with great verve about an apocalypse whose actual appearance was, during the Cold War era, deemed to be realistic. This is something that has been almost forgotten since the East-West conflict ended half a century after the end of World War II, without the dreaded exchange of atomic blows having come to pass.

The series of German visions of demise began in the 1950s with novels such as Keiner kommt davon! Berichte aus den letzten Tagen Europa [No one will get away! Reports from the last days of Europe] (1957) by Hans Helmut Kirst, or Die Kinder des Saturn [Saturn's children] (1959) by Jens Rehn. Apparently, it was especially authors who were doctors by profession who believed they were predestined to write such novels, such as Josef Gollwitzer (pseudonym), with the novel 6. August (1975) or Udo Rabsch, with Julius oder Der schwarze Sommer [Julius, or The black summer] (1983). Rabsch set the nuclear catastrophe in the near future. His protagonist Julius stumbles across central Europe, passing through contaminated expanses of land, charred forests, and smouldering villages. In the same year as Rabsch's novel (1983), two similar works appeared: Glückliche Reise [A happy journey] by Matthias Horx, and Der Bunker [The bunker] by Gerhard Zwerenz.

The novels were almost entirely ignored and quickly forgotten. A latecomer to the series, Die Rättin [The rats] (1986) by Günter Grass, received more attention only because of its author's fame. These novels are mentioned primarily as evidence of a mood that was relatively widespread among German authors in the West and the East. The more well-known among them, including Grass, distrusted the epic portrayal of horror, and resorted to public statements or plays on words, such as are found in Christa Wolf's story Cassandra (1983).

As Heinrich Böll put it as early as 1966, one lived with the bomb as if "we all have it in our pockets, next to the matches and the cigarettes; with it, the bomb, time has gained a new dimension, one that almost rules out permanence."[8] Around fifteen years later, Boho Strauß wrote: "No one can walk around with something of such significance to humanity permanently in their heads."[9] The threat may disappear from consciousness, "but not, perhaps, from the unconscious." In the first half of the 1980s, this fear once more became virulent in the context of the rearmament debate.

"One can't say what the nuclear planning committees have in mind for us", Christa Wolf told students in Frankfurt am Main in summer 1982:

Nevetheless, we carry on writing in the forms which we know. That is to say: we cannot yet believe what we are seeing, and cannot express what we already believe [...] To keep before one's mind's eye the state of the world as it really is, is pyschologically intolerable. [10]

Two years later, Peter Härtling, a fellow author of Wolf in the Federal Republic, on the same platform, upped the pathos still further: "Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, we write the literature of finality: we insist on telling stories of human beings faced with the fiction that threatens us all."[11]

The children of the bombing

Perhaps it is not surprising that young German authors who had been in the air-raid shelters or become flak assistants at first kept quiet about their experiences. Why talk about the past war when a new one appeared to be just around the corner? This feeling was by no means restricted to Germany – just as it was by no means a fate exclusively reserved for Germans to be confronted by bomber squadrons at a tender age. As a child, the Dutchman Harry Mühlish (born in Harlem in 1927) watched, with what he freely admits was joy, as Allied aeroplanes flew over his homeland towards Berlin or Hannover. In May 1940, his countryman Cees Nooteboom (born in the Hague in 1933) witnessed how Heinkel bombers and Stukas destroyed the nearby airfield at Ypenburg ("my father set out an armchair and watched"), before attacking Rotterdam ("the horizon glowed red"). It was an unforgettable impression for the child:

The six-year-old was taken with a trembling that would not stop; so that it did, his back was washed with ice-cold water. All the while, the novel of my life was being written; I didn't need to add anything. [12]

During the 1960s and 1970s, there were only a few attempts to thematize the aerial war in literature. The initial wave of postwar novels about experiences at the front and in the bunkers, most of which were narrated conventionally and unreflectively, had subsided without resonating greatly. Apart from works by Wolfgang Borchert (Draußen vor der Tur [The Man Outside]),[13] Gert Ledig (Vergeltung [Retribution]), and Hans-Erich Nosssack (Der Untergang [The downfall]), very few were of literary significance. Obviously no one still expected such subject-matter. When, in 1967, an even lesser-known author called Hans J. Fröhlich (1932-1986) published a novel entitled Tandelkeller [Junk basement], the underground and apparently timeless world it described was interpreted as a surrealist scenario.[14]

Hardly anyone wanted to recognize that behind this narrative world lay an entirely concrete traumatic experience: as a child in his native Hannover, Fröhlich had been buried in an air-raid shelter – and whoever knows that, clearly recognises the echo. Bit by bit, in italicized passages, the memory forces itself to the surface ("only the fear remains and the screaming from the cellar"), partially interrupted by the parabolic narrative. Finally, perhaps in a way that can be compared with a psychoanalytic process, memory gets the upper hand; the ambiguous final sentence reads, "Now I am lying here and everything is at an end". This can be interpreted as the breakthrough of a memory overtaken by the fear of death, as well as, in the foreground, the closure of the narrative experiment.[15]

Hubert Fichte (1935-1986), who spent his childhood in Hamburg, and between 1942 and 1943 lived in an orphanage, where he had been brought by his mother, returned to the city shortly before the attacks in July and August 1943. Initially, the bombing appeared only in the margins of his work: in his first two novels, Der Weisenhaus [The Orphanage] (1965), and Die Palette [The Palette] (1968), and in a short-story contained in his 1963 debut collection, Der Aufbruch nach Turku [The departure to Turku].[16] It was only in Fichte's novel Detlevs Imitationen "Grunspan" [Detlev's Imitations] [17] (1971) that the theme first made an emphatic appearance, as a separate, formally independent chapter: Fichte's alter ego Jäcki begins researching "Operation Gomorrah" in 1965, twenty-five years after the events: he looks for information in books – and compares what he reads with his own experiences. "Jäcki wants to read everything about the terror attack", the narrative reads, along with an examination, in a kind of soliloquy, of the Nazi concept of efficiency:

Who wants to reproach me for that word? The word has been rattled into my brain by some thousand tons of explosive. To me it no longer means an abbreviation for the propaganda of Dr Joseph Goebbels. To me: zebras in Julius Vosselerstrasse. The smell of corpses at the cripples' home. The loss of the concept permanence. Dictionary of the inhuman. What is inhuman?[18]

The laborious process of reconstruction, the re-appropriation of the barely narratable stuff of memory, is also carried out in this prose piece.

Equally impressive, tightly composed, and compact is Alexander Kluge's text about the bombing, entitled Der Luftangriff auf Halberstadt am 8. April 1945 [The aerial attack on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945], contained in the collection Neue Geschichten Band 1-18 [New stories Vols 1-18] (1977). In the foreword to the book, the author (b.1937) states clearly that he experienced the attack as a child, including the detonation of a bomb right next to him. "I was there when, on the 8 April 1945, something similar struck about ten meters away."[19] However, the Adorno student does not write about this in his text; rather, in a montage of puzzle elements, photos, tables, and diagrams, he attempts to bring together the day's events, to align the fragments of differing perceptions, which are strictly organized according to "strategies from below" (on the ground) and "strategies from above" (from the perspective of the attackers). Kluge deliberately makes it difficult to differentiate between text and document, citation and fiction. At the end, a simple statement is put in the mouth of an eyewitness: "When you get to a certain point of cruelty, it becomes irrelevant who committed it: it should only stop."[20]

The autobiographical moment recedes in Kluge's text. He reveals more about how he personally got over the experiences of 8 April 1945 occasionally in interview: how, as a child, he initially thought only about whether he might miss his piano lesson, or what he would tell his friends afterwards. However, according to Kluge, "experiences like that have long-term after-effects". A decade later, the memory becomes more and more intense.[21] Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in a favourable critique of the Neue Geschichte, wrote that Kluge's narrative technique, while it may not make him beloved of the reading public, qualifies the author to access certain "sensations and emotions that were buried by the continuing bombardment, which, often decades later, on the most surprising and "forbidden" occasions, resurfaced in the light, like one of the blind, and in which enormous energy is stored."[22]

What effect did this have on the children who lived in the bombarded cities who later became writers? How did this continue to effect them? And did it really leave behind so few literary traces? One Kafka-esque novel by Fröhlich, one chapter of a novel by Fichte, and one prose montage by Kluge. In order to understand the extent of the trauma, perhaps imagine that the children had occasionally been taken to the front, or been shown the firing of heavy artillery, or something similar. An absurd intellectual exercise, but nonetheless, qualitatively not much different from what children experienced at home – experiences which were, as Walter Kempowski deadpanned, "completely novel".[23] And traces can in fact be found. If, for once, one opens one's ears and looks closely, one can discover the echoes of the aerial attacks and dive-bombers in the work of many German authors who experienced the war as children or youths.

In an autobiographical story by Christa Wolf (b.1929), entitled Blickwechsel [Exchange of looks], written in May 1970 – twenty-five years after the bombing – the author describes how as a young girl she fled west from the ruins of Berlin ("in quick-march towards Schwerin, that's where the Americans are, and anyone still able to ask themselves questions must have found it strange that everyone was thronging to an enemy which only days ago had been wanting to kill us"). An attack on the refugees is portrayed with a cinematic quality:

First I saw the white stars under the wings, but then, when it turned to make a new approach, close-up the heads of the pilots in the cockpits, finally even the bare white specks of their faces [...] it seemed to me unnatural, so that for a moment I asked myself whether they enjoyed what they were doing.

With great collectedness, the author recalls how next to her a man dies, "after the dive-bombers had shot him in the stomach". Her dry commentary: "that's how, at the age of sixteen, I came to see my first dead body; which I must say was pretty late for those days."[24]

With the still younger authors born during the war, the echoes ring very differently. In January 1945, the Austrian Gerhard Roth (b.1942), when not even three years old, experienced an attack by dive-bombers on a full train. He turned this into literature only in coded form, as a fairytale-like miniature, contained in his wide-ranging novel Landläufiger Tod [Common death] (1984).

Roth's countryman Peter Handke (b.1942) experienced as a child attacks both on Berlin (where his father was from) and on his Carinthian homeland (bombs even fell on his birthplace, Altenmarkt, in the region of Griffen). Handke said in interview[25] that for a long time afterwards he carried around with him the fear of war that he experienced as child ("either when the bombs fell on South Carinthia or Berlin"). "Now I can remember that the bombers flew in the night", goes a sentence in his debut novel, Die Hornissen [the Hornets] (1966);[26] and on the very first side of the story Die kurze Brief zum langen Abschied [The short letter about a long farewell] (1972) the hero says to himself:

As far as can remember, I was born for shock and terror. Out in the yard, logs lay scattered far and wide, gleaming silently in the sun, after I'd been carried inside away from the American bombers. [27]

A great deal more does not exist in Handke's work – nonetheless, the author's later vehement stance on the Kosovan war fed on these childhood memories, especially since Handke above all condemned the bombing by Nato aeroplanes.

In the case of Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, fears born early can only be discovered posthumously: from the diary and sketchbook, written in 1971 and published in 1987, entitled Erkundungen [Investigations]. The author, who was unable to complete a second novel during his sojourn in Rome (his first and only novel, Keiner weiss mehr [No one knows anymore], appeared in 1968), takes his generation to task in his private notes:

They cannot write about pain, they can portray neither joy, lust, anger, hate, nor contempt, nothing, do they not feel it, not experience it any more?

Then he makes a remarkable conceptual leap:

After the suffocating closeness and the permanent numbness from 1940 to 1945, this atmosphere of fear, this death, people had suddenly disappeared, never came back, blacked-out windows, air-raid sirens, bunkers, sand sifting down, I always had to keep my mouth open, mother singing in fear, again and again [...]

The abruptness gives way to a sudden childhood memory:

And now the destruction is here /: broken cities [...], numbed bodies, that's war, doesn't anyone see that??? /: these negative reverberations that have been set in motion, to break through requires strength and courage, who likes to go through their own numb hell? [28]

One's "own numb hell": rarely is the connection between deep shock and long-term paralysis so tangible; it is not a productive paralysis, but one that prevents narration and the literary work.

Only in the 1980s did a phase of retrospection gradually set in. The decade brought, after years of silence and repression, the first approaches by many younger authors to the traumatic experiences. The early wave of war novels had subsided after 1960, and the works were on the whole quickly forgotten about. Therefore, it was possible in 1982 for the author and literary critic W.G. Sebald for the first time to formulate the question:

why the aerial attacks on German cities experienced by millions of Germans in the final years of the war, and the radical change to social forms brought about by this destruction of quite catastrophic extent, have hardly been treated in German literature. [29]

A change was also taking place at this time in historical research in Germany.[30] Olaf Groehler, a historian from the GDR, worked on an extensive volume; when his book Bombenkrieg gegen Deutschland [The bombing of Germany] finally appeared, the GDR no longer existed, meaning the state-sponsored study received little attention.

In the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the retrospective gaze became more intense. Many of the eyewitnesses who had lived through World War II as adults were no longer alive, and even those who had been children or adults were gradually nearing old age – above all those who belonged to the generation of "flak assistants", in other words, those born at the end of the 1920s. Memories surfaced, often in relation to other things, as if incidentally – such as in the essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (b.1929), entitled Aussichten auf den Bürgerkrieg [Perspectives on the civil war] (1993). In it, he describes how he can still see himself, "fifty years later, crouching in a cellar, wrapped in a blanket". To this day, he is able to distinguish the bark of flak from the wail of an airborne mine: "sometimes, in dreams, I am haunted by the rise and fall of the siren, a sickening melody."[31]

In 1990, Ludwig Harig (b.1927). in his autobiographical novel Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt (Woe betide he who dances out of step), related how:

I will never be able to approach the station in Merzig without thinking back on the day we were attacked by dive-bombers, thrown out of the train and sent head over heels between the tracks.

A group of American bombers attacked the people on the platform; an old woman screamed for her daughter, who wanted to throw herself over a baby's pram, and in doing so, fell:

There she lay, motionless, I didn't know if she was already dead, but then a swathe of bullets swept over her and perforated her lengthways, from the left shoulder blade down to the thigh, and I knew then she was beyond help. [32]

Günter Kunert (b.1929) describes in his memoirs, entitled Erwachsenspiele [Adult games] (1997), how as a youth he looked on as a woman searched in the ruins of Berlin for her sister, screaming and "pulling out the blackened and mutilated remains of the body".[33] Gunter de Bruyn (b.1926) described in Zwischenbilanz [Interim balance] (1992) how as a youth he stood before the ruins of the house "in which I was born and had grown up"; an airborne mine had exploded in the courtyard (his sister helped to carry out the dead and wounded into the following morning). The conclusion is the same everywhere: "now my childhood had really ended".[34]

Sometimes, in the hour of terror, there was also to a certain extent the feeling of numbness, and of being condemned to remain a child forever: this is how Wolf Biermann (b.1936), who, at the age of six, ran for his life with his mother through the Hamburg inferno started by "Operation Gomorrah", later put it. In 1995, Biermann wrote that if he were able to write novels, then he would be able to write a novel about that night.[35] In interview, he said that he would be deluding himself were he to say that during that night the foundations were laid for his later poetry and songwriting – nonetheless, there are two poems about the bombing: Jan Gat unterm Himmel in Rotterdam [Jan Gat beneath the sky in Rotterdam] and Die Elbe bei Hamburg [The Elbe at Hamburg], composed in 1988 and 1993. Of Biermann's experiences during that night, the latter poem reads: "The clock of my life stood still at precisely six and a half."[36]

Biermann was caught "between conflicting interests", as he put it later in an interview: in mortal danger from bombs which his mother, whose Jewish husband was murdered in Auschwitz, welcomed. "It would be interesting", he replied to leading questions,

to depict the same events from the perspective of a young boy and a working-class woman who knows that her husband has gone up through the chimneys of Auschwitz and is looking down from the smoky skies. If I were to write a novel, then that would be the pivot around which it would revolve, which would make the subject interesting for other people too. Only to show the wounds, to show how terrible it all was – that's the initial naive, human reaction, but it's not enough for great literature. And if one writes about something like that, then it's not enough to say the fire was so large and the horror so great.[37]

In Germany in the 1990s, as has often been described, many political and thus cultural certainties collapsed, ones which intellectuals had also held onto, perhaps more than anyone. This made itself particularly clear in the debate about the Gulf War in 1991 and the Kosovan War in 1999, in which, for the first time since World War II, bombing missions were carried out in and from Europe – this time by Nato. It was precisely these air strikes that sparked off the discussion, and it was notable how strong the arguments bore the imprint of previous, personal experiences and later interpretations of these, since it was primarily the generation of German wartime children who were making themselves heard.

Dieter Forte, born in 1935 in Düsseldorf, took a clearly pacifist position: war, he argued, only ever partially achieves the aims for which it was supposedly waged; it sends human beings to a painful death and marks survivors for the rest of their lives. "I experienced the war as a child, month-long bombardment, week-long combat operations, I lived in total fear of the bombs that droned down, a fear that remains with me to this day." "Maybe", he said, it was this "elemental sensation of war in me" that was responsible for his inability to come even close to believing politicians and the military.[38]

Forte's trilogy of novels appeared in the 1990s: Das Haus auf meinen Schultern [The house on my shoulders] (1992), Der Junge mit den blütigen Schuhen [The boy with the bloody shoes] (1995), and In der Erinnerung [In memory] (1998). The middle volume provides one of the most vivid representations of the bombing in the whole of German literature, the third depicts the immediate postwar years, life amidst the ruins, and ends looking back almost perplexedly from the present. These two volumes especially are the results of Forte's hard-fought submergence into his own childhood and its terrors. It took him years to be able to approach the subject with confidence – according to Forte, like other members "of the generation of children who lived in the major cities [...] able to remember, if they could find the language do so, for which one had to wait a lifetime."[39]

In a later interview, Forte described how, during the writing, something in him had opened up:

And the whole memory was there. Not only what had been held at the surface: the whole memory. Also the terror and the fear that is in me. It was a genuine breakthrough. I wrote and wrote, the manuscripts are barely legible [...] – fundamentally, everything is still there, and perhaps that's why people don't want to hear about it.

He said that to give this account was his life's purpose – "everything else was a diversion". Clearly, the shock of this experience continues to have an impact. Strange, perhaps, that authors born during the war, in other words, those whose memories of the nights of the bombing are overwhelmingly from early childhood, report them so graphically, if also on the whole fragmentarily. Monika Maron, who was born in Berlin in 1941, describes in her book, Pawels Briefe [Pavel's letters] (1999), scenes from the air-raid shelter, which she must have experienced at the age of three or four. At the very beginning of the story, whose subtitle is Eine Familiengeschichte [A family story], the questions comes why it is that she wants to write about the life of her Jewish Grandather, "why now, after all this time?" Her reply is: "Memories have their time".[40]The hero of a novel by Wolfgang Hilbig (born in Saxony in 1941), entitled "ICH" ["I"] (1993), also raises the question of memory more than fifty years later:

And once, the bang of a lamp bursting entered his sleep, deep as this was, dimly he believed himself able to decipher the explosion, which had penetrated so softly as if from a distant territory [...] during the final years of the war, the aerial mines exlpoding in streets must have sounded similar, as he sheltered with his mother in the cellar. [41]

Hilbig has confirmed on various occasions that such passages are based on his own experiences: "The first memories I think I have are almost always marked by the fire and smoke of the air raids on the small industrial towns in which we lived."[42] The ruins were his playground.

Europa in Ruinen [Europe in ruins] was the title with which, in 1990, Enzensberger announced a decade of retrospection: a collage of travel-writing from 1944 to 1948, taken from the diaries and reportage of visitors to the wreckage, texts which had been long forgotten or never translated. "If someone had prophesied to the cave-dwellers of Warsaw or Dresden a future like that of 1990," the editor writes in his accompanying text, "they would have considered him insane. However, the people of today are just as incapable of imagining their own past."[43]

The Sebald debate

At the end of the 1990s, the question first appeared in public whether German literature had addressed the subject of the bombing in a worthwhile and adequate manner. It was W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) who in 1997 posed the question during a series of lectures on poetics in Zurich. The author and essayist – until then known only in a small circle and rated as a melancholic storyteller of other people's destinies, above all Jewish biographies, but as an author who brought his own person into play via his role as researcher – travelled from England, where for a long time he had lived as a university professor. It was not lacking in sensation that, before an astonished Swiss public, his speech turned to a German problem, one which he said lay under "a kind of taboo, like a shameful family secret".[44]

At any rate, his thesis about Luftkrieg und Literatur [Aerial combat and literature], which he published as a book two years later, met with great interest from the start. Sebald was convinced that:

if those born after the war were to rely solely on the testimony of writers, they would scarcely be able to form any idea of the extent, nature and consequences of the catastrophe inflicted upon Germany by the air raids.[45]

He spoke of "the inability of a whole generation of German authors to describe what they had seen, and to convey it to our minds." His conclusion was:

Yes, there are a few relevant texts, but what little has been recorded in literature, in terms of both quantity and quality, stands in no relation to the extreme collective experience of the time. [46]

Sebald's thesis about the widespread and widely-spread taboo was based on the state of Germany at the end of the war. He believe that the "darkest aspects of the final act of destruction, as experienced by the great majority of the German population, remained under a kind of taboo like a shameful family secret, a secret that perhaps could not be publicly acknowledged".[47] The effect of this, not least upon literature, was that "there was a tacit agreement, equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin was not to be described."[48]

This viewpoint was contested vigorously. In the debate, which had already begun to smoulder at the Zurich lectures, two essential arguments were deployed against Sebald:[49]
1. The basic thesis was false. It was a "paradoxical consensus" (Günter Franzen)[50] between Sebald and other literary experts that the bombing had not taken place in German literature. There had indeed been authors who "had taken up the theme", this assertion usually being backed up by one or other author or textual examples that had until then not been mentioned in the debate (reference was made to Eberhard Panitz, for example.)[51]
2. There could be no talk of a taboo, there had never been a ban on talking and writing about the bombing – to say otherwise was nonsense (Jost Nolte).[52]

Sebald was able to counter the first argument with relative ease: he told how after his lectures in Zurich – for him an "unfinished collection of various observations, materials, and theses" – he had waited for addition and corrections, but none had come. He tacitly included a reference to Ledig's novel Vergeltung [Retribution] in the book version of Literatur und Luftkrieg, but ignored other references (for example, to work by Forte, Kempowski, Remarque, or Panitz). Indeed, it is here that Sebald's theory is most vulnerable: if one compiles the individual references and researches further examples, the result is an overall literary-historical picture, which in purely quantitative terms obliges a refutation of Sebald's viewpoint. There is much to be rediscovered through dogged research, through the laborious process of acquiring works at antiquarian bookshops, which are found only if one is lucky. This is especially the case for works published immediately after the war. The gap, which Sebald is not the only to have noticed, was and is less one of production than one of reception. Many novels and stories about the bombing were published; however they were quickly and completely forgotten about, if they were even noticed in the first place (Ledig's Vergeltung being a case in point).

The bombing did, in fact, leave its traces everywhere: in the memories of those it affected and in their oblique references to it later, in the appearance of the cities, and also in German literature. The works named and cited here should, for now, suffice to support this, though the list is by no means exhaustive.

Ultimately, it is what concerns the second part of the argument voiced against Sebald in 1998, the question of taboo, that is perhaps the most interesting. First, it should be noted that this question arises from the situation in the former Federal Republic – in the GDR the problem of taboo took a different form. "The bombing of Dresden was talked about", recalled Monika Maron, for instance, in an interview. "It was always 'the Anglo-American attack', that was a fixed term. But everything else was taboo, for example the rapes." Forte, on the other hand, who otherwise has taken a thoroughly critical stance towards Sebald's book, insists that, "Everything was, in fact, hushed up; the few attempts to broach the subject quickly ended in a complacent literature, the trauma became taboo."[53]

Nevertheless, it is noticeable that as far as literary fiction is concerned, the subject of the bombing has been played out far away from what may qualify as the canon of postwar German literature. Here it is hard to decide whether what has prevented these works' and their authors' success is their choice to deal with a subject that in Sebald's opinion has been re-shaped by taboo, or conversely, whether the authors who later became so successful and prominent cleverly avoided this awkward area from the start. One of them, Günter Grass, later clearly referred to Sebald's thesis, though indirectly and without mentioning his name, when, in a speech of 2000, he talked about the consequences of "a war begun thoughtlessly and waged criminally". These consequences were "the destruction of the German cities, the loss of hundreds of thousands of civilians through blanket bombing, and the misery of twelve million East Germans who were displaced", who until now, according to Grass, have been only "background subjects": "Even in postwar literature, the memory of the many who died in the bombing or the mass flight hardly found a place."[54]

The Nobel Prize-winner did not, however, turn as storyteller to the bombing, but instead – in his novel Im Krebsgang [Crabwalk][55] – to the theme of displacement and expulsion. What can be read in his book about the unfulfilled "task of his generation" (as it is called by an "elder" who strongly resembles Grass), can equally well be applied to the bombing:

One should never have kept silent about so much suffering, just because one's own guilt was more powerful, because during all those years to admit regret was more urgent [...] This neglect has no justification.

The "avoided theme", the feeling that "only those dead were to be thought about and not the others" – what better way is there to describe the concept of taboo? This is not meant in the religious sense as an established ban enforced by the threat of punishment, but rather something like an unwritten rule, the tacit agreement of a society not to talk about something, or to do so very cautiously. Behind a taboo, when one removes from the word its negative meaning, there can hide unspoken opinions, a silence that has its reasons, a more or less unconscious wariness and fear of being disturbed. That a few less scrupulous authors in the postwar period took up the theme of the bombing without much sense of difficulty does not necessarily refute this consideration. Nor, on the other hand, does the insight of many authors into the immense technical difficulties involved in dealing with the theme, which, rather than the effects of the taboo, led many to remain silent.

Of the younger generation, whoever broached the subject, did so with scruples, with tangible hesitation. Many did so only half-heartedly, such as Biermann, who outlines his experience in verse and autobiographical sketches, but who announced that he would never be able to write a novel about it. Alexander Kluge finds it necessary when writing to maintain an "inner feeling of proportion [...] without the chapter "Verschrottung durch Arbeit" [Worked to scrap], about a concentration camp near Halberstadt, which I had previously dealt with in detail, I would not have been able to tell the story of the air raids". Sebald also said that it was only his past works that enabled him to approach in literary form the subject of the bombing – only on the basis of the descriptions of the suffering of emigrants and refugees described there did he think to be able to allow himself "to bring something" to this topic. Further, only his past work would prevent "the predictable applause from the wrong side coming too close to me".[56]

The uneasiness attached to this subject is far from having been left behind; perhaps it never will be. Anyone who has engaged with the material (more than a few vigorously deny having any knowledge of it) knows that the uneasiness is inherent in it: the mass of dead is unimaginable, the individual fates are too inconceivable, the dark pull of the bodies in the cellars is too frightening, to be able to talk and think about it easily. Had there been only one attack of this kind, for example that on Darmstadt, when on 11 September 1944 more than 12 000 people died within 20 minutes, then perhaps it would have been a familiar tragedy, such as occurred with the famous Lisbon earthquake. But 600 000 dead on the ground and a further 100 000 in the air (that should not be forgotten: the Allied airmen died in inconceivably greater numbers in a similarly horrific manner) – here every form of narrative ultimately comes up against its limits.

It was for this reason that, in all the postwar decades, the bombing was not a popular subject, even if the way it was dealt with varied from family to family. The less the wartime generation was able in the years after 1945 to imagine seeing anything around them other than ruins, the more energetically and forcefully they declined at that time to take account of anything except the prospect of a return to prosperity, one which appeared unexpectedly early.

The oft-repeated question of whether the "nation of perpetrators" ought to occupy itself with its own victims is perhaps best answered with the simple consideration that it makes a difference whether authors (and others too) address this experience of suffering, as occured often enough after the end of war, before the attempt was also made to take stock of the worldwide suffering caused by the Germans; or whether they do so half a century later, at a time when those who repudiate the Holocaust belong to an ever-decreasing bunch of lunatics. Then, in reply to the question of who was responsible for the German cities, even for war-crimes, the first to name must be "that ghastly man", as Hitler is called in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus (1947).[57] Or, as Bertolt Brecht put it in poetry in 1944:

Those are the cities where once, with our "Heil!",
We roared back to the destroyers of the world.
And now our cities are also just a part
Of all the cities that we've destroyed. [58]


  • [1] Wolfgang Koeppen, Gesammelte Werke 2, ed. Marcel Reich-Ranicki et al., Frankfurt/Main 1990, trans. David Wood as Pigeons on the Grass, New York 1988. The following citations are from pages 1-2.
  • [2] Hans Henny Jahnn, Briefe II 1941­1950, ed Ulrich Bitz, Uwe Schweikert. Hamburg 1994, 263.
  • [3] Ernst Jünger, Tagebücher III. Strahlungen II. Sämtliche Werke, part 1, vol. 3. Stuttgart 1979, 505f.
  • [4] Thomas Mann, Tagebücher 1944­1.4.1946, ed. von Inge Jens. Frankfurt/Main 1986, 238.
  • [5] "Bertolt Brecht: Journale 2. Werk, vol. 27, ed. von Werner Hecht et. al. Berlin, Frankfurt/Main 1995, 232.
  • [6] Including the depiction of "The Return to Europe 1950", comparable to Max Frisch's notebooks of the time and up to now hardly noticed.
  • [7] The author Durs Grünbein, who was born after the war, wrote in his diary on 6 August 2000, "Imagine if the had carried out their plan, the bomb, not on East Asia, but over the hometown, Dresden, in whose streets the wolves were howling their collective fate. What would have happened, if... Durs Grünbein, Das erste Jahr. Berliner Aufzeichnungen. Frankfurt/Main 2001, 109.
  • [8] Heinrich Böll: Werke. Essayistische Schriften und Reden 2, ed. Bernd Balzer. Cologne 1979, 44
  • [9] Botho Strauß, Paare, Passanten. Munich 1981, 166.
  • [10] Christa Wolf, Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: Kassandra, Darmstadt, Neuwied 1983, 85, 97.
  • [11] Peter Härtling, Finden und Erfinden, Darmstadt, Neuwied 1984, 51.
  • [12] Cees Nooteboom, Wie wird man Europäer? Frankfurt/Main 1993, 11.
  • [13] Published in English as, The Man Outside, London: Marion Boyars 1971
  • [14] A typical example is the following summary of the book in a catalogue in a public library: "The vegetation of a society thrown together in the labyrinthine basement of a house becomes a model for life lived under the threats of our times." (1968)
  • [15] Hans J. Fröhlich, Tandelkeller, Frankfurt/Main 1967, 92, 215.
  • [16] Reprinted in Hamburg 1943. Literarische Texte zum Feuersturm, ed. Volker Hage. Frankfurt/Main 2003.
  • [17] Frankfurt/Main 1982. Published in English as Detlev's Imitations, trans. Martin Chalmers, London: Serpent's Tail 1991.
  • [18] Detlev's Imitations, trans. Martin Chalmers, 34.
  • [19] Alexander Kluge, Neue Geschichten, vols. 1­18. "Unheimlichkeit der Zeit". Frankfurt/Main 1977, 9.
  • [20] Ibid., 106
  • [21] Interview conducted by the author with Alexander Kluge on 26 Sept. 2000
  • [22] "Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Ein Herzloser Schrifsteller" [A heartless author], in: Der Spiegel, Jan. 1978. The editor, despite all good will, could not resist the following thrust: "It is part of the cost of such literature that its status as literature will always remain unclear".
  • [23] Interview conducted by the author with Walter Kempowski on 25 Feb. 2000
  • [24] Christa Wolf, Gesammelte Erzählungen, Darmstadt, Neuwied 1980, 13
  • [25] Quoted from Adolf Haslinger, Peter Handke. Jugend eines Schriftstellers, Salzburg, Wien 1992, 22.
  • [26] Peter Handke, Die Hornissen, Frankfurt/Main 1966, 12.
  • [27] Peter Handke, Der kurze Brief zum langen Abschied, Frankfurt/Main 1972, 9.
  • [28] Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Erkundungen für die Präzisierung des Gefühls für einen Aufstand, Reinbek 1987, 222.
  • [29] W.G. Sebald, "Zwischen Geschichte und Naturgeschichte", Orbis litterarum, 37/1982, 366.
  • [30] Historians have been even less concerned with the subject of the bombing than fiction writers – with the exception of the hard-working local historians that are to be found in every city that was bombed.
  • [31] Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Aussichten auf den Bürgerkrieg, Frankfurt/Main 1993, 63.
  • [32] Ludwig Harig, Weh dem, der aus der Reihe tanzt, Frankfurt/Main 1993, 213.
  • [33] Günter Kunert, Erwachsenenspiele. Erinnerungen, Munich 1997, 75.
  • [34] Günter de Bruyn, Zwischenbilanz. Eine Jugend in Berlin, Frankfurt/Main 1992.
  • [35] Wolf Biermann, Alle Gedichte, Cologne 1995, 181.
  • [36] Ibid., 157
  • [37] Interview conducted by the author with Wolf Biermann on 8 Feb. 2000.
  • [38] Answer to a Speigel questionnaire entitled "Ein Territorium des Hasses. Deutsche Schriftsteller außern sich zum Nato Bombardement" [A territory of hate. German authors comment on the Nato bombing], in Der Speigel 15/1999.
  • [39] Interview conducted by the author with Dieter Forte on 17 Feb. 2000
  • [40] Monika Maron, Pawels Briefe. Frankfurt/Main 1999, 7.
  • [41] Wolfgang Hilbig, "ICH", Frankfurt/Main 1993, 193
  • [42] Wolfgang Hilbig, "Über Umwege und Rückzüge", Buchreport 1.6.2002.
  • [43] Hans Magnus Enzensberger (ed.), Europa in Ruinen. Augenzeugenberichte aus den Jahren 1944­1948, Munich 1995, 7.
  • [44] W. G. Sebald, Luftkrieg und Literatur, Munich 1999. Published in English as The Natural History of Destruction, trans. Anthea Bell, London: Penguin 2003.
  • [45] Ibid., 71. Original trans.
  • [46] Ibid., 71.
  • [47] Ibid., 10.
  • [48] Ibid., 10.
  • [49] This debate is recorded in detail in Volker Hage, Rainer Moritz, Hubert Winkels (eds.) Deutsche Literatur 1988, Stuttgart 1999, 249-290.
  • [50] Günter Franzen, "Diktierte Reue. Unerwünschte Trauer", Freie Assoziation, 2/1999, 215.
  • [51] Joachim Güntner, "Der Luftkrieg fand im Osten statt. Anmerkungen zur einer fehllaufenden Literaturdebatte", Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 24.1.1998. Also in Deutsche Literatur 1998, 273.
  • [52] Jost Nolte, "Sebald oder Neues über Untergänge", Die Welt, 24.1.1998. Also Deutsche Literatur, 270).
  • [53] Interview with Forte, op. cit.
  • [54] Günter Grass, "Ich erinnere mich. Was ein Schriftsteller mit den Deutschen teilt", Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 4.10.2000.
  • [55] Günter Grass, Im Krebsgang. Eine Novelle, Göttingen 2002. Published in English as Crabwalk, trans. Winston Krishna, London: Faber and Faber 2003,
  • [56] Interviews conducted by the author with Kluge (op. cit.) and Sebald on 22 Feb. 2000.
  • [57] Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus, Frankfurt/Main 1980, 642
  • [58] Das sind die Städte, wo wir unser "Heil!"/ Den Weltzerstören einst entgegenröhrten / Und unsere Städte sind auch nur Teil /Von all den Städten, welche wir zerstörten. Bertolt Brecht, Gedichte 2. Sammlungen 1938­1956. Werke, Vol 12, ed. von Werner Hecht et al., Berlin and Frankfurt/Main 1988, 258.

Published 2005-06-07

Original in German
Translation by Simon Garnett
First published in Osteuropa 4-6 / 2005 (German version), Neprikosnovennij Zapas (NZ) 40-41 (Russian version)

Contributed by Osteuropa
© Volker Hage / Osteuropa / Neprikosnovennij Zapas
© Eurozine

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