"A signal is needed against the one-sided mourning in Germany," declared Peter Lauer, a sixty-four-year-old schoolteacher taking part in a neo-Nazi counterdemonstration to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden, on February 13 of this year. "We must also mourn the German victims." The emotionally charged anniversary was also marked by an official ceremony and a mass processionin which many of the marchers bore white roses as a symbol of opposition to the presence of Lauer's group, the largest neo-Nazi gathering in decades. But while Lauer identifies himself as a supporter of the rightist National Democratic Party (NPD), which now holds twelve seats in the local Saxon parliament, his sentiment does not represent merely Germany's fringe. Indeed, this year's anniversary of the end of the war has seen not only official commemorations of the enormous death toll brought about by the Nazi regime but also much attention paid to German suffering and German civilian casualties incurred during the Allied bombing of cities like Dresden. This development, which can be charted along a number of different lines (historical, literary, popular, etc.), was previously unimaginable.
For over half a century, German discussions of the Third Reich have focused almost unremittingly on the crimes committed by the Nazis, and in doing so have tended to implicate not only Hitler's most fervent supporters but the German population as a whole—for its passivity, for its basic endorsement of the regime, for its incapacity to recognize the heinous nature of the National Socialist cause. Even if these discussions have occasionally been punctuated by sharp challenges—such as the infamous Historikerstreit ("historians' dispute") of 1986, when a strident effort to normalize the German past was put forward by conservative historian Ernst Nolte—Germans have generally felt deeply and irreversibly entrenched on the side of the perpetrators. As a result, a sense of bereavement for their own people has not come easily. In the late 1960s, the psychoanalysts Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich wrote presciently of Germany's "inability to mourn." In the years since, the self-imposed silence often elicited by mention of the war or the Holocaust has similarly impaired any candid expression of German loss.
But in fall 1997, in what was one of the first prominent, unflinching examinations of German suffering during the Allied air campaign, the acclaimed German novelist W. G. Sebald gave a series of lectures in Zurich under the title "Air War and Literature" (published in English translation, after Sebald's untimely death in 2001, as On the Natural History of Destruction). Pitched in a semipolemical vein, Sebald's remarks took to task German writers of the previous generation, and the German public along with them, for falling under the spell of a kind of "individual and collective amnesia," a willful forgetting that kept them from addressing this vital part of their postwar identity. As Sebald told it, from the end of the war into the late 1990s very few literary testimonies were written, and those that were faced severe delays in publication—as in the case of Heinrich Böll's dark war novel Der Engel schwieg (The Silent Angel), which was written in the late 1940s but didn't appear until 1992—or barely reached an audience. Despite the fact that so many Germans were profoundly affected by the unprecedented devastation—according to Sebald's calculations, some six hundred thousand civilians died in the air raids, and by the war's final days 7.5 million citizens of the former Reich were without a home—the topic was essentially closed to debate. Germany, in Sebald's words, was "always looking and looking away at the same time."
As a result, the subject of German loss had no place in the dominant postwar narrative of reconstruction and rebirth, the so-called Wirtschaftswunder ("economic miracle") for which the Federal Republic of Germany would soon become famous. Not unlike the protagonist of R. W. Fassbinder's politically minded 1979 film Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun), a woman whose relentless zeal for upward mobility mirrors the development of the nation, postwar Germany was largely content to paper over its tarnished image, to rebuild directly atop the ruins, and to avoid, at all costs, looking back. As Sebald put it, "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 even be privately acknowledged."
As we know from period documentary footage, mainly photographs and newsreels, a number of German cities were completely leveled in World War II. The Allied air campaign left them buried beneath mountains of ruins; Dresden alone had as much as 42.8 cubic meters of rubble per inhabitant. The Allied bombing of Dresden represents, for many, an especially tragic example, given that it occurred so late in the war, that it destroyed the city's most precious cultural institutions, and that Dresden, unlike Hamburg, was not considered a vital military target. In his survey of the destruction, Sebald includes, as he typically does in his fictional work as well, an array of uncaptioned photographs, providing a visual dimension to his words. The poignant images—decimated cityscapes dotted with heaps of rubble, charred body parts strewn across a city street, bombed-out buildings evoking statuelike severed torsos or ancient ruins—betray not only the horrifying scale of the destruction but also the sweeping effort to repress these horrors. In a number of instances, Sebald includes a diptych, the first an image from the aftermath of the bombings, the second a shot of the city reconstructed. (A recent German publication, Dresden Vaterstadt, a father-son photographic collaboration by Jochen and Harf Zimmermann, takes a similar approach—presenting snapshots from 1949 juxtaposed with those taken from the same vantage point in 2004—to show the complex course of urban development and to remind viewers what the city had looked like before it was rebuilt.) "People's ability to forget what they do not want to know," Sebald avers, "to overlook what is before their eyes, was seldom put to the test better than in Germany at that time. The population decided—out of sheer panic at first—to carry on as if nothing had happened."
While very few works of the so-called Trümmerliteratur, or "rubble literature," published in the immediate postwar period meet Sebald's exacting standards for an unrestrained confrontation with German experience of the air raids, there are several that pass the initial test. He mentions, with qualified praise, literary works by the German authors Böll, Arno Schmidt, and Hermann Kasack, as well as non-German eyewitness reports by Stig Dagerman and Janet Flanner, among others. Also on his list is one of the most riveting accounts of the war, novelist Hans Erich Nossack's threadbare, laconic rendering of the firebombing of Hamburg, Der Untergang: Hamburg 1943, first published in Germany in 1948, as part of a collection of the author's shorter pieces titled Interview mit dem Tode (Interview with Death), and published in English translation this past winter as The End. Nossack recorded his observations of the decimated city in November 1943—during the actual attacks, he and his wife happened to be vacationing in a village beyond the city outskirts, across the Elbe River—just a few months after Operation Gomorrah, as the Allied air campaign was called, had taken its toll. Nossack opens in the matter-of-fact style he maintains, with a few notable exceptions of allegorical and poetic flourish, throughout much of his account: "I experienced the destruction of Hamburg as a spectator. I was spared the fate of playing a role in it. I don't know why. I can't even decide whether that was a privilege. . . . For me the city went to ruin as a whole, and my danger consisted in being overpowered by seeing and knowing the entirety of its fate." He then explains, with acute self-awareness and unusual foresight, the nature of his undertaking:
I feel that I have been given a mandate to render an account. Let no one ask me why I presume to speak of a mandate: I cannot answer that. I feel that my mouth would remain closed forever if I did not take care of this first. Also, I feel an urgency to set it down right away, even though only three months have passed. For reason will never be capable of comprehending as a reality or preserving in memory what happened there. I am afraid that, if I do not bear witness now, it will gradually fade like an evil dream.
As if possessing a sick, prophetic sense of the blanket of silence that would soon come to shroud the event, Nossack then proceeds to transcribe his impressions of the devastation around him. Like his fellow wartime diarist Victor Klemperer, whose multivolume Ich will Zeugnis ablegen bis zum letzten (I Will Bear Witness) gives a Jewish eyewitness account of the war years, Nossack sees his role as a kind of moral imperative.
Nossack's chronicle addresses, and even anticipates, many of the same issues that Sebald would treat in his lectures more than half a century later: the "uncanny silence," the almost immediate desire to move forward, the guilt, fear, and shame that promptly set in. The End portrays, in a number of revealing instances, how the trauma from the attacks manifested itself: "People were simply without a center, the roots were torn out and swayed back and forth in search of some soil." A woman Nossack observes, surrounded by rubble, insists on frantically scrubbing her windows. In a related moment, he notes how Hamburg's citizens, reverting to their established bourgeois habits in the wake of the bombing, sit on their verandas and drink coffee. Even those who lost family and friends appear, in Nossack's account, bent on erasing—or repressing—the experience. "How often, when I ask one of the victims about someone who I know was their friend, do I hear the answer: He's finished for me." One finds in Nossack's narrative that along with the palpable sense of doom (the original German title, Der Untergang, means at once "the collapse," "the demise," and "the downfall"), there are also hints of a new beginning. Unable to dismiss or repress these urges, and clearly made uncomfortable by them, Nossack instead confronts them as they impinge on his project. "Why go on? I mean, why record all this? Wouldn't it be better to surrender it to oblivion for all time? For those who were there certainly don't have to read it. And the others, and those who will come later?"
Nowhere in Nossack's short work does one detect anger at what has occurred or anger directed at those who dropped the bombs. Although he refers to the air raids as "punishment" (in German the word he uses is Gericht, which comes from juridical language and means "tribunal" or "judgment"), he is also quick to insist, "I have not heard a single person curse the enemies or blame them for the destruction. When the newspapers published epithets like ‘pirates of the air' and ‘criminal arsonists,' we had no ears for that." It's almost as if he quietly accepts the bitter hand dealt by the Allied attacks and sees them as a justified response to the Nazi megalomania: "We felt our fate to be the end." It is, perhaps, this remarkable candor and humility that first prompted Sebald to champion Nossack as the sole German writer who "was ready or able to put any concrete facts down on paper about the progress and repercussions of this gigantic, long-term campaign of destruction."
If, as Sebald suggests, the German public was incapable of countenancing Nossack's unvarnished account at the time of its initial publication, the American public was no better equipped. Translator Joel Agee notes in his foreword to the English edition that when he first tried to find a publisher for the work in the early '70s, during the Vietnam War, he was told that "Americans just weren't prepared to sympathize with a German description of the suffering of Germans in World War Two." Now, however, sixty years after the end of the war, Americans may be more willing to accept the idea of German suffering. Even more important is the unmistakable affinity that Nossack's text has with other accounts of terror and trauma, and that, in the wake of our own experience with air attacks at home, we are now, sadly, able to appreciate. Anyone who witnessed 9/11 firsthand is apt to relate to Nossack's somber, almost surreal landscape, "the smell of charred household effects, of rot and decay, hanging over the city," coupled with "the population's readiness to help."
The American edition of The End includes, as an appendix, a selection of the wartime photographs of Hamburg surreptitiously taken by acclaimed photojournalist Erich Andres. There are, as one might expect, images of the spectacular ruins, some of them still smoldering while the city's inhabitants traverse the rubble; there is also the shocking image of charred corpses lying next to a scorched bucket, the same photo that Sebald incorporates into his text. But the shot that may speak most directly to an American audience still haunted by the specter of photographs of missing loved ones plastered on the walls and lampposts of New York City shows a soldier writing in chalk on a bare concrete wall. In the adjacent photo appear the words "Hilde, where are you? We're alive" (this is echoed in Nossack's text: "Where are you, Mother? Please let me know. I now live at this and that place").
When Sebald wrote his Zurich lectures, and when he articulated his claim that "we [Germans] have not yet succeeded in bringing the horrors of the air war to public attention through historical or literary accounts," military historian Jörg Friedrich had yet to publish his monumental, highly controversial work Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg, 1940–1945 (The Fire: Germany in the Bombing Campaign, 1940–1945, the English translation of which is forthcoming from Columbia University Press). In a radical departure from previous scholarly norms and standard areas of emphasis—Friedrich himself previously worked on research projects dealing with Nazi war crimes and the Holocaust—The Fire sets out to document the full magnitude of the Allied air raids as experienced in German cities across the Reich. When the work appeared in Germany in 2002, critics were quick to call foul, not so much because of what Friedrich had attempted to do but because of how he had done it. By personalizing the story, by providing eyewitness accounts in lurid, painful detail (an act of "hysterical expressivity," as one German critic called it), and by employing the type of language previously reserved for discussing victims of the Holocaust, Friedrich opened himself up to charges of historical revisionism and cozying up to the radical Right.
Yet Friedrich's book is also brimming with statistics, which he often wields the way a talented trial lawyer marshals evidence. Consider, for example, his discussion of the Hamburg firebombing, an odd mixture of straight information and rhetorical flourish: "The approximately 40,000 fatalities in the July 1943 campaigns are, together with those in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, emblems of the most extreme kind of violent warfare ever inflicted upon a creature. Not because of the streams of blood spilled, but rather because of the way that living beings were erased from the world with a deadly wind. In fire bombing as in nuclear war very little blood flows. Rescue workers in Hamburg report that the hurricane-like, blazing gusts of air reached hundreds of people one later found lying naked in the streets. Their skin was allegedly of a brown texture, their hair in good condition, their mucous membranes in their faces dried up and incrusted." Friedrich was castigated for such passages and also for failing to emphasize sufficiently that Germany had itself pioneered the bombing raids, in cities such as Warsaw (1939), Rotterdam (1940), and Coventry (1940). In reaction, in a recent piece in the German daily Die Welt, published just days before the sixtieth anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden, Friedrich made a point of noting the German precedent but added a critical rejoinder. In his words, "It was only since 1943 that the incineration of cities from the air had amounted to deliberate mass killing. The fire bombing of Hamburg killed 45,000 [sic] people overnight, more than the Luftwaffe had achieved in nine months of dropping bombs on England." Just as the Historikerstreit applied great pressure to the issue of moral equivalency—with the effort from the Right to compare the crimes of Hitler with those of Stalin—so, too, the issue resurges in Friedrich's work.
What Sebald lamented about the lack of open discourse on the air war appears to have been blown apart with the publication of Der Brand, and in the three years since, the topic of German suffering has been addressed with more fervor than Sebald may have been able to imagine. Authors as diverse as Günter Grass and Uwe Timm have taken up variations of the subject in their work—the Russian sinking of a Nazi cruise ship carrying German refugees in the case of Grass, and the indoctrination and ultimate sacrifice of young, naive Germans at the hands of the SS in Timm—and contemporary filmmakers have similarly seized on the occasion to shift their focus to formerly taboo terrain. Though it has the same title as Nossack's book, Oliver Hirschbiegel's blockbuster film Der Untergang (Downfall) is not about the Allied air raids in Hamburg, but about Hitler's final moments under siege in Berlin. Much of it takes place in the depths of Hitler's bunker, where the increasingly deluded Führer, played with mesmerizing skill by Bruno Ganz, loses his grip. The film follows Hitler on his suicidal path, but it also shows how those around him—especially his young, naive secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara)—are made to suffer. We witness the poisoning of the Goebbels children, the mass suicides, the destruction of those who act out their ideological will to sacrifice, and, finally, the salvaged hopes for rebirth among those who survive Hitler's wrath. In his review of the film, J. Hoberman likened it to a German Kammerspiel, or "domestic drama," a tradition that tends to emphasize the intimate nature of characters and their social relations over external politics and larger concerns. Although it has been criticized for humanizing Hitler, what Downfall really does is domesticate German suffering, an effect it may share with Friedrich's work.
While this debate raises real, well-placed fears of vulgar revisionism, and of playing into the hands of neo-Nazi slogans such as the "Bombing Holocaust" (even Nossack's text has found its way, in excerpted form, onto the American right-wing website Stormfront, the "White Nationalist Community" platform from which David Duke airs his weekly speeches), it also has led to positive developments. German authors, filmmakers, historians, and the public at large have been challenged to face a part of German history that needed to resurface. Even if some of the consequences may be frightening, bottling up this agonizing chapter of history is no longer an option. Toward the end of In My Brother's Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS, Uwe Timm observes, "They [the Germans] did not know because they would not see, they looked away." A mere eight years after Sebald voiced grave concerns about Germany's propensity to repress the past, to always be "looking and looking away at the same time," it is now no longer possible to look away.
Noah Isenberg is chair of humanities at the New School in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, the New Republic, and other publications.