W. G. Sebald (2003). On the Natural History of Destruction

New York: Random House. ISBN 0-375-50484-2.

Rewriting the Disaster

Robert Leventhal

The disaster is not somber, it would liberate us from everything if it could just have a relation with someone; we would know it in the light of language and at the twilight of a language with a gai savoir. But the disaster is unknown; it is the unknown name for that in thought itself which dissuades us from thinking of it, leaving us, by its proximity, alone. Alone, and thus exposed to the thought of the disaster which disrupts solitude and overflows every variety of thought, as the intense, silent and disastrous affirmation of the outside.’

(Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster)

According to Blanchot, it is not a question of finding an adequate language for the expression of disaster. For in the very grammaticality of the question, the very ‘I’ asking the question or the ‘we’ presupposed within it, the disaster has always already been placed at bay, denied, sublated. The disaster, at the edge of our language, not beyond it, persists as a limit, imposing upon us the possibility of a world-destruction that threatens the statement, my existence, and that of any order around me. Many texts, including the one cited above by Blanchot, but also those of Primo Levi, Susan Sontag, George Steiner, Jean-François Lyotard, Cathy Caruth and others, have grappled with the problem of the expressibility of disaster and atrocity. They have considered how and with what rhetorical and literary means such atrocity can be articulated, and even the possible demise of language in the face of such atrocity. What becomes of language in light of such atrocity? How does literature endure such intentional mass violence and calculated aggression, and how can it respond?

On July 24, 1943, emboldened by new bombing vision and radar-jamming technologies, 740 RAF Pathfinder bombers crossed the English Channel and headed for Hamburg. They dropped 3,000 tons of explosives on the city. During the next two days, US B-17 Flying Fortresses — 68 the first day and 57 the following day — followed-up on the British attack. On July 27, 722 British Bombers returned with incendiary bombs. The fires from the first and second attacks were still burning in Hamburg, and with the additional fuel and combustion, coupled with the destruction of the water mains and the collapse of the Hamburg Civil Defense infrastructure, a fierce firestorm swept through the city, destroying more than 10 square miles, more than half the buildings in the entire city, and killing an estimated 50,000 people in nine days. As the air heated, it rose and cool air rushed in below to take its place. This created furious winds of up to 150 miles per hour in the city, the force of a strong hurricane or tornado. The result was the War’s first firestorm — ‘a fire typhoon such as was never before witnessed,’ reported the Hamburg police chief, ‘against which every human resistance was quite useless.’ Buildings, vehicles, trees and people were blown into flame. The firestorm uprooted trees, tore roofs off buildings, and flung cars into the infernal air. According to some estimates, temperatures reached 1,500°F and the searing winds set the asphalt streets ablaze. People trying to escape actually stuck to pavement. The firestorm swept across bomb shelters, sucking the air out of them and suffocating those who had sought refuge there, and incinerating their bodies.

These were, however, neither the first nor the last instances of combining incendiary bombs with high-explosive ones to create firestorms in cities. The Germans themselves had used this lethal combination in Poland in 1939 and in their bombing of London in 1940, while the American Army Air Corps under General LeMay unleashed a particularly brutal version of this air assault in Tokyo in 1945. It began on March 9, 1945. 334 B-29s dropped thousands of incendiary bombs, mixed with delayed-fuse high-explosive bombs, to hamper fire-fighting efforts. The fire storm raged for 4 days, and no one has ever determined how many civilians died. The official count of the known dead ran up to 83,793 — on a par with the number killed outright by the Hiroshima nuclear bomb, twice the number killed outright by the Nagasaki bomb. There were over 40,000 civilians seriously injured. The fire destroyed nearly 16 square miles of the city.

Ever since then, the use of incendiary bombs has played a vital role in air war campaigns, most infamously in Vietnam, where Napalm was used both to instill terror in the population and destroy well-hidden jungle compounds and bunkers. Writing of the terror of such bombings, Edgar Snow is quoted in Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing(2001).

But [bombings] arouse a completely personal hate that no one can really understand who has not huddled in a cellar or burrowed his face in a field to escape dive bombers or seen a mother search for her son’s torn off head or smelled the stench of burning schoolchildren. (75)

In a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine, the era of aerial bombing is traced in five different war contexts. What is beyond doubt is that the terror of aerial bombardment is an integral part of modern warfare, one which causes immense civilian casualties and trauma, both for the actual victims and the survivors. Even with the advent of so-called ‘smart-bombs,’ laser-and GPS-guided ordinance, the civilian casualties of aerial bombardment in modern warfare will continue to be extremely high because of the increased destructive force and the possibility for intelligence error.

The central essay in W.G. Sebald’s final book On the Natural History of Destruction — ‘Air War and Literature’ — asks a question and articulates a blindspot in the literature of post-war Germany. How is it that the enormous destruction wrought on the German Reich figures in literature only as a backdrop, and even then, in many instances, both in the literature and in the commentary and criticism, it only appears as an abstract keyword — Die Katastrophe? How is it that with the intentional, systematic and cataclysmic undoing of the German world in the last two years of the war, only a handful of texts even strafe the area of the disaster, and when they do, they are often rejected or repelled by the reading public? How is it that perhaps the single most important event in the history of modern Germany — the destruction of 131 of its cities — was avoided and blocked out in the writing after the war? Except for a handful of literary examples, from which he cites and which he uses to fuel his argument, Sebald describes this literary euphemism and indicates how and why the destruction of Germany by Allied bombing was squelched, deleted, or, when represented, positioned in such a way as to avoid a confrontation with the devastation. The so-called Trümmerliteratur (the ‘Literature of Ruins,’ as it was called after the war), exemplified in the works of Böll and Borchert, does not really address the ruins themselves, the devastation of the aerial bombardment of Germany. Sebald’s essay thus points to an omission, a lacuna in the development of German Literature since 1945. On The Natural History of Destruction includes some other essays – on the literary figures Alfred Andersch, Jean Amery, and Peter Weiss – but my focus in this review will be ‘Air War and Literature’ as it is for me the defining essay of the book.

With the exception of a handful of writers — Böll, Reck, Nossack, Kluge, Schmidt, and de Mendelssohn, each of whom found a different narrative tone and style in addressing the destruction — the ‘catastrophe’ as it was called serves more as a backdrop than as a literary subject in its own right. Inevitably, some of the writers fall into stereotypical description, others elude reality with the use of metaphorical language. Given the magnitude of the devastation, Sebald asks how the aerial bombardment of Germany could be relegated to near oblivion, how it had not become a, if not the, central motif of post-war German literature

There is another argument, however, that emerges in this book. The title — drawn from (Lord) Solly Zuckerman’s intended text for Horizon magazine, which never appeared — hints at a new method of considering acts of mass destruction such as the bombardment of Germany, one which differs from either purely historical accounts or merely literary responses. Examining not so much the eyewitness reports (the traumatized survivors are not entirely reliable narrators of their experiences and have, in Sebald’s words, something ‘erratic’ and eerily out of touch with the reality in their accounts) or the military documents (the mere accumulation of ‘facts’), Sebald is interested, as the title suggests, in the devastation as an event-in-itself, apart from political and ideological considerations. He wants to explore it in terms of its psycho-social and moral impact in the broadest sense. Sebald attempts to convey the incapability of people to comprehend what had happened to them, the enormity of the devastation, and the staggering volume of the loss, which exceeded any individual’s ability to grasp the destruction of their world. Kluge’s insistence on a social organization of disaster, the way in which such disasters frame and model our images of modern happiness, as well as Mitscherlichs’ psycho-social explanation of the specific German post-war ‘inability to mourn,’ also point the way toward a method of consideration that looks at the confluence of trauma, guilt, and repression, in other words, beyond the experience of the individual and what documentary histories are able to convey. Twice Sebald indicates this psycho-social dimension as being of particular interest: ‘attitudes to the realities of a time when urban life in Germany was almost entirely destroyed have been extremely erratic Â… one can speak only of a persistent avoidance of the subject, or an aversion to it Â… for reasons probably to be sought partly in the subject itself, partly in the psychosocial constitution of those affected.’ (93) and ‘The more of these reminiscences I read, the more likely it seems that there were psychosocial origins to the aberration which developed with such momentous consequences’ (84).

He is, of course, referring to the case studies and book by the Alexander and Margarethe Mitscherlich, whose Inability to mourn (The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior [1967] German: Die Unfaehigkeit zu trauern [Munich; Piper, 1967]) can be summarized in the following way: post-war Germans were unable to mourn the death of the father-figure Hitler and the regime with which they had so powerfully identified. Because of the guilt of having brought the ‘catastrophe’ on themselves, of having actually contributed to the decimation of their cities and the their people, combined with the guilt of having either acquiesced or actually contributed to the murder of the European Jews, the Germans who survived the firestorms were not only unable to properly mourn the loss of the war, their cities, their friends and loved ones, and their institutions, they were also unable to acknowledge how strongly they had identified with the murderous regime and its leader. Whether or not individual Germans were indeed in some way responsible for what had happened in Hamburg and Dresden, they must have believed, at some level, that they were, to some degree, to blame for the destruction that had occurred. With such a highly ambivalent relation to Hitler and the deeds of the Nazis, the Germans could not, with anything approaching a clear state of mind, confront their own past as collaborators or, worse, as co-perpetrators. This ‘inability to mourn,’ their guilt and shame dammed up and locked inside, caused a collective depression, blockage, obstruction and contributed to their inability to articulate what had happened to them and their cities. Put another way, their own guilt of co-responsibility prohibited a proper mourning and working-through that would have enabled them to recognize what had happened and why it had happened, and to understand the depth and scope of the devastation which befell them.

The silence, aversion, bracketing-off or avoidance described by Sebald can thus be seen as understandable, if unfortunate reactions to the Germans’ own aggression and sense of overwhelming guilt and shame: ‘While there were unmistakable signs of catastrophe engulfing the whole country, it was not always easy to get a detailed picture of the manner and extent of the destruction. The need to know was at odds with a desire to close down the senses. On the one hand, large quantities of disinformation were circulating; on the other, there were true stories that exceeded anyone’s capacity to grasp them.'(23) Alexander Kluge, in his ‘The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945,’ writes the following: ‘the population, although obviously showing an innate wish to tell its own story, had lost the psychic power of accurate memory, particularly within the confines of the ruined city.’ Sebald: ‘the accounts of those who escaped with nothing but their lives do generally have something discontinuous about them, a curious erratic quality so much at variance with authentic recollection that it easily suggest rumour-mongering and invention.’ (24) On clichés and stereotypical phrases (of which ‘Katastrophe‘, which Sebald himself repeatedly uses, is one), Sebald writes: ‘Their function is to cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend’ (25).

However, Sebald’s essayistic prose is not entirely free from the rhetorical structures of writing and literature — metaphor, euphemism — that his own writing seeks to critically describe. His own linguistic description of the fire-bombing of Hamburg resorts to metaphor:

The fire burned like this for three hours. At its height, the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and advertising billboards 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 one hundred fifty kilometers per hour, spun across open squares in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders of fire. (27).

His own vulnerability to, or inability to altogether avoid, the rhetorical mechanisms of literary language underscores the inherent difficulty of the description or depiction of atrocity. Sebald recognizes his own inability to escape entirely from these literary tropes, his own collusion with the ‘voyeurism’ of much of the literature: ‘To this day, any concern with the real scenes of horror during the catastrophe still has the aura of the forbidden about it, even of voyeurism, something that these notes of mine have not entirely been able to avoid’ (98).

Rather than ponder over how the German ‘catastrophe’ threatened language, or how it ‘exceeded’ our articulatory capacity — a discourse of the new sublime in evidence in much of postmodern criticism on the writing of the Holocaust — Sebald is far more interested in the paradox of writing about it, the intrinsic dilemma literary representation faces vis-à-vis such a massive undoing of the world. On Hans Erich Nossack’s account of the destruction of the city of Hamburg in Der Untergang, he writes: ‘The ideal of truth in its entirely unpretentious objectivity, at least over long passages, proves itself the only legitimate reason for continuing to produce literature in the face of total destruction. Conversely, the construction of aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects from the ruins of an annihilated world is a process depriving literature of its right to exist.’ (53) Referring to the Mitscherlich’s Study (The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior [1967] German: Die Unfaehigkeit zu trauern [Munich; Piper, 1967]), Sebald confesses: ‘The more of these reminiscences I read, the more likely it seems that there were psychosocial origins to the aberration which developed with such momentous consequences’ (84).

If we attempt to untangle the various threads here — the possibility of articulating a disaster in general, the specifically German task of writing the disaster after the devastation, and the failure of German literature to really respond to it — then Sebald’s essay is difficult to assess. He neither offers a compelling new argument as to why German literature failed, nor does he prescribe what would have been an adequate or appropriate response, except insofar as he praises specific German writers and advocates a more realistic and concrete representation of the destruction. At the end of the central essay, Sebald returns to the problem of German guilt, and the probable cause for the failure to recognize and deal with the devastation. The Germans pioneered the saturation bombing of civilian centers at the beginning of World War II in Guernica, London and Poland, and that this same fate should return to them at the end of the war is one of the horrible ironies of history. Precisely the technology and the horror they had unleashed on civilian populations, something that must have remained with them as they suffered the indescribable, would afflict them on a far greater scale at the end of the war.

Sebald’s essay shares with his literary output a certain detached and even elegiac tone, as if the mindless machinery of war had rolled over the country as naturally as a tidal wave or a great storm of fire would sweep through a city; as though there is an adequate memory to do justice to the events of 1944-45. But nowhere in Sebald’s reflections do we find references to human intentionality or forethought, planning or the desire to inflict horrible suffering on a population. The title itself implies and proposes a different way of considering such acts, and the facts regarding such decisions are of course well known. A natural history of destruction implies an inevitable process, a violent mechanism devoid of any volition or conscious program. But can we altogether abrogate intention and function, politics and ideology, the role of the human desire for retribution and the specific aggression inscribed within the destructive forces unleashed upon Germany? Can we bracket off revenge and retribution for the V-1 terror that had been cast upon London, and the resultant pathology of guilt and trauma left not merely unresolved, but largely repressed and ignored in the Wirtschaftswunder of the 50s in the Germans? Finally, the Holocaust appears as an immense palimpsest in Sebald’s essay, a ghost that haunts his prose and the question he raises. Was it in part the revelations of the atrocities committed by the Nazis that would not allow a mournful and sustained engagement by German authors with the destruction of Germany and the German civilian population?

As the economic reconstruction buried all traces of the deep wounds inflicted on Germany and Germans, and the American market economy sought to diminish the damage done by the promises of a bright future of growth and prosperity, the voices of those who uselessly suffered in the aerial bombardment of Germany 1944-45 were obscured not only by guilt and an inability to articulate the terror of what occurred, but also by literary representations that circumvented or sidelined the bombing.

In this way, the avoidance and repression identified by Sebald as a symptom was actually not merely an appropriate and telling response but also a productive force itself. In a kind of twist already prescribed by Adorno in Aesthetic Theory, as German literature of the post-war era systematically failed to represent the horror, it actually succeeded in representing the ways German society circumvented and obscured the trauma of its own destruction, as well as its role in the war and the Holocaust. Literature is often not only a space of shared memory and recollection, but also a lesson-book for future generations; and in this case the failure of German literature had the most deleterious effects on the collective German attempt to comprehend what had occurred. In other words, post-war German literature, precisely insofar as it failed to document and probe the devastation, succeeded in demonstrating the failure Sebald documents in his book On the Natural History of Destruction.


Blanchot, M. (1995) The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. A. Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Lindqvist, S. (2001) A History of Bombing. New York: The New Press.

Mitscherlich, A. & M. (1967) The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior; German (1967) Die Unfaehigkeit zu trauern. Munich: Piper.

Rob Leventhal gained his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1982. He taught at Washington University (1982-86) and University of Virginia (1986-1995). He is the author of The Disciplines of Interpretation: Lessing, Herder, Schlegel and Hermeneutics in Germany 1750-1800 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1994) and Reading after Foucault: Institutions, Disciplines, and Technologies of the Self 1750-1830 (Detroit: Wayne State, 1994). He has written articles on Kant, Vico, Heidegger, Thomas Bernhard, C.G. Heyne, and, most recently, Wim Wenders