Death from above

James J. Sheehan is the author of numerous books, including "German History, 1770-1866" and "Museums in the German Art World." He is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University.

In Gunter Grass' great novel "The Tin Drum," there is a description of a nightclub called the Onion Cellar, where the customers, drawn from the postwar German elite, are given raw onions and paring knives. Slicing the onions, Grass writes, "did what the world and the sorrows of the world could not do; it brought forth a round human tear.... At last they were able to cry again. To cry properly, without restraint, to cry like mad." There was, of course, a great deal for Germans to cry about in the years after World War II: millions dead and missing, ruined cities, a devastated economy and the largest number of refugees in modern history. But, as Grass recognized, in the late 1940s tears were hard for Germans to produce, in part because they were physically and morally exhausted, in part because the struggle to survive consumed what energy they could muster and in part because the Germans' own suffering was inescapably compromised by the suffering they had inflicted on others.

Germans did not forget the horrors of the war, and most of them mourned privately for what they had lost. But Germans' private sorrows did not play a prominent role in the public culture of either East or West Germany. Postwar novelists, most of whom were deeply concerned with the German past, quite properly concentrated their attention on Nazism's crimes rather than on the anguish of their fellow countrymen. People did know and care about the German dead and wounded, but there was no way to memorialize them without seeming to shirk the moral burdens of the Nazi past. Efforts to do so, like Chancellor Helmut Kohl's suggestion that Ronald Reagan visit the military cemetery at Bitburg, were deeply embarrassing for all concerned. Nor did the East German regime have much success in its campaign to turn the destruction of Dresden into a Cold War propaganda weapon against the West. Germans have never had a Hiroshima, a site where their own victims could be presented as examples of war's universal inhumanity.

Suddenly, German victims have begun to receive more public attention. Last year, Grass, whose books have probed German history's wounds for almost half a century, published a short novel called "Crabwalk" (available in English this April), which treats the sinking of the Gustloff by a Russian submarine in spring 1945, drowning some 9,000 German refugees. On the German nonfiction bestseller list is a book entitled "Der Brand" ("The Fire"), in which military historian Jorg Friedrich presents a scholarly but impassioned account of what the Allied air war meant for the inhabitants of German cities. Der Spiegel, a weekly news magazine, is now running a series on the bombing, which has also been the subject of television documentaries and newspaper articles.

"On the Natural History of Destruction" is a translation of one of the first and still one of the most profound expressions of this new interest, the lectures on "The Air War and Literature," which W.G. Sebald delivered in Zurich in 1997 and published two years later. Sebald, born in an Alpine village in 1944, was not personally touched by the war, but like every German of his age, he grew up under its long, dark shadow. From 1966 until his death in December 2001, Sebald lived in England, where he wrote (in German) a series of complex, elusive novels that simultaneously examine and exemplify language's struggle to reconcile experience and memory.

In his first lecture, Sebald unflinchingly portrays the horrors of the bombing campaign that killed more than 600,000 German civilians, damaged or destroyed 130 cities, and left 3.5 million people homeless. His descriptions are scenes from some terrible modernist Inferno: whole neighborhoods turned to ashes in the great fire bombing of Hamburg, terrified survivors sinking into molten asphalt as they try to get away from the flames, women fleeing ruined cities carrying the charred corpses of their infants.

Ordinary language, Sebald argued, could not contain the scale and intensity of this devastation: "The death by fire within a few hours of an entire city, with all its buildings and its trees, its inhabitants, its domestic pets, its fixtures and fittings of every kind, must inevitably have led to overload, to paralysis of the capacity to think and feel in those who succeeded in escaping." No less striking was the failure of postwar literature to find a way of dealing with these disasters. Significantly, the most powerful literary description of the bombing, Heinrich Boll's short novel, "The Angel Was Silent," though written in the late 1940s, was not published until 1992. There was, Sebald concluded, "a tacit agreement, equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described." The letters that Sebald received in response to his lectures reflect that mixture of anguish and relief that comes when a taboo of silence is broken.

Although Sebald gives us a vivid account of the bombing and a sensitive discussion of its literary representations, his book has little to say about the historical context. Sebald was in no sense an apologist for Nazism, nor does he suggest a moral equivalence between the air war and Nazism's crimes. But for all its rhetorical power, his book leaves the most important question unanswered: Can the air war be morally justified?

It is easy to answer no to this question only if one believes that the bombing campaign was strategically irrelevant, no more than an act of revenge or political calculation without military importance. This seems to me to be nonsense. While the strategic bombing campaign did not fulfill its champions' inflated expectations, it did substantially contribute to the Allied victory by diverting German resources from the front, disrupting fuel supplies, transportation and industrial production, and -- most significant of all -- distracting and ultimately destroying the German air force. Had hundreds of German fighter planes not been shot down while trying to defend their cities, the Luftwaffe could have made a successful landing in western Europe significantly more difficult, perhaps impossible. Those who condemn the bombing, therefore, must recognize that without it, the war would have lasted longer, the death camps would have continued to function and the number of casualties on all sides would have been greater.

Of course the slaughter of innocent men, women and children is evil: Who could think otherwise? But much of what happens in war is evil, precisely because so many of war's victims are innocent. To see the long pedigree of this sad truth one need only turn to Euripides' "Trojan Women," first performed in 415 BC just after the Athenians had captured Melos, killed every male inhabitant and enslaved the women and children. But if war is always evil, unfortunately it is also sometimes necessary. That is why St. Augustine believed that while waging war may be justifiable, loving war is always sinful. There is nothing to love about the war waged against German cities that Sebald describes in the haunting pages of this book.

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