:: Article

On Remembering, and Technological Progress

By Houman Barekat.

WG Sebald, On The Natural History of Destruction (trans. Anthea Bell)
Notting Hill Editions, 2012

[E]ver since I had been to Munich … few things were so clearly linked in my mind with the word “city” as mounds of rubble, cracked walls, and empty windows through which you saw the empty air.

The trauma of growing up among the ruins of World War Two was a formative experience, not only for the late WG Sebald (1944-2001), but for the modern German nation as a whole. The memory of the incineration of large swathes of several of its major cities was tucked away in an obscure recess of the collective consciousness, to be occasionally revisited by scholars and historians but largely effaced in the wider society. Sebald’s Zurich lectures, an impassioned yet laconic interrogation of this historical amnesia, became On the Natural History of Destruction. Originally published in German in 1999 under the title Luftrkridg und Literatur, Anthea Bell’s English translation was first published in 2003 by Hamish Hamilton, and reappears here in a slim hardback courtesy of Notting Hill Editions.

For Sebald, the tragedy of the war and its aftermath had its roots in a fundamental weakness in the national character: he traces a link between ‘the German catastrophe ushered in under Hitler’s regime and the regulation of intimate feelings within the German family.’ This notion was subtlety alluded to in Michael Heneke’s 2009 film, White Ribbon, which hints at a connection between the repressed rigidity of social life in early 20th century Germany and the later brutality of the Third Reich. The same emotionally detached Protestant stoicism that had allowed National Socialism to thrive also coloured the character of the post-war rebuilding – the nation became like a family with dark secret about which it dared not speak.  Sebald takes us beyond the cordon sanitaire, and back to the burning cities:

At its height the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising hoardings 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 150 kilometres an hour, spun across open squares in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders of fire. The water in some of the canals was ablaze.

His purpose is not to exculpate or rehabilitate the German nation or even to elicit sympathy as such, but merely to invite recognition on a basic human level, to claw something back for posterity in defiance of that blanket silence. ‘The majority of Germans today know,‘ he candidly maintains, ‘that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived.’ Sebald reminds us that ‘[t]he real pioneering achievements in bomb warfare – Guernica, Warsaw, Belgrade, Rotterdam – were the work of the Germans.’ Indeed, the grimmest irony in these pages finds us in Altmarkt, Dreseden, where the corpses of some 6,865 Germans were burned on pyres in February 1945 by an SS detachment, using skills they had acquired and honed at Treblinka to dispose of the bodies of their countrymen.

What, then, of the moral implications of this campaign of bombing, in which civilian populations were deliberately targeted in order to effect maximum terror and demoralisation on the belligerent Germans? In today’s world it would be classified as a war crime; back then, with the stakes as high as they were, the Allies apparently didn’t even give it a second thought. Sebald cites the work of the German author Alexander Kluge, who speculated that such a campaign became a sort of logical inevitability once the advanced capabilities were in place to carry it out:

… the problems of conducting an orderly cycle of operations involving “200 medium-sized industrial plants” flying towards a city and of the technology ensuring that the bombs would cause large-scale fires and firestorms – all these factors … show that so much intelligence, capital and labour went into the planning of the destruction that, under the pressure of all the accumulated potential, it had to happen in the end.

These sentiments were echoed in an interview with a US Army Air Force Brigadier called Frederick L. Anderson, who remarked that the bombs were ‘expensive items’ and so ‘couldn’t have been dropped over mountains or open country after so much labour had gone into making them at home.’ The enthusiasm with which the Americans deployed their atomic bomb at the end of the war might easily fall into this bracket (what, in purely strategic terms, did the second bomb achieve that the first one had not?).

The result of the prior claims of productivity, from which with the best will in the world neither responsible individuals nor groups could dissociate themselves, was the ruined city laid out before us…

Fast forwarding to the present day, we see that those ‘prior claims of productivity’ are asserting themselves once again. As Barack Obama’s administration mires itself in all kinds of legal and semantic gymnastics to give the appearance of respectability to its indefensible drone warfare policy, one increasingly gets the sense that it isn’t really the President’s call to make. The machinery of the National Security apparatus has a momentum that is largely independent of developments in the political sphere, and relatively immune to interference from civil society.

Having gone to the trouble of making drone missile technology, it seems an awful shame not to use it; you can’t just keep it in reserve for a rainy day, because there are big-money contracts at stake, livelihoods and so on – the stuff has to be used.  So you reason backwards: you play around with your definition of what counts as self-defence, until it covers just about any kind of pre-emptive action, including the (repeated) summary execution of suspects in a foreign jurisdiction. As we have seen time and again in the course of the ‘War On Terror’, it is precisely in that obscure margin between exigency and legality that the potential for abuse – and a slide into barbarism – is greatest.

Houman Barekat edits the literary journal, Review 31. He lives in West London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 1st, 2013.