In a series of lectures on German responses to the wartime bombing of their country, delivered in Zurich in the autumn of 1997, W.G. Sebald asked why 'the sense of unparalleled national humiliation felt by millions in the last years of the war had never really found verbal expression, and those directly affected by the experience neither shared it with each other nor passed it on to the next generation.' Destruction on a scale without historical precedent - 600,000 dead civilians, 131 burned-out or devastated cities, 43 cubic metres of rubble for every inhabitant of Dresden, 7,500,000 people left homeless - entered the annals of the new nation in the form of vague generalisations, seemingly without leaving any trace of pain. Years of blank terror and sleepless nights, hunger and destitution, spent in a landscape of rubble colonised by rats and heavy with the smell of pestilence and decay, might have been expected to stifle any positive attitude to life. Instead, the Germans began to clear up. And, as Alfred Döblin wrote at the end of 1945, they walked 'down the street and past the dreadful ruins, as if nothing had happened'.
LRB 21 August 2003 | PDF Download