Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Shock and Awe in 1940s Style

The following extract is taken from a strange and wondrous essay titled Air War and Literature (Luftkrieg und Literatur) by W.G. Sebald, published in 2003 by Carl Hanser Verlag. Its thematic is that the air war in Europe was an unspeakable horror such that a collective forgetting has wiped it from memory—and that the literary community has utterly failed to record it. Well not quite. As I learned this morning, the essay is available in English as part of On the Natural History of Destruction, by Sebald, but the following extract is my own translation from the German. The book I own was a gift to me of son-in-law and Michelle’s husband, Thierry Paret.
In midsummer of 1943, during a heat spell of long duration, the Royal Air Force, supported by the 8th American Air Fleet, flew a series of attacks on Hamburg. The object of the mission, called “Operation Gomorrah,” was the most complete possible destruction and burn-out of the city. During the attack during the night of July 28, which began at 1 o’clock in the morning, ten thousand tons of explosive and fire-bombs were unloaded over the densely populated residential area east of the Elbe, a region that included the districts of Hammerbrook, Hamm-North and South, Eilbek, Barmbek and Wandsbek. Following an already proven method, four-thousand-pound explosive bombs were deployed by means of which all windows and doors were broken and ripped from their frames; then lighter igniters fell and set the roofs ablaze even as fire-bombs, with a weight up to 15 kilos, broke through into the lower storeys. Within a few minutes gigantic fires burned everywhere over the roughly twenty square kilometer attack terrain; the fires joined their edges so rapidly that a quarter-hour after the descent of the first bombs the entire airspace, as far as one could see, became a single ocean of fire. And after another five minutes, around 1:20, a firestorm of such intensity arose that no human, until that time, could have imagined it possible. The fire, exploding now two thousand meters into the sky, devoured oxygen with such violence that the air currents reached hurricane strength and roared like mighty organs on which all registered had been pulled. It burned like that for three hours. At its peak the storm lifted up gables and roofs and whirled beams and plaster walls through the air, twisted trees out of the ground and drove people before it like living torches. Behind crumbling facades flames shot house-high into the air, rolled like a flood wave with a speed of more than 150 kilometers an hour through the streets, whirled like fireballs in odd rhythms over open squares. In some canals the water burned. Glass panes melted in streetcar wagons; sugar stores cooked in the cellars of bakeries. Those fleeing from their underground shelters sank in grotesque twisting forms into the liquefied asphalt that formed thick blisters. Nobody really knows how many lost their lives that night or how many went mad before death overcame them.

The horrors of modern war, mirrored on the other side by the 57 nights of German bombing of London, called The Blitz, by the twin nuclear descents of atomic bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, echoed by words like Dresden, and marked more modestly on childish memories—mine were those of a child who lived through such things but managed to escape unharmed, Brigitte’s those of a young girl who had to help clear rubble—should be, if at all possible, kept vividly in mind as we contemplate yet more mayhem, endlessly, and the decades keep rolling on.

W.G. Sebald, I think, has a very legitimate point to make. It is that our memory is rather selective. We remember the Holocaust and keep its memory alive, forgetting that it was a part of a much greater display of collective inhumanity in that weirdest of all times that Brigitte and I have lived through. We remember what flatters and not that which instructs. And, indeed, reading such posts as this one does not exactly make one’s day.


  1. I've often been struck by the fact that more people died in some of the conventional bombing firestorms -- especially in Tokyo, Berlin, and Dresden -- than in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    I'm surprised, however, to hear that the impact of strategic bombing in World War II is considered to have been unrecorded in literature. Perhaps it's just that "Slaughterhouse Five" was vivid enough for me to fill the need for any more literature on the topic, especially when nonfiction accounts such as "Hiroshima" by John Hersey are often lumped in with the fiction.

    It seems to me that there's also a good bit of "The London Blitz" stuff out there written by the English. It tends to have the flavor of the victors, though.

    It's also interesting that there's probably at least as much good literature written on the bomber crews ("Catch-22") as on the bombing victims. But then, there weren't many people left at the heart of those conflagrations to write literature afterwards, were there?

  2. The author's actual point, which I did not convey too well, was that literature on the experience of being bombed, particularly in Germany, did not get described by anyone who went through it. I'll get hold of an English language version of this essay, however...

  3. Aside from Holocaust literature, how much German literature of any kind is there on World War II?

    I've never looked into it, but other than Vonnegut I'm not sure I'm aware of any major author in any language who survived one of those truly horrible air raids from beneath the bombs. As I mentioned above, the survival rate from that perspective was pretty slim. There are quite a few who made it through various aspects of the London Blitz, of course.

    You might try going to the Gale online databases and seeing what you can find on the topic in the "Literature Resources from Gale" database. (I might even give it a try this weekend if I think of it and get some time.)

  4. Dorris Lessing writes about coming to London just AFTER the war and the way the city and the Londoners were then : shocked and devastated. And the answer to any question about why something was the way it was , "There's been a war, you know. But you wouldn't understand. You weren't here."
    CS Lewis begins "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" with one line about the four children being sent from London because of the airraids (like Mom to that school in the country in Poland). But then of course, they escape entirely, even from England itself. Those are just two books that I've read that come to mind immediately and I definitely DO NOT look for war literature! And, of course, there's no description in either of the actual bombing. That's why I was quite upset that the movie made from Lewis's novel begins with a scene of a night bombing in London.
    But I get the point you're making and I think you're right that certain sides of WWII have been ousted from official memory and artistic memory.
    That passage is quite impressive! Merci Thierry and Arsen for the translation.

  5. More thoughts. Now I'm generalizing here but I'm struck by the idea that, when it's not from the soldier's point of view (Remarque, for instance), literature often occupys itself with war from a child's perpective - perhaps because the people writing it afterward lived through it and then grew to write about it...
    I'm thinking of Gunter Grass who I think although I've not read it must have written something about the war in "The Tin Drum." I'm thinking of "The Kite Runner" which talks about Afghanistan in the 1990s or late 1980s perhaps after the war with the USSR.
    Then there's Anne Frank, of course. I'm sure the Japanese have loads of examples too. Not that I can think of any off hand...

  6. The Tin Drum is worth reading, but as I remember the book, very little if any focus on the war...

  7. Just wanted to note that I caught up a bit here with a post of my own on Sebald's essay: http://patioboat.blogspot.com/2010/03/book-review-on-natural-history-of.html


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