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Sebald’s Sonthofen (Digressing into Werner Heisenberg)


There is a brief but curious exchange about W.G. Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction on, of all places, the U.S. Army in Germany website where several retired Army personnel have posted reminiscences of being stationed in Sonthofen, Germany in the early 1950s. Sebald’s family moved some 19 kilometers or so from Wertach im Allgäu to Sonthofen in 1952 when he was about eight years old and he recalled the town still bearing scars from Allied air raids:

nothing seemed as fascinating as the presence of areas of waste land here and there among the rows of houses… On February 22 and April 29, 1945, bombs had been dropped on the totally insignificant little market town of Sonthofen [page 74]

In 2004, as several retired soldiers posted their recollections of Army life in Sonthofen, one wrote:

A matter of some interest to me arose this past year: a book, entitled, “On the Natural History of Destruction”, by an Allgaeuer from Wertach (near Sonthofen), W.G. Sebald, who was only one year old when the war ended, came to Sonthofen in 1952 and saw the “ruins” of two aerial bombings that occurred on February 22 and April 29, 1945. I was dismayed by the (what I thought to be) serious misstatements of fact. We were told, in 1950, that only one bomb was jettisoned onto the town and hit the Brewery which, in any part of Germany, was a major catastrophe.

Herr Sebald was killed in an automobile accident recently and can’t be questioned about what he saw in Sonthofen, but can any of the Constabulary people confirm or deny his statements. I’d love to hear about it. I contacted the USAAF Archives at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, but they have no record of such a “raid” on either of those dates, but they said it may have been an RAF happening.

Unfortunately, the few responses that this post elicited don’t do much to resolve the question of how significantly Sonthofen was bombed in the final months and days of World War II.

burg-sonthofen.jpg Burg Sonthofen, location of the U.S. Army base

However, in trying to discover a little more about Sonthofen, I discovered that physicist Werner Heisenberg was traveling by bicycle and train through the region around Sonthofen and the Allgäu during late April and early May 1945. In his diary Heisenberg reports on almost daily air raids as the Allies closed in on the collapsing German war effort. Here is part of what he wrote on April 20, 1945:

Shortly behind Leutkirch appear large convoys of American bomber planes accompanied by fighter planes up above. From a sheltered spot near a little chapel I watch the destruction of Memmingen. Huge plumes of smoke and waves of detonation; thus I am glad not to have gone via Memmingen. In Krugzell in the Iller Valley a decent meal in a diner, then a long nap under trees on a glacial hill, about 9km north of Kempten. From there one can see all of the Allgäu Alps, especially the mountains surrounding Sonthofen, where I had been in boot camp seven years ago with the mountain troops. 5pm departure in the direction of Kaufbeuren. Cloudless skies all the time. Since I have been going for 50 km already this day, I have trouble ascending from the Illertal. Around 8 pm arrival in Kaufbeuren, fight for a glass of tea in the overcrowded waiting room at the station, I am hungry and am now feeling the exertion of the last days. 10pm the train leaves for Schongau, there pacing from 1am to 5am in the waiting room filled with a horde of half grown boys in SS uniform, probably from the Balkans. I don’t dare sleep, fearing for bicycle and luggage. At 5am departure of the train for Weilheim. [See Note below.]

Memmingen, which was destroyed before Heisenberg’s eyes, lies less than 40 miles north of Sebald’s home in Wertach.

It’s curious to imagine the Nobel Prize winning author of the Uncertainty Principle alternately napping on a mountainside and watching Allied bombers over the valleys where one year-old Winfred Georg Maximilian Sebald lived at the time.I wonder what Sebald would have thought of Heisenberg”s often-quoted line: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

But, back to my digression with Heisenberg’s diary. On April 22, fifteen days before the surrender of Germany, Heisenberg reports that his wife and “Mrs. Linder have baked a cake, the children are playing out on the terrace in the sunshine, thus we are celebrating the Sunday as if it were total peace time.”

For me, the most curious entry comes on April 29 (one of the dates that Sebald claims Sonthofen was bombed). Heisenberg and his wife were in Kochel (south of Munich) to buy provisions. The town was full of “loitering” SS and foreign laborers, all waiting the inevitable “occupation” by the Allies, when Heisenberg sees a train waiting in the station “with prisoners from Dachau who look terribly starved and pale”. Since the liberation of Dachau (more than 40 miles to the north) was underway that very day, where could the train seen by Heisenberg have been heading?According to what I read, the last train into Dachau, the so-called Death Train, arrived there on April 26.

[Note. At the time during which this post was written (October 2007), portions of Werner Heisenberg’s diary were posted on the Nuclear & Particle Physics Group section of the University of New Hampshire website at, but there is currently no reference to this any longer at the UNH website. The connection had to do with the fact that Heisenberg’s son Jochen was a Professor in the Physics Department there. (See February 2022]

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Prof. Richard Sheppard #

    Dear Terrypitts, I was a colleague of WGS (Max) 1970-87 at UEA and a friend of his and his wife until his death. I am now retired and doing extensive research into WGS. The bombing of Sonthofen, which concentrated primarily on the railway station and barracks within the town, would probably have been carried out by fighter-bombers of the 2nd Tactical Air Force. I’ve seen pictures of the bombing and it happened, tho’ perhaps not on the dates given. When the Sebalds moved to Sonthofen in Dec. 1952, they moved into a new block of flats that had been constructed on the site of the old station – which was destroyed during the raids. These were purely tactical, not part of of the area bombing of German cities, and would have sought to disrupt communications and military sites. Even if you find the records of 2TAF, Sonthofen may not be mentioned as a target. The pilots may have been given sophisticated instructions such as “go and shoot the shit out of any Kraut railway junction south of Memmingen”. Yours, Professor Richard Sheppard.

    October 14, 2007
  2. Chris Going #

    In 1000-2001 I was involved in creating ‘peril maps’ of Second World war UXO for the railway between Innsbruck and Kaufbeuren and to that end inspected and collated most of the primary data on the bombing of Bavaria/western Austria in the period September 1944-May 1945. So can I suggest Prof. Sheppard is right to draw attention to the damage inflicted on villages such as Sonthofen by 2TAF, but that its location suggests the damage was due to fighter-bomber attacks not by the British 2TAF but by elements of the American 12th Air force. The dates -Feb 22nd and April 29th- can be checked against munitions expenditure reports and I will be glad to do so if anyone thinks it important to do so. Furthermore Reconnaissance air photographs of the area will exist -certainly ‘Casey Jones’ material (from 1945), which tho’ of amll scale will probably show where the damage actually was.

    But ‘bomb damage’ can get applied to things that were not damaged. As a boy in the late 1950’s I was fascinated by the exposed brickwork of a demolished building in Great Dunmow, in Essex, which was ascribed to ‘War damage’. I now think it was brough down by anno domino and indifferent construction…

    In the two years before his death I began to wish very much to talk to Max. What I was doing, as a former archaeologist, in mapping the geography of war chimed closely with his efforts with words. But I was too late to provide the cover of the English edition of Luftkrieg und Litteratur -a 1945 colour photograph of the ruined Hauptbahnhof at Cologne with the twin spires of the cathedral casting a shadow across it…

    With best wishes,

    Chris Going

    January 17, 2008
    • Prof. Richard Sheppard #

      I’m sure, on reflection, that you are right about the US 12th Air Force. I haven’t been able to locate any relevant records and I hope that someone can do so. Fette Beute … Richard Sheppard

      October 6, 2012
  3. Matthias #

    Dear Terry,
    the city center of Sonthofen was nearly completely destroyed after the two bombings Sebald describes. Not only the brewery, also the catholic church, a hospital, the railway station and many other buildings (ca. 70% of the old town) were seriously damaged. So when Sebald moved to Sonthofen in the early 50s, he may have seen several ruins or waste land, although the rebuilding of the town was already going on.
    The three barracks (including the “Burg”) in town were not destroyed during the war.
    With best wishes from Sonthofen,

    March 7, 2008
  4. Philippa Comber #

    Dear Terry Pitts,

    With regard to links between WG “Max” Sebald and Werner Heisenberg, I’d just like to mention that I had the privilege of knowing them both personally, albeit at different times of my life. I can therefore confirm that Max was indeed familiar with the thinking of Heisenberg – we frequently referred to this in conversation. Perhaps surprisingly, the two of them had more than a little in common – not least that they were both keen walkers! Yours Philippa Comber

    September 14, 2008
    • Philippa Comber #

      Dear Terry Pitts,

      Since last contacting you in September 2008, I have some important news which you might wish to add to the Sebald website! This coming September (2014) sees the publication of my book Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory of W.G. Sebald, published by Propolis Books (based in Norwich, UK) as a hardcover and ebook. Briefly, the book is designed as a memoir-cum-memorial for Max, who had been a close personal friend of mine since August 1981. Should you like more details, background information etc., please don’t hesitate to let me know.

      Yours ever,

      Philippa Comber

      July 14, 2014
  5. That sounds an incredible venture, Philippa:)Yes please could you give publication date and price and where exactly the hardcover version of your memoir of Max can be obtained. Many thanks, Steve Benson

    July 14, 2014
    • Right now, the best information is on the Facebook page of The Book Hive. Scroll down to May 24, 2014 for book details. There’s a skeletal listing at both Amazon and Book Depository.

      July 14, 2014
    • Philippa Comber #

      Title: Ariadne’s Thread – In Memory of W.G. Sebald
      Author: Philippa Comber, with a Foreword by Iain Sinclair
      Publisher: Propolis Books, Norwich, U.K.
      Publication Date: 5 September 2014
      Price: £14.99 hardback, also published as an e-book
      ISBN: 9780992946005

      July 28, 2014
      • Thanks for that Phillipa; look forward to it!

        July 28, 2014
  6. Hannelore Gagnon #

    Very interesting. My family’s building in Stuttgart was bombed and my pregnant mom was evacuated to Gunzesried. My brother was born in Immenstadt, February 1944 and I was born April 27, 1945. Everyone walked up the hill to watch Sonthofen being bombed on that day. I wish we had asked more questions but that is not something you did.

    January 19, 2022
  7. Hannelore, Thank you so much for this bit of your family’s history.

    January 19, 2022

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