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From Both Sides Now

Forgive me for referring to Joni Mitchell’s song “Both Sides Now” in a post about war, but simply swapping out one word in her lyric gives us a perfect summary of today’s subject: I’ve looked at war from both sides now. It’s even more fitting that I’ve read somewhere that the inspiration for this song came to her as she was flying in a jet plane looking down at the tops of the clouds below her.

The initial impetus for Françoise Meltzer’s book Dark Lens: Imaging Germany, 1945 (University of Chicago Press, 2019) came from a number of photographs that her mother took in Berlin and other locations in Germany in 1945, immediately after the end of World War II. Her mother’s photographs mostly depict the utter ruination of German cities, the collapsed buildings and broken bridges, and the first attempts at clearing the streets brick by brick. But Meltzer is a Distinguished Professor in the Humanities and chair of comparative literature at the University of Chicago, and she is ultimately after something much larger than what her mother’s photographs can tell us about post-war Germany.

She begins by methodically examining some photographs (both her mother’s and those by some other photographers), paintings, and writings that depict the devastation of German cities in order to ask questions about human suffering. For example, how, if at all, do these depictions of ruins in any of these media help us understand the suffering of others? “Can catastrophe be persuasively represented?”

Jeanne Dumilieu, untitled, 1945.

Looking at photographs, she begins with a close reading of several of her mother’s images. She also discusses how some important critical thinkers have written about looking at photographs, including Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Stanley Cavell, and several others. Importantly, she demonstrates just how easy it is to completely misread what is going on in a photograph. “How we see is always shaped by ideology,” she writes, echoing the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. Ideology is whatever has “educated and thus constructed our gaze.” Keep this in mind as you read my next paragraph.

As Meltzer studies her mother’s photographs, she believes that “we are paradoxically confronting two groups of victims visually absent from the photographs.” The first group is rather obvious: “the thousands of dead civilians, covered over by rubble and ruins.” The second group is not so obvious as the first: “the millions of dead in the [concentration] camps. . . silently and invisibly hovering over the scene.” Initially, I had no problem with this concept, which she calls a “visual prosopopoeia,” or a figure of speech in which an imaginary or absent person is represented. But then I started to wonder how this would work in other circumstances. Is the Holocaust a special case or should we be seeing all sorts of dead hovering over the photographs we see daily? Should we be thinking of the countless dead Native Americans every time we see any photograph made in the United States? Should the dead of 9/11 haunt every image of New York City? What happens with images of places with divided loyalties, like Jerusalem or the Balkans? Different individuals will see different sets of the dead hovering invisibly over every image, each according to their own ideology. I dearly wish Meltzer had explored this issue more deeply and had thought beyond the Holocaust.

She also discusses a few painters, including Karl Hofer and Anselm Kiefer, and a wide range of writers and how each responded to German suffering during and after the war and, more specifically, to the Allied bombing of German cities. On the one hand, there were writers like Hannah Arendt, J. Frank Dobie, and Gertrude Stein who visited Germany soon after the end of the war and came away “convinced that the Germans are escaping their responsibility” by refusing to shoulder their share of guilt for causing the war. These writers felt that the German citizenry had deservedly brought all of the outcomes of the war down upon themselves. But there were other writers who saw the German population with greater differentiation, realizing that not everyone supported Hitler and the National Socialists. These writers tended to take a more cautionary, if not accusatory, attitude toward the Allied carpet-bombing of German civilian populations.

What Meltzer is leading up to is a warning. She and other critics and scholars have seen a recent trend in Germany to balance out all of the victims of World War II, a trend suggesting “that German victims suffered as much as any other victims.” For her, this is morally dangerous and simply a non-starter.

As I was finishing Meltzer’s book I saw the first review appear of Sergei Loznitsa’s new film The Natural History of Destruction (2022), which I have been anticipating for some time now. In language that appears to have been provided by Loznitsa or his crew, the film was briefly described for the U.S. premiere later that happened in March at Ithaca College: “Inspired by W.G. Sebald’s treatise and created entirely from archival footage, The Natural History of Destruction mounts a harrowing critique of the killing of civilian populations during war-time—as seen in the devastation unleashed across both England and Germany during WWII.”

In an early review of the film that is full of subtle insights, Scott MacDonald, writing for The Edge notices the unusually level playing field between England and Germany that is hinted at in this description of Loznitsa’s film.

My own first experience with Natural History seems instructive. My takeaway was that the film was about the mutual brutalities of the second World War, as they played out between the U.K. and Nazi Germany. I assumed I was seeing the devastation that Germany visited on the U.K. and the response of the Allies—though my nagging feeling was that the film didn’t reveal this balance effectively: the Nazis didn’t seem to cause as much devastation as the Allies.

As I watched the film more carefully, I realized that the focus of The Natural History of Destruction is not the mutuality of destruction between the Allies and the Axis, but Loznitsa’s attempt to see the war from the point of view of the Germans—or to be more precise, to consider the full implications of the Allied response to the German war machine. . .

What is unusual about The Natural History of Destruction is Loznitsa’s emphasis throughout the film, and especially during its final minutes, on the overwhelming spectacle of the destruction visited by the U.K. and the USA on Germany. For most of us, the brutality of the German aggression that began the war and which was confirmed, after the war, by revelations of the extent of the Holocaust, has allowed us to feel that the Nazis and all Germans of that era deserved what they got. Indeed, among filmmakers I’m aware of, other than Loznitsa, only Peter Watkins—in both The War Game (1965) and The Journey (1987)—has demanded that we recognize that the Allies were astonishingly brutal in their bombardment of Germany (and, of course, in America’s case, in testing the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in fire-bombing Tokyo). . .

Loznitsa’s The Natural History of Destruction reminds us of how conveniently we’ve used the “victory” of the Allies and the war crimes of Nazi Germany to suppress our awareness, and the filmic evidence, of our own nation’s culpability in wartime horror. Implicitly, he warns us to keep our heads during the current volatile moment.

Scott MacDonald, Guernica 2.0: Loznitsa’s The Natural History of Destruction (2022)

Another, unnamed German reviewer has written:

No one speaks much in [the film] The Natural History of Destruction. The war machinery just plods on until the cities depicted are in ruins. . .

In recent years, Neo-Nazis in Germany have repeatedly used the bombings to relativize the crimes of the Nazi regime. That is not Loznitsa’s intention at all.

Nevertheless, the lack of context and the focus on the suffering of the German population poses potential for criticism. Thus, “an irritatingly skewed view of the war emerges, in which the victims of Nazi terror remain a blank space,” said cultural journalist Christian Berndt on Deutschlandfunk radio. Film critic Patrick Seyboth also notes that Loznitsa’s attitude is “very consistent, but also worthy of discussion.”

Deutsche Welle. “New film on the bombing of German cities in WWII.”

Meltzer concludes her book with the wistful hope that we can somehow transcend the urge toward war.

Perhaps, in confronting representations—whether iconic or textual—the viewer can be motivated to think beyond systems of collective hatred and the vicious cycle of revenge. Perhaps the viewer will be able to think beyond the category of “enemy” and see that the real enemy, truism though this may be, is war itself, along with its political and technological machinery. Admittedly, this “perhaps” is a tenuous and very fragile one. Moreover it has been tried before and clearly failed.


Lens: Imaging Germany, 1945 is a compelling book and I have only scratched the surface of Meltzer’s arguments. I highly recommend it.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. this is very good — but the criticisms you cite show the limits of literary criticism when applied to conflict.

    This is, in the end, the realm of a broader and multidimensional ethics, as we find it in Just War Theory, and Michael Walzer has given some of these issues a nuanced treatment also.

    When it comes to remembrance (and forgive the plug), I think an Ethics of Political Commemoration could help us make similar sense of the debates. Literary criticism leaves the debate in a kind of inchoate state.

    A bit more on this here, and book (that also discusses Sebald, and Dresden a bit) coming out soon.

    May 7, 2023
    • Hans, thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. Most of this is way above my pay grade. I stopped my art history at the M.A. level because I didn’t want to be an academic. I just try to be an attentive reader. I look forward to your book.

      May 8, 2023
  2. Jean #

    Another book of photos and text is Dagmar Barnouw’s excellent Germany 1945:Vieews of War and Violence ( Indiana University Press 1996). Note also Daisy Hildyard’s recent essay “War on the Air” that has a section on Sebald’s book over at Emergence Magazine. For some reason couldn’t get it to load.

    May 8, 2023
    • Jean, thank you. I’ll check these out.

      May 8, 2023
      • Jean #

        Thanks for taking note of my response. It is a fascinating post as always on your part.

        May 8, 2023

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