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Posts from the ‘On the Natural History of Destruction’ Category

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.

Ukrainian Film Based on W.G. Sebald Book Debuts at Cannes Film Festival

Film still from Sergei Loznitsa’s The Natural History of Destruction.

As the Washington Post put it, “The war in Ukraine took a starring role on the opening night of the 75th Cannes Film Festival and it has rarely been far out of frame since.” One of the reasons for this was Sergei Loznitsa’s film, The Natural History of Destruction, which is based on the book of a similar name by W.G. Sebald. Loznitsa’s film received its premiere at the Festival on May 23. A regular at Cannes, Loznitsa has shown eight films at the Festival since 2010, including maidan, a film about the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, and last year’s Baby Yar. Context, a documentary about the slaughter of 300,000 Jews in 1941, at the hands of German soldiers, with the assistance of Ukrainian police, which occurred just outside Kyiv.

Loznitsa is no stranger to Sebald’s books. In 2016, he made a 94-minute documentary film called Austerlitz, which was related to Sebald’s novel of the same name, although his film did not follow the plot of Sebald’s book at all. For that film, Loznitsa followed tourists around as they spent a summer day at the Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz, in Poland. The film forces viewers to think about the uneasy mix of visitors who make their way to Auschwitz, ranging from those who view it as a sacred site of death, perhaps even where members of their own family were murdered, to more carefree tourists who treat the place as just another stopover on their summer vacation, almost like a Disney-type attraction. In a review of the film, Nicholas Rapold wrote:

“the film is perhaps above all a haunting meditation, in which the physical history of the camps battles with oblivion. In one sequence, visitor after visitor takes a selfie with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign on the camp’s front gate. It is easy to be unnerved by the casual manner and lack of emotion of many visitors in the film, though others are shown in states of contemplation as they reckon with the camps.”

Nicolas Rapold, “Sergei Loznitsa’s Movie ‘Austerlitz’ Observes Tourists in Concentration Camps” New York Times Aug. 31, 2016
Film still from Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz.

Austerlitz, and several other of Loznitsa’s films, can be viewed on his website for a small fee.

Peter Bradshaw, writing in the May 24, 2022, Guardian, describes The Natural History of Destruction as a “docu-collation of archive footage meditating on the horrific aerial bombardment inflicted on cities and civilian populations by the British and Germans during the second world war.” But, unlike most documentaries, there is no voice-over. Instead, Loznitsa adds ambient sound, indistinct murmuring, and the music of a string octet. The overall effect, he says, is “sinister and dreamlike.” Bradshaw concludes that “the basic point about the waste and horror of war is entirely valid,” but he adds “I wasn’t sure that enough, and enough of original interest, was being said.”

In the Washington Post, Loznitsa was asked about his controversial opinion that Russian filmmakers should not have been kept from participating in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “Our duty as filmmakers is to try to understand what’s going on around us,” he said. He was also kicked out of the Ukrainian Film Academy for not supporting a boycott of Russian filmmakers. “I believe our duty is defend culture, all culture. The culture of any nation, of any people, belongs to the entire world.”

Loznitsa’s film is based on Sebald’s 1999 book, Luftkrieg and Literatur, which was published in English in 2003 as On The Natural History of Destruction. The original German title refers to a series of lectures that Sebald gave in Zurich in 1997 on how German literature responded to the Allied carpet bombing of German cities toward the end of World War II. Sebald’s lecture was met with some anger, and the book has continued to create controversy ever since. In the book, Sebald discussed the Allied culpability for the massive civilian deaths that resulted from their carpet bombing of German cities, along with his perception that German writers had largely failed to do justice to this critical historical subject.

Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine had not taken place when Loznitsa was making his film, the Russian destruction of Ukrainian cities and murder of civilians clearly made Sebald’s book—and Loznitsa’s film— seem prescient. “It became clear that the lessons of 80 years ago haven’t been learned,” Loznitsa is quoted as saying by the Washington Post. “It seems possible for us as humans to be thrown back 80 years to the stage where all these atrocities and terrible things were possible. . . If we want to remain human, we need to stop this. This should not be acceptable to a civilized society.” Loznitsa said he next plans to make a film about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

There is currently no word on when or where Loznitsa’s film On The Natural History of Destruction will be shown next.

Documentary Film of “The Natural History of Destruction” Receives Funding


Film still from Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz, 2016.

The Lithuanian Film Centre has announced its second round of funding pre-approvals for 2020, which includes funding for a documentary film by Sergei Loznitsa about W.G. Sebald’s On The Natural History of Destruction. There is no word on how Loznitsa might make a film about such an argumentative short book (based on a series of lectures he delivered in Zurich). In On The Natural History of Destruction, Sebald writes about the astonishing devastation wrought by Allied air raids on German cities in World War II and the seeming absence of this history in Germany’s cultural memory, especially in its literature.

In 2016, Loznitsa made a film called Austerlitz, inspired by Sebald’s book of the same name. In that film, he simply followed tourists as they spent a summer day at the Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz in Poland.

Writing about this film in Unsung Films, Angeliki Coconi asked of the people wandering around Auschwitz,

Why are they here? What have they come to find? A memorial site that receives thousands of tourists every year; “this is the place where people were exterminated; this is the place of suffering and grief,” Loznitsa says. Yet there is a Disneyland feeling about this place, that we can’t come to grasp. . . This feels like an amusement park of death and torture, where genocide is seen as the ultimate holiday experience.

You can watch Austerlitz (and several other of Loznitsa’s films) here online (for a small fee).

Sebald, Kluge & Competing Translations

Kluge Air Raid

Alexander Kluge’s writings clearly exerted a great influence on W.G. Sebald, especially Kluge’s important 1977 book Neue Geschichten: Hefte 1–18: “Unheimlichkeit der Zeit” (which roughly translates as “New Histories: Notebooks 1–18: ‘The Uncanniness of Time’) . Neue Geschicten is written in a flat, non-literary prose that becomes a montage of voices, photographs, drawings, and charts. Last year, Seagull Books released Kluge’s book Air Raid, which includes what I believe to be the first English translation of a section from Neue Geschichten. The bulk of Air Raid, which is translated by Martin Chalmers, consists the the text titled “The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945,” which appears in Neue Geschicten as the second of the eighteen notebooks ,”Der Luftangriff auf Halberstadt am 8. April 1945.”About a third of Air Raid consists of related pieces by Kluge drawn from several of his other books. Air Raid then concludes with Sebald’s “essay” on Kluge called “Between History and Natural History. On the Literary Description of Total Destruction. Remarks on Kluge.”

Kluge Neue Geschichten

Kluge Neue Geschichten Page

[Front cover and page spread from Alexander Kluge, Neue Geschichten, 1977.]

In addition to his innovative inclusion of photographs and other types of visual material, Kluge, I suspect, gave Sebald a strategy for writing about traumatic, historic events that he himself had not experienced. In his remarks on Kluge, Sebald wrote: “The reader may learn [from Neue Geschichten] how personal involvement in the collectively experienced course of events…can only be meaningfully condensed, at least heuristically, through analytical historical investigations, through reference to the prehistory of the events as well as to later developments up to the present day and to possible future perspectives.” In other words, carefully researched hindsight can be more meaningful than an eyewitness account.

So far, there has not been much opportunity for competing English-language translations of Sebald’s work to appear. About ten of the poems that appeared in For Years Now (2001) – a book that was apparently translated into English by Sebald himself – also appeared in Unrecounted (2004) in translations provided by Michael Hamburger. And then there is Sebald’s essay on his close friend, the artist Jan Peter Tripp,translated for Unrecounted by Hamburger and for the essay anthology A Place in the Country by Jo Catling. At first glance, I thought that the Sebald essay in Air Raid corresponded with a section of Sebald’s longer essay “Air War and Literature,” which appears in both Campo Santo and On the Natural History of Destruction,both translated by Anthea Bell, thus letting us compare two translators approaches to a full essay by Sebald.

Alas, in a footnote, translator Martin Chalmers traces the complicated history of this excerpt from Sebald’s piece on Kluge.

Kluge Air Raid Footnote

Nevertheless, Chalmer’s translation of Sebald’s piece in Air Raid is pretty comparable to Anthea Bell’s version on pages 84-95 of the American edition of Campo Santo.So, just for fun, here is a comparison of  page 85 of Bell’s version (top) and page 126 of Chalmers’ version (bottom).

Anthea Bell translation

Martin Chalmers translation





New Edition: On the Natural History of Destruction


Sebald book collectors haven’t had much new to add to their collection since Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 came out a year ago.  But now there is a handsome new addition to anyone’s Sebald bookshelf.  Notting Hill Editions (London) has just released a new cloth-bound edition of W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction using the 2003 Anthea Bell translation.  Unlike previous British and American editions, this version reverts to the original content of the original 1999 German edition, which was titled Luftkrieg und Literatur.  The Notting Hill volume includes only Sebald’s Foreword and the two essays: “Air War and Literature: Zurich Lectures” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: On Alfred Andersch,” eliminating the essays on Jean Amery and Peter Weiss that were added when the English-language version was posthumously released in 2003.  The slim, compact volume is very beautifully done, being  designed, printed and bound in Germany.

Notting Hill’s website  rewards poking through (don’t overlook the Videos page). is intended to be the hub of all Notting Hill Editions activity, developing a community around great essay writing. To achieve this, author, Daily Telegraph columnist and blogger Harry Mount will be editor of our online journal featuring new essays monthly, and Ophelia Field will dynamically referee our Top Essay Chart, where the public get to select and vote on the Greatest Essays of All Time, emphasizing once again, the vital role essays have had in our literary, artistic, philosophical and political cultures.

Nossack’s The End: Caught in the Middle

Nossack End

How ought such a natural history of destruction to begin? With a summary of the technical, organizational, and political prerequisites for carrying out large-scale air-raids? With a scientific account of the previously unknown phenomenon of the firestorms? With a pathological record of typical modes of death, or with behaviorist studies of the instincts of flight and homecoming?

In Air War and Literature, the essay that dominates W.G. Sebald’s book of essays On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald deplored what he saw in immediate post-war writing by Germans about the devastation that their country suffered in its defeat, especially the near total destruction that resulted from the Allied tactic of firebombing German cities. “There was a tacit agreement,” he suggested, “equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described.” Sebald then named a handful of writers who “ventured to break the taboo on any mention of the inward and outward destruction,” even if they “generally did so rather equivocally.”

Indeed, it seems that no German writer, with the sole exception of Nossack, was ready or able to put any concrete facts down on paper about the progress and repercussions of this gigantic, long-term campaign of destruction.

Sebald particularly praised Der Untergang, Hans Erich Nossack’s account of the July 1943 firebombing of Hamburg, which was included in a group of stories in a book called Interview mit dem Tode (Interview with Death), first published in Germany in 1948. Probably because of the attention it received in Sebald’s book, Der Untergang finally appeared in English in 2004 from the University of Chicago Press, translated by Joel Agee and retitled The End: Hamburg 1943.

By sheer luck, Nossack, a writer living in Hamburg in 1943, took his first vacation in years on the very week that the city was firebombed by Allies. Staying in a small rental cottage within sight of the city, Nossack witnessed the days of bombing and the ensuing flight of survivors before making his way back into Hamburg to see if anything was left of his home and office. At the outset, Nossack identifies himself as a “spectator,” an observer who used his location at the fringe of events – rather than at their center – to his advantage. There was a “danger,” he said, at “knowing the entirety.” Though his writing vacillates between the utterly precise and the casually impressionistic, Nossack uses his relentless sense of observation to try to understand the survivors, who, because of their experiences at the center of the firebombing, stand on the other side of “an invisible abyss.” “Why didn’t they cry and lament?” It seemed to him that “shelter, food, and clothing basically didn’t make any difference at all.” At this level, Nossack’s enterprise of trying to comprehend this horrendous experience from which he was largely exempt is not unlike Sebald’s own attempt to slowly excavate the damaged lives of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in The Emigrants.

But Nossack is more than an observer, he is also a moralist.  Watching others applaud each time an Allied plane is downed, he declines to join in.  “Now was no longer the time for petty distinctions as that between friend and foe,” he writes before quoting from Homer’s Odyssey about the unholiness of rejoicing over the death of enemies.    But Nossack goes even further and confesses his own sense of guilt “in the city’s destruction.”   Moreover, he suspects other Germans also secretly harbor the same sense of guilt, a theme on which he elaborates throughout The End.

Nossack’s brief book is the document of someone who records the nuances of his own response as the world around him is being destroyed.  “One must confess or forget, there is no third option.”  Ironically, it is only as he returns to “the dead city” that “at last real life begins.”  At that point, it felt “as if a prison door had sprung open before me…”

Sebald’s essay (based on lectures delivered in Zurich in 1997 and later published in The New Yorker) created its own little firestorm. There have been questions about his motivations, his circumscribed list of responsible writers, and his basic thesis – none of which do I really want to wade into. But over the weekend, as I reread The End after a lapse of several years – Nossack’s piece is a mere 63 pages long – I found myself inevitably caught up in the controversy all over again, because the topic somewhat oddly consumes much of translator Joel Agee’s Foreword. “It is worth taking a closer look at Sebald’s thesis,” Agee writes, “because it espouses a program in which Nossack cannot be enlisted without misunderstanding him.” (Agee’s Foreword can be read here.)

There is no doubt that Air War and Literature is a problematic essay. In this and many of Sebald’s later essays, we are presented with an author that is a blend of Sebald the writer of prose fiction and Sebald the historian and critic of German-language literature. Eschewing academic approaches for a more personal essay, Sebald approaches the complex issues of German guilt and Allied moral culpability through the more informal avenues of lecture and essay, rather than developing a tightly argued case. At times, his uncharacteristic imprecision about what he likes and dislikes in German literature of the war era provides an opening for the objections of Agee and others. For example, Sebald makes the somewhat odd claim that Nossack was “primarily concerned with the plain facts,” a statement that earns him the disdain of Agee.  In Sebald’s eyes, Nossack stood out from other German writers on the subject of the firebombings because he wrote about

the season of the year, the weather, the observer’s viewpoint, the drone of the approaching squadrons, the red firelight on the horizon, the physical and mental condition of refugees from the cities, the burnt-out scenery, chimneys that curiously still remain standing, washing put out to dry on a rack outside a kitchen window, a torn net curtain blowing from an empty veranda, a living room sofa with a crochet cover, countless other objects lost forever, the rubble burying them and the dreadful new life moving beneath it, people’s sudden craving for perfume.

Agee disputes Sebald’s claim. “These are not ‘plain facts’,” he writes. And he has a point. For, as one reads and rereads Sebald’s comments on Nossack, his position becomes ever more convoluted. In addition to delivering the “plain facts,” Sebald praises Nossack for the manner in which he delivers his facts. He approves of Nossack’s tendency to link “the sacred with the utmost profanity…a device that always proves effective.” Moreover, Nossack’s “narrative tone here is that of the messenger in classical tragedy.” Flipping and and forth between Nossack’s book, Sebald writing about Nossack, and Agee writing about Sebald, I began to think that the differences between Sebald and Agee are more semantic than substantive. Nossack, it seems to me, is not notable for his “plain facts” (although there are plenty of them) as much as for the telling details, which are something altogether different. One night, while taking shelter from the bombing in the cabin’s basement, Nossack knocks something over in the dark and it breaks. It was “a glass bowl that didn’t belong to us.” It’s a typical Nossack moment to register the brief concern that he has broken something that belongs to the cabin’s owner while all of Hamburg is on fire. Or to notice that some escaped pet parakeets have taken to sitting in the branches of a poplar tree. In fact, Nossack himself admits he didn’t remember much of what the survivors said to him as they fled. “It’s not really important,” he writes, as if what they might say was far less important than what they were doing.

Agee’s Foreword has the tone of someone quickly trying to mark the boundaries of his turf as an unwanted stranger approaches. Nonetheless, I also think he properly suggests one of the motivations of Sebald’s essay in something he writes at the end of one of his footnotes:

An unstated motif throughout Sebald’s essay appears to be a polemical claim for his own quasi-documentary aesthetic as the only responsible way to contemplate the bitter truth of historical memory.

While Agee is correct here, I don’t think he should be in the least surprised. Writers and artists have always proposed their own aesthetic lineage (often through a process of misdiagnosing or creatively misreading the work of their predecessors) and they often find ways to leave a trail of breadcrumbs between themselves and those fore-bearers they most admire. Sebald practically said as much himself in Air War and Literature.

It is with this documentary approach, which has an early precursor in Nossack’s Der Untergang, that German postwar literature really comes into its own and begins the serious study of material incommensurable with traditional aesthetics.

Dresden, the Blanche DuBois of Germany

Studio Daniel Libeskind – Military History Museum, Dresden

The February 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker contains an article by George Packer about the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945, the topic of W.G. Sebald’s lectures in On the Natural History of DestructionThe New Yorker online has a summary of the article and a short slide show, but the full text of Packer’s article can only be read by subscribers or in the print edition.

Packer is interested in how the city has attempted to recuperate its self-image (was it the guilty party or the victim?) through its still-ongoing reconstruction.   In a reference to Tennessee William’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, he calls Dresden “the Blanche DuBois of German cities – violated, complicit in its violation, desperate to recover its innocence.”

Packer also talks with Daniel Libeskind, who is transforming the city’s Alberstadt arsenal into a Military History Museum, which, Packer says, “will surely cause outrage when it is completed.”  Libeskind calls the design for the building “an interruption.”  “It will be impossible for visitors to tour the traditional rooms without passing through the trapezoidal openings in Libeskind’s disorientingly angled concrete-slab walls ” – walls that soar “upward in every conceivable angle except ninety degrees.”

As Libeskind tours Packer around the construction site they reach the top floor, which, fittingly, is not level. Libeskind turns to Packer and says: “It’s like a collapse, isn’t it?  You feel it in your knees – do you feel it?  Maybe it’s the reflex of a body feeling that a building’s collapsing on it.  You can’t be neutral in these spaces.”  Sebald, it seems to me, often intervened in history so that the floors were no longer level, giving the reader the feeling that everything was on the verge of collapsing inward.

Elective Affinities: Nine on Sebald


Elective affinities…are the type of willful connections made among disparate objects which go beyond actual correspondences such as shared dates or locations. [James P. Martin]

Hot off the press is the 2007 Gegenwarts Literatur: A German Studies Yearbook, which focuses on W.G. Sebald through nine essays (four in German, five in English). The secret word (to invoke Groucho Marx and You Bet Your Life) that pops up repeatedly is Goethe’s phrase “elective affinities,” which seems about as good a phrase as any to describe the collective thrust of these essays. Here are my quick and greatly oversimplified summaries of the ones in English.

Richard Langston (Elective Affinities: Sebald and Kluge on Feeling History) simultaneously contributes to and examines the ever-growing aftermath to Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction by dissecting Sebald’s complex re-thinking of Alexander Kluge, especially on Geschichtsgefühl, or feelings about history.

Ben Hutchinson (Der Erzähler als Schutzengel: W.G. Sebald’s Reading of Giorgio Bassani) speculates on the influence that Bassani had on Sebald, based in part on a close examination of the marked-up copies of Bassani’s books in Sebald’s archive. When Sebald was asked about the writers that most influenced him, Bassani was the only non-German writer in the list.

James P. Martin (W.G. Sebald’s Die Ringe des Saturn) discusses the roles that melancholy and exile play in the construction of Sebald’s narrators.

At the heart of this project [Der Ringe des Saturn] is the Sebaldian narrator, a melancholic wanderer whose deliberately peripheral, emigrant perspective evokes the flood of memories and significations in the representation of catastrophic events. [page 132]

The inability of atrocity to be conveyed in its totality using representational language, demands an oblique approach to history and a peripheral perspective upon the traces of destruction in material culture….Sebald’s wandering narrator recognizes that a condition of being-in the-world, in a Heideggerian sense, is that one is forced to continually interpret reality in order to create meaning, and that this process necessarily entails a partial destruction of that reality…in order to create the possibility of a new meaning… [page 133]

Karen Remmler (The Shape of Remembering: W.G. Sebald’s Die Ringe der Saturn and Austerlitz) deals with the way in which memory functions in these two novels, especially the memory of traumatic pasts. She explores the various geometric patterns which recur and which both store and trigger memories (think of the quincunx and the fortress at Breendonk).

Peter O. Arnds (Dans la Salle des Pas Perdus: Wandering, Dwelling, and Myth in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz) reads Austerlitz and Sebald through the lens of Heidegger.

Authors writing on Sebald in German are Doren Wohlleben, Claudia Öhlschläger, Elena Agazzi, and Yahya Elsaghe.Other essays in the volume deal with Elfriede Jelinek, Turkish-German writer Ermine Sevgi Özdamar, and Urs Widmer.


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]