Will Barton

On the Natural History of Destruction, by W G Sebald.

Very few writers could approach this book’s subject matter and deliver such a powerful, methodical damnation of a generation. W G Sebald asks a simple question in the first essay: how is it that the near-total destruction of Germany by allied bombing in World War II has been so completely ignored by the survivors, and particularly by German culture and writers?

Although he never calls it by this term, the core of Sebald’s anger is directed at the moral relativism that is used to justify evading the topic: German crimes during the war were so horrible (and they were) that the wanton destruction of the entire nation was justified. Sebald is angry that the experience of living through such atrocities was so thoroughly repressed by the survivors that the memory was not passed on the future generations. Instead there seems to have been a near-unanimous cultural suicide. Sebald describes growing up feeling as if a secret were being kept from him, like a part of his identity as a German was being denied. It was an Etch-A-Sketch end to the past, without context or meaning.

Although Sebald doesn’t really mention it (his critique is aimed directly at the German people), American and British writers have had the moral courage to broach the subject, and it has given us fantastic and disturbing books like Slaughterhouse-5. These help us to center our moral compasses; we can recoil in horror at the firebombing of Dresden (and Tokyo) while fully maintaining our outrage at the Holocaust. The morality of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still a heated subject for debate today.

It is this that Sebald finds lacking in German culture, and, in the remaining essays, he singles out writers who contributed to this collective evasion. It is not, as one so often sees it referred to, amnesia. Sebald is quietly, methodically angry, and his prose has never been better than it is in these essays.