On the Natural History of Destruction

W.G. Sebald

Read May 2005

I overnight in Mainz, Germany, whenever I'm on my way to the Dagstuhl conference center in south-western Germany. I usually stay at the Hotel Königshof. On the staircase landing leading up to the first floor is a poster of an aerial view of the heart of old Mainz taken in May 1945. There are, of course, numerous such aerial photographs of Germany, but I find this one especially evocative because I have come to know those streets rather well. I am always moved by the photograph.

The heart of this book by Sebald is his important essay, ``Air War and Literature''. In it, Sebald effectively asks, ``Where is the outrage?'' He ponders the question of why it is German literature has been so silent about the destruction of German cities; indeed, Vonnegut has done more to capture the horror of that destruction than anything coming out of Germany. For sure, emotions of guilt, a sense of justified retribution, and a desire to return to normalcy have driven authors away; but because the written word is so much a part of Sebald's focus, these answers don't suffice. The slippery slope here is, however, obvious; any attempt to memorialize can give strength to—and even be read as support for—ever-latent extremism, such as neo-Naziism. To Sebald's credit, he wrote this book anyway; the book includes a discussion of some of the letters he received, with his responses.

The book is translated by Anthea Bell, who I had hitherto associated only with her outstanding work on Asterix comics. She makes no mention of that work in her biographical sketch.