Wednesday 09 February 2005


In The Specters Haunting Dresden Theodore Dalrymple suggested that, nearly sixty years after the end of World War II, Germans are unable to take pride in their cultural heritage, which they regard as irretrievably tainted by the atrocities of the Nazi era.

Collective pride is denied the Germans because, if pride is taken in the achievements of one’s national ancestors, it follows that shame for what they have done must also be accepted. And the shame of German history is greater than any cultural achievement, not because that achievement fails to balance the shame, but because it is more recent than any achievement, and furthermore was committed by a generation either still living or still existent well within living memory.

I have no idea whether Dalrymple’s assertion is correct. It’s been 25 years since I was briefly in Germany, where I visited only Frankfurt and Heidelberg. Nowadays, the occasional German movie, W. G. Sebald’s books, and Scott Hanson’s weblog are as close to Germany as I get.

Aerial photograph of Dresden taken immediately after the 1945 raidsSebald drew attention, as Dalrymple notes, to “a curious lacuna in German literature of memoirs or fictional accounts of the bombing and its aftereffects. Millions suffered terribly, yet there is hardly a memoir or a novel to record it”

In Air War and Literature, the first chapter of On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald writes:

There was a tacit agreement, equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described. The darkest aspects of the final act of destruction, as experienced by the great majority of the German population, remained under a kind of taboo like a shameful family secret, a secret that perhaps could not even be privately acknowledged.

The lectures upon which Air War and Literature are based were delivered in 1997. Even then, as Sebald notes, accounts of the Allied bombing campaign against Germany were relatively sparse:

Apart from Heinrich Böll, only a few authors—Hermann Kasack, Hans Erich Nossack, Arno Schmidt, and Peter de Mendelssohn—ventured to break the taboo on any mention of the inward and outward destruction, and as we shall see, they generally did so rather equivocally. Even in later years, when local and amateur war historians began documenting the fall of the German cities, their studies did not alter the fact that the images of this horrifying chapter of our history have never really crossed the threshold of the national consciousness.

Nossack’s Der Untergang has been recently translated into English and published as The End: Hamburg 1943. Sebald compares it favorably with the Hiroshima Diary of doctor Hachiya Michihiko, who documented the plight of the victims in the two months after the first atomic bomb was dropped. Sebald quotes Elias Canetti, who “asks what it means to survive such a vast catastrophe, and says that the answer can be gauged only from a text which, like Hachiya’s observations, is notable for precision and responsibility.”

“The same may be said of Nossack’s account of the destruction of the city of Hamburg,” adds Sebald, “which is unique even in his own work. The ideal of truth inherent in its entirely unpretentious objectivity, at least over long passages, proves itself the only legitimate reason for continuing to produce literature in the face of total destruction.”

Unfortunately we shall never know how W.G. Sebald regarded Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand (The Fire, 2002) and Brandstätten, (Fire Places, 2003), Klaus R. Röhl’s Verbotene Trauer (Forbidden Mourning, 2002), Stephan Burgdorff & Christian Habbe’s Als Feuer vom Himmel fiel (As Fire Fell from the Sky, 2003), Christoph Kucklick’s Der Feuersturm - Bombenkrieg über Deutschland (Firestorm: The Bombing against Germany, 2003), or Volker Hage’s Hamburg 1943 (2003) and Zeugen der Zerstörung (A Witness to the Destruction, 2003)—all of which were published in the two years following Sebald’s tragic death in a car accident in 2001.

Cover of Tokyo daikushu hiroku shashinshuConversely, books about the of Japanese cities began to appear in Japan immediately after the US occupation ended, with many being released over the past fifty years. I have ten such books, as well as the five-volume Tōkyō daikūshū sensaishi (The Tokyo Air Raids: A Record of War Damage). The earliest in my collection, Tōkyō daikūshū hiroku shashinshū (A Confidential Photographic Record of the Tokyo Air Raids) was published in 1953. Clearly the Japanese have never regarded the destruction of their cities by the USAAF as “a shameful family secret, a secret that perhaps could not even be privately acknowledged.”

Nor are films about the firebombing uncommon: Takahata Isao’s 1988 animated film Hotaru no haka (Graveyard of the Fireflies) portrays the effects of the bombing on Japan’s civilian population while Imai Tadashi’s 1991 film Sensō to seishun (War and Youth) contains a graphic recreation of the first raid on the night of March 9-10, 1945.

It is hardly surprising—given the sanitized history of the Pacific War taught to Japanese schoolchildren, which glosses over the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army and Navy—that many Japanese regard Japan as victim rather than aggressor. (More than one Japanese friend has pointed out to me that theirs is the only country to have suffered the atomic bomb.) Yet memorials to the victims of the firebombing of Japanese cities are conspicuous in their absence. One local historian in a tiny private “museum” located almost at the aim point of the first Tokyo raid explained to me that the national government regarded the construction of a proper monument as a potential provocation to Japan’s Asian neighbors.

It seems hardly to have mattered to the effort of post-war reconstruction, whether publicly expressed complaint was impermissible (in the case of Germany) or allowed, if not encouraged (as in Japan). And if, as Dalrymple suggests, “resentment… was a powerful stimulus of the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle, into which the Germans in the West threw their potentially resentful energies after the war, for lack of anywhere else to direct them,” then for the Japanese a similar resentment must have been coupled with the humiliation of seeing their country reduced to ruins (a country that—unlike Germany, which had long been a powerful European nation—had transformed itself from a feudal backwater to the first rank of military and industrial power in less than 80 years).

Over the past few years I’ve read dozens of books about the firebombing of German and Japanese cities so there was nothing in Theodore Dalrymple’s article that surprised me, except this:

To the moral complications of a Nazi past were added those of a communist past, the greatest of which was an awareness of just how widespread the practice of denunciation had been. On some estimates, a sixth of the population of the former German Democratic Republic were Mitarbeiter—-collaborators with the secret police, the Stasi-—and had spied upon and denounced their neighbors, friends, relatives, and even spouses. Once the archives opened and people could read their security dossiers for themselves, they discovered in many cases that those to whom they had relayed their private thoughts had relayed them in turn to the Stasi, in return, practically, for nothing except the informer’s satisfaction of being on the right side of the powerful. Those whom people had thought were their best friends turned out to be the very ones whose denunciation had resulted in their otherwise inexplicable failure to gain promotion in their work, sometimes for decades. Such discoveries were not conducive to a favorable or optimistic view of human nature or the trust upon which a secure social life is built. The GDR, founded on a political theory that made a fetish of human solidarity, turned everyone into an atom in the asocial ether.

Although failure to gain promotion in one’s work can hardly compare to the horrific suffering of both the victims and the survivors of the firebombing raids, the idea of being spied upon (and denounced) by someone whom you believed you could trust seems especially terrible—particulary when denunciation to the Stasi could also have had far more serious consequences, including imprisonment or even death. The suggestion that the practice was so common is doubly horrifying.

I believe, however, that Dalrymple is mistaken in attributing the motive for such denunciations to “the informer’s satisfaction of being on the right side of the powerful.” I’d argue instead that resentment was a powerful—perhaps even the primary—motivation; that at least part of the resentful energy used by West Germans to rebuild their cities, imploded in Communist East Germany and was directed against friends, neighbors, relatives, and work colleagues.

It is a tenet of the self-help movement that resentment does most damage to the person holding a grudge. For example, Norman Vincent Peale believed that:

Resentment or grudges do no harm to the person against whom you hold these feelings but every day and every night of your life, they are eating at you.

Yet, for many of the Stasi collaborators, the corrosive effects of holding and nourishing a resentment must have been offset by a profound, ongoing satisfaction at observing the frustration, bewilderment, and bitterness of their victims.

I suppose these betrayals by friends, neighbors, relatives, spouses, and colleagues are common in any totalitarian society (I now recall reading about similar occurrences in Wild Swans, Jung Chang’s account of life in China during the Cultural Revolution). And yet perhaps one can draw comfort from the fact that five out of six East Germans didn’t denounce anyone to the secret police.

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