Germans finally remember their own war suffering

They're finally speaking about the trauma of carpet-bombing, ruin and displacement after a silence of almost sixty years. As a historian manque, I've collected some book knowledge on the subject, but also a few very real memories of my own, not of the war itelf, but of a postwar Germany which still showed its scars even if it never talked about them. I had always accepted this very obvious and perhaps unique phenomenon as simply a kind of embarassment, if not actually part of a penance, for twelve years of enormous suffering inflicted in the name of Germany, but there seems to be a much better explanation.

Peter Schneider, a novelist and journalist based in Berlin, writes in today's "Arts & Ideas" section of the NYTimes, "Only in the past three years or so have German writers and historians begun to tackle a topic previously taboo: the sufferings of the German civilian population in the last years of World War II."

At least one reason for the almost complete avoidance of this topic would appear to be self-evident: the critical authors of postwar Germany considered it a moral and aesthetic impossibility to describe the Germans, the nation responsible for the world war, as being among the victims of that war.
Schneider discusses W.G. Sebald's recently-published "Luftkrieg und Literature" ["Air War and Literature"], exerpted in The New Yorker in November and to be published by Random House in February, but his own grasp of the complex issues seems more mature and more humanist than that of the essay he describes as brilliant.
Like Sebald, I belong to the generation that declared war on the Nazi generation with its rebellion in 1968. The student revolutionaries of 1968 simply banished from their version of history all stories about Germans that did not fit in with the picture of the "generation of perpetrators." It was the frantic attempt of those born after the war to shake off the shackles that bound them to the guilty generation and regain their innocence by identifying with the victims of Nazism.

The fact that some Germans who belonged to the "generation of perpetrators" had ended up as its victims, and that some Germans had even shown civil courage and rescued Jews, seemed to weaken the force of the indictment. As far as I can remember, we never said a word about the Germans who were expelled.

. . .

However absurd these taboos may appear today, I still think there were powerful reasons for this more or less unconsciously observed list of forbidden topics. It was too much to expect our generation to identify the perpetrators of the Nazi generation on the one hand and to consider the fate of German civilians and of those who were deported on the other.

He closes with what is both gentle observation and great hope.
Probably it is only possible now, after the realization of the terrible things that the Germans did to other nations, to remember the extent to which they themselves became the victims of the war they unleashed.

That this is happening now seems to me to be a gain. It turns out that the belated recollection of suffering both endured and culpably inflicted in no sense arouses desires for revenge and revanchism in the children and grandchildren of the generation of perpetrators. Rather it opens their eyes to and enhances their understanding of the destruction that the Nazi Germans brought upon other nations.


[What appears below is my footnote, but it's actually a paragraph from Schneider's NYTimes text.]

From scattered diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspaper items, fragments of reports and prose texts, Sebald assembles a grandiose account of the firestorms that raged through the German cities in the last years of the war. Here, for example, are the consequences of Operation Gomorrah, the raids on Hamburg in midsummer 1943 whose aim was to inflict "maximum destruction on the city and reduce it to ashes":

"Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere. Bluish little phosphorous flames still flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size. They lay doubled up in the pools of their own melted fat, which had sometimes already congealed. . . . Elsewhere, clumps of flesh and bone or whole heaps of bodies had cooked in the water gushing from bursting boilers. Other victims had been so badly charred and reduced to ashes by the heat . . . that the remains of families consisting of several people could be carried away in a single laundry basket."

The apologists of a "just war" will hardly be able to read Sebald's essay without asking themselves whether the adjective in this euphemistic phrase should not be replaced by a more modest word like "justified."

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Published on January 18, 2003 4:34 PM.

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