Review: On The Natural History of Destruction by W.G. Sebald

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A few weeks ago a local car park played host to the annual Copeland Book Market, with it’s array of small publishers and collectives selling a similarly diverse range of books. I had to steel myself to resist all these beautiful volumes, and finally only left with two. Both were by Notting Hill Editions, a firm specialising in book length essays and publishing a mixture of commissions and reprints of volumes by well-known writers. One of the two books that overcame my defences was On The Natural History of Destruction, a foray into non-fiction by the German writer W.G. Sebald.

On The Natural History of Destruction explores the nature and consequences of the air campaign waged against German cities in the closing years of the Second World War, and the utter ruination that resulted. For Sebald this bombing campaign represented war in its purest form, whatever the military justifications offered by advocates like Arthur Harris, a man who ‘liked destruction for its own sake’. The continuation of the campaign beyond the point of necessity, even in the closing days of the war when little remained to bomb, reflected the desire for the complete annihilation of an enemy, his culture, history, and environment.

Sebald’s language is typically measured, and all the more powerful for it. Using a mixture of literature and eyewitness accounts he creates a picture of destruction that ranges widely in detail. From the ruined facades of Hamburg ‘like triumphal arches’ to noting that one could determine the date of a buildings destruction by the plants growing in its ruins. Equally he notes how (to use a phrase later coined by another enthusiastic bomber of cities, General Curtis LeMay) the bombing campaign sent Germany ‘back to the stone age’, reducing its cities to the terra incognita of war. The ruined urban centres of the Reich becoming strange necropoli, cities of the dead punctuated by cave like dwellings in the rubble, wherein sheltered the traumatised survivors.

It is the traumatic, mnemoic effect of the bombing campaign on those that witnessed it which Sebald turns his attention to for the bulk of the text. He argues that during the war there was an inability to comprehend this total destruction, which ran counter in so many ways to the way Germans saw themselves, as an advanced, ordered, victorious people. In the midsts of slaughter and ruin, Germans found their ability to process and remember suspended. In the aftermath of the war they were still unable to process this trauma, and in rare moments where they looked back to the past they simultaneously were looking away from it.

The reconstruction of Germany in the years following the war offered a way to physically and metaphorically build over and hide this difficult history. This tendency was also evident in literature, where post-war writers invariably approached the period from a position intended mainly to ‘consolidate the extremely precarious position of those writers in a society that was morally almost entirely discredited’. But despite this inability or unwillingness to remember, the bombing campaign left an indellible mark on the German psyche, so much so that even Sebald who grew up in a remote village relatively unaffected by the war felt it deeply himself. ‘I had grown up with the feeling that something had been kept from me’ he wrote.

On The Natural History of Destruction is everything you would expect from Sebald, brilliantly conceived, beautifully written and illustrated with scatterings of the silent photographs that typically punctuate his novels. It’s a volume that really ought to be essential reading, not only for Germans but for Britons also. The Notting Hill Editions version is an understated but beautiful little book, bound in cloth, simply but stylishly designed, more or less perfect in other words for the author’s appropriately archaic prose. It’s one of those rare books you derive pleasure from just from looking at or holding, even before starting on the brilliant text within. You can see more of their range here.

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