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The better Germany.

"The only really committed artist is he who, without refusing to take part in the combat, at least refuses to join the regular armies and remains a freelance."

Resistance, Rebellion and Death


THE IMPORTUNING euphemisms din in our ears as the first war-as-spectacle of the twenty-first century continues, courtesy of CNN, "embedded" war correspondents, and over-excited TV announcers. The ex-cathedra slogans of the day are pronounced solemnly and apparently without ironic intent: "decapitation," "precision bombs," "coalition of the willing," "collateral damage," "friendly fire." It's all the more fortuitous then that W.G. Sebald's posthumous collection of essays, On the Natural History of Destruction, has just recently been published. Sebald's voice - formal and restrained, sceptical and questioning -- is the dead-on tone needed at times like these. His emotive subjects -- the nature of remembering, historical revisionism, collective amnesia, the responsibility of the artist in times of international crises -- ought to serve as a sobering and provocative antidote to the conventional and convenient stories of human events.

Sebald's morally unrelenting essays discuss and pose questions about the most murderous conflict in history -- the Second World War -- during which, for the first time, civilians became the main target of bombing raids. Specifically, Sebald discusses the Allied carpet-bombing of German cities and lets the statistics speak for themselves: l3l German towns were firebombed by the RAP and the USAAF; 600,000 civilians were killed (twice the number of American servicemen killed), and three and a half million homes destroyed. While Sebald by no means sidesteps the horrors -- his graphic descriptions of bunkers full of shrivelled, suffocated, and eviscerated corpses testify to that - he also addresses the larger issues of the period: namely, the reluctance of German writers (with the exception of Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll, and more recently Jorg Friedrich) to describe the destruction of the German cities; the long postwar silence about the matter; the tendency of those who lived through it all to "... quickly r evert to the harmless conversational tone that is so strikingly disproportionate to the reality of the time."

The author doesn't swallow the anecdotes he has received from various correspondents who express nostalgia, or "a sense of togetherness ... over Kaffee und Kuchen," or express fond memories of "baby Bubchen ... running around the garden ..." -- or reminisce about their concern over".., our boys in Stalingrad ..." "To this day," writes Sebald, "any concern with the real scenes of horror during the catastrophe still has the aura of the forbidden about it, even of voyeurism ..." While Sebald never backs away from the frightfulness of the events themselves, he is pitiless when it comes to the matter of the collective incoherence and silence about the subject in his birthplace. Perhaps only an expatriate German (W.G. Sebald taught at the University of East Anglia for many years before his death), emotionally and geographically detached from his homeland, could remark upon the unfashionable and taboo subject of national character, but Sebald tackles the subject unapologetically.

Sebald suggests that the malaise is cultural. "It is true," says he, "that the combination of fantastic delusions on the one hand and an upright way of life is typical of the particular fault-line that ran through the German mind during the first half of the twentieth century." The writer's argument goes even further when he quotes Albert Speer on Hitler at a dinner at the Reich Chancellery, as the fuhrer gloats over the proposed destruction of London with incendiary bombs and high explosives, revelling in his visions of fire and destruction. It's not that Sebald is seeking to justify the Allied bombing campaign, but at the same time he feels compelled to put the whole bloody business in historical perspective. After all, he points out, "This intoxicating vision of destruction coincides with the fact that the real pioneering achievement in bomb warfare -- Guernica, Warsaw, Belgrade, Rotterdam -- were the works of the Germans." Grundlichkeit -- the inability to know when to stop -- was the word Primo Levi used to describe the policies of the Nazi leadership. Ending on a note which is perhaps more of a question than a declaration, and which has predictably caused a considerable stir in Germany, Sebald says, "The majority of Germans today know, or so at least it is to be hoped, that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived." Hans Magnus Enzensberger takes a much harsher line, when he writes in his poem, "man spricht deutsch," this murderers' den
where in haste and impotence the calendar tears its own leaves,
where the past rots and reeks in the rubbish disposal unit....
we treat it with stain removers,
that's our custom here, this does not surprise me.

What is so striking about Sebald's essayist style is that he is never ambiguous; he never lapses into evasive abstract language, and what is more significant, he never confuses the murderers and their accomplices with their victims; he has a sharp unwavering eye for the line separating the bogus from the genuine, as it applies to societies, individuals, and events. In his essay "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," he compares postwar German writer Alfred Andersch with the pro-Nazi writer Ernst Junger (author of the post-1918 bestseller Storm of Steel), pointing out that Andersch modelled his own life on that of Junger's, "... who had emerged from the Hitler era - which he had helped to usher in - as a distinguished ... defender of humanist values." Andersch was one of the many who, after 1945, revised their accommodation with the Nazis by pleading the defence of "internal emigration." The would-be great writer's emigration landed him in the offices of the publishing firm Lehmann's Verlagsbuchh-Andlung, whose books, as it happened, specialized in subjects such as race and "racial hygiene."

Sebald, as witness for the prosecution, systematically tears his fellow-German's defence to shreds. For Andersch, aside from divorcing his half-Jewish wife in 1943, was also accepted into the Reich Chamber of Literature. The two events incidentally were not unconnected, since the writers' organization required that the spouses of the new members be "pure Aryan." Putting it mildly, Sebald observes that"... one cannot rule out a certain degree of opportunistic identification with the successful regime." But then the coup de grace: "When a morally compromised author claims the fields of aesthetics as a value-free area it should make his readers stop and think."

And so it should, for Sebald clearly makes the case for those artists who did not compromise, who could not divorce morality from aesthetics: Peter Weiss, for example, best known for his plays Marat/Sade and Trotsky in Exile, but who also produced paintings like The Peddler, The Great World of Theatre, and Concert in the Garden. Weiss's writings and paintings - his portrayals of battered industrial landscapes, colourful circus scenes alongside inclining winding paths, lonely disconnected figures, a tent with its sinister dark interior -- are all declarations in the struggle against the "art of forgetting" more than that they are expressions of"... the artist's need to enter the dwelling of those who no longer live in the light of day ..." According to Weiss, writing is an attempt"... to preserve our equilibrium among the living with all our dead within us, as we lament the dead and with our own death before our eyes." Weiss's work is also a sort of Kaddish designed, as Sebald puts it, "... as a visit to the d ead -- to friends, his sister, his parents ... and then all the other victims of history who are now dust and ashes." Similarly, in his essay "Against the Irreversible," about the writer and Auschwitz survivor Jean Amery, Sebald shows how a victim of torture and humiliation can speak through his writings for other victims, linking his own experiences with those who cannot speak for themselves. "Amery," writes Sebald, "employs a pervasive strategy of understatement which prohibits both pity and selfpity..."

"Torture," writes Amery, "has an indelible character. Whoever was tortured, stays tortured.... Torture, from Latin torquere, to twist. What visual instruction in etymology." The true significance of writers like Amery, Sebald argues, is that they resist, knowing full well that they will fail -- that their actions are futile gestures in the face of terror, of history itself.

Amery's stance as a writer is that although he knew the real limits of the power to resist as few others did, he maintains the validity of resistance even to the point of absurdity. Resistance ... quand meme, out of a principle of solidarity with victims and as a deliberate affront to those who simply let the stream of history sweep them along is the essence of Amery's philosophy.

With their feuilleton-like mixture of history and fiction, poetry and travel, their attempt to revive recent history with their anonymous narrators, lack of plot, their broken-up chronologies, their attempt to fill in the blanks and recapture the sounds of lost voices, the meanings of empty streets and ruined buildings, Sebald's works go against the grain of our times in which the arts as a whole have no discernible social or ideological function. He goes back through the wreckage of the twentieth century to the centre of the High Modernist epoch. He draws the reader with him into the light and shadows of the interwar years when poets, artists, novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights -- particularly in Vienna and Berlin -- became the first line of defence against the nationalists, the militarists, the growing power of the volkisch elements with their hatred of the Versailles Treaty and their belief in the "stab in the back" fairy-tale which blamed Jews, Bolsheviks and other so-called subversive elements for th e defeat of German arms in 1918.

WHILE W.G. Sebald was born at the end of the Second World War and was never obliged to write from a point of extremis -- as were Jean Amery, Peter Weiss, and Joseph Roth -- his writings taken together -- especially the novel Austerlitz, the short story collection The Emigrants, the long prose-poem After Nature -- might be seen as the continuation by other means of the modernist tradition of dissent and resistance. Yet in his writings Sebald refuses to go down the well-worn paths to the past. He leads you through the labyrinthine alleys, the empty streets; the towns with names like "S" or "W," approaching the centre slowly and from an oblique angle. He finds the clues to the past in unexpected places, buildings, objects: the abandoned BAF airfields in Norfolk near where he lives; in the post-industrial Manchester in After Nature, with its
...disused viaducts and warehouses....
the traces of smoke,
of tar and sulphuric acid...
of the obscure crowds
who fuelled the progress of history.

The clues are also to be found in derelict Belgian frontier forts with their glacis and redoubts and star-shaped dodecagons; in the once fashionable spa of Marienbad, with its broken gutters and boarded up windows; in the disused Ladies' Waiting Room of Liverpool Station; the monumental architecture of the bourgeois age, like Brussels' Palace of Justice, whose dimensions "... pointed to the direction of the catastrophe already casting their shadow before them at the time."

The author seeks to fill in the gaps of memory; to find the exact locus of place; to discover the faint lingering shadows of life cast by the planes and contours of commonplace objects seen in a Prague junk shop: ceramic vases, miniature barrel organs, a globe-shaped paperweight. In so doing, Sebald goes a fair way towards reclaiming the conquered territory of the artists and intellectuals, particularly those who lived through the Weimar years, and who by 1939 were in concentration camps, in exile, or dead. Sebald's voice is inimitable and at the same time contains the eschatological echoes of other voices: Walter Benjamin, Stefan Zweig, Max Beckmann, Kurt Tucholsky, Harry Kessler, Brecht, Kurt Weill, Karl Kraus.

Most historians, including the likes of Eric Hobsbawm, take a dim view of the modernist avant-garde. Its members are scorned as irresponsible nihilists (Dada); dilettantes (Harry Kessler); doomsayers (George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Brecht); insular and non-figurative (the Expressionists), politically naive and easily manipulated. They were dreamers and idealists; they confused art with life and life with art; they were the gravediggers of the Weimar Republic, and so forth. A great deal of the criticism is valid of course. Defeat and revolution; the red flags flying from the mastheads of the High Seas Fleet at Kiel, Soldiers and Workers' Soviets in Munich, Spartacists and Freikorps fighting it out on the Wilhelmstrasse, Red Fronts and Reichsbanners and brownshirts, inflation and slump; war reparations and the war guilt clause; the draconian terms of the Versailles Treaty, the Kapp Putsch and the Beer Hall Putsch.

People, particularly the defeated citizens of the Central Powers, had enough to contend with without reading the likes of Karl Kraus's satiric squibs in The Torch, with their merciless attacks on the junkers, the bourgeois, the press itself. Who needed the New Objectivity of Beckmann, Grosz, and Dix with their grotesque paintings of soldiers with no arms or noses, or scenes of grenades exploding, or caricatures of leering capitalists with their cigars and fat bellies with painted prostitutes clinging to them? Who needed to be reminded about the horrors of the recent war, the lies, the hypocrisy, the collapse of empires, the corruption and ruin of European civilization? Who wanted images, stories, plays of the shattered past and the ominous present; satirical rendering of Prussian militarism, authority; the idiocy of an exiled Kaiser; the absurdity of notions of patriotism and glory? But the avantgarde artists of the Weimar Republic had no intention of providing their society or the general public with palliat ives for what ailed them. Instead, they painted and wrote and performed with such vigour and conviction that even their enemies could not ignore them. The artists of Weimar Germany -- including the itinerant exiles from the remains of the Habsburg Empire who clung to their belief in the civilizing qualities of German culture -- were the antithesis of what was to be termed the true German Zeitgeist. "We must," wrote the artist Max Beckmann in 1920, "participate in the great misery to come ... the sole justification for our existence as artists, superfluous and egotistic though we are, is to confront people with the image of their destiny."

One of the many participants in the great misery was the Hungarian-born Arthur Koestler, who like so many assimilated Jews from the old Dual Monarchy ended up in Vienna or Berlin. If the old Austrian Empire had been their homeland, German arts and letters formed their cultural centre of gravity. Koestler writes,

We were Central Europeans, steeped in German culture, supporters of the Weimar democracy, yet immune against German chauvinism through a hereditary judeo-cosmopolitan touch. We were fervently anti-war, anti-militarist, anti-reactionary... for the League of Nations ... and for Briand's Pan-Europa.

Koestler was soon to be disabused of his idealism. He worked as a reporter for the Ullstein Press; he visited Russia during the Ukrainian Famine, when he was still a believer; he worked for the Comintern in Spain and was imprisoned and almost executed by the Francoists. Aside from taking part in street fighting against the Nazis in Berlin, he joined the French Foreign Legion, helped to write the anti-Nazi Brown Book, and at one time or the other was pursued by the police forces of four different countries. He was interned in Le Vernet camp in France, and when he arrived in England in 1940 he was interned again as an "enemy alien." In the jargon of the day, his anti-fascist credentials were "premature," and there was the further complication of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. In other words, Koestler's experiences between the wars was fairly typical of many European intellectuals who took sides and who paid the penalty for their pains. Koestler knew very well that he was one of the lucky ones.

"At a conservative estimate," he writes in Arrow in the Blue, "three out of every four people whom I knew before I was thirty were subsequently killed in Spain or hounded to death in Dachau, or gassed at Belsen, or deported to Russia. Some jumped from windows in Vienna or Budapest, others were wrecked by the misery and aimlessness of permanent exile." Among those people were almost all of the Weimar artists. Some committed suicide, like Kurt Tucholsky, Stefan Zweig, and Ernst Toiler; Karl Kraus drank himself to death. The rest ended up in America, Britain, South America, Switzerland. Of the Weimar exiles, Roman Rolland wrote, "You are the better Germany, the banished, the oppressed but unconquerable Germany that suffers but fights on." Alas, though, the Germany of the Weimar renaissance was defeated even before war broke out in 1939.

W.G. Sebald resumed that fight many years later - after the long silence. His writings, with their panoptic scenes of destruction, their questing anonymous narrators and deracinated exiles, are not only his personal legacy to posterity; they are part of a larger tradition that stretches even beyond the Weimar renaissance, back to Buchner and Heine and Schiller - the better Germany. Like his predecessors, Sebald was never a member of the regular armies; neither was he one to give his readers the glib, reassuring answers. Rather, it is his unsettling questions that linger, leaving you with that curious sensation that he has left behind him something incomplete, unstated, something buried just beneath the rubble of the past he explored with such quizzical acuity - and that this is something transmissible. But that too is a reason Sebald's writings will live on. Brecht might as well have been talking about W.G. Sebald when he wrote the poem, "About the Way to Construct Enduring Work":
How long
Do works endure? As long
As they are not completed
Since as long as they demand effort
They do not decay.

IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS, Sebald's writings counter the belief that the door of the past can be slammed shut once and for all, that a full stop can be confidently placed at the end of an epoch, that the phantoms from the far side of the divide can be banished out of sight and mind. The unsettling questions never cease; they resonate and obtrude through the pails of smoke, the crash of missiles and bombs, the haze of propaganda, the sounds and sights of history past and history in the making. They serve as a counterpoint to the smug Harvard-educated voices blithely going on about legalized torture, the appointment of pro-consuls, fantasies of neo-imperialism and kulturkampf. They are, in other words, a riposte to the deadly poison of might and a warning about the unquestioned belief in undiluted power -- with all its trimmings.

FRASER BELL lives in Victoria and writes regularly for Queen's Quarterly.
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Author:Bell, Fraser
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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