Thursday, May 6, 2010

Time, History, and Human Forgetting

My first exposure to an on-the-ground rendition of the Allied firebombing of German cities was a visceral depiction of the attack on Hamburg, written by the late W. G. Sebald. The piece was published as a New Yorker excerpt from the author's posthumous volume, On the Natural History of Destruction. Sebald's description left me deeply unsettled. Where and when I grew up there was no ambiguity about who was victimized in WWII and to whom the villain roles were assigned. The excerpt in The New Yorker challenged my conception of the 20th century, pushing the boundaries of a mental map I'd redrawn and redrawn again as my education and perspective evolved.

In his essay, Sebald surveyed German writers who responded, most of them elliptically and equivocally, to these infernos. The post-war world in which they wrote was filled with the silence of fellow-Germans haunted by the destruction their nation had visited on humankind. Germans were ashamed to complain about the ravaging of Germany's cities. Silence, guilt, and indirection infused a literature of apocalypse and despair. I went scurrying to bookstores and library stacks in search of translations.

George Packer's "Letter from Dresden," in The New Yorker of this past February 1, approaches the same volatile material in a different frame. Packer considers how present-day Germans are framing the history of World War II not in literature, but in the architectures of cities still being rebuilt following their destruction almost seventy years ago, cities in which many perished and whose citizens and infrastructure effectively murdered millions more. Packer writes that current efforts to restore Dresden's center amount to a kind of "Baroque fantasia," driven by nostalgia to return the city to a past unsullied by the war that destroyed it. From his article:
Stephen Adams, the spokesman for the state art collections of Dresden [...] told me, wryly, "If they could the people here would rebuild every single building. They want to completely forget. It never happened."

Packer's work is worth following. He analyzes rigorously, grapples with hard realities, and seeks moral clarity in ways that are exemplary and instructive. He wields a sharp wit too:
Dresden is the Blanche DuBois of German cities -- violated, complicit in its violation, desperate to recover its innocence. It has the unstable character of a place with a romantic self-image and a past that it would rather not discuss.

There's no mucking around in 'moral equivalence.' Packer quotes a German colonel, Hans-Hubertus Mack, to diametrically opposite effect on responsibility for the devastation of World War II:
"We are not guilty, we who are living. But we are responsible to make sure it never happens again."

W. G. Sebald, a German himself, born in 1944, is quoted briefly in Packer's "Letter from Dresden." This fine author's work would have supported a deeper dive. Sebald's novels worry relentlessly at the erasure of history as an effect of passing time. His narrators (or doppelgangers) sift obscure artifacts of a nearly invisible past, whether that past is personal (as in Austerlitz) or of place (as in The Rings of Saturn). Undoubtedly influenced by the "herculean repression," as Packer named it, among his countrymen in relation to the Third Reich and its manifold crimes, Sebald made a strong argument for the inevitability of forgetting in human history. Not that it's right, and not even that it's wrong. But that it happens.

I was instructed early and repeatedly in what Hitler's Reich meant to "my" people, enslaved and tortured and gassed and burned in the Nazi death camps; yet it took me until 2002 to even begin to grasp the scale and horror of World War II through the eyes of those on the receiving end of Allied firebombings. A quirk of my own particular education? I don't think so. Perhaps, rather, a small example of how a general pattern, an historically-shaped cultural memory, insinuates itself.

As a matter of policy, of literary and historical responsibility, of political and personal commitment, I could not agree more strongly with George Packer's call for clarity, understanding, and honorable purpose as a nation frames history in the long-lasting architectures of places it occurred. At the same time, by the light Sebald evoked in his fiction and essays, one can't help but contemplate how human culture might evolve as the last living witnesses to World War II die away, and the great, inevitable forgetting and revision and reinterpretation accelerates.

I attended a writer's conference in San Francisco in February (which I blogged about repeatedly), just as the Packer article was being read by subscribers to The New Yorker. At the conference, a new acquaintance pitched his novel about a wartime relationship in rural Norway, between a Nazi officer and a Sami civilian, to a literary agent of non-trivial experience and reputation. The agent declined to consider his manuscript, asserting there's nothing left to say about WWII, that everything worth writing has already been written.

I don't agree.

Packer's "Letter from Dresden" is evidence that the agent is mistaken on this point. So is Steig Larsson's current best-seller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a terrifying look at how one generation's turpitude spills into the next.

And yet, I wonder what will mark the border of unacceptable human conduct -- what new compass we will steer by -- as the twentieth century silts over.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Ann Packer reads from Swim Back to Me
Art as long as history, time beyond memory

(For the record, George Packer and I attended the same high school with a year's difference between us. We knew each other from Mr. Farrell's English class, among others, and through mutual friends. We have not been in touch for many years.)


  1. I was in Japan a few years ago and went to a WWII museum. It was fascinating to see Pearl Harbor presented as something that the Americans forced the Japanese into through economic pressure. Last night I saw a documentary about cutting edge Japanese subs that could launch airplanes. The subs were created too late to influence the war - in the end the Japanese intended to use them for kamikaze attacks. What they didn't do was use those planes to seed U.S. cities with the biological weapons they'd been developing (killing 200K Chinese through experiments in the process), an attack that would have killed thousands. They didn't do it because the Japanese high command said that such an attack would be an attack on all humanity. Soon after the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 150K men, women, and children (and a lot more in the following months). I don't claim to know the whole story of any of this stuff (I just watched a documentary and visited a museum) and certainly wouldn't defend the Nazis in any way, shape or form. One takeaway for me, though, is that villifying any group is only an aspect of recognizing the potential for human violence that resides in us all (it's how we as individuals choose to react to it that makes all the difference - and that's what it comes down to in the end, isn't it? Individuals?).

  2. This blog entry though focused, managed to cover vast grounds. I have read both Packer's essay and W.G. Sebald's many book and was deeply affected by their writing.

    Dresden was such a beautiful city and it was a crime against humanity to destroy it. Yet, it was done to prevent the destruction of human races. Germans were not innocent in WWII therefore they kept mum through collective guilty afterwards. WWI didn't live up to its name as the war end all wars. Neither did WWII.

    It is inconceivable to hope that people will learn collective lessons. Therefore, it is vital for certain "stubborn" souls to carry on the burden of telling and retelling the stories of human follies.

    Matthew Felix Sun