Andrew Gimson

Looking – and looking away

Sebald is perturbed by the almost complete failure of German writers to describe the devastation of their country by British and American bombers during the second world war. Here, one might have thought, was an inescapable subject, a reality which confronted anyone who was in Germany during or after the war. About 600,000 civilians were killed in the raids and, as Sebald points out, ‘even after 1950 wooden crosses still stood on the piles of rubble in towns like Pforzheim, which lost almost one third of its 60,000 inhabitants in a single raid on the night of 22 February 1945’. Among the ruins dreadful smells emanated from the corpses and rats and flies multiplied. But while many foreigners tried to describe the evidence of their own eyes on visits at the end of the war, German writers were silent.

Why was this? Sebald is too subtle a writer to pretend that he has more than the first intimations of an answer. He proceeds by understatement and by lucid reference to writers such as Friedrich Reck (whose Diary of a Man in Despair can, as he says, ‘hardly be overestimated as genuine contemporary evidence’), Heinrich B

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