I first read W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants when it came out in English in 1996 and remember feeling that I had not read anything so captivating in a long time. The book is difficult to classify. Told in the first person by the author, it reads at times like a memoir, at others like a novel or a work of nonfiction about the lives of four emigrants. They come from Lithuania and Germany and end up in England and the US. The book includes, and this is another peculiarity of his, blurry, black-and-white photographs with no captions and not-always-clear connections to people and places being talked about in its pages. As for the author, one knew next to nothing about him except what one deduced from autobiographical details in the book, most importantly that he was a German living in England. The Emigrants was widely praised and called a masterpiece by many eminent writers and critics. The reviewers noted the author’s elegiac tone, his grasp of history, his extraordinary powers of observation, and the clarity of his writing. While stressing his originality, critics mentioned Kafka, Borges, Proust, Nabokov, Calvino, Primo Levi, Thomas Bernhard, and a few others as Sebald’s likely influences. There were some complaints about the unrelenting pessimism of his account of thwarted lives and the occasional monotony of his meandering prose, but even those who had reservations acknowledged the power of his work.

The narrator of The Emigrants is a loner and so are the rest of the characters. The countless victims of last century’s wars, revolutions, and mass terror are what interests Sebald. One may say that he sought a narrative style that would convey the state of mind of those set adrift by forces beyond their understanding and control. Unlike men and women who have never known exile, whose biography is shaped by and large by social class and environment, to be a refugee is to have sheer chance govern one’s fate, which in the end guarantees a life so absurd in most cases that it defeats anyone’s powers of comprehension. Sebald served as a kind of oral historian and unconventional biographer of such people, reconstructing their lives out of bits and pieces he was told by them and out of additional research he did himself into their backgrounds. If his book is melancholy, it is because the task he gives himself is all but hopeless.

Eventually, other works of Sebald’s were translated, though not always in order of their composition. The Rings of Saturn (1998), which came next, is a record of a walking tour of the eastern coast of England with lengthy digressions on Thomas Browne, Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, the Battle of Waterloo, the Taiping rebellion, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, and at least a dozen other topics. Another oddity of Sebald’s prose, which either delights or exasperates his readers, is his digressions. He never hesitates to interject some interesting anecdote or bit of factual information arrived at by some not-always-apparent process of association. He does this without forewarning, transition, or even paragraph break. Clearly, he intends the reader to draw together the various threads in the book, the way one would do with images and metaphors in a poem, and make something of them. Here is an example from The Rings of Saturn, which tells of an event from the 1860 British and French punitive military expedition into China and anticipates some of his concerns in the new book:

In early October the allied troops, themselves now uncertain how to proceed, happened apparently by chance on the magic garden of Yuan Ming Yuan near Peking, with its countless palaces, pavilions, covered walks, fantastic arbours, temples and towers. On the slopes of man-made mountains, between banks and spinneys, deer with fabulous antlers grazed, and the whole incomprehensible glory of Nature and of the wonders placed in it by the hand of man was reflected in dark, unruffled waters. The destruction that was wrought in these legendary landscaped gardens over the next few days, which made a mockery of military discipline or indeed of all reason, can only be understood as resulting from anger at the continued delay in achieving a resolution. Yet the true reason why Yuan Ming Yuan was laid waste may well have been that this earthly paradise—which immediately annihilated any notion of the Chinese as an inferior and uncivilized race—was an irresistible provocation in the eyes of soldiers who, a world away from their homeland, knew nothing but the rule of force, privation, and the abnegation of their own desires.

Although the accounts of what happened in those October days are not very reliable, the sheer fact that booty was later auctioned off in the British camp suggests that much of the removable ornaments and the jewellery left behind by the fleeing court, everything made of jade or gold, silver or silk, fell into the hands of the looters. When the summerhouses, hunting lodges and sacred places in the extensive gardens and neighbouring palace precincts, more than two hundred in number, were then burnt to the ground, it was on the orders of the commanding officers, ostensibly in reprisal for the mistreatment of the British emissaries Loch and Parkes, but in reality so that the devastation already wrought should no longer be apparent.

The temples, palaces and hermitages, mostly built of cedarwood, went up in flames one after another with unbelievable speed, according to Charles George Gordon, a thirty-year-old captain in the Royal Engineers, the fire spreading through the green shrubs and woods, crackling and leaping. Apart from a few stone bridges and marble pagodas, all was destroyed. For a long time, swathes of smoke drifted over the entire area, and a great cloud of ash that obscured the sun was borne to Peking by the west wind, where after a time it settled on the heads and homes of those who, it was surmised, had been visited by the power of divine retribution.

The secret of Sebald’s appeal is that he saw himself in what now seems almost an old-fashioned way as a voice of conscience, someone who remembers injustice, who speaks for those who can no longer speak. There was nothing programmatic about that. He wrote as if nothing else was worth a serious person’s attention. Like any one of us who takes time to read history, both ancient and modern, he was dismayed. No explanations along the lines of “war is hell,” “human beings everywhere are like that,” and so forth could make him forget for a moment the cruelties committed against the innocent. He’d agree with the Dowager Empress of China, who said before she died that she finally understood that history consists of nothing but misfortune, so that in all our days on earth we never know one single moment that is genuinely free of fear. What is strange—and it’s no doubt owing to the marvelous translation of Michael Hulse, who worked closely with Sebald—is that the effect of his tales of horror is lyrical.


Vertigo, the very first prose book he wrote, when he was forty-six years old, came next. It was published in Germany in 1990 and not translated into English until 1999. It is a story of a journey across Europe in the footsteps of Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka which ends in the narrator’s native Bavarian village. Austerlitz, which followed in 2001 in a translation by Anthea Bell, is his one true novel. It is a story of a small child brought to England in one of the children transports from Germany in the summer of 1939 and his subsequent effort to find out about the death of his Jewish parents and his origins in Prague. Sebald said that behind the hero of the book hide two or three, or perhaps three and a half, real persons. Some of the narrative feels contrived with realistic description alternating with segments that could have come out of magic-realist fiction, and yet the book contains some of his best and his most moving writing.

I recall him saying in an interview that there are questions a historian is not permitted to ask, because they are metaphysical. The truth for him always lies elsewhere, somewhere yet undiscovered in myriad overlooked details of some individual existence. “I think how little we can hold in mind,” he writes after a visit to a Belgian prison used by the Nazis, “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.”

There’s a spooky scene in Austerlitz in which the hero, walking the empty streets of Terezin in Czechoslovakia where his mother had died in a camp, comes upon a closed antique store window cluttered with various objects that in all probability belonged to the inmates. There they were, these ornaments, utensils, and mementos that had outlived their former owners together with his own faint shadow image barely perceptible among them. All that remained was a Japanese fan, a globe-shaped paperweight, and a miniature barrel organ that brought home the reality of some vanished life and the full magnitude of what happened.

After Sebald’s death in December 2001 in a car accident we learned more about his life. He was born in 1944 in a small village in the Bavarian Alps to a working-class family. He studied German literature in Fribourg, Switzerland, and Manchester and eventually settled in England permanently where he taught European literature for thirty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. His first literary work was a book of prose poems, After Nature, which was translated and published in 2002. He traveled a great deal. He told his last interviewer, “My ideal station is possibly a hotel in Switzerland.”1 His literary reputation seems to have been much greater in English-speaking countries than in his native Germany. Even though he was born in 1944, World War II cast a long shadow over his writing. As André Aciman said, “Sebald never brings up the Holocaust. The reader, meanwhile, thinks of nothing else.”2


His posthumous book, On the Natural History of Destruction, again has four parts and reads this time like a straightforward collection of nonfiction pieces. The subject of the first is the destruction of German cities by Allied bombing. The other three, which were not included in the original German edition, deal with the postwar German novelist Alfred Andersch; the Austrian-Belgian writer Jean Améry, who survived Auschwitz; and the painter Peter Weiss. The chapters on air war were based on lectures he delivered in the autumn of 1997 in Zurich. His thesis, which provoked considerable controversy when the lectures were published in newspapers in Germany, is that the destruction of all the larger German cities and many smaller ones by the Allied air raids was never adequately discussed in literature after the war. There was a conspiracy of silence about it as there was about many other things that occurred during the Nazi years.

This is not exactly a new discovery. Hans Magnus Enzensberger essentially made the same point in an essay called “Europe in Ruins” that he wrote in 1990. In contrast to Heinrich Böll, Primo Levi, Hans Werner Richter, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Curzio Malaparte, and a number of foreign journalists, practically all German storytellers avoided the subject. So why did Sebald bring it up again?

Some accused him of being motivated by a need to have the Germans perceived as victims and thus minimize the suffering of others by creating a moral equivalence. This is completely unfair to him. Sebald knew that Germans provoked the annihilation of their cities and that they would have done the same and worse to others had they been able to. His detractors seem to believe that there is a moral scale by which the suffering of the innocent among different ethnic groups can be calculated, with the most deserving at the top and those least deserving of pity at the bottom, and they are shocked that he lacked their faith. The issues he raises about the war against the civilians have no simple answers. They defy description:

Today it is hard to form an even partly adequate idea of the extent of the devastation suffered by the cities of Germany in the last years of the Second World War, still harder to think about the horrors involved in that devastation. It is true that the strategic bombing surveys published by the Allies, together with the records of the Federal German Statistics Office and other official sources, show that the Royal Air Force alone dropped a million tons of bombs on enemy territory; it is true that of the 131 towns and cities attacked, some only once and some repeatedly, many were almost entirely flattened, that about 600,000 German civilians fell victim to the air raids, and that three and a half million homes were destroyed, while at the end of the war seven and a half million people were left homeless, and there were 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for every person in Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant of Dresden—but we do not grasp what it all actually meant.

In view of the number of civilian casualties in bombings of urban areas in the last century, there are reasons to think it may be safer to be a soldier at the front than a mother with children sitting in a cellar during an air raid. The figures for deaths in individual German cities are staggering, but they are equally horrendous elsewhere. 43,000 died in the London Blitz; 100,000 in Tokyo in 1945, plus Hiroshima and Nagasaki where over 200,000 perished; and the list goes on. More recently there is Vietnam, where an estimated 365,000 civilians died, and finally Baghdad in the Gulf War for which the figures are kept secret. In Japan, not counting the atom bombs, over 300,000 civilians perished just in 1945. Of course, these rounded-off figures are at best educated guesses. Bombing history plays games with numbers to conceal the individuals’ fate. The deaths of the innocent are an embarrassment. All religious and secular theories of “just war” from Saint Augustine to the United Nations charter caution against their indiscriminate slaughter. The Geneva Convention warns the parties to the conflict again and again to distinguish between civilian populations and combatants, and between civilian objectives and military objectives.

Since civilians, by international agreement, are not supposed to be the object of attack, the numbers for what we today call euphemistically “collateral damage” tend to vary widely in retrospect depending on the political agenda of the writer. Even when they are plainly given, they sound as inconceivable as astronomical distances. A number like 100,000 conveys horror on an abstract level. A figure like 100,001, on the other hand, would be far more alarming in my view. That lone additional person would restore the reality to the thousands of other casualties. To thumb through a book of old news photos or watch documentary footage of an air raid in progress is a sobering experience. One of the most common sights of the last century is a row of burned and still smoldering buildings of which only the outside walls remain. Rubble lies in the streets. The sky is black except for dragons of flames and swirling smoke. We know that there are people buried under the rubble. I remember a photo of a small naked girl running toward a camera in a bombed village somewhere in Vietnam. After almost a hundred years of this sort of thing, it takes a staggering insensitivity not to acknowledge what a bombing raid on a populated area does and who its true victims are.

I myself remember the firebomb from my childhood in Yugoslavia. It carries sticks of explosive that burst into flames. The sticks scatter loosely like straws in a game of jackstraws, each one a fire-starter. If the weather is dry and there’s a bit of wind, such bombs can start a firestorm that can wrap an entire city in a blanket of fire. The glow of such fires, pilots report, is visible a hundred miles away and even the smell of burning buildings and human beings ablaze like matches reach the high-flying planes. I knew a boy who lost both arms attempting to dismantle such a bomb. In World War II, there was also the famous bomb cocktail in which different incendiaries were used to start fires on the roof, bigger bombs to penetrate all the way down to the cellar, and the heaviest ones to blow in windows and doors and make huge craters in the streets, so the fire engines could not reach the fires. Dante’s and Jonathan Edwards’s ghastly descriptions of hell pale in comparison to airmen’s descriptions of what it was like to conduct and witness the effects of these raids.

It’s not just the droning planes, the blood-red skies, and the deafening explosions that are frightening. Even more scary is the power of those who give themselves the right to decide whom to obliterate, whom to spare. It cannot be helped, is their excuse. If they are right, and I’m not convinced they are, that may be the most terrifying thing of all. No matter what history books have told us, bombing is a form of collective punishment premised on collective guilt. Prominent theoreticians of air power have never concealed that. In a war, they argue, there cannot be a differentiation made between military personnel and civilians. Especially when it comes to a nation like Germany, whose leaders ordered that millions of people be mur- dered and worked to death, and many of whose citizens carried out the orders, it is hard to feel sorry. The firestorms were universally regarded as a just punishment even if they didn’t have much military and political logic, as is now fairly clear from the documentary evidence. I understand the emotion perfectly. I grew up hating Germans.

But—and this is the crux of the matter—can dropping bombs on densely populated residential areas really be justified? Can one hold the view that women and children of the enemy are not blameless and still pretend to have an ethical position? Are deaths of noncombatants truly of so little consequence? The answer—judging by the long, cruel history of last century’s bombings—is yes. Killing innocents is thought to be a necessary evil. To that I’d say—and I speak from experience—that for those who are bombed it feels like destruction for its own sake. Since the bombs can hardly ever get at the leaders wining and dining in their well-protected underground shelters, the innocent will always have to pay for their crimes.

“How ought such a natural history of destruction to begin?” Sebald asks. He wants us to ponder what it means to have an entire city with all its buildings, trees, inhabitants, domestic pets, fixtures, and fittings destroyed. The remains of human beings are everywhere, flies swarm around them, the floors and steps of the cellar are thick with slippery finger-length maggots, rats and flies rule the city. The few eyewitness accounts are ghastly. In the midst of rubble, out of sheer panic, the population tries to carry on as if nothing has happened. There’s a woman, for instance, washing a window of a building that stands in a desert of ruins. No wonder survivors found it difficult to talk about it. Sebald’s parents would not. He grew up, he says, with the feeling that something was being kept from him at home, at school, and by the German writers he read hoping to glean more information about these events.

Silence about what happened to their cities was not just a German reaction. Twenty years after the bomb fell on Hiroshima most of the survivors could not speak of what happened that day. My mother, who lay next to me in the cellar during many an air raid on Belgrade, wouldn’t talk about it either. In his books Sebald has always been interested in the way in which individual, collective, and cultural memory deal with experiences that lie on the border of what language can convey. Bombing is part of that, but there are other, even more terrible things human beings have had to cope with. In what is in my view the best essay in On the Natural History of Destruction, he quotes Jean Améry’s description of being tortured by Gestapo:

In the bunker there hung from the vaulted ceiling a chain that above ran into a roll. At its bottom end it bore a heavy, broadly curved iron hook. I was led to the instrument. The hook gripped into the shackle that held my hands together behind my back. Then I was raised with the chain until I hung about a metre above the floor. In such a position, or rather, when hanging this way, with your hands behind your back, for a short time you can hold at a half-oblique through muscular force. During these few minutes, when you are already expending your utmost strength, when sweat has already appeared on your forehead and lips, and you are breathing in gasps, you will not answer any questions. Accomplices? Addresses? Meeting places? You hardly hear it. All your life is gathered in a single, limited area of the body, the shoulder joints, and it does not react; for it exhausts itself completely in the expenditure of energy. But this cannot last long, even with people who have a strong physical constitution. As for me, I had to give up rather quickly. And now there was a cracking and splintering in my shoulders that my body has not forgotten to this hour. The balls sprang from their sockets. My own body weight caused luxation; I fell into a void and now hung by my dislocated arms which had been torn high from behind and were now twisted over my head. Torture, from Latin torquere, to twist. What a visual instruction in etymology!

Sebald admires the Belgian resistance fighter’s detachment and understatement, which prohibits both pity and self-pity. Only at the very end of his account, in that one ironic phrase which concludes a “curiously objective passage,” as Sebald says, is it clear that his composure has reached a breaking point. If someone wanted to convey truly what it was like, Améry went on to say, he would be forced to inflict pain and thereby become a torturer himself. The utter helplessness of human beings in such circumstances, deep pity and solidarity with victims of injustice, are the recurring themes for both of these men. Sebald quotes a diary entry of one Friedrich Reck who tells of a group of refugees from bombing trying to force their way into a train at a station in Upper Bavaria. As they do, a cardboard suitcase “falls on the platform, bursts open and spills its contents. Toys, a manicure case, singed underwear. And last of all the roasted corpse of a child, shrunk like a mummy, which its half-deranged mother has been carrying about with her….”
It’s all just too much, one says to oneself reading such a passage. What worries Sebald, as it should worry any thinking person, is our newfound capacity for total destruction. Is it ever morally justified to fight evil with evil? It continues to be a worry despite what our most passionate warmongers and strategists tell us almost daily about the so-called smart bombs and mini-nukes which will spare the innocent and target only the guilty. For instance, the Pentagon’s current war plan for Iraq, according to CBS, calls for a launch of between three hundred and four hundred cruise missiles on the first day, which is more than were launched during the entire forty days of the Gulf War, with the same number to follow the next day and presumably the day after.

The battle plan is based on a concept developed at the National Defense University. It’s called “Shock and Awe” and it focuses on the psychological destruction of the enemy’s will to fight rather than the physical destruction of his military forces. “We want them to quit. We want them not to fight,” says Harlan Ullman, one of the authors of the Shock and Awe concept which relies on large numbers of precision-guided weapons. “So that you have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes,” says Ullman. In the first Gulf War, 10 percent of the weapons were precision- guided. In this war 80 percent will be precision-guided.

I have my doubts and I imagine Sebald would have them too. So much intellect, capital, and labor go into planning of destruction, one can count on excuses being found in the future for some inadvertent slaughter. The ones who survive will again be faced with the same problem: how to speak of the unspeakable and make sense of the senseless.

This Issue

February 27, 2003