The German novelistic tradition, like the Spanish, begins with a picaresque novel of memorable brutality. Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669) opens with an army marching into a village, raping, torturing, and massacring its inhabitants, and burning it down. The one hidden survivor is the novel’s narrator: twelve-year-old Simplicissimus, who has looked on stunned as his family and world are annihilated, his baptism into a world of war.

As a young teenager, Grimmelshausen himself was kidnapped by Croatian or Hessian soldiers, experiencing the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) at close range (and partly as a soldier). Mid-twentieth-century German writers like Bertolt Brecht and Günter Grass returned obsessively to Grimmelshausen and that endless war that had often targeted civilians, eventually killing at least 15 percent of Europe’s population. In World War II, once again, first Germany and then other nations deliberately singled out civilians, raining down death from bombers, incinerating cities, and unhousing huge populations.

A month before the war ended, waves of Allied bombers, diverted from their intended target because of cloud cover, made a daylight attack on the small German city of Halberstadt as a last resort, and much like Simplicissimus, thirteen-year-old Alexander Kluge experienced the near eradication of his hometown. Thirty years later, “The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945” investigated the bombing from a range of perspectives in a mosaic of episodes and observations. Initially published in Kluge’s Neue Geschichten (New stories) of 1977, it was republished in 2008 with seventeen more stories. This collection, in Martin Chalmers’s able translation, is the volume newly available to English readers as Air Raid. (The other stories, most only a page or so, are largely set during World War II but also touch on Italy’s 1930s bombardment of Abyssinia, Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars,” and the September 11 attacks.)

“The Air Raid on Halberstadt” opens during the Sunday matinee at Halberstadt’s Capitol movie house; the audience includes a company of soldiers, marched from their barracks to watch Gustav Ucicky’s 1941 Homecoming. Partway through the screening, a high-explosive bomb hits the theater. The text’s dispassionate, sociological narrative voice moves in and out of the consciousness of Frau Schrader, the theater manager. A “seasoned cinema professional,” she worries about the projectionist and knows she should check if all the patrons have gotten out. Instead, she fixates on the “mess” made by the mangled display cases for coming attractions; her impulse is to “set to work there with the air-protection shovel, clear up the rubble in time for the 2 p.m. screening”—as if the show must (or even could) go on.

In fact, the bomb has “opened up the building,” rupturing the heating pipes as it “smashed its way down to the cellar.” While subsequent waves of bombers pass overhead, Frau Schrader crouches by the ticket booth, then flees into the burning street. She “reproaches herself for having abandoned the Capitol” as the theater burns to the ground. In the late afternoon she succeeds in opening its cellar door, only to find six dead audience members in the collapsed air raid shelter, their limbs “boiled and scattered.” Again she moves to make order, calmly gathering their “body parts…in the wash cauldrons of the laundry room” and wishing to “make a report to some responsible authority,” although she can find no one to report to. Finally, “shattered,” she walks to safety at the edge of the city, chews anxiously on a sausage sandwich, and feels “no good for anything any more.”

Shock leaves the town’s survivors too dazed to mouth more than but truisms. The disembodied third-person narrator gets the best, most sardonic lines:

This [bombing] was probably the most powerful shock that the cinema had ever experienced during the time Frau Schrader was in charge, the effect triggered by even the best films is hardly comparable.

People attend movies, this voice suggests, partly to experience shock. Filmscripts and the Capitol’s exhibition practices are designed to build suspense, “prepared for by the gong, atmosphere in the house, very slow fading of yellow-brown lights, introductory music, etc.” Kluge is interested in how cultural institutions elicit aesthetic, emotional, and political responses. But it’s one thing to shed hot tears, quite another to be scalded by a collapsed boiler. The death dealt by Allied bombers on April 8 transcended all of the Capitol’s capacity for transport.

Another of the narrator’s observations may puzzle readers who know their Nazi film history (while those who don’t will find it hermetic):

The devastation of the right-hand side of the cinema stood in no meaningful or dramatic relationship to the film shown.

Ucicky’s Homecoming, notoriously, is a justification for war. It dramatizes the plight of eastern Poland’s longstanding ethnic German community, increasingly beset by Polish nationalists. When a German couple go to the movies, the Polish majority threaten them in the theater, trying to force them into singing along to the Polish national anthem. The man refuses; he is fatally beaten and thrown out of the cinema, dying on the sidewalk in his fiancée’s arms.


Ucicky’s pietà implicitly offers a pretext not only for Germany’s occupation of Poland but for its dismantling of the Polish film industry. Shot partly in occupied Poland, Homecoming cast Polish actors as the film’s villains. The Polish resistance retaliated in 1941 by assassinating the Warsaw actor and collaborator who had helped Ucicky with casting. In reprisal the Germans executed twenty-one Polish hostages and sent several prominent Polish actors and directors to Auschwitz (where they were soon joined by mass transports of Polish Jews). In 1947 a Polish tribunal sentenced most of the film’s surviving Polish actors to prison. In postwar Germany, the Allied occupation and then the West German government banned Ucicky’s film. Homecoming still remains banned in Germany and thus is seldom discussed, despite its incendiary subject.

Why, we must ask, does Kluge have this movie playing on the day of Halberstadt’s destruction? Because it evokes the invidious bombast of Third Reich cinema? Or is he contrasting Ucicky’s sentimental martyrology with the stark experience of bombardment, filled with bathos and frozen terror? Homecoming uses a political murder in a cinema to justify German expansionism as self-defense; Halberstadt’s war dead included cinemagoers. If Kluge was counting on his readers to recollect Homecoming, he was writing for those old enough to have seen the film during the war. Was this knowing readership also meant to recognize the irony of its title? (After April 8, most in Halberstadt had no home to come back to.) Or were Kluge’s German readers meant to experience something more, an epiphany of poetic justice?

“The Air Raid on Halberstadt” says little about the city itself. In the tenth century (like neighboring Magdeburg and Quedlinburg), it formed part of the Ottonian Empire, a realm famous for its Christian arts—Romanesque churches, illuminated manuscripts, and devotional ivory carvings. By the eighteenth century, it also had one of Central Europe’s largest Jewish communities, known for scriptural commentary and its 1712 Baroque synagogue, which was subsequently destroyed by the Nazis during the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom along with some ninety of its Torah scrolls. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws had already barred Jews from attending movies and participating in other aspects of public life. In 1942 Halberstadt’s remaining Jews were deported to the East, some to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia and others to ghettos and extermination camps in Poland. Several years before Kluge lost his childhood home, the city’s Jewish community had already been driven from theirs, and most had been murdered.

In 1945 Halberstadt was bombed only after the raid’s original target proved too overcast to approach. The city did have a Junker plant, which built military planes. In 1944–1945 its workforce grew from five hundred to nearly a thousand forced laborers (primarily French, Russian, and Polish prisoners of war and noncombatant concentration camp inmates). In April and May 1945, these workers left Halberstadt on a forced march, during which many died.

“The Air Raid on Halberstadt” makes no allusion to this history either, mentioning only that the airplane factory had been targeted in a prior, February 1944 air raid. If Allied bombings were traumatic for German civilians, they were profoundly more so for the vast population of the coerced, often not permitted into bomb shelters during air raids and forced to shovel up corpses in their aftermath. After the firebombing of Dresden, as Kurt Vonnegut memorializes in Slaughterhouse-Five, “prisoners of war from many lands” dug for the thousands of incinerated bodies under the city’s ruins, even when the putrescence of these “corpse mines” threatened their health.

Forced laborers and POWs were often plainly visible in Third Reich cities, in everyday life and after air raids. Yet such figures barely appear in the tens of thousands of German war narratives (written or filmed) from the postwar period.1 Kluge’s is no exception.

Alexander Kluge is one of Germany’s most distinguished living writers, filmmakers, and intellectuals. After the war, he and his recently divorced mother moved to what became West Berlin; his father and younger sister, Karen, remained in Halberstadt, which became part of East Germany. In West Germany, Kluge went on to study law, history, and church music, working in Frankfurt with Theodor Adorno and earning his doctorate in law. In 1958 he began practicing as a lawyer, but he soon turned to filmmaking and fiction. By the mid-1960s he was winning accolades and prizes for his documentaries and features, harbingers of the New German Cinema (whose directors included Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Wim Wenders). By 1963, together with Edgar Reitz, Kluge was running an experimental filmmaking program in Ulm’s Bauhaus-inspired art school, teaching several of West Germany’s pioneering women filmmakers (including Ula Stöckl, Claudia von Alemann, and Jeanine Meerapfel).


Kluge and Reitz encouraged students to build their films up from vignettes or episodes to create a contradictory, discontinuous sense of character and plot rather than a single continuous flow. These narrative and organizational principles remained important for their own films.2 Kluge’s early documentaries and features skeptically investigate postwar educational, legal, and artistic institutions from a vantage point anticipating that of Frederick Wiseman. But they also echo Brechtian collage, interspersing fictional stories with documentary materials, images, and footage from Wilhelmine, Third Reich, and postwar popular culture. In 1984, when West Germany’s (formerly state-commissioned) television network diversified, to allow commercial cable channels alongside public networks, Kluge embraced the new format, making dozens of short television documentaries, many structured as collages, for one of the new private stations.3

Kluge’s first features follow the hapless adventures of a single female naïf; they seem conceived at once as clinical case studies, tragicomedies, and nonnarrative “essay films” that more fully reveal a director’s sensibility. As in the anthology films he codirected (most notably Germany in Autumn, his 1978 response to the West German terrorism crisis, made with fellow filmmakers from Fassbinder to Volker Schlöndorff), Kluge uses collage to offer a multifaceted portrait of social milieus, political figures and flash points, and historical junctures. Collage also enables tonal swings between tragedy, documentary, and slapstick. (Here Kluge owes a particular debt to Brecht, whose dramas and film work pioneered skits and blackout sketches as units of dramatic organization.)

Another obvious influence on these early features—especially the first, Yesterday Girl (1966)—is the picaresque novel and its episodic structure. In Lazarillo de Tormes (which began the genre in 1554), as in Grimmelshausen and Daniel Defoe, the picaro—the naive or rogue protagonist—moves from one adventure or misadventure to the next, with no turning back and little sense of what comes after. Often he (or she) manifests a blank affect partly attributable to shock or trauma. While the later bildungsroman tracks the hero’s evolution and education, the picaresque novel is fragmentary and inconclusive. Shunted from place to place, from adversity to affluence, the picaro seemingly learns nothing.

Yesterday Girl follows Anita G., an East German refugee and childhood Holocaust survivor, as she treks through 1960s West Germany, trying to find a foothold. No one pauses to understand her dismaying past; her makeshift jobs and relationships prove short-lived. The institutions (court, welfare office, university, prison) intended to help or rehabilitate offer no resting place. Nonetheless Anita remains optimistic and insouciant, if bewildered. She is played by Kluge’s sister, Karen (a doctor acting under the stage name Alexandra Kluge), whose intelligent, quizzical, and luminous face enlists the viewer in Anita’s fate. (As the critic Frieda Graefe noted in an early review, her “gaze, walk, and gestures make Alexander Kluge’s ideas explosive.”)

Several later Kluge films likewise feature picaras struggling to survive. West German feminists have repeatedly criticized what they consider his retrograde gender politics, arguing that his heroines’ gullibility and helplessness register as idiocy. They were particularly infuriated by his 1973 Occasional Work of a Female Slave, whose protagonist becomes an abortionist to support her family. From Kluge’s perspective, her career choice seemed paradoxical, a failure to recognize the moral contradiction in being an abortionist and simultaneously a mother; feminists saw no contradiction. In response, Kluge refined his ideas about the ways the powerless, including women, manage a tacit resistance (the subject of History and Obstinacy, his 1981 theoretical book with the sociologist Oskar Negt).

His fiction, meanwhile, remained interested in history from beneath, yet frequently ironic toward his struggling, confused protagonists. This irony, arguably, works differently on the reader than on the viewer. In the films the heroines’ bumbling is offset by the hope and resourcefulness visible in the actresses’ faces. Kluge’s fictional characters, in contrast, often come across as myopic or self-centered—and the frequent deployment of a distanced, aphoristic, sometimes withering third-person voice discourages our empathy. Film collage can sample visually and sociologically diverse worlds, interspersing documentary and fictional modes of narration. On the page, collage largely preempts sustained identification with individual characters, thwarting immersive reading with an insistence on ratiocination and puzzle-solving.

Present-day readers of “The Air Raid on Halberstadt” may be irritated, for instance, by the narrator’s tone and attitude, particularly toward female characters under duress. Evacuee munitions worker and former grade school teacher Gerda Baethe is trapped with her three small children in the garden house where they are billeted. Throughout the air raid she desperately calculates whether the shelter is more likely to burn or collapse, whether one corner is safer than others; mixed into this emergency thinking is pride at having been an educator in “the rational teaching profession.” Yet at one point she finds herself trying “to influence the trajectory of the bombs by loud praying” (her own unusual last name is a homonym of ich bete, “I pray”), although she doesn’t “want to be thought a believer or superstitious,” lest that betray her training. Some may read this as consistent with the rest of the story’s bitter detachment and even sense an implied empathy. Others may find it simply cruel.

The narrator’s own studied disinterest typically involves a conceptual and historical hyperalertness—and emotional hollowness:

The catastrophe has been running its course since 11.32 a.m., i.e., for almost one and a half hours, but clock time, which ticks by evenly as before the attack, and the sensory processing of time are diverging.

The quasi-scientific tone, the precision of timekeeping and explanation, remain impersonal; the word “catastrophe” seems tonally out of place, and therefore all the more striking. To its citizens the bombing of Halberstadt shakes to the core any faith in the order of things—the local equivalent of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the calamity that challenged Enlightenment faith in a just universe.

The Enlightenment had also believed in the world’s knowability and had fostered the cultural cross-pollination of alternative knowledge systems. Eighteenth-century Halberstadt duly planted mulberry trees in the city park to house Chinese-style silkworm colonies. Two hundred years later, these venerable old trees died during the air raid, along with many of Halberstadt’s human inhabitants; in its aftermath, soldiers laid out a “collection of the dead” between these “fallen” Enlightenment monuments.

Kluge’s recreation of April 8 serves as collective eulogy even as it records failings of remembrance, perception, and language. His account, in fact, suffers from its own memory lapses. Despite the passing reference to Homecoming, Kluge seems uninterested in Nazi aggression and expansionism. Like the Holocaust, the prior German bombing of cities (Guernica, London, Coventry, Rotterdam) goes unmentioned. What consumes him instead is the Anglo-American war machine. As befits a student of Adorno (with his critique of modern mechanization, Americanization, and capitalist depersonalization), Kluge understands the destruction of Halberstadt as the outcome of much larger processes.

After portraying individual townspeople on April 8, Kluge turns to the American pilots dropping the bombs and the ways they avoid registering the raid’s effects. Aerial war abstracts. As the planes approach Halberstadt, their crews briefly see the ground not only through their maps and charts but as a specific landscape, somewhat reminiscent of home. “For a second,” the scholar David Roberts has argued, “another dimension opens up, which momentarily dissolves the two-dimensional gaze from above.”4

Despite potential moments of insight, however, the airman remains, in Kluge’s words, a “trained air-war expert” whose “analytical terminology; deductive stringency…technical know-how; etc.” are marks of professionalism. His training ensures a cognitive disconnect that removes all sense of personal responsibility. For Kluge, he may somewhat resemble the Third Reich functionary who helped implement the Nazi T4 euthanasia campaign and the Final Solution, or the “desk murderer” (Schreibtischtäter) who planned them.

In a 1982 essay excerpted as Air Raid’s afterword, W.G. Sebald heralds Kluge’s “The Air Raid on Halberstadt” both for avoiding his own perspective as a witness and for refusing “the temptation of integration perpetuated by the familiar forms of literature.” A realist novel on the topic, in other words, might have incorporated even this apocalyptic experience of destruction and mass death into the resumption of the social order; a lyric poem might have wrung wisdom out of trauma. Instead, Sebald argues, the “overwhelming rapidity and totality of the destruction” make any such absorption impossible. For him, Kluge’s work involves research into his and the city’s amnesia, a complex mode of repression that delays attempts to assimilate the intensity of their terror.

Above, then, are the bomber crew who both see and manage not to see what they are bombing; below, Halberstadt’s citizens, both unable to remember and unable to forget. Kluge’s narrative ends, a month after the bombing, with the arrival of a US Army sociologist, who on April 8 had flown with the mission as an observer and now returns to survey the emotional aftermath of saturation bombing. This hapless figure imagines he can use empirical methods to measure the impact—only to be astonished at what he finds on the ground. His guiding hypothesis has been that the experience of bombardment would instill unquenchable hatred in the surviving civilians. Instead he finds them sad, hopeless, and eager to immigrate to America. As he is forced to conclude, they “had lost the psychic strength to remember.”

In France, a postwar sense of epochal disruption and civilizational resettling expressed itself in both the Nouveau Roman and the French New Wave. Filmmakers like Alain Resnais and writers like Georges Perec, Marguerite Duras, and Jorge Semprún used formalist experiments to process their experiences of the war—occupation, Resistance, deportation, genocide—forging a new relationship to time, duration, and memory.5

Kluge’s generation of German-language writers faced an equally fundamental question: how the language of fascism—grandiose, hateful, euphemistic—had obscured and enabled genocide. Experimental 1950s and 1960s writers were particularly drawn to structural explanations for fascism, exploring the authoritarianism of German institutions and asking how even Germans’ childhood acquisition of language may have acculturated them to rigid social expectations and commands. As compensation, perhaps, for life in a despotic and militarist society, had fascism offered its underlings a paradoxical relief—a freedom from the self, from the burden of agency?

Together this generation’s work offers trenchant responses to the problems of memory, perpetrator amnesia, and civil society’s repeated collapse under militarism, fascism, and Communism. If most of these German-language writers remain little known in the Anglo-American world, Seagull is working hard to fill the gap, translating Peter Weiss, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Peter Handke, Heiner Müller, and Christa Wolf. Kluge anchors this list, with over a dozen books of short stories, collages, polemics, and collaborations with the artists Gerhard Richter and Georg Baselitz.

Kluge’s early fiction collections and documentaries traced how momentous crises like World War II shattered professional identities. In Case Histories (1962) a teacher manages to lose his students during the school’s wartime evacuation. Kluge’s 1963 documentary Teachers in Transition, conversely, offered a real-life case in which a professional lived up to his calling’s deepest ideals. During the Third Reich Adolf Reichwein, a professor and education policy expert, was relegated to a rural one-room schoolhouse. Even “under the most primitive conditions” he developed a model pedagogy, distinguished by its freedom and liveliness, and published a book about it before he was executed in 1944 for belonging to a resistance circle.

Kluge’s fictional film The Female Patriot (1979) centers on another leftist pedagogue, history teacher Gabi Teichert, threatened by the 1970s West German purge of suspected political radicals from the school system. Undeterred, she embarks on a project, utopian yet bafflingly literal, to excavate the German past for herself—by seizing a shovel and going out, at night, to dig a hole. She also assigns “The Air Raid on Halberstadt” to her high school history class. Kluge’s text speculates that to prevent World War II, Gerda Baethe and “70,000 determined teachers” from every country involved in World War I would have to have organized themselves already from 1918 onward. This thesis sparks lively pushback from Teichert’s students. From their classroom discussion, Kluge then cuts to footage of the Royal Air Force dropping bombs—“strategy from above,” a kindly voice-over explains, after exhorting us not to forget that the RAF killed “60,000 people in Hamburg.” Gerda, the same voice intones, embodies “strategy from beneath” (while silent melodrama footage shows us tearful young women, kneeling and praying).

On one level, “The Air Raid on Halberstadt” mocks the would-be professional ethos of Gerda and the cinema manager, just as The Female Patriot mocks Gerda and Gabi Teichert for their naiveté. As Kluge is aware, German women were long outsiders to government and the civil service. Perhaps as a result, the characters now cling, however ineffectually, to their training and badges of office, even as their difficulty in thinking straight in an emergency seems to negate their credibility as professionals. But Kluge may well enjoy showing Teichert assigning his Halberstadt text to generations of German teenagers.6 And isn’t he, teenage air raid survivor and now a leading German intellectual, in the same boat as Gerda and Gabi? In his attempts to investigate what occurred, he can only draw on his subsequent training, as a lawyer and Frankfurt School protégé, weighing and presenting facts, juxtaposing description and analysis, using detachment and sociological methods to submerge whatever trauma, doubt, and disorientation he himself may have experienced.

I grew up witnessing this strategy—and its limits. As a boy in Berlin, my father survived over three hundred air raids. After the war he moved to the United States and became a military and diplomatic historian, best known for his assiduous reconstructions of the Armenian genocide and the 1915 German gas attacks. At home, though, he was depressed, angry, haunted. His air raid stories, obsessively retold, shaped both the content and the form of my childhood nightmares. After his death in 2017 I was chagrined but unsurprised to learn he had routinely used 1943 as his PIN number: the year a Royal Canadian Air Force raid had leveled his apartment building and his neighborhood.

In his 1978 review of Neue Geschichten, Enzensberger called Kluge’s prose “heartless.” Yet he also characterizes “The Air Raid on Halberstadt” as a “kind of film made of words and still photographs” whose continual shifting of perspectives and shots goes far beyond ordinary montage to “deconstruct” the events it describes. The writing “gives the impression of a field of ruins. Catastrophe has been made into a formal narrative principle.”

In Kluge’s efforts to curtail self-pity (his own or that of his initial 1970s West German readers), he can seem oddly hardened, even inhumane as a narrator. Still, he is rueful about the sufferings of Germans caught in their world’s collapse, while apparently unable to remember or evoke the sufferings of their prisoners, POWs, forced laborers, or Jewish deportees. American readers raised on Slaughterhouse-Five and Anne Frank’s diary may find Kluge’s perspective alienating, or at least alien.

His text tries to make clear just how incomprehensible a catastrophe loomed for Halberstadt on April 8. But it does not exactly invite us to be moved. Perhaps the most profound thing Kluge shows us is the emptiness and dissociation that befall those who have been through a bombing. Is this heartlessness? Or does it enable us to glimpse a layered response to severe trauma in which the deepest feelings and confusions remain buried, perhaps permanently?

As the wars in Ukraine and Gaza remind us, the era of the air raid and the civilian target continues. Although the term “air strike” originated during World War II and was occasionally used to designate aerial bombardment, more recently, from Desert Storm onward, the US government and the American news media have used it routinely to describe military bombings. “Air strikes,” rather than “air raids”: the replacement term leans on that other misnomer, “surgical precision” (which the subsequent coinage “drone strike” has only reinforced). Bombs are still being dropped by aircraft far off the ground, often above sites still full of civilian infrastructure and actual civilians. Drone operators operate at an even greater remove, although they can sometimes see their targets clearly enough to realize, for instance, that for all their weapons’ vaunted accuracy, they have just killed children or a bridal party instead of combatants.

Fifty years after Kluge wrote “The Air Raid on Halberstadt,” it remains all too topical. Whenever press briefings, newspapers, and networks use the language of “air strike,” they euphemize, protecting us from visceral upset, moral stocktaking, and historical memory. Kluge’s authorial distance may instead help us to meditate on the bombers’, and on our own. What his text allows us to sense is what it feels and sounds like on the ground, both as the bombs are falling and after they stop, leaving the living surrounded by the dead, the physical ruins of their old lives, and memories they can’t bear even to let surface.