Crime and Punishment | The Nation


Crime and Punishment

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Are the former Allied nations willing to acknowledge German suffering and loss during World War II? Are they willing to question the morality of the means by which they won the war, even the firebombing that laid waste to 131 German cities and towns, and killed more than half a million people (most of them women, children and the elderly)? Or was the extremity of Nazi aggression so great, the urgency to defeat Hitler so compelling, that the Allies have effectively been shielded from the kind of moral scrutiny that has been focused on the use of atomic weapons against Japan? However one might answer those questions today, for much of the postwar period the occupying nations on both sides of the Berlin wall felt little reason to justify their actions. Germans grumbled mightily among themselves, but any public airing of their grievances was subject to severe constraints and cold war manipulation. And when the German children born during or shortly after the war came of age in the heady years of the late 1960s, they demanded that Germany view the war through the lens of non-German victims, not that of its own losses. German victimhood became politically incorrect.

About the Author

Mark M. Anderson
Mark M. Anderson, a professor of German at Columbia University, translated Thomas Bernhard's The Loser under the...

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But the dead return; unacknowledged suffering claims its due. That seems to be the lesson of the German war memories that have washed over the new Berlin Republic in the past few years. Diaries, memoirs, historical novels, academic studies, documentaries and even feature-length films have piled up at a formidable clip, testifying to a long pent-up need for expression. Interestingly, most of these reflections do not come from conservatives or spokesmen of the far right but from former New Leftists who reshaped the politics of German memory in the late 1960s and early '70s and adamantly opposed the attempts of Ernst Nolte and other historians in the mid-'80s to compare Hitler's crimes to Stalin's purges and other instances of mass slaughter. The same people who insisted on the "singularity" of Nazi atrocities and rejected the very notion of historical comparison (for fear of relativizing the Holocaust and diminishing German responsibility) now speak of the "unparalleled" destruction of German cities and openly question the morality of the Anglo-American Bomber Command.

This reversal in the politics of German memory has alarmed many observers, who worry that Germany's current fascination with its own victimhood signals a desire to let the specificity of Nazi crimes fade into a historical continuum of other war crimes. In fact, the recent interest in German suffering represents an extension of Holocaust memory, not its demise. What has changed is the willingness of the '68 generation to consider the full scope of wartime suffering--even that of their own parents and older relatives. Precisely because German recognition of the Holocaust is no longer in doubt, a new generation of Germans has come to understand the war in less ideological, less Manichean terms. Individual suffering, not a simple tallying of perpetrators and victims, is beginning to emerge in striking historical detail and complexity.

Which is not to say that this process of maturation has come easily or without contradictions. Consider the case of W.G. Sebald, whose 1999 book The Air War and Literature (misleadingly titled in English On the Natural History of Destruction) set off much of the current German debate. Born in 1944 in a rural mountain region untouched by the war, Sebald came to an anguished awareness of his country's past during his student years in Freiburg and, later, in England, where he first met German-Jewish refugees. As with so many of his peers, the political awakening was also personal: His father, who had made his career as an officer in the Wehrmacht, never spoke about the war, participating in what the son angrily called a "conspiracy of silence, in every German household." Sebald ultimately went into a self-imposed exile from the Federal Republic, devoting his academic work to "minority" writers at the margin of high German culture (Jews, but also Austrians and Swiss) and focusing much of his literary work on the Jewish victims of German aggression.

In On the Natural History of Destruction, however, Sebald turned to the Allies' firebombing of German cities--and to the Bosch-like scenes of carnage, pain and trauma it inflicted on a largely civilian population. Why is it, he asked, that the horrendous experiences of millions of Germans left so little trace in postwar German literature (and, by extension, in the population at large)? At once accusatory and empathetic, his response is a study in the contradictory attitudes his generation developed toward their pro-Hitler mothers and fathers. On the one hand he denounces the Germans for repressing the memory of their own suffering, while on the other he insists on the traumatized victims' "inviolable right" to remain silent. And in a paradoxical (and somewhat questionable) attempt to remedy the gap, he devotes pages of his essay to a graphic representation of the firebombing in all its horror--a descent into literalism that is notably absent from his literary evocation of Jewish suffering.

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