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Crime and Punishment | The Nation

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Crime and Punishment

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Following the popular success of Sebald's and Friedrich's works, German publishers have printed (or reprinted) a number of accounts by contemporary witnesses, some of which have now been translated into English. One of the most striking is by Hans Erich Nossack, whose book The End describes in spare, unsentimental prose the firebombing of Hamburg in July 1943. Written a few months after the event, this "report" was published after the war in Germany and hovered at the margin of public memory there; it appeared in English translation for the first time last year in a somber, even funereal, edition, the text framed by blackened pages front and back. Nossack's account owes its existence to his good fortune in having left Hamburg three days before the bombing for a summer cabin located some ten miles south of the city. From that vantage point--close enough to see the "flying fortresses" overhead and the huge fire on the horizon but far enough away to be out of physical danger--he experienced the destruction of his home as a spectator. "I was spared the fate of playing a role in it. I don't know why," he writes. Nossack then traveled into the bombed-out city--a modern-day Dante descending into the realm of the dead--to interview thousands of survivors who were so traumatized and confused they could barely speak or register emotion: "Those who were known to have experienced unimaginably frightful hours, who had run through fire with their clothes burning, stumbling over charred corpses...why didn't they cry and lament? And why this indifferent tone of voice when they spoke of what they had left behind, this dispassionate manner of talking, as if telling about a terrible event from prehistoric times?"

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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On the other hand, Nossack has lost all of his belongings and become a refugee overnight, not just because the house he lived in no longer stands but because he has lost his relation to a lived past: the sight of St. Catherine's tower glimpsed each time he looked up from his desk, the recordings of Handel and Palestrina he played at Christmas, the diaries recording twenty-five years of his inner life as a writer. He is confronted not with a damaged city but with the absence of every familiar landmark--not devastated streets and buildings but crude paths winding over hills of rubble. People huddle together like animals, cook food over open campfires, wander aimlessly in search of basic necessities without thought for the larger political and historical context. In the blink of an eye his world has metamorphosed into a Kafkaesque landscape that is terrifyingly unfamiliar, abstract, almost timeless: "Nothing in our surroundings recalled what we had lost...it was something else, foreign, impossible."

Nossack has only disdain for the Nazis, whom he refers to merely as "the State" or "the powerful," and he notes that at least initially the Hamburg survivors showed no anger toward the Allied bombers, no desire for revenge; they experienced the destruction as some ineluctable, inscrutable "fate." Nossack sounds a rare false note by describing the catastrophe as the beginning of his "real life," even as a bizarre kind of existential "liberty" and "fulfillment." This mythicizing tendency may disappoint readers looking for political and social analysis--for a reflection on the origin of the war, say, or shame about Nazi policies toward Hamburg's Jews, most of whom had fled or been deported to the death camps. Some historical details peek through the narrative, as in this passage indicating that the authorities used slave laborers to clear the buildings: "What do you want in there?" one of the guards asks Nossack while blocking his way. "We saw prisoners in striped suits working. They were supposed to stack the dead." For the most part, however, Nossack's report focuses on the condition of German victims trapped in brutal elementary circumstances. The literary particularity of his text lies precisely in what it doesn't say: in the shocked, almost affectless silence of the victims for whom society, ideology, indeed time itself have become meaningless categories.

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