||A Review of: The End: Hamburg 1943
by Jeff Bursey
This economical memoir about the July 1943 bombing of Hamburg,
referred to as Operation Gomorrah by the Allies, is a work of
horrifying beauty. Nossack displays an acute sensitivity about how
the citizens responded to the attack, yet he never descends into
vulgar sentiments or angry judgments. Joel Agee's concise introduction
tells how this work, a classic in Germany since its publication in
1948, proved uninteresting to English-language publishers. He had
translated it partly for his own reasons, reflecting that he was
drawn back to it during the Vietnam war because of its "windless
calm," a sharp and welcome contrast to the government language
filling the airways and papers. Agee submitted his translation but
was told that, apart from the fact that foreign fiction sells poorly
in the US, "Americans just weren't prepared to sympathize with
a German description of the suffering of Germans in World War
W.G. Sebald, born in 1944, is "one of those who remained almost
untouched," as he put it in On the Natural History of Destruction
(2003), "by the catastrophe then unfolding in the German
Reich." He goes on to say that Germans had not generally, or
in a wide and deep enough way, incorporated the events of the Second
World War in fiction:
"In spite of strenuous efforts to come to terms with the past,
as people like to put it, it seems to me that we Germans today are
a nation strikingly blind to history and lacking in tradition...
And when we turn to take a retrospective view, particularly of the
years 1930 to 1950, we are always looking and looking away at the
same time. As a result, the works produced by German authors after
the war are often marked by a half-consciousness or false consciousness
designed to consolidate the extremely precarious position of those
writers in a society that was morally almost entirely discredited.
To the overwhelming majority of the writers who stayed on in Germany
under the Third Reich, the redefinition of their idea of themselves
after 1945 was a more urgent business than depiction of the real
conditions around them."
In an article in The New Yorker in 2002 (part of Destruction),
Sebald credited Nossack for being one of the few writers to discuss
the effects of the Second World War with honesty and directness.
It took that influential mention for The End to be published in
There are few events in this short and sorrowful work of reportage.
While vacationing in a cabin just outside Hamburg, Nossack and his
wife, Misi, are woken up by "the sound of eighteen hundred
airplanes approaching Hamburg from the south at an unimaginable
height... This sound was to last an hour and a half, and then again
on three nights of the following week." Misi chooses the shelter
of the cellar; Nossack witnesses what happened the first night.
"Numerous flares hung in the air above Hamburg; they were
popularly known as Christmas trees. Sometimes ten, sometimes just
two or one, and if at some point there were none at all, you would
begin to draw hope that perhaps it was over-until new ones were
dropped. Many disintegrated as they sank, and it looked as if glowing
drops of metal were dripping from the sky onto the cities. In the
beginning, you could follow these flares until they extinguished
themselves on the ground; later they vanished in a cloud of smoke
that was lit red from below by the burning city."
Fleeing refugees give conflicting reports on the totality of the
destruction. Writing four months after the bombardment, Nossack
reports there was "an attempt to banish the dead by means of
numbers," where the toll starts at 40,000, jumps to 300,000,
and eventually is estimated at between 60,000 and 100,000. "All
the rules of logic were invoked to prove that it couldn't have been
more. Someone had opened hostilities against the dead... But the
dead did not wish to be conquered by logic." Some survivors
return to Hamburg in a truck, Nossack and Misi among them:
"We were like a group of tourists; the only thing missing was
a megaphone and a guide's informational chatter... Where once one's
gaze had hit upon the walls of houses, a silent plain now stretched
to infinity. Was it a cemetery? But what sort of creatures had
interred their dead there and planted chimneys on their graves?
Solitary chimneys that grew from the ground like cenotaphs, like
Neolithic dolmens or admonishing fingers. Did those who lay beneath
inhale the ethereal blue through those chimneys? And there, among
those strange shrubs, where an empty faade hung in the air like a
triumphal arch, was that the resting place of one of their lords
and heroes? Or were these the remains of an aqueduct such as the
ancient Romans had built? Or was all this just scenery for a fantastic
Sebald supplies details on the effect of the bombing, which included
the creation of a firestorm which swept through Hamburg "at a
speed of over a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour... The water
in some of the canals was ablaze. The glass in the tram car windows
melted; stocks of sugar boiled in the bakery cellars. Those who had
fled from their air-raid shelters sank, with grotesque contortions,
in the thick bubbles thrown up by the melting asphalt." The
unauthorized photographs taken by Erich Andres, which come after
Nossack's text, are affecting in their own narrative about the
Upon the return of Nossack and Misi to Hamburg, the depiction of
wartime moves from the "unimaginable height" from where
the bombs came to a blasted scenery, with the focus on how citizens
dealt with being refugees, widows, widowers, orphans, strangers in
what they had, days before, called home. Nossack worries about their
apartment, which they find in ruins. "Where is the heavy old
table with the lindenwood top? And the chest?... If there had been
such a little something, how we would have caressed it; it would
have been imbued with the essence of all the other things. And when
we walked out, we left a vacuum behind." They meet others
similarly robbed of family, friends, possessions, livelihoods, and
also those whose homes were untouched. The relationship between the
victims and those who are not is uneasy. Here Nossack's emotional
receptivity to the stories of other inhabitants mingle with his own
feelings, enabling him to describe how these divided people view
the world. For the victims cannot look around and see what they did
before. The offer of a small object, perhaps nothing more than a
curio, cannot replace what they have lost, of course, but more
crucially, there arises a short question wrung from their souls:
what value can there be, anymore, in having such a curio? That
remark would seem ungrateful, and a victim might be asked to explain
what he felt, as would the giver of the token object, guiltily aware
that he has not lost what the other is missing. "So it came
to pass that people who lived together in the same house and ate
at the same table breathed the air of completely separate worlds.
They tried to reach out to each other, but their hands did not meet.
Which of them, then, was blind? They spoke the same language, but
what they meant by their words were entirely different realities.
Which of them, then, was deaf?"
To explain the abyss people are in danger of sliding into, Nossack
comes up with a short "fairy tale", as he calls it.
"There once was a creature that was not born of a mother. A
fist struck it naked into the world, and a voice called: Fend for
yourself! Then it opened its eyes and didn't know what to make of
its surroundings. And it didn't dare to look back, for behind it
there was nothing but fire." It is the immediate aftermath of
this grisly birth that Nossack relates so clearly, with piercing
insight into current conditions and a quiet dread about what the
future will bring that is eerie in its restraint. "Have people
made themselves lighter so as to make the heaviness more bearable?
Sometimes someone will say: This is just the beginning. Someday
we'll look back on this with nostalgia. There will be famines,
epidemics, and whatnot. Only a quarter of us will survive. Nothing
can be done about it. You have to be lucky." Luck, or a malignant
power, reigns over Hamburg. "...I have not heard a single
person curse the enemies or blame them for the destruction... A
much deeper insight forbade us to think of an enemy who was supposed
to have caused all this; for us, he, too, was at most an instrument
of unknowable forces that sought to annihilate us." There can
be no relief from the onslaught of this incomprehensible force-not
in possessions, in family, in friends, or drawn from the past. Even
music is painful. "There is something consoling in it, but it
is precisely this consolation that makes us feel naked and helpless,
at the mercy of a force that wants to destroy us."
Reviewing Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, the poet
Charles Simic, who as a child lived through bombing in Yugoslavia
during the Second World War, concluded: "So much intellect,
capital, and labour 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."
In these years of war, with their shock and awe campaigns, The End
is an eloquent and timely work.