Blogs > Cliopatria > Returning to the Rubble

Feb 14, 2005 1:10 pm

Returning to the Rubble

Yesterday Germany marked the sixtieth anniversary of the allied bombing of Dresden, an event that has been remembered several times over the last few years with two publications (WG Sebald and Jürg Friedrich) and by the Anglo-German restoration of the Frauenkirche. The morality and legality of the air raids have been hotly debated in recent years. Dresden has become a symbol in the current debate about whether Germans can mourn their losses in terms comparable to memorials of the Holocaust. Indeed, the NPD (the Neo-Nazi party that holds seats in the Saxon state parliament) marked the memorials with a"march of sorrow" and the slogan, “The Holocaust of Bombs”. It will be difficult for Germanists to remain neutral hereafter.

However, as I read the numerous blog postings on the subject (mostly descriptions and rhetorical discussion about the allies’ justifications) a poem by Bertolt Brecht, Die Heimkehr, ran through my head:

My hometown,
How will I find it?
Following the swarms of bombers I’ll get home.

How far away is it,
How far away is it?
There, where the monstrous mountains of smoke stand,
There it is, in the fire.

My hometown,
Will it welcome me?
Before me come bombers,
Deadly swarms announce my return,
Conflagrations pave my way.

(By the way, that was my crappy translation from the years in which I dreamed I could save Rock and Roll by marrying it with cabaret. How many went down that path before me ... ?)

Brecht’s sentiments, which was by no means unique to the author (whoever that might have been), depicts a different perspective on how the destruction caused by the raids should be viewed, one that is at odds with the contemporary trends in German memory. A different paradigm, the homecoming, ruled intellectual consciousness in the years that followed World War II.

The homecoming was fully developed in Trümmerliteratur, especially in the works of Heinrich Böll. In order to return home, Germans must confront the destruction, the negation of everything, including the negation of the beauty of heroism on the front and sacrifice at home, that their war had created. For Böll, himself a soldier in the waning days, the homecoming was a painful process of seeing a completely different German landscape, one absent of culture, but also produced by its excesses (its interiorness in particular). Every German, therefore, had two Heimats – one that had existed in space and time, but was now confined to memory – the other, heaps of rubble that are remarkable only for their height. According to Böll, Germans were morally obliged to see the rubble as their new home and to accept that the beauty of the pre-war world could not be recovered. In the 1960s Böll became concerned that the significance of the post-war years had waned as the towns and cities were rebuilt. Still, he could say that “Germans did not begrudge the allies.”

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Jonathan Dresner - 2/15/2005

I understand the pressures on professors to make pronouncements on anything remotely related to their field: as an Asianist people are surprised that I'm not a fan of Japanese movies, martial arts, manga (note: I appreciate all of these things, but not extensively), etc., and that I'm not aware of every (mostly quirky) news story coming out of Asia.....

There are moral issues there, as well, and I'm expected to have opinions on (and a full grasp of the sources and citations on) most military and social issues of note. I do have opinions on many of them, but I don't think of it as "taking sides" when the questions so often turn on matters of fact rather than ethics. When the questions are ethical/moral ones, I see my responsibility as twofold: putting the questions into their proper historical context, and using the ethical (and practical) failings of past societies as cautionary tales for the present, where relevant.

I don't see why Germanists would have to take a stand on the question of Dresden: the facts -- it was an atrocious act in the context of a war in which atrocious acts were many and varied and considered justified -- are reasonably clear. When the question of moral equivalency arises, though, it is the expert's responsibility to point out the relevant differences as well as similarities, to point out ways in which imprecise or unjustified public memory leads to bad policy, to suggest that there are other perspectives than pain.

OK, perhaps that's not neutral... engaged?

Ralph E. Luker - 2/14/2005

Nathanael, It's deeply sad and troubling that the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden was used by the neo-Nazis as a rallying point for their movement. The destruction of Dresden is to be mourned, I think, but that its mourning becomes a vehicle for those who would emulate the Nazi horrors is simply outrageous.