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View PointOpinion: History of unnatural destruction

Opinion: History of unnatural destruction

Published: 17th Nov 2021 12:37 am

By Pramod K Nayar

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How wars and their disastrous effects are remembered varies from culture to culture. Memory-making, especially collective memory, is a political act. Some destructions are more important than others. Some victims are greater victims – this is, after all, the age of competing victimhood – than others. The discourse of victimhood, controlled and capitalised upon, congeals into an industry with misery memoirs, academic studies and what not.  

Forgetting Hiroshima, Intentionally

In their landmark study, Hiroshima in America: A Half-Century of Denial, the psychologist Robert Jay Lifton and journalist Greg Mitchell write:  “The most compelling reason for the failure [of Americans] to confront Hiroshima is our disinclination to do so – a collective form of psychic numbing…Hidden from the beginning, Hiroshima quickly disappeared into the depths of American awareness.”

Later, in a chapter evocatively titled ‘Apocalyptic Concealment’, they speak of how ‘the bomb sequence has been from the secret to that which is actively concealed, and finally, to falsification’. 

Hiroshima, Lifton-Mitchell imply, is an act of intentional forgetting, made possible by official secrecy, public amnesia and the manipulation of the discourse. This is undoubtedly a brilliant reading, but we find that Hiroshima-Nagasaki are not alone in the insidious erasing processes of public memorialising in the former Allied nations. As an instance, take the Allied bombings of Hamburg, Dresden and other German cities in the Second World War. True, the Germans decimated 6 million Jews in their Final Solution. That does not change the Allied inflicting of mass deaths nor the “Rape of Nanking”. The problem is: the Holocaust trumps all other forms of mass killings and destruction, from Nanking to Dresden. 

It is how the civilian loss is measured, whose death is evaluated and how, and which memories are cherished, that constitutes the history of unnatural destruction. 

Hamburg, Dresden, Dusseldorf

To begin with, some statistics about the 1945 bombings of German cities by the Allied planes:

“The Royal Air Force alone dropped a million tons of bombs on enemy territory; it is true that of the 131 towns and cities attacked, some only once and some repeatedly, many were almost entirely flattened, that about 600,000 German civilians fell victim to the air raids, and that three and a half million homes were destroyed, while at the end of the war seven and a half million people were left homeless, and there were 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for every person in Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant of Dresden…”

The above statistics are from the The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany (1956), cited in the opening paragraph of WG Sebald’s essay, ‘Air War and Literature’, in On the Natural History of Destruction (2003). Other records suggest that by spring 1945, over 4,00,000 Germans had died in the bombings. 

Sebald is not interested in the American/British silence on Dresden or Hamburg. His concern lies elsewhere: 

It seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the [German] collective consciousness, it has been largely obliterated from the retrospective understanding of those affected, and it never played any appreciable part in the discussion of the internal constitution of our country. 

Sebald is appalled at the ‘self-anaesthesia shown by a community that seemed to have emerged from a war of annihilation without any signs of psychological impairment’. Sebald may be accurate up to a point, but the post-Cold War period did see Germans reflecting on their sufferings during the War. The remembrance of their suffering does not absolve the Germans of the now-well documented fact that ordinary Germans participated eagerly in the Holocaust’s operations. 

But the larger point here is the languages and processes of comparison — German suffering versus Jewish suffering, most notably in Jorge Friedrich’s The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 (2006) — which set out to locate Germans as primarily victims.

Competing Victimhood?

For historians examining this rhetoric of German suffering, Friedrich’s construction of Dresden and Hamburg are attempts to unify all Germans under the category ‘victim’. This, says the historian Robert Moeller, is wrong because there was no clear German ‘we’ that can be identified as victims. Many Germans who did not endorse Hitler were killed in the Allied raids. Jews waiting for either rescue by the Allied forces or extermination at the hands of the Germans, also died in the raids. Moeller quotes a popular song by mining workers in Dusseldorf:

          Dear Tommy, please fly further on your way; 

spare us poor miners for today. 

Fly instead against those people in Berlin; 

they’re the ones who voted Hitler in. 

Among the dead, notes Moeller, were also those who were not Germans. So how does one speak of the terror one experienced at the hands of others without discounting the terror one has perpetrated on others? How does one reconcile the anger at the former with the guilt for the latter? Is claiming victimhood in one context a means of evading the label of perpetrator in another context?

The way out, suggests Moeller in another essay, that the Germans evolved was a rescripting of complicated histories:

There was no “Stalingrad syndrome,” no lost war for which Germans must seek revenge. The public commemoration of mass death, loss and suffering was accompanied by the exhortation to avoid all future wars, not to redeem loss at the end of a gun. 

It was a moral memorialisation of victimhood and perpetratorhood, implies Moeller:

Death yielded no answers, and the primary lesson it offered was that future wars should be avoided. In official pronouncements and public commemorations, the past enabled Germans to admonish, not threaten.

Clearly, such memories of unnatural destruction must make one not resilient to destruction but resist attempts to evoke more destruction.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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