A good friend, Nollaig Kirby introduced me to W G Sebald a very long time ago; he gave me to read, On the Natural History of Destruction. A stunning if scary story of the allied bombing of Germany from the ground level. Probably all I had read up to then had been the Allied view from “on top’ where the cause was just and Germany was defeated. Truth is, the destruction of Germany was also the destruction of humankind without concern for the consequences. History is written large by the victors; the events hurting the people on the ground evaporate just as the people’s bodies evaporated in the apocalyptic furnaces generated by fire bombing. No matter what, the consequences are measured good vs bad as opposed to the reality of the trauma on the ground.
Sebald was essentially concerned with the German ‘loss of memory.’ A loss of memory which is a general glide into a negation of anything having happened in the 1933-45 period rather than a deliberate attempt to deny things which had happened. It was the sliding into a neglected backwater where no one ventured or revisited. It was easier to draw this blank over what had happened than accept that families; parents, grandparents, siblings had accepted or had benefitted from National Socialism. In the mid 1970s I had met and taught a group of very literate German students. The main body were teachers from Bavaria and under 30. One of the group, however was a man in his 60s who had been a Naval Architect responsible for the development of the Submarine pens in Brest, France. The use of slave labour was never acknowledge, the living and working conditions and ensuing deaths were never acknowledged and that was not at my questioning, but the questions and demands from the new generation of Germans, who are ashamed of their National History and denial of responsibility.
A year later, I was in Austria and with a close friend and her parents; the father was very clear of his views:- Hitler and the Anschluss were the best things to happen to Austria. The country was rescued from the aftermath of the loss of Empire post 1918 and the economic decline . He was a medical doctor; well -to-do and totally fluent in English! No chance of mis-interpretation then!! He had been a doctor in the German Army during the period 1938-45 and had never seen, heard of or experienced anything of the abuses revealed post war! His attitude to the Jewish Question was really that it was a ‘problem’ that needed solution… At that point or very close to it, I left the table. My shins were bruised from the kicks from my friend which I had received to stop me responding. Memory, it was submerged deliberately and his wife and daughters had never questioned or even been aware of this strand of history. Forty years later, I still hold both memories vividly to mind.
In Sebald, this escape into a construct which denies wat happened is the the modus operandi used. Memories are masked by a cloud of self-denial. It’s obviously easier to forget than confront!