The foundations of Hitler’s bunker were uncovered during the building frenzy in Berlin that followed the reunification of Germany. An anguished debate ensued about what to do with the site, for in Germany both memory and amnesia are dangerous, each with its moral hazards. To mark the bunker’s site might turn it into a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis, resurgent in the East; not to mark it might be regarded as an attempt to deny the past. In the end, anonymous burial was deemed the better, which is to say the safer, option.
Nowhere in the world (except, perhaps, in Israel or Russia) does history weigh as heavily, as palpably, upon ordinary people as in Germany. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, the disaster of Nazism is still unmistak- ably and inescapably inscribed upon almost every town and cityscape, in whichever direction you look. The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy’s, is now a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease, with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do nothing to dispel. Well-stocked shops do not supply meaning or purpose. Beauty, at least in its man-made form, has left the land for good; and such remnants of past glories as remain serve only as a constant, nagging reminder of what has been lost, destroyed, utterly and irretrievably smashed up.
Nor are the comforts of victimhood available to the Germans as they survey the devastation of their homeland. Walking with the widow of a banker through the one small square in Frankfurt that has been restored to its medieval splendor, I remarked how beautiful a city Frankfurt must once have been, and how terrible it was that such beauty should have been lost forever.
“We started it,” she said. “We got what we deserved.”
But who was this “we” of whom she spoke? She was not of an age to have helped or even to have supported the Nazis, and therefore (if justice requires that each should get his desert) it was unjust that she should bear the guilty burden of the past. And Germans far younger than she still bear it. I went to dinner with a young businessman, born 20 years after the end of the war, who told me that the forestry company for which he worked, and which had interests in Britain, had decided that it needed a mission statement. A meeting ensued, and someone suggested Holz mit Stolz (“wood with pride”), whereupon a two-hour discussion erupted among the employees of the company as to whether pride in anything was permitted to the Germans, or whether it was the beginning of the slippery slope that led to . . . well, everyone knew where. The businessman found this all perfectly normal, part of being a contemporary German.
Collective pride is denied the Germans because, if pride is taken in the achievements of one’s national ancestors, it follows that shame for what they have done must also be accepted. And the shame of German history is greater than any cultural achievement, not because that achievement fails to balance the shame, but because it is more recent than any achievement, and furthermore was committed by a generation either still living or still existent well within living memory.
The moral impossibility of patriotism worries Germans of conservative instinct or temperament. Upon what in their historical tradition can they safely look back as a guide or a help? One young German conservative historian I met took refuge in Anglophilia—his England, of course, being an England of the past. He needed a refuge, because Hitler and Nazism had besmirched everything in his own land. The historiography that sees in German history nothing but a prelude to Hitler and Nazism may be intellectually unjustified, the product of the historian’s bogus authorial omniscience, but it has emo- tional and psychological force nonetheless, precisely because the willingness to take pride in the past implies a preparedness to accept the shame of it. Thus Bach and Beethoven can be celebrated, but not as Germans; otherwise they would be tainted. The young German historian worked for a publishing house with a history lasting almost four centuries, but its failure to go out of business during the 12 years of the Third Reich cast a shadow both forward and backward, like a spectral presence that haunts a great mansion.
The impossibility of patriotism does not extinguish the need to belong, however. No man is, or can be, an island; everyone, no matter how egotistical, needs to belong to a collectivity larger than himself. A young German once said to me, “I don’t feel German, I feel European.” This sounded false to my ears: it had the same effect upon me as the squeal of chalk on a blackboard, and sent a shiver down my spine. One might as well say, “I don’t feel human, I feel mammalian.” We do not, and cannot, feel all that we are: so that while we who live in Europe are European, we don’t feel European.
In any case, can a German feel European unilaterally, without the Portuguese (for example) similarly and reciprocally feeling European rather than Portuguese? From my observations of the French, they still feel French, indeed quite strongly so. Nearly half a century after the Treaty of Rome, they can’t be said to like the Germans; to think otherwise is to mistake a marriage of convenience for the passion of Romeo and Juliet.
A common European identity therefore has to be forged deliberately and artificially; and one of the imperatives for attempting to do so is the need of Germans for an identity that is not German (the other, which dovetails neatly, is the French drive to recover world power). And since the Germans are very powerful in Europe, by weight of their economy, their need to escape from themselves by absorbing everyone into a new collective identity will sooner or later be perceived in the rest of Europe as the need to impose themselves— as a return to their bad old habits. New identities can indeed be forged, but usually in the crucible of war or at least of social upheaval: not, in the context, an inviting prospect.
On no city does history weigh heavier than on Dresden. It is 60 years in February 2005 since the bombing that forever changed the basis of the city’s renown. Overnight, the Florence of the Elbe became a perpetual monument to destruction from the air, famed for its rubble and its corpses rather than its baroque architecture and its devotion to art. And then came communism.
You meet people in Dresden who, until a few years ago, knew nothing but life under Hitler, Ulbricht, and Honecker. Truly the sins of their fathers were visited upon them, for they brought neither the Nazis nor the communists to power, and there was nothing they could do to escape them. For such people, the sudden change in 1990 was both liberation and burden. Avid to see a world that was previously forbidden them, they took immediate advantage of their new freedom to visit the farthest corners of the globe, the more exotic the better. But the liberation brought with it a heightened awareness of the man-made desert of their own pasts, seven-eighths of their lives, truly an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Never was Joy’s grape burst more decisively against veil’d Melancholy’s palate fine.
A decade and a half, and untold billions of deutsche marks and euros later, Dresden is still incompletely Westernized. Its unemployment rate is three times that of Germany as a whole, so high in fact that all the city dwellers I met believed the official figures to be manipulated downward, for propaganda purposes: it being inconceivable to them, as the result of long and incontrovertible experience, that any government would tell the truth about anything. And while some parts of the city have taken on the feverish vulgarity that for so many people in the modern world is the manifestation, prerequisite, and only meaning and value of freedom, others still have that disintegrating deadness peculiar to communism, where paint flakes and stucco crumbles, where stale smells always linger in stairwells, and electric light casts a yellowing gloom the color of cheap paper that has aged.
Not all Dresden was bombed, of course; on the banks of the Elbe there are still the magnificent villas of the haute bourgeoisie. Some of them have been bought and restored by rich “Wessis,” as the inhabitants of the former West Germany are still, not altogether affectionately, known; but others remain unrestored, uninhabited, and deteriorating, at night appearing unlit, like the set of a Gothic horror movie. One expects bats or vampires to emerge. For more than 40 years, they were the homes of Dresden “workers of the brain” (to use communist terminology), but such was their dilapidation that, immediately after reunification, they were declared unfit for habitation according to the standards of the West, and their residents moved elsewhere.
To the moral complications of a Nazi past were added those of a communist past, the greatest of which was an awareness of just how widespread the practice of denunciation had been. On some estimates, a sixth of the population of the former German Democratic Republic were Mitarbeiter—collaborators with the secret police, the Stasi—and had spied upon and denounced their neighbors, friends, relatives, and even spouses. Once the archives opened and people could read their security dossiers for themselves, they discovered in many cases that those to whom they had relayed their private thoughts had relayed them in turn to the Stasi, in return, practically, for nothing except the informer’s satisfaction of being on the right side of the powerful. Those whom people had thought were their best friends turned out to be the very ones whose denunciation had resulted in their otherwise inexplicable failure to gain promotion in their work, sometimes for decades. Such discoveries were not conducive to a favorable or optimistic view of human nature or the trust upon which a secure social life is built. The GDR, founded on a political theory that made a fetish of human solidarity, turned everyone into an atom in the asocial ether.
The destruction of Dresden on the night of February 13, 1945, by the Royal Air Force, and on the following two days by the U.S. Army Forces, necessitated the rebuilding of the city, with only a small area around the famous Zwinger restored to its former glory. Dresden had been all but destroyed once before, by the armies of Frederick the Great (if Frederick was enlightened, give me obscurantism); but at least he replaced the Renaissance city recorded in the canvases of Bellotto by a baroque one, not by a wilderness of totalitarian functionalism whose purpose was to stamp out all sense of individuality and to emphasize the omnipresent might of the state. The bombing of Dresden was a convenient pretext to do what communists (and some others) like to do in any case: the systematization of Bucharest during Ceauşescu’s rule, or the replacement of the medieval city of Ales, 25 miles from my house in France, by mass housing of hideous inhumanity on the orders of the communist city council, being but two cases in point.
Despite this, the communists made use of the destruction of Dresden for propaganda purposes throughout the four decades of their rule. The church bells of the city tolled on every anniversary of the bombing, for the 20 minutes that it took the RAF to unload the explosives that created the firestorm that turned the Florence of the Elbe into a smoking ruin as archaeological as Pompeii. “See what the capitalist barbarians did,” was the message, “and what they would do again if they had the chance and if we did not arm ourselves to the teeth.” Needless to say, the rapine of the Red Army went strictly unmentioned.
But the bombing caused some unease in Britain even at the time. Was it justified? The issue of the war, after all, was by then hardly in doubt; and, in any case, both the ethics and efficacy of bombing civilian areas had been questioned, not only by left-wing politicians and George Bell, bishop of Chichester, but by the air-force commanders themselves. A debate has simmered ever since, occasionally coming to a boil, as when a statue commemorating the head of the RAF’s Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, was unveiled in London in 1992 or, more recently, when the Queen paid a state visit to Germany and failed to utter an apology for the bombing.
I don’t think any decent, civilized person can look at pictures of Dresden after the bombing without being overcome by a sense of shock. The jagged ruins of walls emerging from fields of rubble, as far as the eye can see or the camera record, are a testament, of a kind, to human ingenuity. Only the long development of science and knowledge could have achieved this. As for the funeral pyres of bodies, piled up with their legs and arms emerging from the mass, or the corpses of the people boiled alive in the fountains in which they had taken refuge . . . one averts not only one’s eyes, but one’s thoughts.
Yet the idea sometimes propounded by those who seek to condemn the bombing as an atrocity equal to, and counterbalancing, Nazi atrocities—that Dresden was some kind of city of the innocents, concerned only with the arts and having nothing to do with the war effort, cut off from and morally superior to the rest of Nazi Germany—is clearly absurd. It is in the nature of totalitarian regimes that no such innocence should persist anywhere; and it certainly didn’t in Dresden in 1945. For example, the Zeiss-Ikon optical group alone employed 10,000 workers (and some forced labor), all engaged—of course—in war work. Nor had Dresden’s record been very different from the rest of Germany’s. Its synagogue was burned down during the orchestrated Kristallnacht of November 1938; the Gauleiter of Saxony, who had his seat in Dresden, was the notoriously brutal and corrupt Martin Mutschmann. The bombing saved the life of at least one man, the famous diarist Victor Klemperer, one of the 197 Jews still alive in the city (out of a former population of several thousand). He and the handful of remaining Jews had been marked down for deportation and death two days after the bombing; in the chaos after the bombing, he was able to escape and tear the yellow star from his coat.
Eighteen years after the end of the war, in 1963, the pro-Nazi historian David Irving published his first book, The Destruction of Dresden. In those days, he was either less pro-Nazi than he later became or more circumspect—the memory of the war still being fresh—but it was probably not entirely a coincidence that he devoted his first attention to an event that Churchill suspected might be a blot on the British escutcheon. However, Irving—later a leading Holocaust denier, who lost a famous libel suit against a historian who exposed him as such—clearly accepted in 1963 that there had been a Nazi genocide against the Jews, and he ended his book with an admission that the bombing (which he called “the biggest single massacre in European history”) was “carried out in the cause of bringing to their knees a people who, corrupted by Nazism, had committed the greatest crimes against humanity in recorded time.”
There were faint signs of Irving’s later acceptance of the Nazi worldview in this book, though they probably went unnoticed at the time. Describing the state of medical services in Dresden after the bombing, he mentioned that “a vast euthanasia-hospital for mentally incurables” was transformed into a hospital for the wounded, without any remark upon the very concept of a “euthanasia-hospital for mentally incurables”: an institution that by itself would be sufficient to negate one meaning of his ambiguous description of Dresden in a chapter heading as “The Virgin Target.” (Did he mean that it had never yet been attacked, or that the city was an innocent virgin?)
Of course, it would be absurd to pretend that the bombing of Dresden was conducted in order to put an end to the evil of its “euthanasia-hospital,” however vast, or to rescue Victor Klemperer from certain death. Among other motives for bombing, no doubt, was the need to demonstrate to the advancing Russians the tremendous firepower of the West, despite its relative weakness in land armies.
Irving’s book was influential, however, precisely because he hid, or had not yet fully developed, his Nazi sympathies. It achieved its greatest influence through Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s famous countercultural antiwar novel, published six years later, which makes grateful acknowledgment of Irving’s book, whose inflated estimate of the death toll of the bombing it unquestioningly accepts. Vonnegut, an American soldier who was a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time of the bombing, having been captured during the land offensive in the west, writes of the war and the bombing itself as if it took place in no context, as if it were just an arbitrary and absurd quarrel between rivals, between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, with no internal content or moral meaning— a quarrel that nevertheless resulted in one of the rivals cruelly and thoughtlessly destroying a beautiful city of the other.
But Vonnegut, to whom it did not occur that his subject matter was uniquely unsuited to facetious, adolescent literary experimentation, was writing an antiwar tract in the form of a postmodern novel, not a historical reexamination of the bombing of Dresden or of Germany as a whole. The problem that has bedeviled any such re-examination is fear that sympathy for the victims, or regret that so much of aesthetic and cultural value was destroyed, might be taken as sympathy for Nazism itself. The difficulty of disentangling individual from collective responsibility for the evils perpetrated by the Nazi regime is unresolved even now, and perhaps is inherently unresolvable.
True, Hitler was immensely popular; on the other hand, he never won a majority of the votes in anything that resembled a free election, and public enthusiasm in dictatorships cannot be taken entirely at face value (in his diaries, Klemperer himself veers between thinking that most Germans were Nazis and that the enthusiasm was bogus and more or less forced). The Germans entered into the spirit of violence and denunciation with a will, but on the other hand intimidation was everywhere. A witness to the burning of the Dresden synagogue on Kristallnacht who was overheard publicly to liken it to the worst times of the Middle Ages was seized by the Gestapo and taken away: an object lesson to all those who saw or learned about his fate. And those who say that Nazism was the inevitable consummation of German history, inherent in all that had gone before, must explain why so many German Jews (my grandfather among them, a major in the imperial German army during the Great War) were deeply and patriotically attached to both the country and its culture, and why so many of them were so blind for so long. Their lack of foresight is surely as eloquent as the historian’s hindsight.
By the end of the war, 600,000 Germans had been killed by the bombing campaign, and a third of the population rendered homeless. Yet when the war was over, none among the many millions affected could express his grief and despair openly, for to have done so would have rendered him open to the charge of Nazi sympathies. The East Germans could toll the bells for Dresden each anniversary of the bombing only because the government enforced the myth that all the Nazis originated from, and were now located in, West Germany. But normal, personal, unideological grief was not permitted.
W. G. Sebald, an expatriate German author who lived in England, where he died in a car crash in 2001, pointed out a curious lacuna in German literature of memoirs or fictional accounts of the bombing and its aftereffects. Millions suffered terribly, yet there is hardly a memoir or a novel to record it. Anything other than silence about what they experienced would have seemed, and still would seem, indecent and highly suspect, an attempt to establish a moral equivalence between the victims and perpetrators of Nazism.
Foreigners, such as the Swedish writer Stig Dagerman, could write about the sufferings of the Germans immediately after the war, but not the Germans themselves. Victor Gollancz, a British publisher of Polish-Jewish origin who could not be suspected in the slightest of Nazi sympathies and who had spent the entire 1930s publishing books warning the world of the Nazi peril, wrote and published a book in the immediate aftermath of the war called In Darkest Germany, in which he drew attention to the plight of the Germans living (and starving) among the ruins, which he observed on a visit there. To the charge that the Germans had brought it all on themselves and deserved no less, he replied with a three-word question: “And the children?” His book was furnished with many affecting pictures, perhaps the most poignant among them that of the comfortably attired Gollancz lifting the foot of a little German boy to demonstrate his pitiful footwear to the camera.
But for several decades, it was impermissible for Germans to allude publicly to their own sufferings of the period, much of which must have been innocent, unless it be considered that all Germans were equally guilty ex officio, as it were. No doubt the impermissibility of publicly expressed complaint, and therefore of resentment, was a powerful stimulus of the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle, into which the Germans in the West threw their potentially resentful energies after the war, for lack of anywhere else to direct them. But this left a legacy of deep emptiness that all the reflective Germans I have met seem to feel. Perhaps it explains also the German longing to travel, greater than that of any other nation I know.
In the last few years, best-selling books have begun to appear in Germany to record the suffering of the Germans during and after the war. Is this dangerous self-pity an implicit national self-exculpation? Or is it a sign of health, that at last Germans can approach their own past unencumbered by the psychological complexes bequeathed to them by their parents and grandparents?
As I walked through Dresden, I lamented the loss of an incomparable city, while thinking how difficult it must be to be a German, for whom neither memory nor amnesia can provide consolation.