On the Natural History of Destruction
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On the Natural History of Destruction

4.06 of 5 stars 4.06  ·  rating details  ·  869 ratings  ·  78 reviews
W.G. Sebald completed this extraordinary and important -- and already controversial -- book before his untimely death in December 2001.

On the Natural History of Destruction
is W.G. Sebald’s harrowing and precise investigation of one of the least examined “silences” of our time. In it, the acclaimed novelist examines the devastation of German cities by Allied bombardment,...more
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Published February 11th 2003 by Random House (first published 1999)
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This book contains four essays, the final three (which I did not read) dealing with three writers I do not know: Alfred Andersch, Jean Améry, Peter Weiss. The opening essay, which anchors the book (and is 48% of the book) deals with the interesting topic of the German cultural amnesia regarding the devastation they suffered from the allied bombing of German cities. The essay is clear and contains some interesting points. Sebald believes that contemporary Germans suffer from a sort of cognitive d...more
Hai-Dang Phan
What a relief to return to Sebald after a couple of years and find my awe for his writing amplified, deepened, and qualified with distance and circumspection. (I feared my fellow academics had succeeded in gutting his corpus of work, producing the usual proliferation of papers, chapters, and books, only to heap them on top of the funeral pyre.) So one returns to the central essay, "Air War and Literature," in a time of war, amidst the five year anniversary of an invasion to rediscover these line...more
Erik Simon
During the latter years of WWII, 131 German cities and towns were the victims of Allied air raids, and many of those towns were literally decimated. It was the same sort of fire bombing we saw in Japan leading up to Hiroshima. The destruction truly was amazing. From the fire bombing of Hamburg, Sebald writes: "The water in some of the canals was ablaze. The glass in the tram car windows melted; stocks of suger boiled in bakery cellars. Those who had fled from their air-raid shelters sank, with g...more
M. Sarki
The first time through much of the book was wasted on me as I am not familiar with the writers Sebald was criticizing. But the first section was pretty amazing. I had no idea really how bad it all was during WWII. I am glad I read the book. Sebald was a very gifted writer whose sentences are quite accessible for all.

I did decide to go back and read everything and I am glad I did. Just allowing oneself to go with the flow of his writing is a joy in itself. This is a book I am sure I will revisit...more
Justin Evans
Had this been reviewed more fairly by my fellow Goodreaders, I probably would have gone up to 3 stars, but instead I find myself thrown into a position of aggression. Had this been written by, e.g., Peter Weiss, not only would it not have x hundred ratings; it wouldn't even have been published. Thankfully for lovers of mildly diverting amateur history and effective literary polemic (i.e., probably not you), it was written by Sebald, and so is not only published, but published in cheap paper-back...more
Aleksandr Voinov
I was wary when I started this - I bought this a few weeks ago based on the strength of a recommendation from somebody I normally trust, unaware that it was a series of four lectures. And normally that means I'll be bored to tears. (Bad flashbacks ensued from two semesters of studying German literature, an altogether stultifying experience thanks to the toothless and ossified lecturers at my university).

The first lecture, on collective memory regarding the air raids and aftermath, takes about 5...more
Oct 19, 2010 Tyler rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Fans of Lit-Crit; Fans of Essays; War Fiends
Recommended to Tyler by: Author's Reputation
Shelves: non-fiction
You would think the massive air raids on Germany in World War II, the most dramatic experience the German people have ever gone through, would be a subject Germans couldn't stop talking about. The exact opposite is the case. But why? Sebald goes to the bottom of this phenomenon in the four essays that make up this book. He comes up with a thorough, convincing and riveting explanation.

German authors are largely to blame. The first essay traces this out. The second names a famous German author as...more
On the Natural History of Destruction is perhaps the the work of Sebald's that I've enjoyed the least thusfar. This means it was still fucking transcendent.

The reason I didn't enjoy it as much is a fairly simple one. I just haven't read most of the authors he references in his long essays about, among Peter Weiss, Alfred Andersch, or the various Trümmerlitteratur authors. I did enjoy the essay on Jean Améry... it's a wonderful meditation on an author, who, like Sebald, embodies the spirit of int...more
Erik Graff
Feb 08, 2012 Erik Graff rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: WWII fans
Recommended to Erik by: Michael Bobick
Shelves: history
This book was loaned me by a friendly coworker. It was the first explicit account I'd ever read of the allied bombing of Germany during World War II. Since then I've followed up with further studies of allied bombing strategies against the Germans and Japanese, their intentions and their actual accomplishments.

In addition to describing the devastation imposed upon urban centers, the author meditates upon the subsequent virtual silence of most German-speaking writers as regards these events.
Friederike Knabe
This posthumous volume of Sebald's non-fiction writing is a major contribution to German literary criticism and politico-cultural analysis. Accompanying his reflections on the traumatic impact of the air war against German cities are essays studying the very diverse reactions of three `witnesses' of that time as reflected in their post-war literary works. In AIR WAR AND LITERATURE, originally presented as the Zurich Lectures, Sebald delves deeply into some very uncomfortable questions. The air w...more
Sebald investigates what he sees as a remarkable absence in German literature of any account of the devastating Allied bombing of German cities. He thinks the absence must be attributible to a collective repression of a traumatic experience. He investigates the few examples of postwar literature that describe the bombing of cities and finds only one or two examples that he thinks avoid cliche and obvious psychological coping mechanisms.

The book is a mix of history (the most interesting bits) an...more
Paulo Fehlauer
It's interesting to see Sebald's literary style applied to a historical essay. In this book, Sebald offers a very sharp analysis on Germany's recent history (and, as in all of his work, on the construction of a national, collective, memory). And it's also very interesting to notice how connected all of his works are, and how, in the end, all of his books are one, in a certain way.

P.S.: Another interesting book on the same subject is Andreas Huyssen's analysis on what he called 'urban palimpsests...more
So why did German intellectuals and writers refuse to talk about the destruction of their country by the allies? The destruction of every major city and all the cultural artefacts contained therein. Not sure that Sebald actually answers the questions but he point the reader at other sources. Thought provoking.
Title is misleading. It's really a meditation on the collective psyche of 1950s Germany...which, as you can imagine, was pretty fucked up.
The late Sebald is an extraordinary writer. His intelligence, capacity of understanding and compassion, writing style, and huge knowledge make for illuminating reading - and this book, a collection of essays that deal with the German catastrophe of Nazism (and how it impacted the generations after WWII) through the eyes of literature, is an essential book for anyone interested by the subject. Among other things, Sebald relates the horrific bombings that destroyed most of Germany (in details that...more
I put off reading Sebalds "non-fiction" essays and lectures for a while because I didn't want to break the spell he has cast me into- a dream of a memory where personal narrative meets with historical and architectural facts. I was right to have put it off. As an avid Sebald admirer I appreciate this work because it is all very specific to his core exploration into the widespread amnesia and avoidance of German writers and intellectuals after the second world war to acknowledge and attempt in so...more
Roger Kirkbride
I was sent this book by a friend & read it straight after Slaughterhouse5 as I thought that they would give different perspecctives of teh Dresden bombings. I didn't really know what to expect from W.G. Sebald but litarary critiscism wasn't it; I've never been a reader of the genre & it has never appealed to me.
This book does not give an account of the bombing of German cities in the second world war; nor does it offer a perspective of waging war on civilians through weapons of mass dist...more
Un Sebald insolito per me, più per forma che per contenuto, trattandosi sostanzialmente sempre di memoria e malinconia.

La forma, dicevo: per me insolita perché qui ha veste di lezioni/conferenze, non di narrazione – inoltre, in appendice, un pamphlet polemico, anche questo insolito, perché la polemica non si addice al Sebald che ho conosciuto finora.
Mentre molto gli si addice l’ironia, che in questo ultimo breve saggio raggiunge vette alpestri: l’ir...more

Non ho sicuramente le competenze storiche, né tantomeno quelle letterarie, per commentare questo saggio di W.G. Sebald, in realtà più che un saggio la raccolta parziale di alcune conferenze tenute dall'autore sul tema "Guerra aerea e letteratura" e un'analisi critica sulla figura e sulla produzione letteraria dello scrittore tedesco Alfred Andersch, per cui mi limiterò ad alcune riflessioni personali.
Sebald era nato nel maggio del 1944, afferma per cui di appartenere «al novero di col...more
This series of essays marks Sebald's attempt to understand post-war German literature, particularly as it comments on (or, in his contention, fails properly to describe) the Allied destruction of German cities. Sebald's Zürich lectures, titled "Air War and Literature," occupy the bulk of the book.

Sebald argues that post-war Germany continually succumbs to a self-imposed amnesia, evident in architecture, art, and literature. The Zürich essay is at once observational and polemical, and sometimes...more
How could be this book controversial? It pushed on themes which were long time taboo and not discussed openly. The suffering of civilians under heavy bombardment followed by touching the biography and works of Alfred Andersch and Peter Weiss.

The part about the reflection of the RAF bombardment in contemporary German literature was skillfully touching the national postraumatic stress glued together with sense of guild to national amnesia about horrid impact of the bombardment of the civilian targ...more
I read it once before and it stuck in my mind the way that Sebald's work always does. And like his nominal fiction books, returning to it is almost more gratifying than picking it up for the first time. That said, it's a brutal piece of writing, and there are many passages in it that are profoundly harrowing.

Sebald wants to explore the reasons for the collective silence and questionably willful amnesia that the German people experienced after the area bombing of their cities in the final years o...more
Many people misread this book as a lamentation of unacknowledged German suffering in the Second World War. It is that, of course, but it is also much more. Sebald himself laments the ways that Germans themselves--independent of outside interference--have come to commemorate their own victimization. They "look and look away at the same time", indirectly confronting that legacy. From this vantage point of undressed historical wounds, a portrait of Germany's human catastrophes emerges that seems as...more
The long title essay in this book focuses on what Sebald sees as the cultural amnesia of the German people with regard to WWII--not so much for crimes they committed or complicit with, but for the crimes afflicted against them by the Allies' huge bombing campaigns--the annihilation of numerous German cities. Particularly, he asks, why haven't writers confronted it and when they have why has it been done in a kitschy way. It's really interesting. I thought I might only read that first essay, but...more
Literary criticism about the inability of German writers to write with authority about the air bombings in WWII Germany. Sebald is concerned about the interplay of memory and history, the role of writers in times of crisis, and their moral and ethical obligations to bear witness to destruction. I wrote some notes on sections of the book which can be accessed at the following links:

Partha Banerjee
W G Sebald's last book deals with a question that still haunts Germany today albeit in the unconscious. What was the cost of the progress that post-war Germany achieved ? The nature of that Faustian bargain that was almost necessary at the time is anaylsed here. Germany chose to simply relegate the profound sense of loss that the war caused into the dustbin of the unconscious and move on with restoring the country. But just because it was necessary to do that doesent mean that it was right. An e...more
Ljiljana Stancic
Sebald's Zurich lectures on the intellectual treatment, and the lack thereof, of the Allied aerial campaign on German cities during World War II, are an interesting read in themselves. Even more so as they shed light on his entire work. What Austerlitz leaves only hinted on, On the Natural History of Destruction dissects with precision and acuity of a writer who feels that the unspeakable can not remain so forever. Destruction, according to Sebald, is self-begetting and self-consuming. It has a...more
Boria Sax
In spite of an intense preoccupation with historical memory, Germany today remains a country with very little sense of tradition. Coming to terms with the past - what the Germans call "Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung" - is the major theme of many German authors such as Guenter Grass and Christa Wolf, but most of their effort in this direction has, as their own lives illustrate, not come to very much. Guenter Grass concealed his former membership in the SS through most of his career, while Christa Wol...more
Sebald was a remarkable writer, and seems one of the most honest and clear-eyed of post-war German authors. Much of this book describes the firebombing of German cities by allied forces, what that looked like, and its aftermath. He does it in a way that takes an honest look at the suffering experienced by ordinary Germans and how that affected post-war German culture. And he does this without in any way asking for pity. Not an easy book, but an important one I think.
William Reichard
A remarkable and controversial study of the destruction of several German cities by Allied firebombing during WWII, Sebald argues that Germany, as a whole, has been unwilling and/or unable to reckon with the realities of this destruction, and builds his thesis around post-war German literature. The first section of the book is the best because it is the most expansive, while the rest of the book deals with the work of specific authors.
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Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald was a German writer and academic. His works are largely concerned with the themes of memory and loss of memory (both personal and collective) and decay (of civilizations, traditions or physical objects). They are, in particular, attempts to reconcile himself with, and deal in literary terms with, the trauma of the Second World War and its effect on the German peopl...more
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“The population decided—out of sheer panic at first—to carry on as if nothing had happened.
- “Air War and Literature: The Zurich Lectures”
“I spent my childhood and youth on the outskirts of the Alps, in a region that was largely spared the immediate effects of the so-called hostilities. At the end of the war I was just one year old, so I can hardly have any impressions of that period of destruction based on personal experience. Yet to this day, when I see photographs or documentary films dating from the war I feel as if I were its child, so to speak, as if those horrors I did not experience cast a shadow over me … I see pictures merging before my mind’s eye—paths through the fields, river meadows, and mountain pastures mingling with images of destruction—and oddly enough, it is the latter, not the now entirely unreal idylls of my early childhood, that make me feel rather as if I were coming home…” 1 likes
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