Thursday 12th June 2003
All content © New Journal Enterprises, 2003

The aftemath of the bombing of Dresden. Below, a Baghdad buildng hit by US missiles,
A moral relapse in the face of atrocity
On The Natural History of Destruction by W G Sebald
Hamish Hamilton, £16.99

IN the aftermath of the war against Iraq we are now titillated with political theatre.

Questions are flung around the stage: Where are the Weapons of Mass Destruction? Was Tony Blair misled by the intelligence services? Or did he lie to Parliament and the nation?

Whatever drama is provided in the political broadsheets, it begs a deep moral question for those MPs who voted for the war. How do they feel now about the thousands of men, women and children who died most brutally in Iraq?

But then that question could be asked of many Britons who played a passive spectatorial role in the war.

However much the BBC, ITN and Sky sanitised the news footage of the aerial bombardment of Baghdad, the bodies of the dead and the dying were captured by the cameras.

We knew. It took little imagination to picture the agony of parents holding their dead boy or girl. Today, we are still reminded by the tragic case of little Ali who lost his arms.

This cannot be said of the British during World War II. They knew the RAF were bombing the big cities of Germany – Hamburg, Frankfurt, Dresden, Cologne and Berlin – but probably compared it to the Blitz inflicted on British cities. They would not have known it was ten times worse.

Wartime censorship kept that nightmare hidden from them.
But if they had known that 600,000 people had been slaughtered by Bomber Command – ten times the numbers who died in the Blitz – they would probably have thought the Germans deserved it. After all, wasn’t it they who had started the war? Hadn’t they written the curriculum for other military commands?

W G Sebald, a German writer who draws you into a deep moral narrative, became a kind of Anglophile after settling down as a professor of Eurpoean Literature at the University of East Anglia in the 1970s. Tragically, he died in a road accident last year.
Haunted by the unimaginable horrors our bombers brought to the German cities he set out to ask: What happened? Once or twice he went on to ask why?

The bombing was so intense in Hamburg and Frankfurt that it set off a firestorm that lasted for two days, smoke rising 24,000 feet above the cities. Ten of thousands who couldn’t escape were vapourised. The heat was so intense that bodies were roasted, their body fat spreading in pools over the floor of their homes. Fleeing families packed their belonging in suitcases – and sometimes this included the bodies of relatives.

He describes how a case carried by a woman at a railway station suddenly fell open – and out rolled the roasted body of a child, shrunk like a mummy. British cities had escaped this catastrophe. Sebald’s journey in time across the German cities recreates a modern version of Dante’s Inferno. He wonders why the Germans as a nation repressed all memory of their nightmare. One or two wrote about it – including the novelist Heinrich Boll – but hardly anything was published for more than 50 years.

Was this because like survivors of any catastrophe they just wanted to bury the past?

But Sebald also accepts that guilt may have run deep with many Germans. They may have felt they were paying the price of the hell they had brought to Europe.

Would there have been outrage in Britain if we had known about the inferno of the German cities? Perhaps.

But what level of pain and anger was felt about the plight of the Iraqis?
We cannot say we were kept in the dark. We cannot say we didn’t know.
More than a million marched against a war before it began. Once the missiles began to fall, carried in bombers that took of from US airfields in Britain, most people seemed to turn off.

The tabloids have now turned their pages back to celebrity news. It’s Big Brother on TV. A moral coma has begun to cover our nation. It seems as if history keeps on repeating itself.