Sunday, February 13, 2005

Wuerzburg Syndrome

[Note: this is a reprint of comments that I made elsewhere, edited and reworked, about the problems of German memory -- the issue of allied bombing of Dresden seems to have been renewed in recent days.]

Over at H-German, there is an ongoing discussion about Der Brand. The controversy surrounds the Juerg Friedrich's book of the same name and a rediscovered work by the late WG Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction. Friedrich and Sebald, in different ways, attempt to restore the tragedy of the aerial bombing of German cities to the German consciousness. I do not want to go into the details, but it suffices to say that they see the bombings as a German tragedy.

But within that debate has emerged another: remembrance of the bombing versus remembrance of the Holocaust. One historian would call this Würzburg Syndrome. In Würzburg, a city in northern Bavaria, there is a prominent memorial to 4,000 people died who died in allied bombing in 1945. That event was memorialized in a book by Nossack, Der Untergang. Sebald, in turn, memorialized the bombing when he discovered Nossack's work and commented on it is his book. There are three memorializations to the same event.

But there is no memorial for the Holocaust in Würzburg, which was a major station for the assembly and deportation of Jews. The inequality between the two is obvious. It raises the question whether or not memorial for Der Brand can be constructed independently of memorials for the Holocaust.

As much as I find Würzburg Syndrome unpalatable, there are trends in memory that have been useful for disestablishing German authoritarianism. The German past is littered with the ruins it created, and those ruins cannot be read in only one manner. Heinrich Böll's stories wrap the incessant pursuits of war and genocide with post-war conditions. His intentions were not to elevate the suffering experienced in the post-war years to the same level as those caused by Germany. Within the rubble of bombed out cities, he finds that sacrifice produced nothing and nothingness, not even the beauty of sacrifice. From that position he developed a critical eye towards German politics, ceaselessly analyzing how the federal republic fell short of personal freedom.


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