Opinion: History of unnatural destruction

Through Pramod K Nayar

The memory of wars and their disastrous effects varies from culture to culture. The making of memory, especially collective memory, is a political act. Some destruction is more important than others. Some victims are greater victims – this is, after all, the age of concurrent victimization – than others. The narrative of victimization, controlled and capitalized, freezes in an industry with memories of misery, college studies and so on.

Forgetting Hiroshima, intentionally

Hyderabad News

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In their flagship study, Hiroshima in America: half a century of denial, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton and journalist Greg Mitchell write: “The most compelling reason for failure [of Americans] facing Hiroshima is our reluctance to do so – a collective form of psychic numbness… Hidden from the start, Hiroshima quickly vanished into the depths of American consciousness.

Later, in a chapter evocatively titled “Apocalyptic Concealment”, they explain how “the bomb sequence went from secrecy to what is actively hidden, and finally to forgery.”

Hiroshima, Lifton-Mitchell implies, is an act of intentional forgetting, made possible by official secrecy, public amnesia and manipulation of speech. It is undoubtedly a brilliant read, but we find that Hiroshima-Nagasaki are not alone in the processes of insidious erasure of public commemoration in former allied nations. Take, for example, the Allied bombings of Hamburg, Dresden and other German cities during World War II. True, the Germans decimated 6 million Jews in their final solution. This does not change the fact that the Allies are inflicting massive deaths or the “Rape of Nanking”. The problem is this: the Holocaust trumps all other forms of massacres and destruction, from Nanjing to Dresden.

He is How? ‘Or’ What civilian loss is measured, whose death is assessed and how, and what memories are cherished, this makes up the story of unnatural destruction.

Hamburg, Dresden, Düsseldorf

To begin with, some statistics on the 1945 bombing of German cities by Allied planes:

“The Royal Air Force alone dropped a million tonnes of bombs on enemy territory; it is true that of the 131 cities attacked, some only once and others several times, many were almost completely razed, that about 600,000 German civilians were victims of the air raids and that three and a half million houses were destroyed, while at the end of the war seven and a half million people were left homeless, and there were 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for each person in Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant of Dresden… ”

The above statistics are from The strategic air offensive against Germany (1956), cited in the first paragraph of WG Sebald’s essay, “Air War and Literature,” in On the natural history of destruction (2003). Other documents suggest that in the spring of 1945 more than 4,000,000 Germans had died in the bombings.

Sebald is not interested in the American-British silence over Dresden or Hamburg. His concern is elsewhere:

He seems to have left barely a trace of pain in the [German] collective consciousness, it has been largely erased from the retrospective understanding of those concerned, and it has never played an appreciable role in the discussion of the internal constitution of our country.

Sebald is appalled by “the self-anesthesia shown by a community that appeared to have emerged from a war of annihilation without any signs of psychological impairment.” Sebald may be correct to a point, but the post-Cold War era saw Germans reflect on their suffering during the war. The memory of their suffering does not absolve the Germans from the now well documented fact that ordinary Germans eagerly participated in the operations of the Holocaust.

But the most important point here are the languages ​​and the comparison processes – the German suffering versus Jewish suffering, especially in the book by Jorge Friedrich The fire: the bombing of Germany, 1940-1945 (2006) – which aimed to locate Germans as primarily victims.

Competing victims?

For historians examining this rhetoric of German suffering, Friedrich’s construction of Dresden and Hamburg is an attempt to unify all Germans under the category of “victim”. This, says historian Robert Moeller, is false because there was no clear German “we” that could be identified as the victims. Many Germans who did not approve of Hitler were killed in Allied raids. Jews awaiting either rescue by Allied forces or extermination by the Germans also died in the raids. Moeller quotes a popular song from the Düsseldorf miners:

Dear Tommy, please fly further on your path;

spare us the poor miners for today.

Instead, fly against these people in Berlin;

they are the ones who voted for Hitler.

Among the dead, Moeller notes, there were also those who were not Germans. So how can we talk about the terror we have experienced at the hands of others without ignore the terror that we have perpetrated on others? How to reconcile anger against the first and guilt against the second? Is claiming victim status in one context a way of escaping the label of perpetrator in another context?

The output, Moeller suggests in another essay, that the Germans evolved was a rescripting of complicated stories:

There was no “Stalingrad syndrome”, no lost war for which the Germans must take revenge. The public commemoration of mass death, loss and suffering was accompanied by the exhortation to avoid all future wars, not to redeem losses at the end of a gun.

It was a moral memorialization of victimization and perpetrator, implies Moeller:

Death gave no answer, and the main lesson it offered was that future wars should be avoided. In official statements and public commemorations, the past has allowed Germans to reprimand, not threaten.

Obviously, such memories of unnatural destruction must make someone not resilient to destruction but resist attempts to evoke more destruction.

(The author is professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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