Der Untergang (After W.G. Sebald)


“You ask me why I chose exile over
death?  That is an easy question to
answer.  After all, a live chicken is
better than a dead lion.  Germany
will be ruined by Hitler, there is no
doubt about it.  How can a nation
ruled by such a madman prosper? I
chose exile over death because those
were the only two options left to
those of us Germans who were sane
and who refused to compromise
our ideals.  To stay and to be decent
human beings would be to continually
leave ourselves vulnerable to being
picked up and taken to some vile
concentration camp where our days
would be numbered and we would face
the horrors of Nazi ruthlessness in
terror.  To leave and be an exile would
be to make ourselves foreigners and
outsiders in the eyes of those who stayed
and who compromised with evil in
a thousand little ways.  But one cannot
have a clear conscience before God until
one has stared down the devil within.”


Let me into this train–I say, let me in–
I cannot remain here a minute longer
or else I shall lose my mind.  Maybe
I have already lost it, some would say,
those who have not stared into the sky
to find it covered in bombers, or those
who tried to get into the bunker to
wait until the bombers left only to find
that the bomb had hit ahead of us in line
and left all those bodies burned.  The smell
of that charred flesh shall never leave my
nostrils all the days of my life, nor the taste
of the bile rushing from my stomach as I
stepped over the dead bodies of my neighbors
as I tried to get to the railway station to get
away from that charnelhouse.  Why do you
jostle me like that, I say as my valise opens
and out falls the charred body of my child
who had died when he rushed ahead in line
for the bunker instead of staying with me.  I
freeze in terror, embarrassed and ashamed.


Of course, I understand that it will not be
an easy matter for me to find a good job
in postwar Germany.  I kept my head down
and stayed out of trouble, and I was only
a low ranking SS officer, not anyone who
was important enough to draw attention to
myself or be on the list of people paraded in
front of cameras and audiences on a show
trial.  No, I was one of the little guys.  You
want to know where I served?  I was in
the prison guard.  I served at places whose
name will live in infamy, and helped choose
among those who arrived in cattle cars
between those who would go to the right and
a slow death of slavery and those who would
go to the left to shower and find a much
quicker death thanks to German chemical
expertise.  No, I sleep fine.  I lived a good life
and had my pick of the women in the labor
camp.  I hope to find a nice hausfrau now,
to be sure, but I am not plagued by any nightmares
now.  No, those who survived will suffer the
nightmares because of the degradation they faced
and because they will have seen death and
will have lived and will feel guilty.  They will wake
up in the middle of the night filled with terrors that
they will be unable to shake all their days.  I may be
guilty, indeed, but wouldn’t Germany rather have
my services in some sort of honorable office
than to deal with all of the little functionaries that
made the regime work as well as it did?   That’s
what I thought, I will keep my head down and
not make any trouble for you or for myself
and we can all sweep under the rug this little
conversation we had to day.  That is for the best.


I asked him what he did in those days, as he sat
with a hand lazily holding a cigarette.  “I was from
Danzig,” he replied, as smoke came out from the
cancer stick.  “I joined the jungvolk and sought
to volunteer so that I could be a submariner, but
I was not able to join that core because there were
no new recruits by the time I was able to join
after my time in the labor battalion.  Of course, the
next best thing was to be a tank gunner, so I did
that, although there were no tanks by that time
either.”  He looked at me somewhat quizzically. I
then asked him if he had done anything he was
ashamed of.  “It is hard to remember.  I was by
no means a brave soldier, but I managed to
escape the Russians and was captured by the
Americans and nursed to health after being
wounded during the collapse.  I was certainly
not an evil man, but I was no hero, that much
is true.  Nor have I pretended to be a hero, I
have been honest about my flaws.  Have you
not read my memoir, where I talk about Stalin’s
organ or that dark-haired beauty whose name
I cannot say because she was a Jew?  Oh, you
have not?  You missed all those clever
references to postwar literature and all those
clever conceits in my later novels, or even my
attempt to encourage someone to write a
screenplay about how the future Pope and I
rolled dice and wrote poetry together in a POW
camp after the end?  No matter.”


As someone who has done a fair amount of reading about the collapse of Hitler’s regime [1] (which took place in late April and early May of 1945, we should remember), I have often been struck by the complexities of how it has been remembered and portrayed.  Although I have read a couple of volumes of the poetry of W.G. Sebald before, yesterday for the first time I read one of his prose books (and there will be more where that comes from), where he examines the curious lack of exploration into the horrors of the strategic bombing suffered by Germany during World War II.  He notes as well the compromised position of many postwar German writers, although he does not mention Günter Grass (more on that below).  Being the sort of person who unfortunately tends to find it easy for images to be burned on my mind, the reading about the horrors of the bombing of Hamburg I did meant that in order to sleep well last night, I would have to get the images out of my mind, and so I resolved to write a poem to deal with the tangle of perspectives that I found in what I had read during dinner.

So, this poem is a brief exploration of four different German experiences set in chronological order.  The first perspective is during the war from a German emigre who chose exile from Germany and life in the United States rather than a heroic death as a resistance figure a la Dietrich Bonhoeffer or someone like that.  There were many such people in the United States, those who chose to flee and live rather than stay and die in Hitler’s regime, some of whom we do not think to be cowardly figures at all, like Albert Einstein, for one.  The second perspective is one of a mother from the bombed city of Hamburg, who is traumatized by the destruction wrecked on her city by allied bombers, to the point where she keeps the body of her dead child in her suitcase, which falls out to her embarrassment as she tries to make a fresh start somewhere else.  The third perspective is in the immediate postwar period where Denazification was going on, and where many low-ranking former Nazi party members and SS figures were able to find a place within the postwar German order because the anti-Nazi push became redirected to an anti-Communist one, and while this is a repellent perspective, perhaps, for many readers, it is certainly not an uncommon one.  The fourth and final perspective is that of Günter Grass, one of those postwar writers who appears to be filled with that war guilt over having been an enthusiastic and patriotic supporter of Hitler’s regime and someone who got a lot of credibility as a writer in postwar Germany, to the point of winning a Nobel Prize for literature, no less.  Here I explore the compromised nature of postwar German literature and the way that writers sought to either evade or self-deprecate their own experience in Hitler’s regime, or both.

In each of these four perspectives we see a different perspective when it comes to the horrors of war.  The first figure has clear vision from a far distance, seeing that with Hitler’s character and political philosophy being what it is that Germany cannot propser under such a leader.  With clear vision and no particular desire to throw his life away, he chooses exile and a place as a critic of Hitler’s regime.  The second figure is a common one of ordinary Germans who are caught up in the horrors of war and try to keep a brave face in spite of their horrific losses.  Such were the ordinary people happy in the postwar period to rebuild Germany and forget, as best as they were able, what happened.  The third perspective is the most malign, this one from someone who had done well during Hitler’s regime, knew what he was doing, and was shrewd enough to know as well that his services were still valuable in the postwar period as long as his Nazi past was kept under wraps.  One sees this attitude commonly in the lower reaches of a corrupt totalitarian state, whether we are looking at former Soviet apparachiks or Iraqi Baathists or American leftist “community organizers” or something of that loathsome nature, who are able to blend in no matter who is in power and make for themselves a tolerable and beneficial place in any social order.  The fourth and final perspective is that of the author whose childish enthusiasm for war put him in a compromised position that he wrestled with for the rest of his life, looking back on it as a person who has been honored by others but who struggles to feel as if he had lived honorably.

And indeed, that is a struggle faced by all of these Germans.  Is it honorable to choose a safe and comfortable exile over a heroic death?  Is it honorable to try to preserve the past even if it means the horrific carrying on of the remains of a dead child in the face of war’s brutality?  Is it honorable to seek to serve a threatened state even if one has a record of what would politely be termed war crimes?  Is it honorable to have been a successful and much feted writer if one’s past is compromised by political sins in one’s youth?  It is fairly easy to pick on Germany, in this matter, but we should ask ourselves the same questions.  As an American, I am aware that I bear at least some measure of responsibility for that which my country does in the world.  Can one be a good citizen of an imperial power with a murky reputation?  Are all imperial regimes evil because of the crimes and sins that are necessary to build and maintain empires?  These are not easy questions to answers.  To be sure, Nazi Germany was a particularly bad historical regime, one of the worst in history without a doubt, but if America’s sins were visited in our generation, what kind of guilt would we have to face down if we were to look to God with a clear conscience and call down fury from heaven upon our enemies?

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Military History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Der Untergang (After W.G. Sebald)

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