Earthquake? Hurricane? Tornado? Flood? I've made it through all of those, though not the worst examples of any of them. My own worst would be the uncontrollable Berkeley/Oakland fire that almost trapped me in a friend's home in 1992. I had literally to RUN for my life. The home was one of hundreds burned to the ground; everything my friends owned -- furniture, clothes, grand piano, childhood photo albums -- was incinerated in a matter of minutes. Another Berkeley friend was trapped in his car, trying to flee, and cremated alive. I've also been shot at, or shot over -- it's all the same until the bullets hit you. But my worst imaginings of fear and pain, based on my worst experiences, don't begin to match the terror and suffering portrayed by Gert Ledig in this short book "Vergeltung".
Ledig experienced the massive bombings of Munich and other German cities during the last years of World War II. Vergeltung is a portrayal of the bombing of an unnamed city, presented as a collage of moments in the deaths of ordinary individuals -- civilians, soldiers, Germans, Russian prisoners of war, American airmen in the bomber formations. There are traces of human dignity in a few of them as they die, and there are flashes of desperation that might resemble bravery, but there are no acts of heroism, no claims of redemption. Abject terror and physical agony bring out the worst in people, especially the rage for "Payback". That's the title of the English translation of this fictive realism, and it's a good title. Vergeltung, in dictionary translation, means "retaliation" or "revenge". The savagery of the carpet and incendiary bombing of German cities in 1944 was certainly motivated by a desire for retaliation for the bombings of English cities earlier in the war. What Ledig shows is the brutal lust for retaliation as the psychological wellspring of war at all levels, from the command-post decision to bomb an entire city of humans to ashes and rubble, to the dirt-level decision to castrate a captured bomber crew-member who parachutes into the midst of the fire storm. A man retaliates against womanhood by raping a girl trapped with him under a fallen building. Drunken soldiers retaliate against their former schoolteacher, whom they accuse of looting, by forcing him to mop up their vomit. Meanwhile, bullets and bombs strike at random, with no meaningful discrimination of persons, all of whom are struggling, weeping, remembering, cursing one instant and extinguished utterly the next.
This is the most vivid, relentless, damning portrayal I've ever read of what we human beings have done, and still do, to each other. It's not a book to be read comfortably, dispassionately, for diversion. It's Hell in words. It was too uncompromising for German or international readers when first published in 1956. Ledig's work remained obscure and ignored for several decades of the German economic recovery, and it has only in the first years of the 21st Century been rediscovered. I would strongly recommend reading it side by side with the essay "On the Natural History of Destruction" by W G Sebald, an essay which analyzes the psychological need to forget and deny the horrors of the bombings on the part of both the destroyed and the destroyers. Nothing -- no ideology, no religion, no competition for place or power, not even security, and especially not retaliation -- can ever justify or ameliorate the horrors of modern warfare.
The English translation by Shaun Whiteside is available in paperback from Granta Press, with an introduction by Michael Hofmann. And I've just found myself another writer whose works I need to devour.