The Effects of the Bombings in World War Two in Literature and Society. A Comparison between Gert Ledig’s Vergeltung and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. (Yvonne Karsmakers)


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The bombings of the German homeland, says Charles Messenger, were reactions of the British and American air forces to the German bombings of the United Kingdom. It was seen as the only possible way to destroy the enemy’s military industry and lower fascist morale. After the war, these methods were not questioned. The war was won, and the victors celebrated. Those who had lost the war re-built their destroyed cities in silence. There was no interest in bringing up the traumatic experiences from the people who survived the air raids.

In 1999, Sebald claimed there was a taboo on the topic, but other critics responded and said there was never a taboo at all. A debate about the bombings, their function and effectiveness and most of all, the morality of the actions, started. It was given an extra impulse by Friedrich’s historical work Der Brand in 2002. Sebald also claimed that the German people did not have any interest in their history. A small research project among German university students showed that they are relatively interested in that period of their national history and also reasonably informed about the topic. A similar, but smaller research in England showed that British students are less informed and less interested in the bombings of World War Two. The year 2003 was a memorial year for the city of Hamburg, with many exhibitions, new books, reprints of older books, newspaper features about the topic and memorial services, which showed that the bombings are still a very up-to-date topic.

The bombings also found their way into literature. Despite Sebald’s claim that no one had succeeded in processing the experiences into literature, Gert Ledig and Joseph Heller published two novels that dealt with the air raids: Vergeltung and Catch-22. Both were received without enthusiasm when they first came out. Vergeltung found no willing audience in Germany after the war, because the survivors of the war wanted to focus on the future rather than dwell on the traumas of the past. Catch-22 was too far “ahead” of its time and only regained public interest during the Vietnam War, when the American audience had more similar experiences to relate to the novel.

Both novels are protests against the war, and Catch-22 also focuses on the new aspects of modern warfare: the military industrial complex and the bureaucracy of the army. Ledig uses irony and Heller uses parody and black humour to create a distance between the novel and the reader, providing space to reflect upon the occurences and their message. They do not use the clichés that Sebald says cannot be avoided when writing about the bombings. In fact, by coining new phrases (such as “catch-22”) the novels might have helped actual survivors of the bombings, and later on Vietnam veterans, to cope with and express their memories.

An important difference between the novels is the fate of the characters. In Vergeltung, the characters have no choice in the matter: they all perish. In Catch-22, the main character, Yossarian, has a choice and decides to try and survive. This shows how the German and American perpective differ in the novels. Both novels, however, express the chaos and desperation of the war and the bombings, and represent that part of literary history that Sebald claims is missing. While Sebald’s statement is about German literature only, it can be considered that the vacuum might stretch out over war-literature in general. Vergeltung and Catch-22 were not accepted right away, and are most likely exceptions which prove the rule: it was too hard to express the horrors of the bombings in literature without falling back into clichés, and thus, a vacuum was created in literature and in the communicative memory. 

The topic of the bombings and the recent discussions lead to questions about how to view war-crimes in general and about how to view the history of the war in social memory and in literature. The surveys conducted for this thesis could be regarded as a first step to further research to make the “communicative memory” (Assmann 1997) visible.


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