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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When W.G. Sebald gave a lecture in Zürich in 1997, he claimed that there was a vacuum in German war-literature. According to him,  the bombings in World War Two had been so traumatising that no one in Germany had ever really succeeded in translating their experiences into literature. When his lecture was published in book-form as Luftkrieg und Literatur in 1999, he had rectified this statement slightly by mentioning a novel by Gert Ledig: Vergeltung. This novel had come out in 1956, but its German audience had denounced it as “tasteless” and it disappeared from the public eye until 1999. Sebald’s statement raises many questions: Was the subject a taboo up to 1999? Was that taboo carried over into German literature? Was the subject also a taboo on the side of the Allied forces? Sebald says the Germans are not interested in their own history, unlike the British (Sebald, 1999: 6). Does this mean the British (or the Allied Forces) have gotten to terms with their history in literature?

            In 2002, Jörg Friedrich published a large historical overview of the bombings in World War Two, entitled Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945. He proclaimed himself as the “first to break a long-existing taboo.” Were there no works of literature about the bombings published in Germany before that time? And what about literature from the “other side” (the Allied Forces)? Simple research showed that both German and American literature had seen novels about the bombings, as early as 1956 in Germany (Gert Ledig’s Vergeltung) and 1961 in America (Joseph Heller’s Catch-22). Although both novels were not appreciated by a large audience when they came out, they had been written – and deserve a closer look. How do they describe the experience? From which point of view are the novels written? (Are the books written to identify the German people as victims or do they support the bombings as justified? ) Do the novels carry a message or an opinion about the bombings? What are the similarities and differences between the German and the American novel? Do these books refute Sebald’s statement about the vacuum in German literature, or does it show his statement needs to be broadened to war-literature in general?

In the first chapter, I will give a short historical overview of the bombings in World War Two and the recent debate, using Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999), Friedrich’s Der Brand (2001) and an even more recent collection of essays by German and English historians inspired by Der Brand entitled Ein Volk von Opfern? (2003) as my main sources. I will also discuss the results of a small research project I carried out in Germany and England, which twins on the question whether the so-called third generation, those who do not have a direct link to World War Two through their own experience or that of their parents is still interested in that period of history. Finally I will report about the commemoration of the bombings of Hamburg in the summer of 2003.

            In the second chapter, I will discuss Gert Ledig’s Vergeltung; from the viewpoint of its reception and publication history, title, structure, characters, use of comedy, religion, metaphors and clichés. In the third chapter these topics will be discussed for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.  In the fourth chapter, I will compare Vergeltung and Catch-22 and list similarities and differences between the novels.

            Finally, in the conclusion, I will summarise the findings of chapters 1-4 and answer the main question of this thesis (with all its sub-categories): How did the bombings in World War Two find a place in the social and cultural experience of the war, and how was this reflected in the literature of the two war-time opponents?


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