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Temporalities of Law: Ruins, Urban Palimpsests, and War Crimes in W.G. Sebald's Literary Project (di Cristiano Paixão, Universidade de Brasília)

1. Introduction - 2. «The first trauma»: The War Experience in Sebald’s Literature - 3. Ruins, Urban Palimpsests, and the Politics of Memory - 4. Stranded in Time: War, Trauma, and the ‘Unthinkable’ - Bibliography - NOTE

1. Introduction

W.G. Sebald introduced a new kind of literary narrative about the passage of time. Known for floating between various literary genres – the novel, the essay, autobiography, travel literature – he defied classifications throughout his career. However, his work consistently contemplated a multiplicity of times: the individual time of each character, in a constant flux of trauma and memory, the time of urban transformations, with the peculiar topography of cities in the post-war period, the broad time of the European historical panorama, from the Napoleonic battles to the two world wars, the subjective and unreducible time of Sebald’s own experiences which merge with the characters’trajectories and their inner dramas, among others drawn from the author’s works in poetry and prose.

The release, in 2021, of the first comprehensive biography of Sebald, by Caroline Angier, does justice to the importance of his work for contemporary literature and raises interesting themes about the relationship between law, time, and narrative [1]. To illustrate this relationship, we will pursue a somewhat twisted path: first, we will discuss some aspects of Sebald’s description of the urban transformations which occurred in the 20th century in several European cities. Afterwards, it will be the moment to propose a reflection on contemporary history based on the idea of palimpsest. Finally, we shall look at the connection between time and law in Sebaldian literature from the perspective of an institute of international law [2].

2. «The first trauma»: The War Experience in Sebald’s Literature

Sebald’s prose texts feature many depictions of buildings, castles, fortresses, libraries, railway stations. This is particularly vivid in Austerlitz, his last prose book. This subject, like everything in Sebald’s work, allows for many interpretations. One of them is the connection between modernity, destruction, and the presence of ruins. Other, directly connected to the first, with obvious repercussions on contemporary politics of memory, deals with the metamorphosis of buildings formerly used by authoritarian regimes. In such urban transformations, we can glimpse choices, silences, and omissions.

Urban ruins appear repeatedly in Sebald’s work. They are an important part of his biography. And, to some extent, they had been present in his life even before he was born. At this point, we need to clarify the historical context of the last years of the war in Germany and its connection to the Sebald family. For this purpose, Carole Angier’s book is insightful.

Winfried Georg Sebald was born in the small town of Wertach in far southern Germany on May 18, 1944. His father, Georg Sebald, had joined the German army in 1929, amidst a great economic crisis, and made a career in the military. He took part in the war from its very beginning. As Angier remarks, «in the first part of his war, the invasion of Poland in 1939, he was still probably a driver; in the second part, the invasion of Russia in 1942, a technical inspector; in the third and final part, in France from 1944, the head of the transport unit of his Panzer Division» [3]. As the war ended, Georg Sebald went to be captured in the French town of Tulle and remained a prisoner of war in the Causse du Larzac camp, returning to Wertach only in 1947. W.G. Sebald made it clear in many interviews that his relationship with his father was constantly filled with tension and estrangement [4].

It becomes clear from reading Sebald’s work, all of it connected with the catastrophes of the war and its aftermath, that the main reason for the estrangement between the writer and his father involves his past in the Nazi army. According to Carole Angier, the photo of his parents’wedding in 1936 made a strong impression on the author – Georg Sebald is wearing his military uniform [5].

One of the main themes of Angier’s biography is the so-called ‘conspiracy of silence’, meaning the fact that the German experience in the war, with all its consequences, was never made clear, discussed, and subjected to criticism in German households and schools. Angier recalls the day when the teenager W.G. Sebald watched a film about the Nazi concentration camps for the first time. It was a striking impression, for which he was not prepared, and one that has always been present in his essayistic, poetic, and prose work. This same non-conformity with the silence on the German past lingered during Sebald’s years at the University of Freiburg, at which he was a student from 1963 to 1965. According to the author himself, «I talked about the conspiracy of silence in, for instance, my hometown. And of course when I went up to university at age of nineteen, I thought it might be different there. But it wasn’t, not at all. The conspiracy of silence certainly dominated German universities throughout the 1960s» [6].

In exposing the conspiracy of silence, revolving responsibilities and behaviors of Germans during the war, Sebald is one of several German-speaking writers who took this path, in different ways, but with a clear impact on contemporary literature. Sebald, however, would go a step further and take this stance against silence in the post-war period to its ultimate consequences by including in his essayistic work the delicate subject of the bombing of German cities at the end of the war.

On October 30, 1997, Sebald delivered the first of a series of lectures at the University of Zurich. The lectures focused on post-war German literature, but from a critical perspective. Revisiting a perception already expressed in his lessons at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, Sebald points out that Germany’s Nazi past was not the only one affected by the conspiracy of silence. According to Sebald, the leading German writers simply could not generate narratives about the trauma of the bombings – the few authors who did touch on the subject did not explore its complexity and unfolding. In his view, this was due to several reasons, among them a kind of ‘mythification’ of the war experience and an impossibility of breaking the silence regarding the time of war.

The conferences were published in Germany in 1999 and sparked controversy. The English language edition, used here, was issued with the title On the Natural History of Destruction [7]. As Ruth Franklin pointed out, Sebald received some criticism for not mentioning the war atrocities committed by Germany itself, having only highlighted the suffering of the civilian population in German cities [8]. As indicated by Sebald, «This intoxicating vision of destruction coincides with the fact that the real pioneering achievements in bomb warfare – Guernica, Warsaw, Belgrade, Rotterdam – were the work of the Germans» [9]. He then recalls that in August 1942, even before the air raids on cities like Cologne, Hamburg, and Dresden, Germany conducted a major military operation in Stalingrad, where in a single bombing «forty thousand people died» [10].

On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald’s best-known non-fiction work, is connected directly with the author’s life. As already noted, he was born in 1944 in a small town in the Allgäu region of Bavaria in the far south of Germany. Even though Wertach was not bombed, the experience of the destruction of war would leave its mark on the author’s childhood.

In an interview with Arthur Lubow, Sebald recalls the first time he visited Munich. He was three years old, and his parents took him to see the city. The panorama was one of destruction. In Sebald’s own words: «You might have a few buildings standing intact and between them an avalanche of scree that had come down». He adds that «people didn’t comment on it», and that was his main concern at the Zurich lectures. For Sebald, that picture of destruction «seemed to me the natural condition of cities», that is to say «houses between mountains of rubble» [11].

A city in ruins, this is Sebald’s first impression. We said above that this presence of ruins (brought about by the destruction of the air raids) marked Sebald’s existence even before he was born. According to Carole Angier, Rosa Sebald, the writer’s mother, went to Bamberg in 1943 to meet her husband, when he was taking a day off from the army. On her way home, Rosa had to stop in the town of Fürth and delay her trip. This was because Nuremberg, the city she was due to cross on her way, was suffering from intense bombing. It was during this stop in Fürth that Rosa discovered she was pregnant (of the future writer). For Carole Angier, «this is plainly another case of trauma, unable to be registered or recalled. The first trauma of his own life» [12].

Such experience is chronicled in Sebald’s long narrative poem, After Nature, in the following excerpt:

During the night of the 28th
582 aircraft flew in
to attack Nürnberg. Mother,
who on the next day planned
to return to her parents’
home in the Alps,
got no further than
Fürth. From there she
saw Nürnberg in flames,
but cannot recall now
what the burning town looked like
or what her feelings were
at this sight.
On the same day, she told me recently,
from Fürth she had travelled on
to Windsheim and an acquaintance
at whose house she waited until
the worst was over, and realized
that she was with child [13].

Years later, while in Vienna, Sebald came across Albrecht Altdorfer’s painting Lot and his Daughters, which depicts a scene of a burning city (Sodom). Upon gazing at the picture, Sebald immediately associated it with the episode of the Nuremberg bombing. As he himself describes in After Nature:

As for the burning city,
in the Vienna Art-Historical Museum
there hangs a painting
by Altdorfer depicting Lot
with his daughters. On the horizon
a terrible conflagration blazes
devouring a large city.
Smoke ascends from the site,
the flames rise to the sky and
in the blood-red reflection
one sees the blackened
façades of houses.
When for the first time I saw
this picture the year before last,
I had the strange feeling
of having seen all of it
before, and a little later,
crossing to Floridsdorf
on the Bridge of Peace,
I nearly went out of my mind [14].

These are two unique experiences – the first sight of destroyed Munich, the association between the burning city in Altdorfer’s painting and the circumstances of Sebald’s own conception. Regarding this episode of the bombing of Nuremberg on Rosa Sebald’s return journey, Carole Angier states that this story was told several times by Rosa herself to her children [15].

3. Ruins, Urban Palimpsests, and the Politics of Memory

This image of a city in ruins can be an interesting starting point for reading Sebald’s prose. Ruins, first of all, are signs of temporality. This concept of ruin can comprise a search for explanation. As Svetlana Boym says, the contemporary attraction to ruins is not only a symptom, but also indicates a locus for new explorations and sense-making [16]. As Huyssen states, we can see ruins as a critical point, which allows an understanding of «the ravages of time and the potential of the future, the destructiveness of domination and the tragic shortcomings of the present» [17].

For the purposes of this paper, it will be useful to note the centrality of urban ruins in Sebald’s experience and explore another trope directly connected to the presence of ruins in the present time: the notion of palimpsest.

The idea of a constantly rewritten book, in which new inscriptions overwrite old ones without entirely erasing them, has been linked to the way memory works. In Jorge Luis Borges’last short story, we find the following excerpt:

De Quincey says that man’s brain is a palimpsest. Every new text covers the previous one, and is in turn covered by the text that follows – but all-powerful Memory is able to exhume any impression, no matter how momentary it might have been, if given sufficient stimulus [18].

This palimpsest image can be an interesting key to understanding the history of cities. Urban areas, results of intense human activity, are piles of overlapping signs. They bear inscriptions that contradict, complement, and intertwine with each other. This idea of urban palimpsest, already developed in the work of Andreas Huyssen, is particularly appropriate for the reading of Sebald’s oeuvre. Cities like Manchester, Sonthofen, Vienna, Antwerp, Paris, Norwich, Ithaca, Colmar, Prague, and others are clearly central to Sebald’s work.

And in these urban landscapes, visible through the image of the palimpsest, ruins are always present. As we know, there are several types of ruins – those resulting from events of nature, with different times (they can be produced by a catastrophe of great proportions, such as an earthquake, or can arise after a slow and gradual transformation, as in erosion) and those produced by man, also with variable durations (just think of the demolition of buildings for supervening construction, something that can occur in a matter of hours or days, or the ruins resulting from the neglect of urban landscapes, such as a house, a garden, a street, a neighborhood).

A city’s history encompasses the history of its own ruins. In the series of constructions, neglects, reconstructions, and recreations of the urban landscape we can glimpse the decisions made throughout time by those agents responsible for the cities themselves – namely, political decisions, which affect significant portions of the population and have an impact on the legal world, as they relate directly to memory, that is, to the ways in which urban communities face and rework their past. In the case of the catastrophes of the 20th century, the main subject of Sebald’s literary prose, these components of memory are tied to traumas, human rights violations, and repression used by totalitarian or authoritarian regimes.

In this sense, urban palimpsests are a very vivid – and significant – indicator of the politico-legal transformations that are a major feature of contemporary societies. And this is evident in Sebald’s work – his characters often travel through urban landscapes oversaturated in their pasts. Just think of the harsh representation of Manchester in the 1960s that we find in one of the main stories of The Emigrants, or the disturbing conclusions demonstrated by Jacques Austerlitz in his research on buildings in Antwerp or Paris [19].

In the postscript composed after the Zurich Conferences, which was inserted in On Natural History of Destruction, Sebald depicts the buildings in Sonthofen that were hit by air bombings. In contrast to nearby Wertach (which, as we saw, was not targeted by air raids in the war), the town of Sonthofen, where Sebald lived from the age of eight to nineteen, experienced some bombings (on the Austrian border, it was a site for military facilities) [20].

Bombings, as we know, produce ruins, which pose a challenge to the cities that are to be rebuilt after the end of war. One theme that arises from Sebald’s discussion concerns a delineation of the urban palimpsest: what to do with the ruins of war? What kind of transformation do we perceive in the usages of the bombed buildings? What do these changes unveil about the political choices carried out in the post-war period?

An episode narrated by Sebald can be an interesting one to shed light about political choices taken in periods of restoration of democratic order. Sebald is part of the ‘second generation’ of postwar writers. Not having witnessed the hostilities and the destruction inflicted during wartime, that generation had to deal with the many layers of memory generated by the war, with all its ramifications, especially for German and European history [21]. Although On Natural History of Destruction focuses on the attitude of German literature towards the bombings, one emerging theme found in Sebaldian criticism is relevant to a crucial field of contemporary law: the politics of memory and its effects.

What is implied in the political choices taken by Germany (especially the former Federal Republic of Germany, Sebald’s formative place from elementary school to college) concerning the rebuilding of the country? To what extent do such options connect with the silence about the bombings?

One indication is present in On Natural History of Destruction, in the 1999 postscript. Only if we reproduce it in full, would it be possible to understand this properly. Therefore, we will transcribe the respective excerpt below, with a small highlight in italics:

Of the buildings destroyed in Sonthofen and not rebuilt until the early 1960s, I remember two in particular.

The other ruin still present in my mind was the building known as the Herz-Schloss close to the Protestant church, a villa built at the turn of the century. Nothing was left of it now but its cast-iron garden railings and the cellars. By the 1950s the plot of land, where a few handsome trees had survived the catastrophe, was entirely overgrown, and as children we often spent whole afternoons in this wilderness created in the middle of town by the war. I remember that I never felt at ease going down the steps to the cellars. They smelled of damp and decay, and I always feared I might bump into the body of an animal or a human corpse. A few years later, a self-service shop opened on the site of the Herz-Schloss, an ugly, windowless single-story building, and the once beautiful garden of the villa finally disappeared under the tarmac of a car park. That, reduced to its lowest common denominator, is the main theme of the history of postwar Germany. When I first came back from England to Sonthofen at the end of the 1960s I shuddered at the sight of the fresco showing foodstuffs on the exterior wall of the self-service shop (for advertising purposes, apparently). It measured about six by two meters, and depicted an enormous platter of sliced cold meats, as served on every self-respecting supper table at the time, in colors from blood red to rose pink [22].

Sebald’s narrative strikes at a point already seen in works such as The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz: the connection between architecture and capitalism. In his account of the Sonthofen store, an additional component emerges. It is possible that the silence concerning the Allied bombing of German cities also relates to the circumstances of Germany’s reconstruction. As stated by Andreas Huyssen, «Historians have described how the urban populations of postwar Germany reacted with numbness and apathy to the experience of loss and destruction only to throw themselves into the frenetic activity of reconstruction and to embrace consumerism as a way to forget» [23].

Within the context of post-war Europe, Cristian Crusat points out a similar phenomenon: «it seems clear that the European Union has long since joined the general trend of establishing interpretive areas as commercial zones» [24]. One example, drawn from the South American reality, may illustrate this point.

In her original and creative book, Susana Draper identifies a similar trend in the so-called ‘transitions to democracy’ that took place in the 1980s in several South American countries. Considering the Uruguayan experience, Draper mentions the tendency to use buildings that were formerly repression centers as commercial buildings. The most striking example is the former Punta Carretas prison in Montevideo, which served as a place of detention and torture of political opponents during the Uruguayan dictatorship, and became, after the return to democracy, a shopping center with luxury brands [25].

The issue at stake is the extent of war-induced trauma. Thus, avoidance strategies that conceal this trauma arise. The conspiracy of silence is the most obvious expression of these strategies. In the depths of this silence, we find these future-oriented options that seek to cover up the trauma. That is closely connected to the Sebaldian perception of the urban palimpsest as a heap of ruins. As asserted by J.M. Coetzee, we can glimpse a kind of historical consciousness in Sebald’s prose, in which «the cities and landscapes through which his people move are ghost-ridden, layered with signs of the past» [26].

It becomes therefore clear that the identification of the traumatic past – and, in many cases, the refusal to deal with its effects – is at the core of Sebald’s literature. Based on his major prose texts, his poetic work, and his critical production, we can infer that Sebald’s literary project has an ethical dimension, which involves, above all, a duty to remember, a refusal to forget. This aspect is visible in his narratives, as noted by J.M. Coetzee when referring to the protagonist of Sebald’s last prose book:

Austerlitz is haunted by the knowledge that each day a quantum of the past, including his own past, vanishes as people die and memories are extinguished. Here he echoes the anxiety expressed by Rainer Maria Rilke in his letters about the duty of the artist as bearer of cultural memory [27].

Thus, we can grasp the relevance of Sebald’s text about the bombings suffered by German cities during the war. Never does Sebald compare the horrors of the bombings to the extreme violations perpetrated by Nazism during the war; he emphatically points out the silence of German literature on the subject. And he calls this duty of memory into the domain of narrative. As Huyssen points out, «Sebald is not an Aufrechner, is not tallying moral equity, and cannot be read according to this old paradigm» [28].

In this way, we can see the significance of the idea of reparation that emerges from Sebald’s literary project. Still according to Coetzee, a certain ‘labor of reparation’ seems to pervade all Sebald’s prose works, which is particularly evident in the Jewish characters in The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz [29]. Most significantly, one of the last pieces Sebald wrote in his lifetime took the title An Attempt at Restitution, and it engages this rapport with memory, trauma, and the role of literature. There he mentions several war crimes perpetrated by Germany during the world war which ended in 1945 [30].

4. Stranded in Time: War, Trauma, and the ‘Unthinkable’

A major characteristic of Sebald’s work is the centrality of time in the narrative. We saw how the ruined cities function as an indicative of temporality in the making and repression of the post-war trauma. As we noted above, there is an ethical-literary project in Sebald. In some of his essayistic texts, the author resorts to expressions such as ‘restitution’, ‘irreversible’, and, in an inspired piece on Jean Améry, ‘resentment’ [31]. These are terms obviously linked to the passage of time, to its marks, its signs. Still, they are expressions close to the legal lexicon, which is natural, considering that one of the main themes of contemporary law, especially at international level, concerns violations perpetrated in contexts of war and authoritarian regimes, resulting in demands for compensation, reparation, and conviction of people responsible for crimes against humanity [32].

Among the most difficult challenges facing the protection of human rights (internationally and domestically) is the issue of identifying the traumas caused by atrocities committed during armed conflicts and, outside the war context, by authoritarian regimes. At the heart of this task lies the question of time.

Temporality is an essential feature of law – rules and decisions carry historicity, societal relations hold the imprint of transformations over time, contemporary claims require operations of reconstruction of the past, to name just a few examples of this complex relationship between time and law [33]. There is an additional component in the international human rights law arena: the long-term effects of armed conflicts and political repression. As we know – and Sebald’s work illustrates this conclusion – wars and authoritarian or totalitarian regimes generate traumas whose impact, visibility and utterance can be repressed for years or decades.

Law, however, has time constraints. Instruments such as statutes of limitations pose, in many of these cases, barriers to the possibility of judicial review. Such a danger is particularly evident in the 20th century’s catastrophes, with its two world wars and countless local conflicts. Certainly, the destruction scale of World War II included a new dimension; in addition to serious war crimes, additional forms of annihilation came into play (genocide, extermination camps, mass executions, extensive use of medical and scientific techniques to murder vast numbers of people, persecutions based on ideas of race, creed, and origin).

As pointed out by Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, these crimes are in the order of the ‘unthinkable’, something that was not foreseen in existing statutes and legal codes [34]. The potential trauma of these violations is magnified – and this requires an innovative treatment of temporal issues. Thus, a new institute emerges in international human rights law. Under this formula, serious human rights violations – disappearance, forced execution, torture – have no statute of limitations. There are no time constraints for them to generate responsibility (of States or individuals, depending on each case).

Such a concept is included in the text of the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, adopted by the United Nations in 1968 and in force since 1970 [35]. By the end of October 2022, 57 countries ratified the Convention [36].

Chemillier-Gendreau mentions some emblematic proceedings in which it was possible to overcome the issue of statutory limitations, such as the trial of Maurice Papon in France in 1998 [37], or the case brought against Augusto Pinochet in the United Kingdom, also in 1998, from a ruling issued in Spain [38].

Here we can trace an intersection with Sebald’s own background. In one of the interviews gathered in the book edited by Lynne Schwartz, Sebald comments on the Paul Bereyter episode (one of the prose narratives in The Emigrants [39]). The character (who existed for real, since he was Sebald’s teacher at the elementary school in Sonthofen and whose name was Armin Müller) was only «three-quarter Aryan» with a Jewish ancestral, so he qualified as a Jew under the racial laws of Nazi Germany. In the interview with Eleanor Wachtel, alluding to the Bereyter/Müller case, Sebald recalls that he emigrated to France in the 1930s, but even there he suffered discrimination because of his Jewish status. Sebald goes on to conclude:

Ironically, all these things have come very much into the foreground over the last few weeks and months. Today in The New York Times you have a report about the Maurice Papon trial in Bordeaux. And this is all, as it were, connected with this particular tale [40].

Sebald integrates into the same reply facts separated by a large amount of time – Bereyter/Müller’s experiences with antisemitism in France date from the 1930s, Papon’s trial was under preparation at the time of the interview, i.e. 1997. For Sebald, this disjunction itself does not come across as a problem. This is because time, for him, has very peculiar qualities. Coetzee discusses this theme with reference to one of the protagonists of Sebald’s work, Jacques Austerlitz:

Time has no real existence […] Instead of the continuous medium of time, says Austerlitz, there exist interconnected pockets of space-time whose topology we may never understand, but between which the so-called living and the so-called dead can travel and thus meet one another [41].

Carole Angier also highlights this issue in Austerlitz. In fact, Angier and Coetzee observe the same common point in Sebald’s work: they both emphasize that the discontinuity of time, which even allows the living to communicate with the dead, has a destabilizing role. It is not unusual for Sebald’s characters, when faced with the rediscovery of a trauma concealed for decades, to feel bewildered and disturbed. We saw above how Sebald himself reported such an experience when he came across a painting in Vienna. Angier then adds: «This vision of a world where time and space are different, or don’t exist at all, returns in Austerlitz. There is deeply longed for, because it is inhabited by the lost dead; but again it is dangerous, and can drive you mad» [42].

There is, therefore, a common element among some characters in Sebaldian prose: they have a trauma that remains submerged for some decades, until a certain event triggers a memory, a mnemonic impulse, that will be irreversible in their lives. Time, besides being discontinuous, can also be suspended. Referring to Vertigo, Sebald’s first prose narrative, Angier points out:

What happens next? The narrator goes to the Engelwirt and takes a room where his family’s living room used to be, and has his most vertiginous moment, in which remembered time and present time meet nowhere but in himself, and strand him someone between them, ‘blurred as if he was in a fog” [43].

François Hartog, in his stimulating approach to Sebald’s work, recalls a central episode in Austerlitz: that moment when the protagonist leaves Prague (to which he had gone to investigate the circumstances of his birth and childhood, in a journey full of difficult memories, connected to the tragedies of World War II) and gets on a train to Germany. It is a slow process of becoming aware of his own history [44].

Normally, says Hartog, trains, railroads, and stations are linked to the flow of time, or even to its acceleration. Austerlitz is different. The character, on his journey, reflects:

As the train rolled very slowly out of the station, through a passage between the backs of blocks of flats and into the dark tunnel running under the New Town, and then I crossed the Vltava with a regular beat, it really seemed to me, said Austerlitz, as if time had stood still since the day when I first left Prague [45].

This disjointed aspect of time and the necessity to scrutinize decades of history so that the trauma of a past that is silently present comes to the surface illustrates, in retrospective prose, the drama of the catastrophes of the 20th century. In Hartog’s words:

With W.G. Sebald, we find ourselves from the outset in a present that lasts or that does not pass, a halted time, resulting from a catastrophe that has taken place, but that he has not directly experienced, even if it is becoming increasingly clear to him that this is where he comes from [46].

The juridical consequence of perceiving a trauma that extends over time is to increase the capacity to hold states and individuals involved in extreme human rights violations accountable – as, for example, in cases of genocide. Only if the time of law is also ‘suspended’is it possible to deal legally with such conducts. This is the underlying rationale of non-applicability of statutory limitations.

Sebald is an author of the ‘second generation’ of writers who deal with the war experience: even not living it directly, he was indelibly affected by the conflict, which, as we saw above from Angier’s biography, generated a trauma. Sebald, recalling the circumstances in which his parents met, married, and started a family, connects these events to the career of his father, who was an officer in the Nazi army, and to the tragedy of the war, with its deportations, persecutions, and death rides.

The author then remarks: «At the end of the war I was just one year old, so I can hardly have any impressions of that period of destruction based on personal experience» [47]. While Sebald was born in a small town in Bavaria, in a context protected from the atrocities of war, the conflict claimed its victims. And there was the beginning of a long journey for the young Winfried Georg, facing the conspiracy of silence, to become aware of the experiences of that period in history. Reading books about the cities in which he lived and grew up, confronting photographs from that time, coming across old objects, the layers of historicity slowly emerge. Until finally the experience can be fully understood in its depth: «Such is the dark backward and abysm of time. Everything lies all jumbled up in it, and when you look down you feel dizzy and afraid» [48].


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Rousso, Henry (2016), Face au passé – essais sur la mémoire contemporaine, Paris, Belin

Schwartz, Lynne S. (ed.) (2010), The Emergence of Memory. Conversations with W.G. Sebald, New York, Seven Stories

Sebald, W.G. (1997), The Emigrants [Die Ausgewanderten. Vier lange Erzählungen, 1992], translated from the German by Michael Hulse, New York, New Directions

Sebald, W.G. (2003), After Nature [Nach der Natur, 1988], translated from the German by Michael Hamburger, New York, Modern Library

Sebald, W.G. (2004a), On the Natural History of Destruction [Luftkrieg und Literatur, 1999], translated from the German by Anthea Bell, New York, Modern Library

Sebald, W.G. (2004b), An Attempt at Restitution. A Memory of a German City [Ein Versuch der Restitution, 2001], translated from the German by Anthea Bell, in «The New Yorker», 20 December, https://www.

Sebald, W.G (2006), Campo Santo [Campo Santo, 2003], translated from the German by Anthea Bell, New York, Modern Library

Sebald, W.G. (2011), Austerlitz [Austerlitz, 2001], translated from the German by Anthea Bell, New York, Modern Library

Sebald, W.G. (2013), A Place in the Country [Logis in einem Landhaus, 1998], translated from the German by Jo Catling, London, Penguin

Wachtel, Eleanor (2010), Ghost Hunter (interview), in Schwartz, Lynne S. (ed.), The Emergence of Memory. Conversations with W.G. Sebald, New York, Seven Stories, pp. 37-61

Wood, Nancy (1999), The Case of Maurice Papon, in «History and Memory», vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 41-76


[1] Angier (2021).

[2] I thank Massimo Meccarelli, Rafael Bernardes Lucca and Maria Celina Monteiro Gordilho for suggestions and discussion.

[3] Angier (2021), p. 48.

[4] Sebald always stated that his main reference on a fatherly level was Josef Egelhofer, his grandfather on his mother’s side. When Josef died, the author was twelve years old. In a brilliant essay on Robert Walser, Sebald compares the Swiss writer to his own grandfather, and mentions that he never fully recovered from his death. See Sebald (2013), p. 94.

[5] You can see the photo in Angier’s book (2021), p. 46.

[6] Wachtel (2010), p. 60. For a comprehensive account of Sebald’s years at the University in Freiburg, see Angier (2021), pp. 177-201.

[7] See Sebald (2004a), pp. 1-104.

[8] See Franklin (2010), pp. 134-143.

[9] Sebald (2004a), p. 104.

[10] Sebald (2004a), p. 104. As one can tell from reading the English edition of Campo Santo (a posthumously edited collection of prose and literary criticism), he had published an article in German on the topic in 1982. See, on this subject, Sebald (2006), pp. 65-95. This 1982 paper was the basis of the Zurich lectures, which were published in 1999 with a postscript containing replies to letters he received. See Sebald (2004a), pp. 69-104. There are subtle differences between the 1982 and the 1999 versions. In Andreas Huyssen’s accurate remark, the 1999 piece can be read in the light of Sebald’s own prose created in the 1990s, especially The Emigrants. See Huyssen (2003), pp. 155-157.

[11] Lubow (2010), p. 161.

[12] Angier (2021), p. 7.

[13] Sebald (2003), p. 86.

[14] Sebald (2003), pp. 86-87. Floridsdorf is a district of Vienna (the city where the bridge of peace is also located). Altdorfer’s painting, which belongs to the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, can be seen at
53/?lv=detail (accessed 23.10.2022).

[15] Angier (2021), p. 8.

[16] See Boym (2017), p. 45.

[17] Huyssen (2006), p. 9.

[18] Borges (1998), p. 7.

[19] See Sebald (1997) and (2011).

[20] In Sebald’s description: «On February 22 and April 29, 1945, bombs had been dropped on the totally insignificant little marked town of Sonthofen, probably because the place contained two large barracks for the mountain troops and the artillery, as well as an establishment known as the Ordensburg, one of three training colleges set up for the formation of the new Fascist elite directly after the Nazis came to power». Cf. Sebald (2004a), p. 74.

[21] For an important analysis of the German literary context, especially the second generation, see Huyssen (2003), pp. 138-157. For a discussion focused on the European continent, see Crusat (2020).

[22] Sebald (2004a), pp. 76-77.

[23] Huyssen (2003), p. 151.

[24] Crusat (2020), p. 18.

[25] Draper connects the opening of the mall to the failure to recall the crimes of the Uruguayan military regime. She explains that, after the restoration of democracy in Uruguay, the 1986 Ley de Caducidad de la Pretensión Punitiva del Estado granted amnesty for crimes committed during the dictatorship, including by agents of the regime itself. The law was submitted to a referendum, followed by a plebiscite, in March 1989, with the majority of voters voting in favor. According to Draper, the conversion of the prison into a shopping mall must be understood within this broader historical process, which involved a new vision of the future and a «metaphor for a peculiar form of transition from the carceral past to the consumerist present». This became clear, according to the author: «after the decision voted in the plebiscite, the new prison-mall became both the paradoxical monument to forgetting and the prized example of the new regime’s discourse, transactions, and measures». See Draper (2012), p. 23.

[26] Coetzee (2007), p. 134.

[27] Coetzee (2007), p. 134.

[28] Huyssen (2003), p. 145.

[29] Coetzee (2007), p. 139.

[30] Sebald (2004b).

[31] Cf. Sebald (2004a), pp. 143-167.

[32] For a refined account of the connection between Sebaldian literature and reparation issues, see the article from Massimo Meccarelli in this issue of LawArt.

[33] One fitting demonstration of the infinite potential of this connection appears in the following excerpt of Martens (2000): «Finally, the law appears to be polychronic, even heterochronic. At times, it is accomplished slowly. It is not without virtue: it allows the de-dramatization, it obliges the hatreds and the vindictiveness to decelerate. The procedure imposes, by its delays, the postponing of the desire, and by its foreclosures, it sends back outside the law whatever pretended to settle there. Instead of human time, it substitutes bureaucratic time» (free translation, p. 750). For further developments on the interplay between time and law, see Paixão (2002), especially pp. 239-307.

[34] See Chemillier-Gendreau (2000), pp. 281-299.

[35] See the Convention text at (accessed 30.10.2022).

[36] See the list of those countries in
aspx?src=IND&mtdsg_no=IV-6&chapter=4&clang=_en (accessed 30.10.2022).

[37] Maurice Papon held several positions during the Vichy regime in Nazi-occupied France. He served as police and security officer during the Algerian war of independence, as a Gaullist congressman, and finally as budget minister in Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s government. In the 1980s, papers proving his direct involvement in the deportation of Jews from France to Auschwitz came to light. After a protracted trial, in which much of French public opinion was engaged, Papon was convicted of committing a crime against humanity for his actions during the Vichy government. Cf. the historical discussion carried out by Rousso (2016), pp. 102-142, and the overview provided by Wood (1999), pp. 41-76.

[38] Chemillier-Gendreau (2000), pp. 296-297.

[39] Sebald (1997), pp. 25-63.

[40] Wachtel (2010), p. 45. The interview was recorded on October 16, 1997.

[41] The quote then goes on to add a central element in Sebald’s narrative (the use of photographs that punctuate the story): «A snapshot, he goes on, is a kind of eye or node of linkage between past and present, enabling the living to see the dead and the dead to see the living, the survivors» – Coetzee (2007), p. 134.

[42] Angier (2021), p. 72.

[43] Angier (2021), p. 59.

[44] See Hartog (2013), pp. 200-208.

[45] Sebald (2001), pp. 155-156.

[46] Hartog (2013), p. 200 (free translation).

[47] Sebald (2004a), p. 71.

[48] Sebald (2004a), p. 74.

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