lifeless life

When W.G. Sebald, in a famous essay, asked why no German literary response to the massive bombing of Germany ever developed, he had to make a partial exception for Hans Erich Nossack Der Untergang, an account of the firebombing of Hamburg written in 1943 and published, I believe, after the war was over. There is a trove of Nossack material at this site. One autobiographical essay, Lifeless life, is not, I believe, well known in the English speaking world. In fact, I’m not sure that it has been translated. Anyway, it is a partial account of normal life in Nazi Germany by a man who did, actually, oppose the Nazis before they took power, was harassed by them, but never joined a resistance movement – in other words, your normal liberal German. I include the latter not to blame Nossack, but to give you the circumstances that make Lifeless life a peculiarly interesting vision of living in a Western country in which the presuppositions of the liberal society are visibly crushed, and a highly intelligent man’s reaction to that.

"The fearful illusion rests on the fact that there is no private life, no individual existence, no really independent though under a totalitarian regime. Everything is infected with the bacillus of the epidemic; even the opponent, who believes he has made himself immune, stands under its law. The ideology of the powerful are deposited over everything like steam in a bell jar and takes away the reality of all human action. Recordings from this time give the effect of being spoken in a sleep, or under the influence of a nightmare. All photos collectively seem to be under-lighted, or to be irreproducible negatives. That was what I was? one asks incredulously. Clearly, the official registrar’s facts are all in order, but the bureau of birth, marriage and death certificates only register the lifeless life. Here must lie the real reasons why the national socialistic everyday escapes representation. It isn’t a question of someone wanting to forget a process or a breakdown, and thus it isn’t about the unmastered past – the moral, psychological and punitive issues of the past may be allowed to be filled in. It is more of a question of a lack of the past, of a hole in the existence of the individual, as though it were some ultimate physical weakness. One remembers the last words of the surgeon and the nurse before anaesthetic is applied, and afterwards the strength it required to return to consciousness. But what was in between? Time advanced, that can be confirmed by the clock. But where was I when that was going on?

I don’t think that I could make precise statements even if my journals and letters out of those years had not been burned in the air attack. I have a suspicion that the means with which I sought to preserve my self-respect would seem childish and shadowy to me. That we did not put out flags once, when it was ordered, that we never once used the greeting Heil Hitler, that we never gave a penny to the Winter Aid drive, and various other drives, that we vanished into a building or an alley whenever we came across a procession with music and officials – all of these were laughable pokings of a needle of an unarmed opponent. Otherwise such negligences were reported on the index cards of the block warden, perhaps he reported in order to make himself important in some predetermined place further up the chain and that went still further up the chain. The secret police could thus produce a picture of the mood of the public and direct the organs of propoganda accordingly. Nobody would have taken these prickings of the needle too seriously. The Regime didn’t really care about the money collected in the drives, and maybe they had a few banners left over. Money can easily be printed. Everything had only one goal, which was to keep the mass of prisoners continuously occupied and breathless, in order to delude them over their situation and to blind them to their fate. And, in fact, even the small number of opponents were breathless. Foreigners asked us after the war, why did you let this happen and put up no resistance? Whoever poses that question has obviously never lain on an operation table or lived under the conditions of an epidemic.”