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The End: Hamburg 1943

The End: Hamburg 1943 By Hans Erich Nossack
University Of Chicago Press | ISBN: 0226595560 | 2004 | 112 Pages | siPDF & HTML | 2,3 Mb & 0,6 Mb

One didn't dare to inhale for fear of breathing it in. It was the sound of eighteen hundred airplanes approaching Hamburg from the south at an unimaginable height. We had already experienced two hundred or even more air raids, among them some very heavy ones, but this was something completely new. And yet there was an immediate recognition: this was what everyone had been waiting for, what had hung for months like a shadow over everything we did, making us weary. It was the end.

Novelist Hans Erich Nossack was forty-two when the Allied bombardments of German cities began, and he watched the destruction of Hamburg—the city where he was born and where he would later die—from across its Elbe River. He heard the whistle of the bombs and the singing of shrapnel; he watched his neighbors flee; he wondered if his home—and his manuscripts—would survive the devastation. The End is his terse, remarkable memoir of the annihilation of the city, written only three months after the bombing. A searing firsthand account of one of the most notorious events of World War II, The End is also a meditation on war and hope, history and its devastation. And it is the rare book, as W. G. Sebald noted, that describes the Allied bombing campaign from the German perspective.

In the first English-language edition of The End, Nossack's text has been crisply translated by Joel Agee and is accompanied by the photographs of Erich Andres. Poetic, evocative, and yet highly descriptive, The End will prove to be, as Sebald claimed, one of the most important German books on the firebombing of that country.

"A small but critical book, something to read in those quiet moments when we wonder what will happen next."—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

Summary: What War Means
Rating: 5

Since this book was written within three months of the siege of Hamburg, the reader can walk through the noise, the terror, the human cost, and experience all the carnage through Nossack's eyes. We Americans have never, thank God, lived through a protracted and relentless bombing campaign. Nossack writes from the immediacy of the horror and his ability to write through the shock gives the book an eyewitness account of losing and not even recognizing his beloved city. I think we can also see how far removed the average citizen was from Nazi fanatacism and how little, at this point, they believed or cared about anything Hitler's government had to say. This is a five star book.

Pat O'Hagen

Summary: A Disturbing Examination of a Terrible Event
Rating: 3

Hans Erich Nossack, the author of the "The End", was a German writer of some renown, as well as a poet. He lived in Hamburg, Germany during World War II (and thereafter, dying there in 1978). He happened to be vacationing with his wife, Misi, just outside the city in July 1943 when the Allies firebombed the town as part of "Operation Gomorrah", an attempt, in part, to demoralize the German people by purposefully bombing civilians, including women and children. In one night alone (July 23, 1943) it is estimated that over 40,000 people in the city died, primarily from a giant firestorm created from meteorological conditions partially caused by the effects of previous bombing 2 nights before and the tremendous bombing that night, which included anti-personnel incendiary bombs with phosphorus. The firestorm destroyed over 8 square miles of the city. The flames were over 2,000 feet high and could be seen from 200 miles away. The fire was so intense that it literally sucked oxygen out of any bomb shelters in the vicinity that were not airtight, causing people to die from carbon monoxide poisoning even if they were fortunate enough not to be incinerated outright from the heat. The force of the fire was the equivalent of a hurricane, with 150 mph winds. Before the bombing Hamburg was the second largest city in Germany. In addition to the outright deaths and destruction, the bombing resulted in over 1,000,000 refugees who had to evacuate and/or flee Hamburg.

Shortly after the bombing, the author and his wife returned to Hamburg, only to discover that their apartment had been destroyed. Three months later he (and presumably his wife) ends up in London (neither the translator nor the author explains how this came about). While in London, the author sets down his reminiscences and reflections on the bombing and its aftermath. His book was originally published in Germany in 1948 (under the title, "Der Untergang", meaning roughly one's demise, downfall, ruin, or destruction, e.g., Oswald Spengler's "Der Untergang des Abendlandes" is translated into English as "The Decline of the West" and Edgar Allen Poe's "The Decline and Fall of the House of Usher" is translated into German as "Der Untergang des Hauses Usher") but, for various reasons, was not translated and published in English until 2004.

The book is a sparse examination of the effects of on the remaining inhabitants of a town when it is bombed out (i.e., basically obliterated). It provides many interesting, and even fascinating, vignettes of life under such circumstances, especially in how people reacted to the horror and treated each other. Unfortunately, these sketches somehow seem incomplete. We never really learn much that is truly insightful about the author or about his wife. Indeed, his wife is often no more than a silent cipher: She is mysteriously detached from events (as well as from her husband) and she seems to serve only as a prop when necessary to serve the author's purpose. The author once described himself as the "best camouflaged writer in Germany". Nowhere is that camouflage more in evidence than in this book.

Nevertheless, the book is a valuable reference as a rare contemporaneous account of this event. The book must have taken courage to write and to address this event so soon after the fact. The problem is that there are far too many philosophical musings and meditations for it to really qualify as an historical account of the event and it seems that the author never really comes to grips with whatever it is he is trying to get across to the reader. The overall effect is more of a journal than an historical record.

Summary: Interesting eye-witness account
Rating: 5

This slim volume provides an eye-witness account of the Hamburg bombings of 1943. The devastation to the city is horrible, but the author's feelings toward the bombers would be unusual in today's society. Thought provoking.

Summary: Poetic revelation
Rating: 5

This little book takes about 40 minutes to read. It is not what you might expect. It is not a minute by minute account of what happened during the bombing. It does not give statistics or even mention many things about the appearance of the city or many of the horrifying things that happened. It is a revelation of what it felt like to lose everything. And it is truly beautifully written. Few people can write poetically much less translate poetically.

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