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This article is taken from PN Review 152, Volume 29 Number 6, July - August 2003.

Ghost Worlds of the Ordinary: W.G. Sebald and Gerhard Richter David C. Ward

`German Questions' seem always with us. In the diplomatic manoeuvring before the Iraq War, much American ire was vented against German non-participation in and obstructionism of the Anglo-American alliance. What few in America noticed was that the administration's demand that the Germans act, ran counter to the post-war policy of not wanting Germany to act at all, especially militarily! Contemporary Germans had learned the lessons of the War and the peace all too well, apparently, although it is doubtful that the current American administration noticed the irony. Obviously, immediate political interests, on both sides, were of primary importance in fuelling this brief, and now subsiding, feud. We cannot expect politicians to learn from history, let alone from literature and art, but it is noteworthy that in the midst of this latest venting of the German question, an artist, Gerhard Richter, and a writer, W.G. Sebald, have raised the most penetrating and disturbing questions about what the Second World War (and its many aftermaths) did to us. * Most provocatively, implicitly Sebald and Richter argue in part that the war left its survivors so shell-shocked that people even now exist as walking somnambulists, silently acquiescing in their own living deaths. The amnesia, especially for Sebald, has made it impossible for individuals to resist the slow tide of benign totalitarianism which has been allowed to stifle all the senses, especially that of memory.

In his posthumously published essay `Air War and Literature', W.G. Sebald addresses the question of why ...

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