‘Air Raid’ by Alexander Kluge: An Excerpt

On April 8, 1945, several American bomber squadrons were informed that their German targets were temporarily unavailable due to cloud cover. As it was too late to turn back, the assembled ordnance of more than two hundred bombers was diverted to nearby Halberstadt. A mid-sized cathedral town of no particular industrial or strategic importance, Halberstadt was almost totally destroyed, and a then-thirteen-year-old Alexander Kluge watched his town burn to the ground. Kluge’s Air Raid, a touchstone event in German literature of the postwar era, incorporates photographs, diagrams, and drawings. He captures the overwhelming rapidity and totality of the organized destruction of his town from numerous perspectives, bringing to life both the strategy from above and the futility of the response on the ground. 

Translated by Martin Chalmers
With an afterword by W. G. Sebald

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An Excerpt

[The tower observers, Frau Arnold and Frau Zacke] Frau Arnold and Frau Zacke are on air-raid defence duty on the gallery of the bell tower of St Martin’s Church, posted there as aircraft observers. They have made themselves at home on folding chairs, with torches, not needed during the day, with beer, packets of bread, binoculars, walkie-talkies. They came up here when the warning siren sounded, are still busy surveying the sky through their binoculars, when they see two formations, staggered in height, approaching from the south. They report: Height approx. 10,000 feet, heading towards Quedlinburger Strasse/Heineplatz,B-17 long-range bombers. Smoke flares above the South Town. Frau Arnold adds, shouting into the radio set held by Frau Zacke: ‘They’re dropping bombs!’ Twelve volleys of bombs dropped on either side of the Blankenburg railway line. Frau Arnold: Crowds of people with bag and baggage still running in the direction of Spiegelsberge. Frau Zacke: Not all the machines have dropped their load.

With that the flow of words of the tower observers is over for the moment. Both women count. They have put down the binoculars. ‘Thirty-eight.’ It’s unclear whether aircraft or bomb loads dropped. Frau Arnold reports: Steinstrasse and Hardenbergstrasse, Kühlinger Strasse, Heineplatz, Richard Wagner Strasse.

The first group has reached Wehrstedt and is circling, waiting for the main force. Headquarters checks back on the intercom: What 38? Frau Zacke replies for Frau Arnold, who is holding the radio: First 38 and 96 machines behind them. Assembling over Wehrstedt.

The tower observers are informed that over Nordhausen, 10 minutes flying time away, further waves of bombers are following. Frau Zacke replies: There are enough here! She can see that the air- craft have left their loop and are flying straight towards them from the direction of Wehrstedter Bridge/Hindenburgstrasse, but doesn’t report immediately, because she’s counting, processing the impression. At an angle to these aircraft, smaller, faster machines are flying from the direction of Oschersleben, dropping smoke cones over Breites Tor, Schützenstrasse and as far as Fischmarkt. One of the twin- engine planes dives from a height of about 3,000 feet to 1,000 feet, deposits smoke cones over Gröperstrasse (i.e. far away to the north). Frau Arnold shouts into the radio: ‘A thick yellow mass of yellow.’ Black smoke flares over the Fischmarkt, etc., yellow over the Lower Town.

The aircraft were now flying over the observers. Over a stretch of about 1,000 yards, the whistle of the falling bomb loads. Frau Zacke shouts into the radio: Explosions Breites Tor! Masses of incendiary bombs! The tower observers cease making their reports, folding chairs, supplies have fallen in a heap. Frau Zacke warns Frau Arnold about ‘storm winds’ (pressure waves from the explosions). The women must hold on more firmly.

There was no point in fleeing. The women force themselves to squat down, both hands holding onto the ledge, still looking up at the aircraft, a second group approaching, at a height of about 6,500 feet. ‘Kulk, Breiter Weg, Woort, Schuhstrasse, Paulsplan.’ They whisper the details, reciting them just as they have been trained, but no longer pass them on. They get the impression, ‘that the tower is moving’. Frau Zacke looks in the direction of the Cathedral Square, i.e. to the north- west. There, bombs are crashing down on the houses on Burggang. Frau Zacke says: ‘They’re working their way through the town.’ The women prefer to lie flat now. Frau Arnold has her head close to the radio apparatus. What should she say into it? That at the moment she sees no possibility of getting away. Although she would very much like to get away from here. She sees the direct hit on the Town Hall.

Frau Zacke grabs the radio and zealously shouts something into it. A likeable anti-aircraft gunnery officer, who stood a bottle of Nordhauser schnapps, had told her: to pay attention to nothing else, just keep on reporting. So as long as she squats or lies here she is firmly determined to ‘howl into the apparatus’. The tower observers have been given the nickname ‘hyenas’, because they ‘howl in despair’, one of their instructor’s ‘jokes’. Underneath the women the wooden casing inside the tower had begun to burn, also parts of the cupola. Flames ‘crackle’ from the tower onto the houses to the side of Martiniplan. Burning are: Café Deesen, Krebsschere Lane, the ‘Sour Snout’, etc.

Frau Zacke does not want to ‘burn up’ on the stone ledge of the tower gallery. She nudges her colleague, grabs folding chair, binoculars, walkie-talkie and runs into the tower and down the wooden stairs. Frau Arnold clatters down behind her. A powerful draught or storm wind presses the women against the railing. As they go Frau Zacke shouts into the radio: ‘Church is burning. On our way.’ The substructure of the stairs slips away under their running feet right through a column of flame and crashes onto the tower foundations. Frau Arnold, lying under burning beams, doesn’t move, doesn’t respond to the calls of Frau Zacke, whose thigh is broken. She’s lying below the fire, close to the little door to the church nave, towards which she crawls, dragging the lower part of her body together with its pains behind her (‘trailing’). She pulls herself up by a stone strut, so that arms and head reach the lower part of the closed door. She shouts for help, bangs on the wooden door with one hand. Unconscious for a while, after that she collects herself, bangs.

Hours pass. Frau Arnold, whom Frau Zacke can no longer see from this position, doesn’t hear, gives no sign. The fire works its way, stage by stage, down the interior construction of the tower. On the rubble of stones and charred wood, which has settled on Frau Arnold, stands the bell, which has slipped out of its mounting down to the bottom of the tower. Frau Zacke feels she is being ‘roasted’ by the glowing mountain of wood and the bell at her back.

Essels un Apen,

das gluowet und hofft,

werd Bedde verkofft!

Muot up en Struohsack slapen.

[Donkeys and monkeys
believe and hope
they will both be sold!
Must sleep on a bed of straw.]

Frau Zacke doesn’t have a straw bed, but holds herself upright on one leg, which goes numb, apart from that supporting herself with one arm on a stone projection. The broken thigh, twisted round, ‘pulls her down’ and that’s ‘a torment’. She’ll have something to talk about, of course, if she gets rescued after all.

Why does no one get her (and the dead Frau Arnold, if no one knows whether she is still alive) out of this situation, after the air-raid protection organization posted them here? Frau Zacke carried out observations of raids on 11 January ’44, 22 February ’44, 30 May ’44, but she missed 14 and 19 February ’45 (Junkers plant), because the other hyena was on duty.

She finds a bar, scorched iron, which has cooled down, it must be late at night, and knocks against the door with it. Inhabitants from the houses on Martiniplan had taken shelter in the nave. They survived the collapse of the burning church roof in side chapels, and now open up to Frau Zacke, who has fallen across the threshold, pull her into the nave. Thank you so much, she says.