The Effects of the Bombings in World War Two in Literature and Society. A Comparison between Gert Ledig’s Vergeltung and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. (Yvonne Karsmakers)


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Chapter 2: Gert Ledig’s Vergeltung


When Gert Ledig’s novel Vergeltung (Payback) came out in 1956, it was seen as “brutal” and “tasteless.” There was no interest in the subject he was writing about. The bombings of German cities in World War Two had become part of the past, and the German people were looking towards the future and a rebuilding of their cities. Only in 1999, when the book was republished, was it appreciated for its uncompromising style and content. This chapter shall focus on several aspects of the book: its title, structure, characters, genre and style, the use of comedy and its references to religion and its publication and reception history. In doing so, it will make it clear that Vergeltung is an important contribution to the post-war discourse about the allied bombings. First, I will discuss the publication history and the reception of Vergeltung and then I will discuss the book in depth.


2.1 Publication History and Reception of Vergeltung


After Ledig’s bestseller Die Stalinorgel (The Stalin Organ – a military slang term for a multiple rocket launcher) in 1955 he was to publish two more books about the war: Vergeltung (Payback) in 1956 and Faustrecht (Jungle Law) in 1957. After this, he disappeared from the literary world, only writing articles for technical journals. In an interview with Volker Hage, he explains how he was unable to write about more recent events, such as the war in Croatia: “Es ging nicht. Zuviel Distanz. Die Angst muß dir selbst im Genick sitzen, du mußt das genau kennen. Sonst bist du bloß ein Berichterstatter, kein Schriftsteller” (Epilogue of Vergeltung, 1999: 210. “It didn’t work. Too much distance. You need to feel the fear in yourself, you need to know it well. Otherwise you’re only a messenger, not an author”). He was so far out of the picture that Sebald forgot to mention him in his lectures on bombings and literature in Zurich in 1997. Michael Hoffmann says in the introduction to Payback: “[it] is a powerful indication of how thoroughly Ledig’s reputation had disappeared” (Hoffman, 2003: x). Vergeltung was scorned when it came out in 1956. In the epilogue of the 1999 German edition, Volker Hage says:


Die FAZ empörte sich über die angeblich “gewollt makabere Schreckensmalerei.” Die Zeit sah “den Rahmen des Glaubwürdigen und Zumutbaren” verlassen. Der Rheinische Merkur glaubte “abscheuliche Perversität” zu entdecken: “ein Gruselkabinett.” Und die Badische Zeitung drückte deutlich aus, worum es bei der Ablehnung des Romans ging: Zehn Jahre nach dem Krieg lehne der Leser Darstellungen ab, “die jeden positiv gerichteten metaphysischen Hintergrund und Ausblick vermissen lassen.” Mit anderen Worten: Man wollte mit dem Thema in Ruhe gelassen werden. (Hage, 1999: 208)


The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was appalled by the so-called “purposefully morbid scenes of horror.” Die Zeit said [Payback] left the scope of the believable and reasonable.” The Rheinische Merkur thought it had discovered “abominable perversity,” a “little shop of horrors.” The Badische Zeitung stated clearly why the novel was rejected: “Ten years after the war, the readers dislike novels that “lack any positive metaphysical background and perspective.” In other words: people wanted to be left alone about the subject.


There was simply no interest in a book about that subject in the years after the war. Heinrich Böll, exponent of the Trümmerliteratur (“Literature of rubble”, see p. 57), says: “Man schien uns zwar nicht verantwortlich zu machen dafür, daß ein Krieg gewesen, daß alles in Trümmern lag, nur nahm man uns offenbar übel, dass wir es gesehen hatten und sahen” (“They didn’t blame us for the war, or that everything was turned to rubble, but it seemed as if they did blame us for having seen it and seeing it,” Epilogue of Vergeltung, 1999: 208).

In 1999, Vergeltung was published again. A few months before it came out, Ledig himself died, so he was not able to witness the renewed interest in his novel and the way it fuelled the debate already started by Sebald in 1997. It was only translated into English in 2003. On the back cover of the English edition (Granta Books), several newspaper reviews are quoted. According to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung “Gert Ledig found a way of writing which still endures more than fifty years after the Second World War…his are perhaps the most realistic – and meaningful – German novels about the violence of war” (1999).


2.2 Title: Payback


The title of Gert Ledig’s novel Vergeltung is translated into English as Payback, and it immediately raises many questions. Payback on whom? By whom? Payback for what? The answers (for there are several), can be found in the book. The title cannot be explained simply by looking at the individual occurrences of the word “payback.” Sometimes the word “payback” is mentioned literally, at other times it is implied, but Ledig’s title is the Leitmotiv for the entire novel: payback, revenge. Payback on a personal level, between two people, payback between groups of people, payback between nations. Ledig’s characters are not all on the same side. They do, however, share the same vengeful sentiments. Both sides want payback. The allied forces want payback for the bombings of England (or for the war crimes of the nazi-regime in general) and the Germans want payback for the bombings of their cities. It seems to be a vicious circle: every action will lead to a reaction and with every act of war a group arises that wants payback. Ledig’s novel shows this in several ways. Every time a form of payback is mentioned (whether or not the actual word is used) the sense of the title is accentuated.

The first time a form of “payback” is mentioned is on the first page, when an American squadron bombs a graveyard of a German town. It is called “the beginning” (1). It can be assumed this is a bomber flight in 1943 or 1944. Although these bombings had many strategical objectives, the main reason, according to Ledig, is payback. The bodies of already dead children are bombed “again,” even before they could be identified. Their fathers are fighting at the front and their mothers are missing. “That was what payback looked like” (1). This form of payback, the renewed assault on children orphaned by the war, is Ledig’s irony and bitterness in its purest form.[2] Payback by the Americans, for the war in general, not aimed at the government or the soldiers but at the children. But the reason for this target is explained on page three: the bombardier in charge “had chosen the target in the hope that the bombs would hit nothing but corpses.” This complicates the black and white division of punisher and punished. Bombardier Strenehen does not want to kill with his bombs. He does not want to take his revenge on the people of the town, he just wants to drop his bombs where they do the least damage and fly home again. However, by choosing his target, he is still the cause of a death: “He did not know that sixty minutes later one of his own men would be beaten to death with shovels because of it” (3). This shows the futility of the payback: the action itself will lead to a reaction, another payback, and so it never ends.

            Ledig describes a personal form of payback: Strenehen and his bomber-team are under German fighter fire, and the turret-gunner is killed. His death and the damage done to his body are described in full detail: “[Strenehen] clutched warm flesh. He was holding a piece of windpipe between his fingers. […] [The wind] dispersed the blood and blew it in his face” (21). The death of his team member does not seem to affect Strenehen emotionally. He reacts coldly and moves the body so he can resume his job. He does, however, want his revenge on the German fighter-plane: “If the German came now, it would be payback time.” This is not revenge for the war in general, but a personal desire for payback.

            Ledig later describes the other side: the Germans’ desire for payback. Strenehen has escaped the crash of his bomber-plane and is found by two Germans, a mechanic and an engineer, when he lands on German territory. He has thrown away his gun, and tries to find shelter in the town. He has lost his trousers and he does not speak German. He is at the Germans’ mercy. The engineer refuses to help him:


[Mechanic:]’What he most urgently needs is a pair of trousers.’

‘We can’t let him have them.’

‘Why not?’

‘You know why not!’ (87)


The engineer wants to kill Strenehen because he is an American. The mechanic feels sorry for him, because he poses no threat:


’But he’s a nice enough fellow,’ replied the mechanic. ‘Why do you want to kill him?’
            The engineer looked at the ceiling. ‘Because he helped to kill my wife; with his bombs’.

            The mechanic looked at the American. ‘The Lord sayeth: Vengeance is mine.’

            ‘Fine,’ agreed the engineer. ‘Vengeance is mine. I am the Lord!’


The engineer suggests several ways of killing Strenehen, but he never wants to do it himself. He repeatedly commands the mechanic to do it:  “‘Not another word. I’ll give you the order. Officially! […] Prove you’re a man!’” The mechanic is under high pressure to obey.


’Do we have to?’ asked the mechanic. ‘Leave that sort of thing for other people.’

‘An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.’ (96).


The mechanic does not kill Strenehen, however. He simply pushes him from the shelter and locks the door, leaving Strenehen to fall into the hands of yet another vengeful group: a group of Germans in another shelter. A doctor, who seems to be in charge there, wants to take his revenge on Strenehen. “’What I need now,’ whispered the doctor, ‘is a whip’” (186). He is encouraged by a little boy that wants to see blood: “Kill him” (186), “Kill him! […] Kill him! […] Kill the gangster!” (194). The doctor beats Strenehen and kicks him into a room where other people are taking shelter. Earlier, the same group has vowed to take revenge on the Americans:


            ’For heaven’s sake,’ a man announced. ‘We’ll make them pay for this!’

[…] ‘With all the means at our disposal,’ a woman agreed. (162)

“Everyone was silent, and then a man called out: ‘It’s all the fault of the damned Americans!’

A woman screeched: ‘Absolutely right!’

‘Lynch them,’ a voice from a corner agreed. ‘Any murdering pilot who gets shot down deserves to be lynched.’ (175)


When they see him and the way he has been treated already, they do not lynch him. Instead, they offer him a blanket and some water. “’I’m ashamed,’ said a voice from the wall, ‘of whoever it was who did that’” (195). They realise that taking revenge on this man would be futile: he is already close to death, and it will not help their situation.

            Payback is briefly mentioned amongst the German troups when a German lieutenant gets an order to send a few of his men out into the open during the bombings. The lieutenant does not want to do it, but has to obey. When he issues the order to a lance corporal, the corporal mocks him and walks away. The lieutenant, already irked by the order itself, “was tempted to thump him, but he went on his way. I’ll have that man, he thought” (98).

Nikolai Petrovich, a soldier from Russia, curses the Germans and urinates on a broken statue: his own futile payback. It is described as a little ludicrous: “He sprayed the figure in the face with his jet of urine. The storm blew half of it against his thigh” (109). Ledig shows the powerlessness of the soldier. His little “payback,” done on an inanimate object, while half of it literally lands on himself, is the only way he can express his anger and frustration about the situation.

            The novel ends by stating that although the book ends here, the payback continued as it had started. Just like on the first page, payback is demanded from a dead body of a black American bombardier: “Someone saw the pink patches on the inside of his hands and called him a nigger. A boy with pimples on his skin immediately stamped on his head.” The payback, in all its forms, does not end: “After the seventieth minute the bombing resumed. Payback was doing its work. It was unstoppable” (200).

Ursula Heukenkamp points out the metaphoric meaning of the word “vergeltung”: “Vergeltung hieß Vernichtung; auf diesen Doppelnamen ist auch die sog. Wunderwaffe V2 getauft worden” (“Payback meant destruction; this double name was also used for the so-called wonder weapon V2 [Vergeltung 2]”, 487). The bombs dropped on the cities were literally called “payback.” Ledig’s use of the title shows how the different forms of payback arise from helplessness and the feeling of powerlessness. It also shows how it solves nothing – payback only leads to payback. The bombings, as discussed in chapter one, did not weaken the morale of the Germans, they only caused them to rely on the fascist regime even more.


2.3 Characters and Structure in Payback


The development of the characters of Payback is closely related to the structure of the novel. The entire novel consists out of fragments, mostly one page and no longer than three pages at most, that describe the experiences of a character. The following fragment is about another character, and so on. This suggests that all these fragments happen at the same time: while a lieutenant struggles with an order, a bomber pilot crashes in enemy territory, a girl is raped in a shelter, and a man goes looking for his family. Although this “mix” of the characters’ experiences seems random and unorganised, a time-line shows that each character “re-appears” with steady intervals, until the character dies and his or her time ends:


(each colour represents a character. The colours return in steady intervals – image made by myself)


The time span of the novel is seventy minutes. In these seventy minutes, an unidentified city in Germany is heavily bombed, and we read about the way this affects the people from the city and the bomber-team. The highly fragmented state of the narrative shows how the bombings disrupt the lives of the characters. They seem to exist only within their own fragment, living their lives in-between the bombs. The characters, who are of different ages, professions, ranks, political convictions and races, have one thing in common: the bombs. “Woher sie kamen, ist gleichtgültig – alle sind gleich, umgeben von Feuer, eingeschlossen in der Hölle eines Krieges” (“Whence they came is not important – they are all equal, surrounded by fire, locked up in the pandemonium of a war” – jacket blurb of the German edition of Payback, 1999). The bombs disrupt their lives and drive them to do things they might not have done under normal circumstances. With the structure and the use of characters, Ledig shows a world in which values and morals have turned around, and everyone is guilty and innocent at the same time.

Payback has more characters than a regular novel. Where a regular novel has one or two main characters, who are its focus, Payback has about six “main characters,” who re-appear often and are equally important. In between the fragments about the main characters, there are also fragments that describe minor characters. These minor characters re-appear only once or twice before they die. The difference between the main characters and the minor characters, apart from the former appearing in more fragments, is that the main characters are named. However, this is done in a very roundabout way. Not all the main characters are named at their first appearance. The first main character appearing in the novel, Lieutenant Heinrich Weiniger, is called “the lieutenant” until page 151, where he is finally given a name. This is done by a page in italics that seems to be a short autobiography: it is written from the point of view of the lieutenant and tells about his place of birth and his life. This kind of mini-autobiography appears throughout the novel, and mostly announces the death of the character: the autobiographies are placed before the character’s “last fragment.” It is not always clear to which character they belong, but most of the time they can be connected to one of the main characters. All the main characters are equally important, so the characters are discussed in order of appearance.


Lieutenant Heinrich Weiniger (first appearance on page 2, named on page 151) is a German lieutenant in an anti-aircraft unit and has a hand-prosthesis. He is conscientious, urging his men to help others. He tells them to get out of the shelter and help the people who have been trapped inside the burning and collapsing buildings:


‘Is there no one here,’ he asked, ‘with a mother out there?’ He was disgusted.

‘A sister or a brother!’ He couldn’t tell if he was shouting or whispering. He said: ‘Think of your mothers!’ (41)


During the air-raid, he thinks about his men and tries to keep them from harm, but at the same time he knows he has to obey his orders:


The NCO pointed towards the city. ‘Do you think I’m going to give up my men for something like that?’ 

The lieutenant looked at the ground. ‘Orders are orders, what can you do?’

[lieutenant:] ‘It’s about human lives after all.’

[NCO:] ‘Exactly.’ In a single movement the NCO jumped, legs apart, into the trench. He fell to his knees and shouted: ‘ To Hell with honour!’ 

[…] There was nothing for it, the lieutenant would have to go to the next emplacement. He turned away

irritably. He’s right, of course, he thought. What’s to be done? (91)


In doing so, however, he does not feel less guilty: “I can refuse an order and go to the wall for it. But I can’t give an order if I haven’t the courage to carry it out myself” (134). He also has to reward iron crosses posthumously. He calls them “drugs for soldiers” (133) but also says they need those “rewards” to keep on fighting. “They say some people need that sort of thing. The end justifies the means” (134). He decides to send the men out, but accompany them himself. He is mentioned for the last time on page 161, when the chapel he and his men were hiding in has caught fire. Although it is not explicitly mentioned, it can be assumed he dies.

            Sergeant Jonathan Strenehen (first appearance on page 3) is an American bombardier of the “first squadron,” which marks targets for the next squadron to bomb. He deliberately marks his targets so that they are least likely to hit people. He is about to be disciplined for that by his superior officer, when the plane is attacked by German fighter planes (20) and the crew has to abandon the plane (42). He escapes death by a hair several times: he is almost shot by a fighter plane, he lands in high voltage wires that do not have power on them, the bullets from his own gun whiz over his head and two Germans, a mechanic and engineer, make plans to kill him, but end up only pushing him from their shelter. Instead he dies after suffering torment at the hands of a sadistic German doctor in a shelter under a hospital, but not before he has gone insane from wandering around the burning city: “He shouted in rhythm: ‘One, two, three, four!’ He marched. Naked from the waist down. But getting nowhere” (127).  “Sergeant Jonathan Strenehen bared his teeth to the fire. A high-pitched giggle issued from his throat” (128). After whipping and beating him, the doctor pushes Strenehen into the basement of the shelter, where the other people from the hospital-building are hiding. When those people are about to help him, he dies, probably from exhaustion (195).

            Maria Erika Weinert (first appearance on page 5), a young girl (assuming that Maria is the “girl” that is mentioned throughout the book), takes shelter below her house with the other inhabitants. When part of the shelter collapses and a man is killed under a support beam, she gets scared: “she felt ashamed. She suddenly beats her chest with her fists. ‘I don’t want to die,’ she shouted” (35). On page 80, the wall of the shelter collapses, and Maria is trapped in a small space together with a man. The space is so small that the man is lying on top of her and they cannot get up. The others are most likely dead: “They heard nothing more from the others. They were alone in a cave” (81). The man rapes her and panics when it turns out the girl is bleeding:


            The man cried furiously: ‘You can’t die!’

            He pulled her head to one side, as though to look at it. ‘You can’t!’


            ‘I don’t want to be alone with a corpse,’ said the man. ‘I can’t have that!’

            ‘Die,’ whispered the girl. ‘Am I going to die?’

            The man shouted, ‘No!’ (143)


The man does not believe they will be saved (“No one is going to find us. We’re going to suffocate or starve here. I’d be better off killing myself” 160) and slices his wrist and dies. The girl is alone, tired and weary, and “goes to sleep.” It ends almost peacefully:


With her final movement she folded her hands. Weariness swept through her body. She went to sleep like that. The earth trembled beneath her. Rubble shifted. She was no longer touching anything. (193)


Werner Friedrich Hartung (first appearance on page 12, named on page 23) has a wife and child who have gone to the train station to escape from the city. When he hears the train station is being bombed, he tries to go there to make sure they are alive, but he is stopped by the lieutenant because it is too dangerous:  “ ‘It’s coming from the station!’ The man’s voice turned shrill. ‘My wife and child!’ [lieutenant:] ‘There’s nothing you can do for them’” (27). He manages to get away from the lieutenant’s crew only to be caught by other German troops, who think he is looting. They are drunk and they make fun of him, threatening to kill him for looting and making him clean up their mess. When they finally listen to him and realise he was looking for his family, they decide to help him:


‘How old is your child?’


[…The ensign] covered his eyes with his hand. He brought his hand down. His face had changed.

‘Three volunteers step forward!’ (122)


They leave for the station but have to take cover in a bakery, where a starving Russian, named on page 51 as Nikolai Petrovich, begs the soldiers to kill him. He grabs a gun, shoots at the soldiers and is shot himself. In the commotion, Werner manages to escape to the street and is hit in the head by a bomb splinter and dies. “The lance corporal cleared his throat. ‘I’m sure it’s all for the best, his child’s probably dead, after all’” (148). After Werner’s death, the soldiers decide to go back to the shelter: “A razor-sharp voice said irritably: ‘We were all involved in that nonsense with the man. That’s enough of that. We’ve sobered up now’” (172).

            The gun commander and his crew (first appearance on page 14, not named) have a flak tower to operate. The gun commander’s anti-aircraft gunners are only fifteen-year-old schoolboys (14). He feels guilty about having them up on the tower with him:


            ’Tighten your chin-straps!’ he ordered.

            ‘Yes sir!’

            They answered in chorus. They obediently did as he ordered. That was the worst of it.

            Now, he thought, if I were to give them the order: Go and jump into the road… (15)


A schoolboy is hit in the face by the lid of an ammunition box. The gun commander tries to help him, but he dies from the wound. The three remaining gunners want to get off the tower, possibly to escape, possibly to get help – when the strongest of them reaches the ladder first, the other two stay on the tower (89). The gun commander dies on page 89, and the remaining two boys are left to their fate: “There was no one there to give the two gunners an order, so they closed their eyes” (89). The fate of the gunner who left the tower is described in a short paragraph on page 108, when he is afraid he is going to die (“Hot air enveloped him. That was all that happened”) and on page 125, when he really dies: (“[the leader of the unit] didn’t die any manner of death that had ever been invented. He was grilled”). The last mention of the two gunners on the tower is on page 158. They are still alive, but “destruction ran riot. Bombs were being dropped,” so it is unlikely they will survive.

            The Cheovskis (first appearance on pages 17) are an elderly couple that have lost their two sons in the war. In the first few fragments they are determined to stay in their house and die. Then Herr Cheovski changes his mind:


[Herr Cheovski:] ’Get up Dessy!’

            ‘Leave me alone,’ she whispered.

            [Herr Cheovski:] ‘Come on – we can’t do this.’

            […Frau Cheovski:] ‘What?’

            ‘Stay here.’

            Frau Cheovski said in a changed voice: ‘If you don’t want to stay, then go!’

            ‘Without you, never!’


‘Never, Dessy,’ said Herr Cheovski, then got to his feet and looked at the door. He saw the door, the door, the door…(89).


On page 112, after having failed to persuade Frau Cheovski to join him, he leaves. On page 129, the soldiers accompanying Werner to the train station see a woman in the window of a burning house. One of the soldiers goes in and tries to rescue her. Herr Cheovski is sitting on the steps of the house. When the soldier returns, badly burnt, carrying Frau Cheovski, Herr Cheovski tries to bring her to the cellar. It is dark and they cannot find their way. The last we hear of them is when they fall down:


            He said ‘I’ll guide you, just rely on me.’


After precisely six paces he tripped over the bicycle and dragged her down with him (186).


Apart from these “main characters” there are a few recurring minor characters: a pimple-faced boy, a priest, a group of Russian soldiers, the engineer and the mechanic and a group of people in an air raid shelter. All the characters’ lives are interwoven by the use of the fragment-structure. None of the characters get more “sympathy” or more attention in the novel. The fate of the Germans is described as being equally hard and cold as that of the American airmen. There are no protagonists or antagonists. All characters, who used to be individuals and had their own lives (described in the autobiographies) are victimised by the bombings and suffer equally. In his introduction to Payback, Michael Hoffmann praises Ledig’s writing style:


[He has an] uncanny ability to offer just enough in the way of individualism to get us as readers to care about the vestigial human beings he sets before us, rather than (as we would like to do) push them away from us as routine instances of horror and carnage. (xv)


Because each character gets an equal amount of attention and an equally gruesome death, the reader is forced to care about all of them, and every death is a renewed shock. It is Ledig’s “payback” to society who made the war possible.


2.4 A Comedy of Horrors


Payback is not a novel for the faint-hearted. People are crushed, grilled, boiled and cremated. Ledig deals with this with cold and cynical distance:


It wasn’t worth mentioning. During those sixty minutes people were torn apart, crushed, suffocated. Anyone left would wait till tomorrow.  Later someone said: It wasn’t as bad as all that. There are always a few left. (3)


Almost all Ledig’s characters die or are left in the dark to wait for the next air raid. Ledig describes their last hour, in which some of them hurt, rape and kill others in the vain hope of saving themselves or extracting vengeance while others try to help people. But whether they have good or bad intentions, they all perish. Death seems to be the real main character in the book, as Michael Hoffman suggests in the introduction to Payback:


It is no longer a matter of heroism, valour, face-to-face engagement with the enemy. […] Instead, suicides, punishment shootings, attempted surrender, contemplated murder. There are no classic lines of engagement, but strata of death at different altitudes. (Hoffman, 2003: xiii)


And yet, Payback is not a horror-story. The deaths of the characters are told with inescapable irony and humour. This does not make the events less gruesome, but it takes away the repulsion. By showing the banality of the body for what it is, the violence does not “numb” the reader after a few pages, as it would if it was merely described without irony. Ledig manages to “kill” over twenty of his characters, and still keep the reader’s attention, because of the black humour used throughout the book. Michael Hoffman says in his introduction to Payback: “The challenge of war as a subject – perhaps especially modern, mechanised war – is to get us to feel it, sharply and viscerally, not merely to know it or to think it, in a dull droning way” (xv).The irony brings this “sharp” element into the text. Most of the time, the irony lies in the presentation of brutal facts: “Two women across the road from the graveyard wall let go of a handcart and ran. They thought the graveyard wall would be safe. They were mistaken” (2) and “He thought: if they are human beings, they’ll stop now. In reply, thirty-six guns flashed on the ground below” (54). At other times the author’s comments provide the irony: “Sergeant Strenehen, later described as: A human being. There were plenty of those,” (3). Ledig describes the shooting of the fighter planes as a game: “The first to hit the other was the winner” (21).  Apart from the author’s comments, the characters themselves are also represented with a morbid sort of humour:


Strenehen yelled: ‘I’ve killed him! I’ve killed him!’

He was happy. For a second he was boundlessly happy. Until he saw the blood on his hands, and then he felt ill. (22)


‘My nose is gone!’ It sounded like a joke. […]
’But you’ve got your nose!’

The loader answered reproachfully: ‘It’s over there!’ He pointed a hand towards the concrete. A piece of flesh lay on the platform. It was his nose. (64)


‘Kill him!’ […]


The engineer said: ‘I can’t do it. I used to keep rabbits, but I always gave them away to be slaughtered’. (87)


Then there is the irony of the artefacts: a letter arriving after a soldier’s death (“Three days later, the dead man wrote: No, we are not in the city, Mother,” 200) and the rewards for bravery, the iron crosses, being kept in an empty fruit bag: “The words on the bag read: Eat fruit and stay healthy” (110). “The lieutenant looked at the bag. Printed on it he saw grapes, a banana, two apples. Underneath was the inscription. But in the bag were crosses. He had enough of crosses” (123). Michael Hoffman describes the irony and its effect:


There is at times a medieval or Mexican morbidity about proceedings, a soap opera from old bones. This gruesomeness, astonishingly, and I think deliberately, shades into comedy. […] It’s a mechanical, pervasive, inevitable irony, a function of not calculation or design or timing, but of an overplus of brute death. […] It may not be funny, but is certainly comedy, albeit at its very blackest. (xiv-xv)


The shocking events in the novel are described in such ways, that the reader cannot help but shake his head at the bitter irony of it all. In doing so, a certain distance is created. The comedy-element makes the story slightly bearable, giving the reader a chance to look at the events from a neutral point of view. This way, Ledig’s Payback forces the reader to think about moral issues.


2.5 Religion


The novel Payback begins with a quote from the bible: “Suffer the little children to come to me” (Mark 10:13). This leaves a rather bitter aftertaste when it turns out the children in question are already dead, and their dead bodies are bombed and assaulted anew. They will “come to Him,” but not in the sense that the original quote intends. Religion seems to give little or no comfort in the seventy minutes the city is bombed.

On page 8, Ohm, a coloured bomdardier from America, prays to Jesus (“Forgive me. If this is my final hour, I will die with a sin upon me”) but is quickly interrupted when he is given an order, and then “prayer times are over” (8). The Christ-figure that looks down on an old woman in a hospital cannot save her from the bombs: “The print hung in a frame on the wall. The sirens had fallen silent. The son of God couldn’t move” (9). When she is evacuated to the shelter, the print is “left behind.” A priest joins a rescue party that is setting out to save people from the collapsing buildings in the street, seemingly full of faith, when a man tells him:


‘No one is going to be praying over there!’

[…] ‘Who said anything about praying?’ The priest pulled a pickaxe out of the boy’s hands and joined the men. […]

‘Are you doing it for God?’

‘If you want to talk to me about God, come to my church after the war is over. It’s burnt down, but I’m going to build it up again.’ (47)


Along the way, however, the priest gets more and more bitter: “If he got hit, no one would notice. He thought: not even God. I’m too insignificant” (62). When he is trapped under a girder, with no chance of rescue, he hopes God might still make Himself known:


He thought: If there is a God, he’ll have to make his presence felt now. Maybe out of the flames. A fatherly voice filled with love.

The priest listened to the fire. Crackling wood. That was all. (81)


Strenehen also calls on God in his final moments:


The door remained silent. He thought: I’ll believe in God if it opens now. It doesn’t have to be straight away, he thought. A minute. […] Strenehen thought: God, God. If the door opens, he exists. Half a minute passed. He thought: God’s made up. (122)


God does not perform any miracles for the people in the hour of the bombing. Several characters say they do not believe in Him, or do not believe in Him anymore, because of what they have been through. The group of drunken German soldiers laugh about it when Werner asks them to let him go:


The man said: ‘I beg you in the name of God…’

‘Stand by the wall!’

‘In God’s name!’ The man wiped the tears away. ‘Please!’

‘We don’t believe in God!’

Now they were roaring with laughter. (74)


Frau Cheovski has stopped believing in God because her sons are dead:


[Frau Cheovski:] ‘Did they have to die?’

[Herr Cheovski:] ‘Of course they did! You said we were paying the price. […] God wills it. You do believe in God?’ His voice was filled with doubt.

‘No, I don’t believe in God anymore.’ (113)


An anonymous voice from the shelter shares these sentiments: “If my daughter had died a normal death, I’d still believe in God today” (162).

The atmosphere of Payback is more that of the vengeance in the Old Testament than

of grace and forgiveness of God in the New Testament. The squadrons of bombers are described as the Eighth Plague (locusts), but “locusts with human intelligence” (25). The mechanic and the engineer use words from the bible in a parody when they plan to kill Strenehen:


“The Lord sayeth: Vengeance is mine.’

‘Fine,’ agreed the engineer. ‘Vengeance is mine. I am the Lord!’ (88).


They are also the ones who say: “an eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth” (96).  The only characters who seem to be sincere in their faith are the people in the shelter, who say a prayer for Strenehen after he has died (195).

            The novel’s last chapter starts with the announcement that God was “on our side. But he was on the others’ side as well” (199). None of the characters are miraculously saved. The last chapter gives another list of casualties. The family of Strenehen in America is comforted by a minister: “The man claimed: ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, just as he pleases’” (200). The last line of the book makes it clear that the hour of bombings described in the novel was not Divine Intervention: “It was not the Day of Judgement” (200). It was just a day of which the German cities had seen many.


2.6 Metaphors and Clichés


In Luftkrieg und Literatur, Sebald tries to explain why, in his opinion, German authors were unable to write about the fate of the German cities. He says it is normal that in times of great catastrophes, people are too traumatised to express themselves, and therefore authors could not get a good impression of what happened:


[es war]  nicht immer einfach, genaueres über die Art und das Ausmaß der Zerstörung in Erfahrung zu bringen. Dem Bedürfnis nach Wissen widersprach die Neigung, die Sinne zu verschließen. (Sebald, 1999: 30)


[It was] not always easy to find out about the nature and the degree of the destruction in a more precise way. The need for knowledge was contradicted by the inclination to block the senses.


People in other cities could not believe what had happened in the places that were bombed. The nazi-government tried to cover up as much as possible, and authors could not get reliable eyewitness reports from the fugitives:


Offenbar hatte unter dem Schock des Erlebten die Erinnerungsfähigkeit teilweise ausgesetzt oder arbeitete kompensatorisch nach einem willkürlichen Raster. Die der Katastrophe Entgangenen waren unzuverlässige, mit halber Blindheit geschlagene Zeugen. (Sebald, 1999: 31)


Apparently the shock caused the survivors to suspend their ability to remember, or that ability only functioned compensatorily but randomly. Those who escaped the catastrophe were unreliable, half-blinded witnesses.


Sebald quotes an American military psychologist from Alexander Kluge’s historical study Der Luftangriff auf Halberstadt am 8. April 1945, who, on the basis of interviews with survivors, stated that:


Die Bevölkerung, bei offensichtlich eingeborener Erzähllust, die psychische Kraft, sich zu erinnern, genau in den Umrissen der zerstörten Flächen der Stadt verloren [hätte]. (Sebald, 1999: 31)


The population [of Halberstadt], although they possessed a natural inclination for narration, seemed to have lost their mental power to remember in the exact contours of the destroyed city.


Ursula Heukenkamp says in Gestörte Erinnerung that it was not because the survivors could not remember, but because they could not express themselves, that no narratives ever appeared:


Nicht Vergeßlichkeit, sondern mangelnde Expressivität der Betroffenen verursachte ihre Schweigsamkeit. Die vorhandenen Erzählversuche, ob literarisch oder biographisch, weisen symptomatische Ausdrucksschwierigkeiten aus wie die Häufigkeit von Zitaten aus wenigen, immer gleichen Quellen, Metaphern und Vergleichen, die übermäßige Verwendung von Apokalyptischem Vokabular, vorzugsweise des Wortes ‘Inferno’. […] Es fehlt am originalen Ausdruck, daher das Reden in einer geliehenen Sprache, in Klischees. (Heukenkamp, 2001: 471)


Not forgetfulness, but a lack of expressivity of the people involved caused their reticence. The available narrative attempts, both literary and biographical, show symptomatic problems of expression, like the many quotes from always the same sources, metaphors and similes, the excessive usage of an apocalyptic vocabulary, preferably the word ‘Inferno’. […] Original phrases are missing, and so one speaks in a borrowed language, in clichés.


The use of clichés often makes the experience seem unrealistic. Sebald says that the erratic way the memories are narrated ia so different from “normal” memories that they often seem fabricated. He mentions a few clichés such as “ein Raub der Flammen” (“heist” of the flames), “verhängnisvolle Nacht” (fatal night), “es brennte lichterloh” (it was ablaze), “die Hölle war los” (Hell broke loose), “starrten wir ins Inferno” (we stared into the inferno)

and “das furchtbare Schicksal der deutschen Städte” (Sebald, 1999: 32,  “the terrible fate of the German cities”). The function of these clichés is, according to Sebald, “die über das Fassungsvermögen gehenden Erlebnisse zu verdecken und zu neutralisieren” (32, “To cover up and neutralise the experiences that go beyond comprehension”). The “künstlichen Blick” (33, “artificial point of view”) is needed to cope with their memories. Ursula Heukenkamp confirms this. She calls the clichés a “Sprache der erstarrten Erfahrung” (Heukenkamp, 2001: 475 , “language of paralysed experience”), and says that “the introduction of distances dilutes the directness of the narrative” (“die Unmittelbarkeit des Erzählten wird durch die Einführung von Distanzen […] abgeschwächt”, 471). She also mentions the cliché phrase “das Jüngste Gericht” (“Judgement Day”, 480) as an often used description of the bombing nights.

            The clichés have also been used by professional authors, says Sebald. He says that nothing “concrete” about the bombings has been written in Germany, with the possible exception of Hans Erich Nossaks’ novel Der Untergang (37). He says the absence of literature about the bombings shows clearly to what extent the German cities were destroyed (52): even the ability to write had vanished. In his epilogue, Sebald quotes a letter to the editor of Der Spiegel, written as a response to Luftkrieg und Literatur, which says: 


Ein 86-Millionen Volk, das man einst als Volk der Dichter und Denker rühmte, hat die schlimmste Katastrophe seiner jüngste Geschichte mit Auslöschung seiner Städte und millionfacher Vertreibung über sich ergehen lassen. Da fällt einem schwer zu glauben, daß diese Ereignisse nicht ein gewaltiges literarisches Echo gefunden haben. […] Wer sonst als die Medien hat jene Tabu-Mauer aufgerichtet [?] (Sebald, 1999: 89)


A people of 86 million, once renowned for its poets and thinkers, have endured the worst catastrophe of its recent history, with the effacement of its cities and displacement of millions of its people. It is hard to believe that these events have not found a huge literary echo. Who else but the media could have erected the wall of taboos [?]


Sebald puts this in perspective by saying he has not found any proof of this echo, so it cannot be blamed on the media.

            In the epilogue of Luftkrieg und Literatur, Sebald admits that he has failed to include Ledig’s Payback in his overview of literature about the bombings. He discusses the novel in his epilogue, saying that Payback , in 1956, crossed the borders of that which the German people were prepared to read about their recent history (“[es ging] über die Grenzen dessen hinaus, was die Deutschen über ihre jüngste Vergangenheit zu lesen bereit waren,” 100). Payback was “banned from cultural memory” (“aus dem kulturellen Gedächtnis ausgeschlossen,” 103). About the novel itself, Sebald says it is sometimes remarkably precise, and sometimes awkward and overwinded (“überdreht,” 101). He does not give any examples.

            Ledig does use the “cliché words,” but only twice, both at the end of the novel. When Strenehen has lost his mind, “he crouched, lonely, in hell” (168). The last line of the novel reads “It wasn’t the Day of Judgement” (200). Although the first may fall into the category of cliché descriptions, the second definitely does not. Ledig is not comparing the bombings to Judgement Day. He uses the cliché to state the difference between the bombings (which happened throughout 1943-1945) and the biblical Day of Judgement. According to Sebald and Heukenkamp’s definitions, Payback cannot be called an “unreliable, half blind” narrative. It states the things as they are, with realistic, new descriptions, using a cliché only once. It is an interesting fact, however, that according to Michael Hoffman, the working title of Payback was Inferno (Introduction to Payback, xii), and on the jacket blub the novel is described as the “Hölle eines Krieges” (“the pandemonium of a war”), both of which would fit into the “clichés” Sebald describes.


2.7 Genre


The name “Trümmerliteratur” (“Literature of rubble”) is usually given to novels that deal with German life after the war: soldiers returning from the front to find their homes and their world views reduced to a pile of rubble. Andreas Huyssen says in On Rewritings and New Beginnings: W.G. Sebald and the Literature about the Luftkrieg that Trümmerliteratur is “often written by war veterans returning from the front, focused on life in the ruins after the war, not on the bombings themselves” (81). Within these definitions, Payback can hardly be called “Trümmerliteratur.” Modern reviews, however, do place the novel in this genre:  “Trümmerliteratur in every sense”, (“Trümmerliteratur in jedem Wortsinne,” Jochen Hörisch, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 12 October 1999). This is probably because Payback can be seen as a “rubble novel” in the sense that the lives of the people are reduced to rubble. They lose their houses, possessions, and their lives.

            After the war, says Ursula Heukenkamp, the use of cliché expressions such as “Judgement Day” led to the perception that the bombings were “strokes of fate” (“Schicksalsschläge”, 474). She calls Ledig’s Payback a “parable,” a highly pedantic anti-war story, that shows


daß es im Bombenhagel und Flächenbrand keine Unterschiede, auch keine Schuld und Unschuld mehr gibt. […] Nur der Zufall bestimmt, wer Bomben abwirft und wen sie treffen. (487)


that when it rains bombs and fire covers entire areas, there are no differences and no guilt and innocence. […] Only fate decides who drops the bombs and who is hit.


However, she does add that Payback is “the only attempt to give the dead of the air raids a place with the victims of war and violence” (“der einzige Versuch, den Toten des Bombenkrieges einen Platz unter den Opfern von Krieg und Gewalt zuzuweisen,”  487).

            Andreas Huyssen mentions a dichotomy in post-war literature: novels written as “Aufrechnungsdiskurs” (literally “literature to clear up against,” describing the Germans as victims, suggesting that the suffering of the Germans was equally bad as that of the victims of the Holocaust) or as “an argument for justified retribution” (Huyssen, 2001: 80). He says that “to speak about the air war seemed inescapably tied to the discourse of German victimization and thus to the relativization or denial of the Holocaust” (81). But because Payback does not point fingers at the bomber squadrons, and all the characters suffer equally, it cannot be said that it is a novel that only focuses on the German victims. It can therefore not be claimed either that Payback relativizes the Holocaust.


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[2] See 2.3 of this chapter: “Comedy of Horrors”