In Sebald’s book “Austerlitz” it isn’t until you’re more than halfway through that you find out what you probably knew a lot earlier, that Austerlitz left as a child during WWII, that whatever life he’d had before the war was gone, in reality, and in memory too.
Only after unlayering the years of his childhood, and then his years as a student, and then a professor, and then a loner wandering through London and talking with strangers on trips to Brussels, do both we the readers and Austerlitz himself go back to find his past.
It’s then when he’s talking with Vera in Prague, Vera being his nanny as a child and a friend of his parent, that she tells him everything he had repressed.
Vera tells Austerlitz what his father Maximilian told her about his trips to Germany in the 1930s, about the “positive horror” it filled him with, watching the country become ready for greatness. It’s hard to excerpt this part, because the effect of the way Sebald writes is its buildup, over pages, and the sentences that don’t end but that you can trace through the pages. Here’s how he begins a description of a Hitler rally in Nuremberg:
Hours before his arrival, the entire population of Nuremberg and indeed people from much further afield, crowds flocking in not just from Franconia and Bavaria but from the most remote parts of the country, Holstein and Pomerania, Silesia and the Black Forest, stood shoulder to shoulder all agog with excitement along the predetermined route, until at last, heralded by roars of acclamation, the motorcade of heavy Mercedes limousines came gliding at walking pace down the narrow alley which parted the sea of radiant uplifted faces and the arms outstretched in yearning. Maximilian had told her, said Vera, that in the middle of this crowd, which had merged into a single living organism racked by strange, convulsive contractions, he had felt like a foreign body about to be crushed and then excreted.
What emerges from these pages is not that Maximilian saw it coming, but that he knew what he was witnessing. But Maximilian didn’t need to know the future—he didn’t need to know the camps and the gas and the dead children and the death marches—to know that these crowds and their need for Hitler’s promises; their worship of them, was its own evil. And all because, in Maximilian’s words to Vera, repeated to Austerlitz who then tells them to the narrator and the narrator to us, he recalls Hitler’s speeches coming through the wireless, “drumming into the Germans the notion that the promise of their own greatness was about to be fulfilled.”
And their wild, hungry, bottomless acceptance of it.
Maybe you don’t need 1939 to be held accountable for 1933.