Austerlitz | Study Guide

W. G. Sebald

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Austerlitz | Themes


The Importance of Remembering History

W.G. Sebald once called memory "the moral backbone of literature." The major undertaking of Austerlitz's title character is to rescue the dead by remembering their lives after generations have passed. The novel presents memory as a duty for survivors. When the narrator visits Breendonk in Part 1 (Narrator and Austerlitz Meet, Belgium 1967), he reflects that because "objects ... themselves have no power of memory," humans must preserve this memory for them. Austerlitz feels drawn to memorize the names of gravestones and take pictures of excavated skeletons for reasons he can't explain to himself. He often senses the dead are returning to challenge and confront the living. Physical memorials have a strong presence in the novel. The fortress of Breendonk becomes a monument to Belgian resistance fighters during World War II, and a museum in the Terezin ghetto honors Holocaust victims who passed through the camp. When Austerlitz visits the Terezin museum, he admits he "understood it all now ... yet ... did not understand it," indicating the true horrors of the Third Reich will always be beyond his comprehension.

For Austerlitz especially, understanding history becomes a way of understanding himself. As an adolescent he learns his real name is an artifact of European history, associated with the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz. But he still doesn't understand what the name means for his ancestors and himself. When he tries to ignore his repressed memories, he suffers breakdowns, alienation, and fear that he doesn't truly exist. In Part 7 (Austerlitz's Memories of Leaving Prague), during his visit to Liverpool Street Station, a place he's drawn to without knowing why, he feels his whole life trapped there. Later he learns he began his new life in Wales at that station as one of many Holocaust refugees. Like many protagonists in literature, he goes on a physical journey of discovery, retracing his childhood train trip from Prague to London. Learning about his Czech parents gives him a link to his Jewish roots, providing a group identity and sense of belonging he's lacked his entire life. He visits Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris and Alderney Street Cemetery in London, where many European Jews are buried, to honor people who are connected to him "on the far side of time." Toward the end of the novel, he learns about the Austerlitz-Tolbiac storage depot, which housed the stolen belongings of Holocaust victims, another connection linking him to history.

The novel explores how countries and societies can remember or fail to remember past events. In Part 4 (School Years at Stower Grange, late 1940s) Austerlitz's history teacher, André Hilary, believes most people's understanding of history is limited to common, recognizable images—archetypes with no real significance. Maximilian Aychenwald, Austerlitz's father, recognizes the German memory of the nation's World War I defeat led to resentment, a desire for stolen glory, and the rise of the Nazi Party. Austerlitz turns to individual stories when he wants to understand history, reading the writings of German concentration camp survivor H.G. Adler and French novelist Honoré de Balzac. Later, the Bibliothèque Nationale appears as a warehouse for collective memory. The newly designed structure distances patrons from the archives, and library staffer Henri Lemoine thinks this distance is breaking the country's connection to the past as a whole.

How Architecture Reflects Civilization

Austerlitz believes public buildings reflect the values of the societies that created them. The clock in Belgium's Antwerp Station regulates time, highlighting the importance of work and financial growth in European cities after the Industrial Revolution. The station's lofty dome, built in 1905, reflects Belgian King Leopold's confidence that the newly independent nation would become a strong economic power. In a larger sense the station marks the emergence of capitalism, an economic system based on private profit, as a world-changing force. Buildings also show the ambition and egos of their leaders. The 1995 redesign of Paris's Bibliothèque Nationale, with massive towers and glass walls, transforms the library into a public monument to French president François Mitterand's administration rather than a place where people come to gather knowledge. And the new construction covers a former storage depot for artifacts stolen from Parisian Jews during World War II, indicating a tendency to bury the past.

Architecture often testifies to the worst of human nature, including fear and cruelty. German literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) claimed there was no document of civilization that was not a document of barbarism. In Austerlitz buildings indicate how the people inside are treated. Fortresses trap people within their walls, and the fortresses at Breendonk, Terezin, and Kaunas later serve as Nazi prison camps. Austerlitz claims that the many rooms in Terezin's star-shaped fortress held political prisoners during Austria's Habsburg Empire, which lasted from the 15th century until the early 20th century. Large buildings need large construction forces, and the narrative points out that these fortresses were built by prisoners and slaves.

Even seemingly benign organizations like the Bibliothèque can harbor oppressive, bureaucratic systems. Austerlitz feels like a commodity, not a learner, in the new library. Also oppressive is the misleading design of Belgium's Palace of Justice, which seems to represent the many secrets authorities keep from people—such as the secret torture the Nazis carried out in Prague, which many people didn't learn about until the war was over. When Austerlitz visits London's Liverpool Street Station, he imagines the suffering of the inmates when the space was the Bedlam mental asylum.

How Objects and Images Preserve the Past

The objects people owned can both reveal and conceal facts about their daily lives. In Part 9 (Austerlitz's Parents Face German Occupation), Vera recalls the items Agáta had to surrender to compulsory collection under Nazi control. These include a gramophone, wireless, and several musical instruments, reflecting Agáta's love of music and opera. When German troops took objects from European Jews, they were taking identity and history as well. Thinking of the previous inhabitants of the rooms he enters, Austerlitz is moved by a room at Iver Grove, where objects have remained unchanged for 100 years. When items outlive their owners, they become testaments to destruction and impermanence. Austerlitz thinks of the objects in the Terezin antique bazaar as "outside time." He struggles to find meaning in them because he doesn't know their owners' stories.

The remains of dead animals appear as objects preserving the constantly changing natural world. In Part 5 (Friendship with Gerald Fitzpatrick, 1940s–50s) Gerald Fitzpatrick's uncle Alphonso Fitzpatrick laments that many aspects of nature, such as landforms and colors, are fading all the time—much like disappearing generations of human civilization. Both he and Austerlitz keep the skeletons of dead moths. When Austerlitz visits the museum of veterinary medicine, he sees nature preservation as an attempt to defy death. French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard's life-size horseman figure, he says, secures "for the frail body at least some semblance of eternal life."

Sebald's photographs and images, one of his trademarks as a novelist, confront the viewer directly in a way words cannot. In Part 5 (Friendship with Gerald Fitzpatrick, 1940s–50s), Austerlitz connects his budding interest in photography to his obsession with memory, for both forms seem to "emerge out of nothing." when Austerlitz thinks of historical events, such as the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, he often pictures paintings capturing these events. Sebald, who was fascinated by old photographs "when people had their picture taken ... two or three times in a lifetime," thought the pictures resembled ghosts. The unclear, enigmatic nature of photos captivates Austerlitz, too. Though Sebald writes about fictional characters, he includes photos claiming to represent these characters, like the boyhood picture of Austerlitz. This hybrid of fiction and documentary emphasizes that Sebald's narrative of the past is unreliable. Because the author is not a Holocaust survivor himself, he can't really testify to what happened. The truth is somewhere beyond him, and possibly beyond the reader. Similarly, Austerlitz feels helpless when he looks at his childhood photograph, an image that seems to combine his past, present, and future but gives him neither clarity nor answers.

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