by Gunter Grass
The Tin Book
A review by Ruth Franklin
German society experiences intellectual crises with the collective intensity that Americans generally reserve for tabloid dramas. Once or twice a decade, an event ignites a debate of extraordinary proportions that seems to permeate all classes and interest groups, from the country's news media to its bars and its living rooms. The 1980s saw Ronald Reagan's visit to the military cemetery at Bitburg and the subsequent Historikerstreit, a public debate over the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a historical event. When Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners appeared in German translation in the mid-1990s, a pandemonium of newspaper columns and television talk shows ensued. Such a crisis, whenever it occurs, assumes a level of dominance over the national conversation that is difficult for Americans or perhaps any non-Germans to comprehend.
The country's latest crisis has provoked comparisons to the Goldhagen-Debatte for its fury, but already it has lasted even longer. In 1997, W.G. Sebald gave a now-famous series of lectures at the University of Zurich in which he argued that German writers had almost universally neglected to document the horrors of the Allied bombing campaign against Germany. The air war, Sebald said, resulted in a national crisis of extreme proportions, yet it was all but invisible in the national literature. He concluded that this absence was the result of an unspoken agreement among German writers to respect the taboo that had arisen in postwar Germany against speaking of the bombing essentially, a cultural conspiracy, the effects of which have lasted until the present.
The magnitude of the furor evoked by Sebald's lectures is testified to not only by the extensive attention that they received in the German media, but also by a chapter that Sebald added when he published them as the book Luftkrieg und Literatur, or Air War and Literature, two years later, in which he discussed some of the letters he received in response and sought to provide more context for some of his remarks. But Sebald's critics continued to chafe at his primary thesis: first, that such a taboo against acknowledging the devastation of the air war existed, and second, that the writers who supposedly upheld it had somehow failed their nation. Many readers were also dismayed by the strain of moral relativism inherent in Sebald's argument, which provided almost no political context for the bombing of Germany and at times described the devastation in language disturbingly and apparently unself-consciously reminiscent of the Holocaust. As the debate escalated, other books were thrown in as well: Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, a novel-in-progress by Peter Schneider. "There have long been signs of such a transformation from a society of perpetrators into a society of victims, but now the thematization of German suffering ... threatens to relativize the suffering of Holocaust victims and survivors," one critic wrote in Der Spiegel. "In German literature of late, has there been clandestinely or openly a diminishment of German guilt at work?"
With the publication of Sebald's novel Austerlitz and his sudden death shortly thereafter, the controversy died down somewhat; but by the time an English translation of his book about the air war appeared earlier this year (under the more abstract title On the Natural History of Destruction), it had been rekindled, primarily owing to the appearance, and the huge commercial success, of Jörg Friedrich's Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945, or The Fire: Germany During the Bombardment 1940-1945, which picks up where Sebald's lectures left off. Sebald had called for a "natural history of the destruction," one that would comprehensively document the sheer numbers of the dead, the floods of refugees, the fires that caused the water in Hamburg's canals to boil, the sudden flourishing of rats and flies and other parasites that feed off corpses. As if in response, Friedrich devotes nearly six hundred pages to detailing every aspect of the air war: the weapons used against Germany and in its defense, the strategy of "moral bombing," the propaganda perpetrated by both sides. The moral right of the Germans to declare their own victimhood had been thoroughly re-asserted, but the debate over its legitimacy was still nowhere near resolved.
Sebald singled out many German writers for criticism, but one name was conspicuously absent from his discussion. For half a century, Günter Grass has been the great literary distiller of German history and culture. At their most extraordinary, his creations are neither political novels nor social novels, but a hybrid, multidimensional form that encompasses both purposes as it sweeps past them. More than any other artistic work of the postwar period, Grass's "Danzig trilogy," especially its massive cornerstones The Tin Drum and Dog Years, assumed the responsibility of interpreting the experience of the war for a generation of Germans still devastated by its blows. Cat and Mouse, the strange novella sandwiched between these monuments, revealed another Grass, one who could pack all the emotional and intellectual wallop of the larger works into the slender confines of a fable.
Stylistically, Grass is an expressionist: he paints with broad strokes. It would be oversimplifying to call his stories allegorical; he works in a rich and profoundly strange surrealism that verges on supernaturalism. Along with Wolfgang Koeppen, Grass belongs to what could be called (after Koeppen's novel of 1953) the "hothouse" school of postwar German writing, characterized by its wildly exuberant shoots of language and imagery. Oskar, the protagonist of The Tin Drum, makes up his mind at the age of three that he will stop growing and he remains only three feet tall until a later crisis provokes him to grow again, a perfect emblem for a nation stunted by Hitler. Other fantastic elements include the slow suicide of Oskar's mother by "fish poisoning" and a fizzy candy with possibly mystical properties that aids Oskar in the seduction of his babysitter. One of the most dramatic scenes depicts the death of Oskar's stepfather, who chokes while trying to swallow his Nazi Party pin after the Russians have invaded Danzig and are occupying his house. These walking, breathing, screaming metaphors were the perfect vocabulary for the convulsed, schizophrenic Germany of the 1950s and early 1960s and the ideal antidote to the Nazis' enforced sterilization of the language.
Grass has followed his nation through crisis after crisis, from the Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming-to-terms-with-the-past) movement of the 1960s right up to the 1990s and re-unification, which he famously opposed. But lately, as the postwar turbulence of German politics has started to even out, Grass's work has taken on a certain programmatic quality. Consider The Call of the Toad, published in 1992, a black comedy depicting the efforts of a German man and a Polish woman to start a joint venture after the fall of the Berlin Wall: their plan is to sell cemetery plots in Gdansk (formerly Danzig) to Germans exiled from the area after World War II, capitalizing on the former refugees' sentimental dreams of homeland. The farce, though amusing and often politically sharp, is an unambitious replacement for the lush surrealism and the psychological penetration of Grass's early work.
Yet even if his later writing has been lackluster, Grass the author of more than two dozen novels, books of poetry, and essay collections published steadily over the last fifty years remains the elder statesman of German letters. So it is not surprising that he seems to have taken Sebald's complaints about postwar German literature personally. In a public discussion with the poets Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, and Tomas Venclova in Vilnius in 2000, he commented that he found it distressing that "the memory of the pain inflicted upon the Germans during the war" was still expressed only "belatedly and hesitantly." In postwar literature, he said, "the memory of the many dead from the nights of bombing and the mass flight" had found little room for expression. And now Grass seems to have sought to rectify this past omission with a novel that was published in Germany last year, shortly before Der Brand, and now appears in English translation.
Crabwalk takes as its starting point the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise ship turned refugee carrier that was attacked on January 30, 1945 by a Soviet submarine: more than nine thousand people drowned, including four thousand children, qualifying the episode as the worst maritime disaster in history. Everything about this ambiguous book, from its choice of subject matter to the explicit self-interrogation of its characters, reveals its deliberate calibration to the current political temperature. It is not so much a settling of the current controversy as a symptom of it; and for this reason it is sadly representative of the recent turn in Grass's work. His novels have always been closely tied to actual events, but lately he seems not to be charting the political current so much as swimming along with the tide. This would be an unfortunate circumstance for any writer, but it is particularly so with regard to Grass, who is, more than any other contemporary writer, uniquely positioned to expose the falsity of the new debate over German victimhood.
The book opens with an apologia. "Why only now?" asks the figure of the writer who lurks in the background of this book, a figure clearly meant to represent Grass. And the narrator who, in a different way, also stands in for the author attempts to stammer an answer: "Well, because Mother's incessant nagging ... Because I wanted to cry the way I did at the time, when the cry spread across the water, but couldn't anymore ... Because for the true story ... hardly more than three lines ... Because only now ..." This is the voice of Paul Pokriefke, a mediocre journalist in his fifties, separated from his wife and estranged from his adolescent son. There is nothing remarkable about him other than the circumstances of his birth: his mother, Tulla, a teenager at the time and nine months pregnant, was a passenger on the Gustloff, and thanks to her condition, she was among the few who were rescued. She delivered her son aboard a lifeboat as the ship sank into the Baltic Sea.
Tulla wishes that she could tell the story of her experiences during the war herself. "I could write a novel," she says at one point. "The worst was the bombers, when they came in real low over us and pow-pow-pow...." But Paul is the writer, and so she nags at him to do it. "That sea there full of ice, and them poor little ones all floating head down," she repeatedly reminds him in her homely dialect. "You've got to write about it. That much you owe us, seeing as how you were one of the lucky ones and survived." Paul, though, has always avoided discussing anything related to the Gustloff, to the point that he is even reluctant to celebrate his birthday for fear that someone might comment on the date's significance. (The ill-starred January 30 was also the birthday of the ship's eponym, a middle-level Nazi functionary, and, less obscurely, the date in 1933 on which the Nazis seized power.) He was not alone in his reluctance to mention the tragedy: in postwar Germany, he says, there was an unspoken taboo against any talk of German suffering during the war. As Tulla puts it, for years "you couldn't bring up the [Gustloff]. Over here in the East we sure as hell couldn't. And when you in the West talked about the past, it was always about other bad stuff, like Auschwitz and such. Lordy, lordy!" (It is a curious feature of this book that all its characters appear to have followed the recent debate in the newspapers very closely, though no one actually mentions it.)
But now the time period of the novel is not specified, but it could not take place at any moment other than the present Paul has become a devotee of the Internet: "our global playground, the vaunted ultimate venue for communication." In the course of his "bouncing around in the Net," he becomes obsessed with a website devoted to the ship and its history. The site, designed in Gothic script, purports to be sponsored by a neo-Nazi group calling itself the "Comrades of Schwerin" (Gustloff's hometown, and where Paul was brought up), and it is devoted to retelling not only the story of Gustloff's "martyrdom" his assassination by a Jew, David Frankfurter, in 1936 but also the martyrdom of those aboard the ship bearing his name.
"I had a growing suspicion that what lurked behind the URL ... was no skinhead group calling itself the Comrades of Schwerin but a solitary clever young fanatic," Paul says. "Someone scuttling crabwise like me, sniffing for the scents and similar exudations of history." As he follows the elaborate chat-room dialogue between "Wilhelm," the site's proprietor, and his interlocutor "David," a Jew who debates with him about German revisionism, it becomes clear to him that "Wilhelm" is actually his own son, Konny. "History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet," Paul comments. "We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising." Meanwhile, he has been contacted by an older writer, a former instructor of his, who presses him into service as a sort of ghostwriter to tell the tale of the sinking of the Gustloff.
The "writer" guiding Paul's hand is, of course, Grass. "Soon after the publication of that mighty tome Dog Years, this material had been dumped at his feet," Paul reports. "He who else? should have been the one to dig through it.... Unfortunately, he said, he hadn't been able to pull it off.... Now it was too late for him. He hadn't invented me as a surrogate, rather he had discovered me, after a long search, on the list of survivors, like a piece of lost property." This is a sly inside joke: Tulla Pokriefke appeared as a minor character in two novels of the Danzig trilogy, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, but with this particular detail of her background absent, almost as if the "taboo" had then prevented Grass from mentioning it.
The doubling of the narrator conveniently allows Grass to argue both sides of the issue. Crabwalk is not exactly a novel about the sinking of the Gustloff; it is, rather, a novel about the possibility of writing a novel about the sinking of the Gustloff. As its title suggests, the book proceeds with a jerky, non-linear motion that manifests Paul's own ambivalence about his role in the re-telling of this history. "Should I do as I was taught and unpack one life at a time, in order, or do I have to sneak up on time in a crabwalk, seeming to go backward but actually scuttling sideways, and thereby working my way forward fairly rapidly?" he asks himself toward the beginning. His rejection of "order," of the way he was taught to do things, is typical of his cohort's response to their parents' generation. Paul and his contemporaries, coming of age in the 1960s, were the first to open a full-fledged investigation into the crimes of the Nazi era, crimes literally (in many cases) committed by their fathers. Like many of Grass's other protagonists, Paul has a multiplicity of candidates for his fatherhood, which is to say that he really has no father at all. This is a common trait in fiction about the '68ers, as they are known, which often depicts them wrestling with and finally rejecting their guilty fathers, resulting in an allegedly fatherless generation that serves as an ironic remedy to the Nazis' Vaterland propaganda.
But if Paul is ambivalent about the use of remembering the German suffering during the war, the Grass figure comes down firmly on the other side of the question. "This business has been gnawing at the old boy," Paul says about the older writer at one point.
Actually, he says, his generation should have been the one. It should have found words for the hardships endured by the Germans fleeing East Prussia: the westward treks in the depths of winter, people dying in blinding snowstorms, expiring by the side of the road or in holes in the ice when the frozen bay known as the Frisches Haff began to break up under the weight of horse-drawn carts after being hit by bombs, and still, from the direction of Heiligenbeil, more and more people streaming across the endless snowy waste, terrified of Russian reprisal.... Never, he said, should his generation have kept silent about such misery, merely because its own sense of guilt was so overwhelming, merely because for years the need to accept responsibility and show remorse took precedence, with the result that they abandoned the topic to the right wing. This failure, he says, was staggering.
It would be naïve, of course, to take the "Grass" character in the novel this "old man ... who has worn himself out with writing" as identical to Grass himself. Still, the book, with its continual and very self-conscious crossing of the lines between history and fiction, mischievously encourages such a blurring. We are presented with a fictional character drawn from Grass's own previous work, muddling through the writing of a book about an actual historical event, alternately egged on and chastised by both a character who bears a strong resemblance to Grass and another character straight out of Grass's fiction. The old man "thinks he has found in me someone who has no choice but to stand in for him," Paul remarks. "But it's not him forcing me to do this, it's Mother. And it's only because of her that the old man is poking his nose in; she's forcing him to force me...." (Even the URL for the "Comrades of Schwerin" website, mentioned repeatedly, is real, in a way: it turns out to be the site for Grass's book.) And the fact that Grass puts the Luftkrieg argument in his own mouth, as it were, is a powerful suggestion that he does in fact subscribe to it himself. Not to mention that the very existence of Crabwalk would seem to justify this interpretation: if Grass did not believe that the time was right for such a novel ("Why only now?"), why would he have written it?
"His generation should have been the one" to tell the story, the "old man" laments. But actually Grass's generation was the one to tell the story. Here is one writer on the refugees:
The streets were clogged with refugees from East Prussia and the Delta. It was just about impossible to get through the underpass by the Sports Palace.... What traffic! Tanks retreating from the heights and the Delta, some being towed. From the trees lindens if I remember rightly dangled soldiers and Volksturm men. To their jackets were affixed cardboard signs identifying them quite legibly as traitors.... There were also whole clusters of youngsters strung up in uniforms that were too big for them, and several times I thought I recognized Störtebeker but youngsters at the end of a rope all look alike.
And here is the same writer, in a remarkable passage, on the fires caused by the bombing:
Inner City and Outer City, Old City, New City and Old New City, Lower City and Spice City what had taken seven hundred years to build burned down in three days.... It was Russians, Poles, Germans, and Englishmen all at once who were burning the city's Gothic bricks for the hundredth time. Hook Street, Long Street, and Broad Street, Big Weaver Street and Little Weaver Street were in flames; Tobias Street, Hound Street, Old City Ditch, Outer City Ditch, the ramparts and Long Bridge, all were in flames. Built of wood, Crane Gate made a particularly fine blaze. In Breeches-maker Street, the fire had itself measured for several pairs of extra-loud breeches. The Church of St. Mary was burning inside and out, festive light effects could be seen through its ogival windows. What bells had not been evacuated from St. Catherine, St. John, St. Brigit, Saints Barbara, Elisabeth, Peter, and Paul, from Trinity and Corpus Christi, melted in their belfries and dripped away without pomp or ceremony. In the Big Mill red wheat was milled. Butcher Street smelled of burnt Sunday roast. The Municipal Theater was giving a premiere, a one-act play entitled The Firebug's Dream.... Holy Ghost Street was burning in the name of the Holy Ghost. Joyously, the Franciscan Monastery blazed in the name of St. Francis, who had loved fire and sung hymns to it. Our Lady Street burned for Father and Son at once. Needless to say that Lumber Market, Coal Market, and Haymarket burned to the ground. In Baker Street the ovens burned and the bread and rolls with them. In Milk Pitcher Street the milk boiled over. Only the West Prussian Fire Insurance Building, for purely symbolic reasons, refused to burn down.
Both these passages come from The Tin Drum. True, the above fantasia on the tragedies of war, equal parts wordplay and eyewitness account, is not what Sebald meant by a "natural history"; but its effect is undeniably far more potent than Jörg Friedrich's meticulous listings of weapons and generals. And it paradoxically shows that Sebald was in many ways right. If the suffering of German civilians is to be remembered and recognized, art is the most powerful means of doing so. The greatest political novels explore at length the intellectual and social and emotional complexities that surround an urgent issue, without descending into polemical simplicities. But there is the rub: the call for work that emphasizes German victimhood requires precisely the removal of context and complexity that turns novels into polemics.
Considering that Grass has already written so profoundly about the effects of the war, why did he pay any heed to this simplifying and demagogic call to decontextualize German suffering? It is obvious from his earlier work that he once knew how distorting such a reevaluation is: the Danzig trilogy owes its great power not least to his determination to provide a full, even epic picture of the war years. And coming from Grass, Crabwalk's pandering to the politics and the intellectual fashions of the season is worse than disappointing. For not only does it result in a novel stocked with wooden characters and ludicrous dialogue, it also is evidence of Grass's failure to take the lead in exposing the wrongheadedness of the current debate. He, of all people, should have pointed out that the question of whether German suffering should be given priority in the understanding of World War II is fundamentally misguided. For it is a question he had already answered.
four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free
For nearly 90 years, the New
Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous
examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today,
we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy
the magazine TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give
you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every
word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica
of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!
to sign up.