Günter Grass burst on the literary scene in 1959 with The Tin Drum, a novel which, with its mix of the fabulous—a hero who in protest against the world around him refuses to grow—and the realistic—a densely textured realization of pre-war Danzig—announced the advent of magic realism.
Made financially independent by the success of The Tin Drum, Grass threw himself into campaigning for Willy Brandt’s Social Democrats. After the Social Democrats came to power in 1969, however, and particularly after Brandt resigned in 1974, Grass grew estranged from mainstream politics, occupying himself more and more with feminist and ecological issues. Throughout this evolution he nevertheless remained a believer in reasoned debate and in deliberate if cautious social progress. His chosen totem was the snail.
Having been among the first to attack the consensus of silence about the complicity of ordinary Germans in Nazi rule—a silence whose causes and consequences have been explored by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in their groundbreaking work of psychohistory The Inability to Mourn*—Grass is freer than most to enter the debate in progress in Germany about silence and silencing, taking up, in a characteristically cautious and nuanced way, a position that until recently only the radical right has dared to champion in public: that ordinary Germans—not just those who perished in the camps or died opposing Hitler—have a claim to be numbered among the victims of World War II.
Questions about victimhood, about silence, and about the rewriting of history are at the heart of Grass’s latest novel, Crabwalk, which is narrated by a character named Paul Pokriefke (Pokriefke is Grass’s mother’s name; his father’s identity is unknown even to his mother).
Paul’s birthday is January 30, a date with symbolic resonance in German history. On January 30, 1933, the Nazis took power. And on the same day in 1945 Germany suffered its worst maritime disaster ever, a real-life disaster in the midst of which the fictional Paul was born. Paul is thus a kind of midnight’s child in Salman Rushdie’s sense, a child fingered by fate to give voice to his times.
Paul, however, would prefer to shirk his destiny. Sliding through life unnoticed suits his taste. A journalist by trade, he has always trimmed his sails to the political wind blowing strongest. In the 1960s he wrote for the conservative Springer press. When the Social Democrats came to power he became a rather halfhearted left liberal; later he took up ecological issues.
There are, however, two powerful people behind him, both nagging him to write the story of the night on which he was born: his mother and a shadowy figure so like Günter Grass that I will call him “Grass.”
From his mother Paul learns that he is connected in a roundabout way with an important Nazi, Landesgruppenleiter Wilhelm Gustloff. Gustloff—a real-life person—was in the 1930s stationed in Switzerland, with the task of recruiting expatriate Germans and Austrians and gathering intelligence. In 1936 a Jewish student of Balkan background named David Frankfurter called at Gustloff’s home in Davos and shot him dead, after which he gave himself up to the police. “I fired the shots because I am a Jew. I…have no regrets,” Frankfurter reportedly said. Tried by a Swiss court and sentenced to eighteen years, Frankfurter was expelled from the country after serving half his time. He went to Palestine and subsequently worked in the Israeli defense department.
Back in Germany the death of Gustloff was seized upon as a chance to create a Nazi martyr and stir up anti-Jewish feeling. The body was ceremonially brought back from Switzerland and the ashes buried in a memorial grove on the shore of Lake Schwerin, with a memorial stone twelve feet high. Streets and schools were named after Gustloff, even a ship.
The cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff was launched in 1937 as part of the National Socialist program of recreation for the working class, a program known as Kraft durch Freude, strength through happiness. It carried 1,500 passengers at a time in classless accommodations on trips to the Norwegian fjords, Madeira, and the Mediterranean. Soon, however, more pressing uses were found for the Gustloff. In 1939 it was sent to bring back the Condor Legion from Spain. When war broke out it was outfitted as a hospital ship. Later it became a training ship for the German navy, and finally a refugee transport.
In January of 1945 the Gustloff sailed from the German port of Gotenhafen (now Polish Gdynia), heading westward and crammed with some 10,000 passengers, for the most part German civilians fleeing the advancing Red Army, but also wounded soldiers, trainee U-boat sailors, and members of the Women’s Auxiliary. Its mission was therefore not without a military component. In the icy waters of the Baltic it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine under the command of Captain Aleksandr Marinesko. Some 1,200 survivors were picked up; everyone else died. The death toll makes it the worst maritime disaster in history.
Among the survivors is a girl (fictional) named Ursula (“Tulla”) Pokriefke in an advanced state of pregnancy. In the boat that rescues her while the Gustloff suffers its death throes, Tulla gives birth to a son, Paul. Put ashore with her baby, she tries to make her way west through the Russian lines but ends up in Schwerin in the Russian zone, site of the Gustloff memorial.
By birth, then, Paul is tenuously linked to Wilhelm Gustloff. A more disturbing link emerges decades later, in 1996, when, idly browsing the Internet, he comes across a Web site called www.blutzeuge.de, where the “Comrades of Schwerin” keep Gustloff’s memory alive. (A Blutzeuge is a blood oath. Blutzeuge Day, November 9, was a sacred date on the Nazi calendar, the day on which the SS reaffirmed their oath.) From familiar turns of phrase he begins to suspect that the so-called Comrades are none other than his son Konrad, a high school student, whom he rarely sees now that the boy has elected to live with his grandmother Tulla in Schwerin.
Konrad, it emerges, has become obsessed with the Gustloff affair. For his history class he has written a paper on the Kraft durch Freude program, which his teachers have banned him from reading on the grounds that the topic is “inappropriate” and the paper “severely infected with Nationalist Socialist thinking.” He has tried to present the paper at a meeting of the local neo-Nazis, but it is too scholarly for his shaven-headed, beer-swilling audience. Since then he has restricted himself to his Web site, where under the code-name “Wilhelm” he proposes Gustloff to the world as an authentic German hero and martyr, and repeats his grandmother’s claim that the classless Kraft durch Freude cruise ships demonstrated true socialism at work.
“Wilhelm” soon meets with a hostile response. Writing back to the Web site under the name “David,” a respondent asserts that David Frankfurter was the true hero of the episode, a hero of Jewish resistance. On his computer screen Paul watches his son and the putative Jew argue back and forth.
A contest of words in virtual space does not satisfy Konrad. He invites “David”—who turns out to be of his own age—to Schwerin, and on the site of the demolished Gustloff monument shoots him as Frankfurter had shot Gustloff. Soon it emerges that his victim’s real name was Wolfgang, and that he was not a Jew at all but had been so possessed by feelings of guilt over the Holocaust that he had tried to live as a Jew in his German household, wearing a yarmulke and demanding that his mother keep a kosher kitchen.
Konrad is unmoved by the revelation. “I shot because I am a German,” he says at his trial, “and because the eternal Jew spoke through David.” Cross-examined, he admits he has never met a real Jew, but denies that this is relevant. While he has nothing against Jews in the abstract, he says, Jews belong in Israel, not in Germany. Let Jews honor Frankfurter if they wish, and Russians Marinesko; it is time for Germans to honor Gustloff.
The court bends over backward to see Konrad as the puppet of forces beyond his ken. Tulla makes a dramatic appearance on the witness stand to defend her grandson and denounce his parents for neglecting him. She does not tell the court that it was she who gave him the murder weapon.
Surveying the proceedings, Paul is convinced that Konrad is the only participant not afraid to speak his mind. Among the lawyers and judges he senses a smothering blanket of repression. Worst are the dead boy’s parents, impeccable liberal intellectuals who blame no one but themselves and deny any desire for revenge. Their son craved to be a Jew, Paul discovers, precisely because of his father’s habit of seeing two sides to every question, including the question of the Holocaust.
Given a seven-year sentence in juvenile detention, Konrad proves a model prisoner, using his time to study for his university entrance examinations. The only friction comes when he asks to have a picture of Landesgruppenleiter Gustloff in his cell, and is refused.
Tulla Pokriefke, born in 1927, the same year as Günter Grass, first makes her appearance in Cat and Mouse (1961), though Lucy Rennwand of The Tin Drum can be regarded as a forerunner. In Cat and Mouse she is “a spindly little [ten-year-old] with legs like toothpicks” who goes swimming with the boys in Kaisershafen harbor and is permitted to watch their masturbation contests. In Dog Years (1963), now a high school student, she maliciously denounces one of her teachers to the police: he is sent to the Stutthof labor camp and dies there. On the other hand, when a malodorous pall descends over Kaisershafen, it is Tulla alone who utters what everyone privately knows: that the smell comes from truckloads of human bones from Stutthof.
By the last year of the war Tulla is working as a streetcar conductor and doing her best to get pregnant. Thereafter she disappears from view: in The Rat (1986) the ex-drummer boy Oskar Matzerath, now going on sixty, remembers her as “a very special kind of bitch” who, to the best of his knowledge, went down with the Gustloff.
Tulla’s politics are hard to reduce to any coherent system. A trained carpenter and impeccable proletarian, she has thrown herself into Party affairs in the new East German state and been recognized and rewarded for her activism. An unquestioning follower of the Moscow line, she weeps when Stalin dies in 1953 and lights candles for him. Yet while in one breath she can hail the crew of the submarine that nearly killed her as “heroes of the Soviet Union allied to us workers in friendship,” in the next she can describe Wilhelm Gustloff as “the tragically murdered son of our beautiful city of Schwerin” and put forward the Kraft durch Freude movement as a model for Communists to follow.
The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, translated by Beverley R. Placzek (Grove, 1975).↩
The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, translated by Beverley R. Placzek (Grove, 1975).↩