In Other Words

Germany’s Sunken Memories

Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk) By Günter Grass 216 pages, Göttingen: Steidl Verlag, 2002 (in German) (Forthcoming in English, April 2003, by Harcourt Trade Publishers) "History, more precisely that history which we dare to touch, is like a stopped up toilet," ruminates the narrator in Günter Grass’s newest novella, "we flush it and flush some more, still ...

Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk)
By Günter Grass
216 pages, Göttingen: Steidl Verlag, 2002 (in German)
(Forthcoming in English, April 2003, by Harcourt Trade Publishers)

"History, more precisely that history which we dare to touch, is like a stopped up toilet," ruminates the narrator in Günter Grass’s newest novella, "we flush it and flush some more, still the shit keeps floating back up." Grass, probably Germany’s greatest postwar writer and surely the country’s most political, has never ceased to warn that the Nazis’ brown ideology remains a present danger.

This concern is evident in Crabwalk, Grass’s best work in years. However, its central theme is quite different from that of his other works, related to Nazism, certainly, but quite surprising coming from Grass: This book explores the terrible sufferings inflicted on East Prussian Germans who fled or were driven from their homeland during the last winter of World War II — that is, Germans not as perpetrators but as victims. Grass writes of this region on the Baltic with particular poignancy; its chief city, Danzig (since 1945, Gdansk), is his birthplace, as well as the setting of his best-known novel, The Tin Drum (1959).

In dealing with this subject, the Nobel Prize-winning author breaks a taboo among postwar historians and writers in both eastern and western Germany. Minor German novelists have written of the British and American firebombings of Hamburg in 1943 or Dresden in 1945, but without a detailed depiction of the hundreds of thousands of German civilians who were melted to ash or buried alive during air raids or who died miserably in wintry wastes during the Red Army’s final campaigns. When a writer of Grass’s stature makes the Expulsion (as the exodus of German refugees is known) his main theme, however, the subject becomes acceptable fare for public discourse. The watchword for this intractable and moralizing leftist for years has been "Never again Auschwitz," so Grass can hardly be suspected of harboring revanchist aims. With this novella, he seeks to reclaim the topic of Germans’ wartime sufferings from those on the right who have tried to exploit it.

Crabwalk has been a huge success in Germany, selling over 400,000 copies since its publication in February 2002 and topping the hardcover fiction bestseller list for 2002. Translated editions have already appeared in all three Baltic countries, Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. The pope of German literary criticism, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who is a Jew from Poland, announced that the book moved him to tears.

The novella relates the horrific story of the sinking of the ocean liner Wilhelm Gustloff on the night of January 30, 1945. The 25,000-ton Gustloff was launched in 1937 as a cruise ship for the working class of Nazi Germany. Built for 1,400 passengers, it cruised to the Norwegian fiords and to Madeira for two years and was then transformed into a hospital ship berthed at a Baltic port for most of the war. As many as 10,000 people were packed on the ship that night. Most were East Prussians fleeing the advancing Soviet Army and being evacuated to Kiel, across the Baltic. Among them were more than 4,000 infants and children and their mothers. At 9:04 p.m., three torpedoes from a Soviet submarine struck the ship, which went down in an hour in icy, heavy seas in Danzig Bay. As many as 9,000 perished — incinerated below deck, swept overboard and drowned, or frozen in the bitter cold on the ship’s promenade deck or in the waves. Only 1,200 were saved, most of them men (including the ship’s four captains). Fewer than 100 children survived. Infants crammed into bulky life vests went head-first over the railing and drowned or froze while floating with "their tiny legs waving in the air."

The catastrophe’s enormity puts it beyond the category of the Titanic (1,500 dead) or even the World Trade Center (2,800). It easily ranks as the world’s greatest maritime disaster.

Grass uses his story as a symbol of the broader tragedy: the history of the 14 million Germans who in 1945 and 1946 fled or were expelled not only from East Prussia but from other eastern provinces where Germans had lived for centuries, including Pomerania, Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia, Transylvania, and the Banat. Grass writes of the "suffering of the East Prussian refugees… the wintertime treks toward the west, death in snowdrifts, the wretchedness of dying beside the highway and in holes in lagoon ice when, under bombardment or the weight of horse-drawn wagons, the ice began to break up… fear of Russian revenge, endless snowy expanses, flight… the white death…." Expulsion of Germans from the east was one of the greatest instances of ethnic cleansing in modern history: Between 1.5 million and 2 million were killed or died of exhaustion, hunger, or disease on the way west. Germany lost a quarter of its territory.

Crabwalk is a docu-novella, blending fact with fiction and the past with the present. Six biographies — three factual, three fictional — are interwoven. Historical figures include Wilhelm Gustloff, a Nazi functionary in Switzerland after whom the ship was named; David Frankfurter, the young Jew who assassinated Gustloff in Davos in 1936; and Alexander Marinesko, the heavy-drinking and whoring Soviet sub captain who torpedoed the ship and later was arrested by Soviet secret police and sent to the gulag. Chief among the fictional characters are Tulla Pokriefke, an earthy minx from Danzig who appears briefly in Grass’s early novels; her son, Paul, the journeyman journalist and narrator of the story; and his son, Konny, a neo-Nazi Internet surfer obsessed with the fate of the Gustloff and the dangers from world Jewry.

For good reason, Grass approaches his subject hesitatingly, moving like a crab — sideways a bit and then backward — to push his tale forward, to weave in each character’s perspective, and to bring the past to bear on the present.

For West Germany’s left-leaning intellectuals and politicians, the Expulsion was taboo for decades. They feared that acknowledging and exploring the topic would inevitably be taken as an effort to offset Germans’ wartime sins against the Jews, Poles, and Russians.

Once West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1969 began to seek better relations with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other countries in Eastern Europe (a policy known as Ostpolitik), it became not only immoral but impolitic to treat the Expulsion as an issue. In the case of Grass, who, along with other literati such as novelist Heinrich Böll, actively campaigned for Brandt, that surely explains why during this period he avoided dealing with the subject, which he earlier had touched upon in The Tin Drum. Instead, he and others on the left devoted themselves in the 1970s and 1980s to coming to terms with Germany’s Nazi past — a process that went hand in hand with Ostpolitik. For Grass, reconciliation with Poland became a personal mission.

Ostpolitik succeeded brilliantly. Since 1990, unified Germany has been Poland’s strongest advocate for NATO and European Union membership and for Russia’s association with Western organizations. German influence, economic and political, has spread again in a Central Europe where Germans no longer live. The irony of the ethnic cleansing of the 1940s is that countries in Central Europe are more confident in working with a strong Germany because they are more ethnically homogeneous. Reconciliation with Poland has progressed almost as far as reconciliation with France, which was the prime West German foreign policy objective of the 1950s and 1960s.

Ostpolitik’s successes did not eliminate the Expulsion as a political issue, to be sure. The Sudeten German refugees continue to call for nullification of former Czech President Edvard Benes’s 1945 decrees legalizing their expulsion, a demand vigorously resisted in Prague. And Polish laws discourage foreigners from purchasing land — an arrangement clearly framed with would-be German buyers in mind. But the refugees’ influence on German politics has waned as they have aged.

But these are among the last vestiges of East Europeans’ fears of Germany, as the positive reception accorded Grass’s novella throughout the region suggests. Nowhere has it been interpreted as a revival of old German claims. For the elderly, old hatreds have melded with fading recollections of horrific suffering — a shared experience with Germans of the east that thus constitutes a sort of common bond. For politicians in Poland or the Czech Republic, resurrecting the past serves little purpose, as Germany continues to be their largest export market, a major source of foreign investment, and a key supplier of jobs for immigrants from the east.

In Crabwalk, Grass argues that "never should we have remained silent about so much suffering just because our own guilt has been dominant and all these years our confessed remorse urgent…. This neglect is fathomless." Crabwalk is a product of an aging writer’s conscience — his tribute to the nameless dead of his native Baltic coast and its hinterland, for whom the novella’s dedication page bears a simple "In Memoriam."

"Why only now?" Grass asks in the first line. The answer is that only now are the generations that experienced the Holocaust on the one hand and the Expulsion on the other passing away, leaving new ones who can treat the horrors as history. And it has taken time for Germany to forge a new relationship with its neighbors, based in great part on its admission of the Third Reich’s criminality and its attempts to make at least financial amends.

As Grass recognizes, the war’s brutality will forever burden the German conscience. Thus he warns his compatriots in Crabwalk‘s very last line: "That does not end. That never ends."

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