Thinking Aloud: Günter Grass and “Crabwalk”

Apr. 14, 2015 by Darius

German writer Günter Grass died yesterday at age 87.  Although his book The Tin Drum will probably be mentioned in every obituary you read, his lesser-known novel Crabwalk is, in my view, of more enduring relevance and definitely worth a read.  To that end, I am reprising my blog post about Crabwalk from nearly two years ago.

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“History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet.  We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising.”  So writes German author Günter Grass in Crabwalk, a provocative look at who “owns” history and the consequences of not dealing with one’s history.

Günter Grass was born in 1927 in what is today Poland (but was then Germany) and has lived through most of the ups and downs, to put it mildly, of what has been 20th century Germany.  But it was not until after he won the Nobel Prize in literature and was well into his 70s that he decided to publish Crabwalk.  (The title comes from the idea that sometimes a story must be told by scuttling sideways rather than approaching head-on.) 

Crabwalk centers on the largely untold story of the German ship M.V. Wilhelm Gustloff, which was packed with refugees (and some military personnel) when it was sunk by a Soviet submarine during the closing months of World War II, making it by some accounts the costliest maritime disaster in history as measured by lives lost.  Deeper down, though,Crabwalk is also a tale of the dangers of trying to seal off a distasteful portion of history, leaving it to fester in the hopes that the world will forget it ever happened.

Despite the novels and movies that suggest otherwise, as is the case with most history, World War II was not entirely black and white.  The Nazi regime and ordinary Germans perpetrated some of the greatest atrocities in history, but Germans, too, were victims, a central if inconvenient truth that Crabwalk tries to get at from a variety of directions.  As an unnamed older character in Crabwalk puts it, “Never…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.”  Instead of confronting the past, most Germans abandoned it.  In Crabwalk, Grass makes the case that mainstream German society continues to be unwilling to tackle the messy issues of the Nazi era.  Instead, that period of German history is left mainly to far-right neo-Nazi groups, who have been allowed to assume a monopoly on Germany’s Nazi history, meaning that stories like those of the Gustloff, stories that should be remembered and told, have been swept under the rug.  Crabwalk argues that the refusal to allow Nazi history into mainstream German discourse has meant that powerful emotions remain unacknowledged.  Not forgotten, but unacknowledged, un-dealt with.

History, though, cannot be ignored no matter how much we would like to do so.  It has a way of reasserting itself.

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