Günter Grass


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 24, 2003)

Like the movement of a crab, this new novel by Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass "scuttl[es] backward to move forward," telling the story of the World War II sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945, and its long-term effects on three generations of one German family. In what was probably the greatest maritime disaster of all times, nine thousand men, women, and children perished when the ship was torpedoed on a trip to Norway.

Moving, crab-like, back and forth among details of the disaster, stories of the three characters involved in events leading up to it, and the on-going saga of the novel's speaker and his family, Grass brings his story and characters to life, expanding our view of the war and its aftermath, and showing how Germany's sociopolitical thinking changed (or didn't change) from the war to the present. Wilhelm Gustloff, for whom the fateful ship was named, was a party functionary in the early days of the Reich, recruiting thousands of Nazi members until 1936, when he was assassinated in Switzerland by a Jew, David Frankfurter. Nine years later, in 1945, Aleksandr Marinesko, a Soviet submarine captain, launched the torpedos which sank the Wilhelm Gustloff, named for the "martyr" of 1936.

This disaster achieved a dramatic, almost mythic influence on three generations of the Pokriefke family. Slowly revealing this family's life, Grass introduces us to Tulla, the grandmother, who gave birth to her son Paul in a lifeboat as the Gustloff was sinking; Paul, the novel's speaker, who is a free-lance journalist, covering the 50th anniversary of the ship's demise; and Konrad, Paul's seventeen-year-old son, who is operating an internet chat room devoted to the Gustloff and its history. But just as Gustloff, Frankfurter, and Marinesko represent different political and military interests during World War II, each generation of the Pokriefke family represents a different political outlook and view of history after the war. Tulla, who remained in the Russian sector of Germany after the war, has always been a committed Socialist, a supporter of Stalin and Lenin; Paul, after escaping to West Germany, has steered a middle course in his life; and Konrad, influenced by his grandmother's activism while rejecting her politics, reflects a far right, neo-Nazi viewpoint.

Telling the story obliquely, Grass actively engages the reader in deciphering the characters, their relationships, and their political philosophies. As the speaker mines his memory for information and recalls stories told to him by his mother and others, his memories come in random order, as in real life. Sometimes they are incomplete, requiring the reader's patience and intuition in unfolding the story, and sometimes one event produces information related to several different strands of story. When Paul discovers the Comrades of Schwerin web site and deduces that it is his son who is operating it, for example, the reader gains significant information, not only about Konrad, and Paul's relationship with him, but also about the death of Gustloff and the events surrounding the eventual sinking of the ship.

Though the sinking of the Gustloff really happened, and resulted in many times the number of deaths that the Titanic did, it never received any publicity. The war was winding down, and the German Reich thought it would demoralize the German citizenry in the final days of the war if they knew the magnitude of the disaster. It is in Grass's intense and moving description of the sinking of the Gustloff, however, that this book comes most vividly to life. The majority of people aboard the ship were ordinary citizens taking part in the Strength Through Joy program, in which, for a very small sum, they could cruise in Norwegian waters, an unheard of luxury during the war's final, devastating days. Thousands of women and elderly men, four thousand infants and children, nine hundred sailors, many wounded, and almost four hundred members of the women's naval auxiliary were aboard, approximately ten thousand passengers in all. When disaster struck, most of the dead turned out to be "women and children; men were rescued in embarrassingly large numbers, among them all four captains of the ship," the men being the ones who could operate the lifeboats. Nine thousand people drowned or were frozen to death.

The passage of time, and its effect in dimming a country's collective memory remains a major focus here, as it is in other books by Grass. Paul comments on the fact that major figures during World War II, such as Robert Ley, the master of propaganda who invented the "Heil, Hitler" greeting, among other things, have become virtually unknown to the present generation, despite their "importance" only sixty years ago. "Who still recalls the name of the leader of the German Labor Front?" he wonders. "Along with Hitler, those whom people mention nowadays as all-powerful are Goebbels, Goring, Hess. On a television quiz show, if questions came up about Himmler or Eichmann, some contestants might have heard of them, but most would draw a total historical blank…"

Paul, who grew up in the generation after the war, continues to wonder how the German Labor Front was induced "not only not to protest but even to cooperate, and soon to engage in mass rejoicing on command?" His son has no such concerns. And whereas his mother keeps the memory and story of the Gustloff alive, Paul, the speaker, believes his life would have been vastly different-and improved-"If I had disembarked at Flensburg perfectly normally, and Mother had given birth to me there." When Paul views his son's web site and watches him skirmishing on-line with an opponent thought to be Jewish, he is appalled to discover the depth of hatred existing among contemporary young people like his son. "As the sinking of the ship was dredged up for a new generation [on-line], the long-submerged [anti-Jewish] hate slogan…bubbled to the surface….Good God! How much of this has been dammed up all this time, is growing day by day, building pressure for action."

The past and its influence on our present, our changing definitions of "martyr" and "hero," the nature of punishment and atonement, and the impermanence of monuments and memorials in a changing political climate, are all major themes here, related both to the sinking of the Gustloff and to the events in the lives of the Pokriefke family. The lingering effects of Nazism on the populace at large through three generations raises questions of the rightness of Paul Pokriefke's approach, that of avoiding commitment: "I steered a middle course, never slid all the way to the right or the left, didn't cause any collisions, swam with the current, let myself drift, kept my head above water…But then my son kicked up a storm." As the nature of the "storm" is revealed in this insightful and cautionary novel, Grass brings his themes full circle, boldly examining the social and political climate of contemporary Germany. His final assessment of the current generation is both startling and alarming in its implications.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 31 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

*Referred to as the Danzig Trilogy



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About the Author:

Günter Grass was born in Danzig, Germany (now Gdansk, Poland) in 1927 of Polish-German parents. In the 1930s, he joined the Hitler Youth and was drafted into the army at 16 and wounded in battle in 1945. In the same year he was imprisoned in Marienbad, Czechoslovakia by American soldiers. Freed in 1946, Grass supported himself by working on farms, in a potash mine, and as a stonemason's apprentice. He enrolled at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art to study painting in sculpture in 1948 and then the State Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin (1953-55). From 1956 to 1960 he worked as a sculptor and writer in Paris, at which time he wrote his novel The Tin Drum, which when published in 1959 was an immediate commercial success, and was translated into many languages. It remains one of the most important novels of the twentieth century.

Günter moved to West Berlin in 1960 and became active in politics, participating in election campaigns on behalf of the Social Democrat party and Willy Brandt. As a graphic artist, Grass has often been responsible for the covers and illustrations for his own works. - President of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin 1983-86, active within the German Authors' Publishing Company and PEN.

He was awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize "whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history" and "will remain one of the 20th century's lasting literary works" - has sealed his reputation as one of the forefront European writers and Germany's most famous literary figure.

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