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on April 19, 2015
I suspect that most people who read this book in English do so because it’s by Grass, and know nothing of the Wilhelm Gustloff, or the polemic of which this book was part. I’m the other way round; I happened to be interested in the Gustloff. Were it not for that, I would probably not have read this book. If I had, I don’t think I would have understood it, and it wouldn’t have grabbed me the way it has. I doubt if it’s Grass’s best as literature. The characters, though well-drawn, are unattractive and don’t engage you. The structure is complex and confusing. Neither is it especially vivid; despite the drama of its subject, there’s nothing like the revolting and haunting horse’s head scene in The Tin Drum. The critical reception for the English translation was mixed (the Observer, in particular, gave it a good kicking). Yet despite all this, there is good reason to give it five stars.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was a German cruise liner that spent much of the war tied up in Gotenhafen (now the Polish port of Gdynia). At lunchtime on January 30 1945, as the Russians approached, she left for western Germany with some U-boat personnel, 300-odd women naval auxiliaries and an unknown but huge number of German civilian refugees. Just after 9pm, she was torpedoed, in extremely bad weather, by a Russian submarine off the coast of Pomerania (again, now part of Poland). She sank within the hour. About 1,250 people were rescued. The dead are now thought to have numbered about 9,400, of which half may have been children. It was the worst maritime disaster in history; to put it in perspective, the death toll on the Titanic was about 1,600. Moreover eyewitness accounts invest the sinking with a horror that reduces the Titanic to farce.

There are two or three books about the sinking in English, the best being Dobson, Payne and Miller’s excellent The Cruelest Night. In the main, however, few people outside Germany know much about the sinking. But Germans themselves certainly do, and it has become a political football, with right-wing revisionists claiming the disaster as a war crime. Grass said that he wrote Crabwalk at least partly to wrest the Gustloff from the hands of the Right. In fact, the book appeared during a period of debate in Germany after W.G. Sebald’s 1997 warning that Germans' silence about their own suffering had given the Right free rein to use it for its own purposes. Grass clearly agreed.

Briefly summarised, Crabwalk is the story of a fictional German teenager, Tulla, who gives birth to a boy on the ship that has rescued her from the sea. After the war she settles in East Germany, and becomes an enthusiastic Stalinist. But son Paul goes to the West, becomes a journalist and is pressed by his mother to write the story of the sinking, although he does not really wish to. In the meantime, he marries and has a son of his own; the marriage fails, and the son, Konrad, grows up to become an awkward, geeky teenager and starts a revisionist website dedicated to the Gustloff and the Nazi “hero” after whom it was named. But a Jewish boy enters his chatroom, and starts to argue with him.

Who this Jewish boy really turns out to be, and how their dispute ends, shouldn’t be revealed here. But this book is a fascinating allegory for Grass’s view of postwar German history. The wartime generation (Tulla) appears to repent (but does it? – or does it simply adopt new orthodoxies?); the next generation (Paul) is so appalled by their country’s history that they barely speak of it, and so do little to help the third generation (Konrad) come to terms with it. The book ends against a backdrop of skinhead hate crimes in the late 1990s, forging a link between fascists past and present.

If I were German, I’m not sure how I would view this book. If I liked Grass, I might see it as a shrewd warning of the moral time-bombs that still confront my country. If I didn’t, I might see it as a contrived vehicle for Grass’s own view of postwar Germany. Either way, my view would likely be coloured by where I lay to the left or right. I honestly don’t know. Let Germans decide. But this book transcends its German setting and is important for the rest of us.

First, Grass shows us how an insidious revisionism can soften the past by raising matters that are less relevant than they appear, deflecting attention from the real questions. In this case, the revisionist introduces the fact that the Gustloff rescued the crew of a British freighter before the war, as if that were relevant to its eventual fate; it isn’t. There is also talk about the civilian victims but evasion of the fact that the ship was also evacuating a U-boat depot. Meanwhile it is too easy not to ask who started the conflict from which the civilians were fleeing. But at the same time, Grass also hints that decades of German self-flagellation after the war had brought about a reaction, causing young Konrad to ask whether the Nazis could really have been so evil. Every country that has wielded power to any extent has some questions to answer, so none of this is about German history alone.

Grass offers other, subtler insights. The ship was named after a Nazi organizer called Wilhelm Gustloff who was murdered by a Jewish student in Switzerland in 1936. Gustloff himself appears originally to have identified with the left-wing, populist, part of the Party. The ship itself was built for the Nazi Strength through Joy movement, intended to provide ordinary people with leisure and fresh air. Unusually for its era, it was single-class. Through Gustloff’s story and the liner named after him, Grass reminds the reader that fascist movements often appeal to the masses by appearing to champion them against the rich. This is still so; anti-immigrant parties in Europe can present themselves as defending the working man against a liberal elite.

Last but not least, this book shows a shrewd appreciation of the Internet and the way it can disseminate ideas of every kind, untested and unmoderated. Or, to put it another way, lying to lots of people just got a whole lot easier. Grass clearly understood the new technology and its potential implications for politics, and for our understanding of the past. Not bad for a man who was already in his late sixties when the Net started to spread in earnest, and was 75 by the time the book was published.

By an odd chance I finished this book only a day or two before Grass’s death was announced. It was his last novel, and shouldn’t be the one he is judged by. The Gustloff story could support a much bigger and better book than this. Moreover Crabwalk could have been better planned and better written. The characters, too, could have involved you more. But maybe that’s not the point. Judge the book for what it is, rather than what it might have been, and you’re still left with something quite remarkable; a sharp, shrewd sideways look at history, by a man who, at 75, was still profoundly engaged with the past and future of his country. If he wasn’t a Nobel laureate, we’d settle for that, wouldn’t we?
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on April 26, 2016
This book is nowhere near as well-known as "The Tin Drum," nor anywhere near as sensationalist or graphic as "Cat and Mouse," but in a way, this is the best of the "Danzig Books." at least in my opinion. In brief, the plot deals with a journalist whose mother was on a Nazi morale ship that was sunk in wartime, as well as the journalist's son, Konny. The boy has developed an unhealthy fascination bordering on obsession with the sinking of the ship, and he takes his curiosity onto the world wide web, where he locks horns ideologically with another young man who has his own fair share of issues. The tale is told obliquely, but assuredly (pardon that adverbial minefield), and is more of a meditation on the nature of the manipulation of memory to serve selfish ends, than it is a straightforward narrative. Recommended.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon December 19, 2016
I had to read this book for a history class at my university. enjoyed the other two novels we read for the class, but I did not enjoy this one at all. I did not like the way the author jumped around, and spent pages and pages describing insignificant details like when he described the sinking of the Wilhelm gustloff, but then seemed to jump over details more important to the characters and the story that would have helped to make the book better.
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Gunther Grass, a Nobel Prize laureate, continues to turn out books that are uniquely his own and invariably fascinating. In CRABWALK (the name refers to the manner in which crabs ambulate, always moving to the right or left rather than forward)Grass brings to our attention a maritime tragedy that occured in January 1945 - the sinking of the "Wilhelm Gustloff" from Russian torpedoes, a tragedy that took the lives of 6,000 - 10,000 people, and a tragedy that has all but disappeared from the annals of history. Grass uses this heinous incident as the fulcrum from which to give us the history of the building of the ship, the state of life in the German Reich that politically drove the creation of this 'people's boat', and the reaction of the German people at large to this hidden tragedy. He does this all through the narration of one man born on the night of the sinking, a man whose mother is a bizarre 'true believer' and through his failed marriage that resulted in a child who in adolesence replicates his journalist father's drive to uncover the facts of the story by creating a website on his computer. Sound complex? Well, by crabwalking his way through this format, Grass leads us on a fascinating mystery and psychological unpealing of dysfunction - German, Jewish, interpersonal, and familial. Despite the magnitude of unveiling (for many of us) the gross incident of the 'Wilhelm Gustloff', the overriding strength of the novel is the exploration of father/son relationships. "What can be done when a son takes possession of his father's thoughts, thoughts that have been festering for years under a lid, and even translates then into action?" There is a profound statement in the telling of this story that will challenge every reader to examine how parents influence their children and the active feedback of that interaction. CRABWALK is beautifully written, wise, acerbic, rich in humor and philosophical overtones, and is a mighty fine read!
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VINE VOICEon December 10, 2011
The torpedoing of merchant and civil marine ships during wartime has a long, if not distinguished, history. Some such occurrences, the Lusitania comes to mind, sufficiently galvanized public opinion to change the course of war. Others, (the Titanic, naturally) are imbued with romance: Astors, other notables and plenty of hubris went down with the wreck. However, what was arguably the biggest maritime disaster of all, the sinking by a Soviet submarine of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff has been more-or-less forgotten...or at least hasn't achieved the fame associated with other tragic events. In "Crabwalk", Gunter Grass (who requires no introduction) revives the historical events surrounding the sinking and places them in a fictional milieu.

The Gustloff's history is short and undistinguished from its christening until its sinking. It was originally commissioned as a Nazi "Strength Through Joy" diversion (a crass totalitarian brainwashing via diversion initiative for the German "everyman") but the boat was swiftly turned to other uses and its paint changed from cheery white to drab military gray. The ship spent much of the war in harbor. With the impending collapse of the Nazi position in East Prussia, the Gustloff was loaded to the gunwales with refugees, injured soldiers, active duty sailors and others endeavoring to escape the Soviet onslaught: the exact number of passengers is disputed due to the chaos of loading. The Gustloff set out into the cold and stormy Baltic in January, 1945 with four on-board captains dividing responsibility and some escort ships. It encountered the USSR submarine S-13 and was torpedoed, sinking in about 40 minutes. There were around 9900 deaths, although the ship captains (on both sides) survived. So much for the facts.

Grass, speaking through the narrator (journalist Paul Pokriefke, born on 30 January, 1945 coincident with the demise of the Gustloff; hence the "tie in"), concerns himself (as always) with the dour effects of the past on the present. He accomplishes this through the tandem vehicles of Tulla, a character known to readers from previous novels and was a Gustloff passenger and his estranged son, Konrad. Pokriefke was commissioned to investigate resurgent far-Right political activities which reached a crescendo shortly after re-integration of East and West Germany. As it happens, Pokriefe coincidentally discovers that Konrad runs a neo-Nazi web site devoted to the Gustloff and is fixated on both man and boat. In cyberspace, Konrad spars in vacuous, self-important, pretentious and portentious fashion with an on-line foil, "David", who represents himself as Jewish (but is not). Konrad advocates for Gustloff (a minor Nazi official transformed to martyr a la Horst Wessel), whilst David assumes the persona of David Frankfurter, the Jewish man who kills Gustloff in a politically motivated assassination in 1936. It comes as no surprise that the two meet and, in a replay of the original killing, Konrad shoots "David". He then reprises Frankfurter's unapologetic courtroom manifesto in justifying the killing. Thus, the fictional vehicle.

The book, as expected from an author of Grass' experience and skill, is tightly written, sparing the reader from overly artistic, sentimentally tinged indulgences. While this is, in my estimation, not Grass' finest effort nor his most ambitious, it makes its point both directly and indirectly to wit, "The past is never dead. It's not even past", to quote Faulkner. The saga of the thoroughly modern Konrad, in particular, is deeply influenced by past events and appears to symbolize the inexorable hand-grip of fate. Grass conveys the impression that the plague of internet denizens such as Konrad, acting through a toxic combination of character defects, fatuous and inane pretensions, pathological fixations and prosaic concerns conflated to cosmic significance will be a mighty influence on the future. Grass' message resonates and, if he's right, "we were dead before the ship even sank", as the indie rock group "Modest Mouse" wrote.
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VINE VOICEon December 2, 2007
"Crabwalk" is a very interesting analysis of Germany and its' perspective on its' sins in WWII. It is told through the perspective of what was probably the most grevious act by the Allies against Nazi Germany; the sinking of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff. The estimated loss of life on this ship (essentially carrying civilians) approaches 10000. Yet instead of giving readers a sense of empathy for the victims, many or most will come away with a sense of disappointment. This, I believe, is part of the author's intention.

It is by no accident that Gunter Grass centered his story around a dysfunctional family. I sensed that he was speaking as much to his countrymen as to the world in general. The divorced spouses trying to raise a single child results in the child being more attached to his paternal grandmother instead. Is this a comment on the German youth in a divided country turning to the order of the past in order to gain a respect of their heritage? Maybe that's way too much analysis but it was what kept coming back to me. I suspect that the German skinheads of a decade or so past may have been an influence on Grass's perspective; how did a country ashamed of it's genocidal past beget a generation of racist anti-semites?

The story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is certainly a story that needed to be told and Grass took that story in all its' detail and created so much more. If you just want to know about the sinking of the ship, it's all here. However, if you want to read the complex thoughts of an eloquently literate man on the state of his country, it, too, is all here. (And all in just 234 pages).
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on January 4, 2015
Had a hard time keeping up with this one. the story moved around a lot, which isn't uncommon but I just couldn't get into it as i hoped I would have. The story line is sad and that was what drew me in, just wish I could have found it more compelling.
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on May 23, 2014
I read this with my book club in Geneva. Several women were German and said this bit of history was relatively new to them. Never learned it in school.
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on March 29, 2011
Gunther Grass is the Willie Mays of the twentieth century. Translated his work has extraordinary power. Having lived through the worst war in the history of the world he exhibits talent, drive, intelligence and a sense of fairness to write: his work is instructive, yet he elevates his prose as Aristotle demands, to the point that one may imagine that the voices of Paganini, Beethoven and Mozart and Tchaikovsky have all joined in a divine choir to sing again through the vehicle of his transcendentally elusive pen. If anyone on earth has beaten a sword into a ploughshare, and thence into a pen, experience, it is this man. As he was a Nazi soldier I wish I could bless him, but that blessing will have to come from God to Grass himself. In the meantime, let him write and write and write and write so that all people including this writer may better understand better how 52,000,000 people (at last count) could be wiped off the face of the earth....and be lost to the view of history. Grass sometimes has his characters unable to finish their sentences for completing them implies participation in the atrocities which occurred, not only in the camps..... which is a metaphor for not finishing what his characters have to say. HIs subject matter is sublime, the writer is great and his attempts at universality exceed the parameters. They call to all ages. He is to be compared to Euripides and any other ancient or modern who chose to write with blood instead of the easier to obtain liquid, ink. Goldie Kossow
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on May 7, 2003
I've not picked up a novel by Gunter Grass since I plowed through (and enjoyed) "Cat and Mouse", "The Tin Drum" and "Dog Years" a couple of decades ago. Prior to reading this novel, I was completely ignorant of the catastrophic sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustoff by a Russian submarine in the Baltic Sea in the last few months of the second world war. As presented by Gunter Grass, this incident was the result of many fateful events, each one of which may not have been deadly, but when combined resulted in a horrible tragedy.
I found this novel very difficult to read. Grass aptly titled the book "Crabwalk" because the story does not unfold in simple chronological order. Instead the story, as told in the first person by Paul Pokriefke, wanders back and forth over more than half a century. As I read the novel I was flipping back through the pages I'd already read trying to figure out who a particular character is, or to recall a given event. I had to get halfway through the novel before I could recall all of the main characters and events. My knowledge of German is fair, and I found it helpful in understanding location names and some of the peculiar sentences. A good atlas is helpful to have when reading this novel because a map of the region where most of the events in the novel take place is not included.
I'd recommend this book, but it does require some effort on the part of the reader. It's not a poolside read.
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