Top positive review
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A sharp, shrewd, sideways look at history
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?