On the night of 30 January 1945, the former cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk off the Pomeranian coast after being hit by three torpedoes fired from a Soviet Navy submarine. The ship was carrying German refugees fleeing west before the advancing Red Army. As many as nine thousand people lost their lives (six times the death toll of the Titanic), including four thousand children and infants.
The victims of the Wilhelm Gustloff were among roughly 33,000 Germans who died at sea attempting similar journeys. Far more made the westward trek overland in 1944-45, from East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia: perhaps five million by the time of the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. This desperate mass flight, fuelled by justified fears of rape and other forms of violence, was to be followed over the next three years by the forcible expulsion of a further seven million Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and other liberated countries. Taken together, the mass flight and expulsions amounted to the single largest known migration over a short period of time. The overall loss of life was huge. Deaths from hunger, disease, murder and suicide ran into the hundreds of thousands – the suicides of whole families on board the sinking Wilhelm Gustloff foreshadowed what would happen thousands of times over in the years ahead.
These events belong to the wretched catalogue of ethnic cleansing in 20th-century Europe. Moral and political embarrassment has made it harder to accept them, however. The violence perpetrated on Germans, out of vengeance and in the name of ethnically homogeneous states, was clearly a dark sequel to the preceding Nazi atrocities in Eastern Europe, and unthinkable without the barbarism unleashed by Hitler. The politics of divided postwar Europe also helped to marginalise the memory of what happened. Only belatedly, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and eventual German recognition of the Oder-Neisse line as Poland’s western border, have mainstream historians started to give us the facts. Even then, it was Anglo-Saxons (like Norman Naimark in his important work of 1995, The Russians in Germany) who made the breakthrough in writing about the rape and murder visited on German civilians. In the German Democratic Republic the subject had been taboo; in the Federal Republic it was, and remained, hard to write about without falling in with some very unattractive company. Over several decades the refugees and expellees became the moral property of the German Right, their fate fashioned into an insensitive narrative of victimisation. Expellee organisations and the politicians who pandered to them too often proved unable to grasp what had led to the extinction of German culture in the East – the ‘final solution’ of the German problem, as it has been called. They remained unwilling to give up claims to the ‘lost lands’ and fought bitterly against attempts at political accommodation, notably the Ostpolitik pursued by Willy Brandt at the beginning of the 1970s.
And who has weighed in now, with expressions of regret that the subject was too long neglected, but Günter Grass, whose novella on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff has become a bestseller in Germany. At first blush this is a surprise. Grass, after all, is the child from Danzig who has always understood why his beloved city became Gdansk, and never missed a chance to attack the fantasies hatched in the expellee organisations. He is a man of the Left who has jabbed away at the Federal Republic’s complacent burghers ever since The Tin Drum appeared in 1959, the progressive intellectual who was willing to face the sneers of his kind by going on the stump for Brandt and Ostpolitik in the defining elections of 1969 and 1972.
To respond with ‘Günter Grass of all people’ would be premature, however. He has not changed his mind, only widened his range. For Grass, the Right should never have been ceded the monopoly of writing about the victims of mass flight and expulsion. As the book took off in Germany, he reacted sharply to ‘revanchist undertones’ in some reviews: to their references to the Wilhelm Gustloff as a simple ‘refugee ship’, even though he makes it clear that there were anti-aircraft guns on board and that the passengers included uniformed naval personnel. In fact, his description of the sinking does much more than that to complicate the story. The Wilhelm Gustloff had too few lifeboats, which were chaotically launched: but it also had too many captains (four, another reflection of the ship’s hybrid character), all of whom survived while most of their passengers went down. Another large German vessel in the vicinity performed a key turning manoeuvre at the worst possible moment, drowning victims in its wake.
Grass’s insistence on moral complexity goes well beyond the question of immediate responsibility for the disaster. His larger purpose is signalled in the title, which means ‘crabwise’, and carries the same metaphorical meanings as in English. This is history as indirection, and on one occasion he spells it out: ‘moving backwards in order to progress’. Grass interweaves the stories of three men whose lives determined what happened in the icy Baltic waters on 30 January 1945, stories that are themselves held at arm’s length by the narrative’s framing device. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff marks the literal start of the narrator’s tangled personal life, and in turn becomes a means of reflecting on the ways in which history is remembered and made.
The first of the three historical characters is the man who gave his name to the ship. Born in Schwerin in 1895, Wilhelm Gustloff moved to Switzerland in 1917 because of his weak lungs. In Davos he became secretary of an observatory and supplemented his income by selling household insurance. By 1932 he had also become leader of the National Socialist movement in Switzerland, whose five thousand German and Austrian members he organised with great efficiency. In February 1936 he was assassinated by a troubled Jewish medical student, David Frankfurter, who knocked on Gustloff’s door, was invited to wait in his study, and shot the returning Landesgruppenleiter four times with a revolver before giving himself up to the Swiss police.
Frankfurter is the second character, a Serbian rabbi’s son who had been persecuted as a student in Germany. As the narrator puts it, both he and his victim ‘were to enter the book of history larger than life’. Frankfurter stood trial in Chur rather than being extradited to Germany, where he would have faced the death penalty. Sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment, he was released after the Allied victory in 1945 and emigrated to Israel. Gustloff’s body was carried back to Schwerin, where he was buried with full honours. In 1937, the year after his death, the Wilhelm Gustloff was christened by his widow with the customary bottle of champagne and went into service as a pleasure cruiser in Robert Ley’s Strength through Joy organisation, which provided ‘classless’ holidays for (some) members of the Volksgemeinschaft, subsidised by money seized from the trade unions. In the remaining years of peace it cruised the Mediterranean and the Norwegian fjords; after 1939 it was converted for use as a hospital ship, then as a floating barracks for trainee submariners.
The commander of the Soviet submarine was Alexander Marinesko, the third member of Grass’s historical trio. Born in Odessa of a Ukrainian mother and Romanian father (the original family name was Marinescu), he was a drinker and womaniser whose irregular life had already attracted the attention of the NKVD. The success of his last sortie along the Baltic coast did not have the expected effect. Instead of being honoured as a Hero of the Soviet Union, something he noisily and unwisely angled for, Marinesko was dismissed from the service and shortly afterwards sent to the Gulag. In one of the reversals of fortune that punctuate the novel, he was rehabilitated during the Khrushchev years. By then, the German Democratic Republic had done its best to destroy the memorials to Gustloff in Schwerin.
As Grass threads these narratives together, three not very famous lives stand proxy for the history of 20th-century Europe: the Hanseatic insurance salesman who became a National Socialist martyr, the Balkan rabbi’s son whose journey took him from Berlin to Israel via incarceration in Switzerland, and the child of cosmopolitan Odessa who eventually lost his health in Siberian Kolyma. Grass wants to make connections between these different historical worlds, but the constant emphasis on synchronicity feels forced. Whenever we find out what is happening to one character, we have to be told what has happened simultaneously to the others. The repeated references to events on the larger stage (the Spanish Civil War, the Red Army advancing to the Oder) can also seem mechanical. In Grass’s earlier freewheeling fiction a rich sense of history was infused through the characters: here the historical timeline is inserted, flatly, alongside them.
The narrator is the fictive Paul Pokriefke, but the novelist himself chips in, too, appearing first by name, then as ‘the old man’, a third time as ‘the boss’. Grass’s interventions lament his own and his generation’s failure to write about the refugees from the East. He confesses that he already had material on the Wilhelm Gustloff in the 1960s, but at the time was ‘fed up with the past’ and overwhelmed by the demands of the present. In this new book his role is to keep the narrator up to the mark. He certainly needs it. Paul Pokriefke sees himself as a failure, a view shared by those close to him. He is a hack journalist who worked for the right-wing Springer press and later wrote for left-wing papers like the tageszeitung, in neither case with any conviction. He has never managed to finish the book he is writing. As he tells his mother sardonically, he has developed all right – into a chain-smoker (like David Frankfurter). His marriage to the schoolteacher Gabi, a cold and unsympathetic political progressive who resembles Irmgard Seifert in Grass’s Local Anaesthetic, has ended in divorce; he is unable to communicate with his teenage son, Konny.
As Paul sees it, everything started to go wrong at the very beginning, for he was born as the Wilhelm Gustloff sank, on the rescue boat that saved his pregnant mother. Here the joining of private and public histories is effective. Paul was born on the ‘fatal 30 January’, the date that marked not only a maritime disaster in 1945, but also Hitler’s assumption of power 12 years earlier. Whenever the date appears in his narrative, which is often, Paul becomes trapped in self-pity about the unfair burden it has placed on him. Politically charged birthdays run through Grass’s fiction: Walter Matern in Dog Years, for example, shares his date of birth with Hitler. In fact, Im Krebsgang continues the history told in the ‘Love Letters’ section of that earlier book, just as Dog Years reprised characters from The Tin Drum. Harry Liebenau and Jenny Brunies reappear. So, above all, does Tulla Pokriefke, the recipient of cousin Harry’s love letters, last met with in Dog Years as a teenage tram conductor who had just suffered a miscarriage; here she returns as Paul’s extraordinary mother.
Tulla fills the book with her energy. Spirited, unconventional and a salty speaker of East Prussian dialect, she is the ultimate survivor. Cheerfully promiscuous in youth (Paul doesn’t know who his father was), she becomes a roguish old woman who learns to drive late in life and does so with gusto (‘mother overtook on principle’). Paul will never fully grasp the experiences that have made Tulla what she is. He stands helplessly on the outside when her face acquires its ‘I’m not at home’ look. Grass makes Tulla a kind of flawed Everywoman of 20th-century German history. Her parents had once cruised on the Wilhelm Gustloff, and she retains an emotional attachment to the imagined classlessness of Strength through Joy as powerful as the smell of carpenter’s glue that accompanies her through both books. It is one reason she stays in Schwerin, Gustloff’s birthplace, and brings her son up in the East. Tulla becomes the leader of a joinery ‘brigade’ manufacturing bedroom furniture, and cries when Stalin dies (later on, she gets religion, and a photo of Uncle Joe stands alongside pictures of the Virgin). Yet she is happy when Paul leaves for the West to make something of himself. And when the GDR collapses Tulla does well out of the economic transition.
‘A something more than a girl’, as Harry calls her in Dog Years, Tulla remains a superb – and superbly ambiguous – figure in the present book. Selfish and emotionally manipulative, she is a political opportunist, a symbol of amorality. But she also has self-knowledge and a sharp tongue to go with it – when Paul visits on 20 April he is greeted with the words: ‘I don’t suppose you’re here to celebrate the Führer’s birthday.’ She possesses a kind of reckless courage. A key moment occurs when Grass tells the narrator he is disappointed that Tulla turned into something as banal as a Party functionary. For as a young woman, he says, she saw things clearly: among the ‘wilfully blind’ in wartime Danzig, it was Tulla who identified a ‘pile of bones’ from the Stutthof concentration camp. In Dog Years, Grass jumped in to correct Harry Liebenau’s evasive account of the pile of bones. Forty years on, ‘old man’ Grass interrupts his own narrator again, to remind us of Tulla Pokriefke’s truth-telling.
Now she bears witness to another disregarded truth. Tulla is obsessed with the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. She talks about it, riskily, to comrades in the joinery brigade; later she organises meetings of survivors. She embodies the reproachfulness of the refugees from the East. The main cause of her disappointment with Paul is his unwillingness, or inability, to write about it. But his smart, alienated teenage son can – and does. Konny (named after Tulla’s dead brother) goes to live with his grandmother, and with a Mac she has bought him sets up a website to honour the martyred Gustloff. In a parallel to the Frankfurter-Gustloff plot, heated exchanges in cyberspace lead to another violent act that ties together personal and public history. Within the larger structure of the book, the website gives Grass a means of introducing a range of perspectives and commenting on them. Incorrigible old Nazis and foreign sympathisers, well-meaning survivors, skinheads of the radical Right, a philo-semitic young German – their voices are all heard in a virtual debate about the course of modern German history. Paul’s attempts to navigate the Net, like his efforts to sift through earlier books and films about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, reinforce the conclusion that there is no direct route to historical truth.
The crabwise locomotion praised (and textually enacted) in Im Krebsgang has more than one meaning. It is a warning against rushing to accept simplistic views. Most of all, however, going backwards in order to go forwards means returning to the past for the sake of the present. That is hardly a novel theme in Günter Grass’s fiction. What makes Im Krebsgang different is the episode of German history he revisits, the fate of the Eastern refugees. ‘Why now?’ Paul asks at the beginning of the book. Because of his mother, he answers, because the cries in the water around him left him unable to cry when he was born, because only now is it possible. Perhaps it should have been possible earlier: that is clearly how Grass feels. But whether or not Im Krebsgang is belated, what he has written, in the year of his 75th birthday, is a brave, absorbing and honest book.