In Icy Baltic Waters

David Blackbourn

  • Im Krebsgang: Eine Novelle by Günter Grass
    Steidl, 216 pp, €18.00, February 2002, ISBN 3 88243 800 2

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.

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