In Icy Baltic Waters
- 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.
Vol. 24 No. 13 · 11 July 2002
As David Blackbourn says, Russian outrages in Germany in 1945 were a taboo subject in the GDR (LRB, 27 June). I recall a broadcast of an East German production of Lohengrin on Radio 3, I think in the early 1980s. I followed it with a libretto (the 1952 Reclam edition) and noticed that it was uncut except for two lines in Lohengrin’s farewell in Act 3, Scene 3: ‘Nach Deutschland sollen noch in fernsten Tagen/des Ostens Horden siegreich nimmer ziehn!’ (‘Even in the most distant future, the hordes of the east will never advance victorious into Germany’). Evidently this was thought likely to provoke the wrong reaction; but did West German opera houses cut these lines too?
Vol. 24 No. 14 · 25 July 2002
In his review of Günter Grass’s Im Krebsgang, David Blackbourn (LRB, 27 June) imagines a reader responding with ‘Günter Grass of all people’ to the news that the former proselytiser for Ostpolitik had taken on a subject hitherto the preserve of right-wing revanchists – namely the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, laden with thousands of refugees, by Soviet torpedoes on the night of 30 January 1945. As early as 1959, Grass had his first and most slippery narrator, Oscar Matzerath in The Tin Drum, allude to this maritime disaster, though only in passing and with feigned unconcern. Several of Oskar’s neighbours went down with the former cruise ship. Walter Matern, the villain of Dog Years (1963), lost both his parents and Eberhard Starusch, the narrator of Local Anaesthetic (1969), his mother in similar circumstances. Yet in The Tin Drum Oskar’s nightmare of the infernal merry-go-round, kept going by Goethe and Rasputin, who take it in turns to insert the coins, is caused by news of an entirely imaginary catastrophe, the killing of about four thousand children who were fleeing the advancing Red Army. In 1959 Grass ducked both the political complexity of apportioning blame and the challenge of realist description by recourse to this allegory. Now he makes amends.
Grass’s approach to that other taboo-ridden subject so long exploited by the revanchists, the mass rape of German women by Soviet soldiery, is even more intriguing. Oskar appears not to take the gang rape of another neighbour, Lina Greff, sexually frustrated after years of marriage to the street’s homosexual greengrocer, at all seriously. Indeed, he makes it clear that she is pleased by the sudden attention of so many men: ‘she had the flat full of Russians. You could hear her singing,’ we are told. But we learn, too, that the same Russians had spared his young stepmother, Maria, because she cradled baby Kurt on her lap. An elderly German woman told me in the early 1990s that she had been spared, seemingly because she was holding a child, while single women were dragged away.
In The Flounder (1977) Grass appeared even more flippant when it came to rape: the grotesque climax of that novel’s sweep through Central European history is a multiple rape involving a plastic penis and a group of caricatured West Berlin lesbians. The victim, Sibylle Miehlau, had been raped once before, when she was 14, by three, or sometimes she says five, Russian soldiers. This in turn is a re-enactment of the rape of Agnes Kurbiella, The Flounder’s 17th-century heroine, by Swedish cavalrymen during the Thirty Years War.
In an interview with a French journalist in the year The Flounder was published Grass confided that his own mother, who died before he became famous and to whom he paid tribute by way of Oskar’s ‘poor mama’, another Agnes, had been repeatedly raped by Red Army soldiers in 1945. His mother’s experience is not alluded to anywhere else in all the thousands of pages of essays, articles, speeches and interviews he has published. Was it a slip? Did he regret the revelation? He has never commented. But then neither has anybody else in Germany, as if it were simply not polite to bring up the subject.
University of Kent, Canterbury
Vol. 24 No. 15 · 8 August 2002
J.C. Grayson wonders whether West German opera houses cut the lines from Lohengrin about the ‘hordes of the east’ (Letters, 11 July). The cut made in the East German Lohengrin he heard ‘in the early 1980s’ was also made in a production staged at Bayreuth in 1979. According to Barry Millington in The Wagner Compendium it is a ‘traditional’ cut (although usually 39 lines are deleted rather than merely the two cited by Grayson) to be regretted on dramaturgical rather than ideological grounds.