The Tin Drum

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The Tin Drum



Günter Grass had been struggling as a poet and an artist for several years, getting virtually nowhere in either medium, when he decided to write a novel. Begun in 1956 and published in 1959, his first novel, The Tin Drum, became an instant success in Germany, and shortly thereafter made its author an international sensation. In all likelihood, Grass is the most widely read German-language author to publish after World War II, and The Tin Drum the most widely read postwar German novel.

In this work Grass broke away from the style of earlier German novels about the war. Whereas those books tended to be realistic and uncomplicated indictments of Nazi atrocities, Grass's novel is complex, richly symbolic, and highly ironic. It starts by posing the reader with a problem: whether to trust a narrator who admits in the first sentence that he is an inmate of a mental hospital. This information immediately notifies the reader that not everything said or described in the book should be taken at face value. The narrator, it turns out, is a self-willed dwarf who has rejected the moral complexities of the adult world simply by refusing to grow. Grass fills his novel with equally fantastical events, but places them squarely in a realistic setting with identifiable historical occurrences. Similarly, the novel has long passages of strictly realistic prose, but also contains an entire chapter that mimics fairy stories and uses startling metaphoric language.

This mixture of styles has led critics to call the novel both modernist and postmodernist. It is also commonly considered absurdist—a style of writing that presents life as nonsensical, based on the notion that the human condition is ridiculously meaningless. The novel shows humans controlled by historical and natural forces, and it takes a wholly irreverent stance toward nearly every ideological system. Much of the story is satirical, making fun of grand ideas and empty posturing. Nevertheless, the strength of the novel comes from the fact that it is not purely satirical, not purely critical. Most of the characters are complex, and can show surprising moments of compassion and dignity. To add to its complexity, Grass has also made the novel historical, and it covers over a half century. The author adds many minute details about the life, ethnic sectors, and architecture of Danzig prior to World War II. Just as the novel's narrator Oskar Matzerath says that banging on his drum is an exercise in memory, so is writing this novel an exercise in memory for Grass.

At the center of the novel is the remarkable Oskar, who, by his own admission, is a living set of contradictions, a figure both satanic and Christ-like, logical and childish, selfish and compassionate. The novel is not just his autobiography, but also his confession, and this constitutes its primary thematic power. Through his confession, Oskar reveals his small role in the atrocities of Nazi Germany and in so doing takes the first step toward "growing," both physically and morally. The Tin Drum became the first in Grass's "Danzig" trilogy, which also includes Cat and Mouse (1961) and Dog Years (1963). A film version of The Tin Drum was released in 1979 and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Günter Grass

Günter Grass was born in 1927 in what is now Gdansk, Poland, but was then Danzig, Germany, where he sets most of his novels. His early life mirrors that of Oskar, the narrator of The Tin Drum: his mother was Kashubian, a descendent of the northern region of Poland called Kaszuba. His German father owned a grocery store.

Grass joined the Nazi Youth in the 1930s and was drafted into the army in 1943. He was wounded in 1945 and subsequently imprisoned in Czechoslovakia. After he was freed in 1946, Grass worked several jobs before entering the Düsseldorf Academy of Art as a student of painting and sculpture. Grass eventually settled in Berlin where he became active in politics, campaigning for the Social Democratic Party. Later he became active in the peace movement and lived in Calcutta, India, for a period of time.

In addition to his many novels, Grass has also written poetry and essays, most of which are highly political. His most recent novel, Crabwalk (2002), continues to explore Germany in light of World War II, specifically the sinking of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff that carried nine thousand German refugees. Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.

As of 2005, Grass lives in Berlin with his wife and children.


Book One: Chapters 1-16

The narrator of The Tin Drum is Oskar Matzerath, who at thirty years old is telling the story of his life. He is writing from inside a mental institution in Düsseldorf, Germany, though why he is there is kept secret until the end of the book. It is clear from the beginning that Oskar is an unreliable narrator, and throughout the book he makes extraordinary claims about events that have rational explanations.

This complex story, populated by a large cast of unusual characters, takes place during Europe's most troubled period in the twentieth century, from the First World War, through the rise of Hitler, the Nazi occupation of Poland, and the attempts of Germany to rebuild in the postwar era. The principal setting is Danzig and its surrounding area, with the final portion set in Düsseldorf.

Oskar is a dwarf, also called a gnome. According to Oskar, when he was a baby he heard the beating of a moth on a light bulb and decided to identify his life with that sound. When Oskar was three years old, his mother gave him the toy tin drum. Oskar also claims that at the age of three he voluntarily decided to stop growing, and to never become a grownup. He claims that he staged an accident to account for his lack of growth, but his father ends up being blamed for the accident and for Oskar's condition. Additionally, he developed a high-pitched singing voice that he uses to break glass. At first, this voice is merely a defense, used mainly to prevent people from taking away his drum. As he grows older, he cultivates this talent and uses it for other purposes, such as breaking shop windows so that passersby can steal from the shops, inscribing designs, and showing off for an audience. After the end of World War II, Oskar feels that he must give up some of his childish ways, and decides to grow.

Oskar's story is also a history of his family, beginning with the first meeting between his maternal grandmother and grandfather in a potato field in 1899, and continuing until after his thirtieth birthday in 1954. His grandmother, Anna Bronski, was a Kashube. His grandfather, Joseph Koljaiczek, was a Polish nationalist, on the run from the law for setting fire to sawmills as a political statement. Oskar's grandmother hid Joseph under her skirts and then immediately married him. Oskar says that he inherited an "incendiary spirit" from these grandparents.

After their wedding, his grandparents moved to Danzig, a Polish port city. There, Joseph Koljaiczek steals the identity of a dead barge worker, Joseph Wranka. Agnes, Oskar's mother, is born in Danzig, as Oskar will later be. The authorities finally catch up with Koljaiczek posing as Wranka in 1913, but he escapes again, this time by diving into the Vistula River. Whether he lives or dies remains a mystery. Though Oskar seems convinced that he drowned, he also entertains the notion that his grandfather escaped to America and became a rich businessman named Joe Colchic. After Joseph's death, Anna starts a grocery businesses, which is later taken over by Agnes, and then by Oskar's father, Alfred Matzerath.

At seventeen, Agnes falls in love with her handsome but sickly cousin Jan Bronski, a Kashubian who considers himself Polish rather than German. In 1918, Agnes volunteers as a nurse, and meets the wounded German soldier, Alfred Matzerath. She falls in love with the soldier. Agnes marries Alfred because of his friendly manner, but she has a lifelong adulterous love affair with her first cousin, Jan. Oskar calls both Alfred and Jan "presumptive father," though Oskar seems fairly certain that Jan is his actual biological father. Both Agnes's German and Kashubian loves remain influential in her life, which symbolically reflects the growing political tensions in Danzig between the German Protestant majority and the Kashubian and Polish Catholic minority. In 1934, Alfred, a veteran wounded in World War I, becomes a member of the Nazi party. In contrast, Jan is a sickly Polish nationalist unable to pass his army physicals.

After causing a ruckus and embarrassing his mother on his first day at school, Oskar never goes to school again. He picks up education from neighbors and family, although he claims to have been born with all his intellectual capacities intact. After he borrows books from a neighbor woman and rips out the pages, Oskar decides that his two great intellectual influences are Rasputin, a disreputable Russian mystic, and Goethe, often called the "father" of German Enlightenment. Similarly, Oskar regularly compares himself to both Satan and Jesus. Oskar clearly understands that his personality contains opposing temperaments, over which he seems to have little control.

Oskar's mother dies in 1937 when she becomes pregnant for a second time and then tries to abort the fetus by gorging on fish, essentially poisoning herself. Agnes's death is a devastating loss, from which the entire family never seems to recover. Alfred becomes increasingly enmeshed in Nazi politics, which gradually destroys his friendship with Jan. Oskar spends most of his time away from home, as though trying to belong to other people's families. Oskar's grandmother gets isolated in the Polish side of the city.

Book One ends on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, when members of the Nazi party destroyed synagogues and Jewish shops. The former drunken trumpeter Meyn, now a low-level member of the SA (Nazi Storm Troopers), brutally kills his own cats and is kicked out of the SA. In an attempt to save his position, Meyn sets fire to the local synagogue. Alfred takes Oskar to see the destruction of the temple and warms his hands at the bonfire of sacred texts. Oskar slips away to get a new drum, but finds that Nazi thugs are destroying Marku'ss shop and that Markus has committed suicide.

Book Two: Chapters 17-34

Book Two covers events between 1939 and 1945. On September 1, 1939, Danzig becomes the first city invaded by Germany in the war. Oskar at the time is visiting his "presumptive father," Jan, who works at the Polish Post Office. Jan has tried to escape defending the Post Office, but Oskar convinces Jan to take him to the Post Office so he can have his old drum repaired by the janitor Kobyella. Jan becomes embroiled in trying to defend the Post Office, and is later executed for this action. The narrator reveals two critically different versions of the ending of the siege. In the first, Oskar describes his safe removal by German soldiers. In the second, however, Oskar "corrects" this account to reveal his own cowardice; he had implied to the SS, the Nazi paramilitary organization, that Jan kidnapped him for use as a human shield. Jan would certainly have been executed in either account, but Oskar feels a "great burden of guilt" for this betrayal. The difference between the two versions underscores one of the key themes of the novel: Germans have guilt associated with the entire Nazi period.

With both Agnes and Jan dead, Alfred decides to have Maria Truczinski, a neighborhood teenager, work at the grocery store and look after Oskar as a kind of nanny. Alfred ends up marrying her because he believes he gets her pregnant. However, according to Oskar, it was Oskar who got her pregnant. She gives birth to a son, Kurt, who rejects Oskar's attempts to make him a perpetual drum-wielding three-year-old like himself.

Oskar leaves home in the early 1940s to join a performing troupe of midgets, led by his mentor, a midget-clown named Bebra, who has become part of the Nazi propaganda machine. As part of these propaganda duties, Bebra's troupe entertains German troops. The troupe travels to Paris, Le Havre, and Normandy. Oskar performs on his drum and breaks glass with his voice to entertain German soldiers. While touring with the troupe, Oskar falls in love with Roswitha Raguna, an Italian midget who is a somnambulist—a sleepwalker. She dies from artillery fire during the Allied invasion of Normandy. Saddened by his loss, and with the war coming to an end, Oskar decides to go home.

Back in Danzig, Oskar arrives just in time for Kurt's third birthday. He brings Kurt the symbolic gift of a toy drum, but Kurt rejects it. Later that summer, Oskar becomes the leader of "The Dusters," a youth gang, by convincing them with a spectacular display of his glass-shattering voice that he is the Messiah. He changes their methods of operation and helps them break into government offices. They are finally caught sawing apart a statue of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus in a church, when a sister of one of the members informs the authorities about them. When the gang members are caught, Oskar again avoids punishment by playing the role of the innocent three-year-old. The trial brings Oskar to the attention of the authorities. They try to pressure Alfred into handing him over to the Ministry of Public Health, which would make Oskar a victim of Nazi euthanasia. Though a member of the Nazi party, Alfred is basically a kind man, who, for instance, supplies Anna Koljaiczek, a Jew in hiding, with black market necessities during the war. He delays signing the relevant letter that would commit Oskar, and by the time he posts it, the Allies are already attacking Danzig.

During the siege of Danzig, the Matzeraths and their neighbors hide in the cellar of the grocery store. Alfred, worried about what to do with his incriminating Party badge, drops it on the floor. However, Oskar picks it up just before the Red Army soldiers break into the cellar. While three soldiers take turns raping a neighbor, Oskar gives the badge back to Alfred, who in desperation tries to swallow it without realizing that the pin is open. As he tries to dislodge the pin from his throat, the Russian soldiers misinterpret his bizarre behavior and kill him. As with his account of Jan's death, Oskar makes a point of adding extra detail to this account later. In this case, he relates that he deliberately opened the badge's pin.

After the Russians take Danzig, refugees from Poland pour into the city. Maria, Oskar, and Kurt are joined by Marius Fajngold, a traumatized survivor of the Treblinka death camp. Fajngold helps them arrange Alfred's funeral. At this point, at the age of twenty-one, Oskar decides to give up his drum and start growing once more. However, a stone thrown at Oskar by Kurt might also have caused this growth. On June 12, 1945, Maria, Oskar, and Kurt leave Danzig, which has now been ceded to Poland and renamed Gdansk. They leave behind Oskar's grandmother, who refuses to travel. Eventually, they reach Düsseldorf. Once there, Oskar, "sick" from the painful process of growing, is admitted to the hospital. He is discharged in May 1946, having grown from three feet to the height of four feet and one inch.

Book Three: Chapters 35-46

When Oskar joins Maria and six-year-old Kurt at the beginning of Book Three, they are living with Maria's sister, Guste, as profitable black marketeers. Oskar becomes a tombstone engraver. Later, when the currency reform after the war makes life hard for Oskar's new family, Oskar becomes a model at the academy of art in Düsseldorf, posing as Jesus for the soon famous picture "Madonna 49." He becomes obsessed with another tenant in his building, Nurse Dorothea, the latest in a long line of nurses Oskar has adored. Sadly, she rejects his clumsy attempts at romance, so Oskar begins to take solace in his old comfort, drumming. In the process he discovers a new "skill"—drumming up the past. Then, Oskar and his friend Klepp start a jazz band, with Oskar on the drums, and play at a nightclub called The Onion Cellar in Düsseldorf, where guests are served onions that they peel and chop in order to cry freely and release their repressed postwar emotions. During one of these sessions, Oskar discovers that he can transport people back to childhood innocence through his drumming. This ability becomes a popular form of escapism. After the nightclub owner dies, Oskar is offered a contract to take his solo act on the road. From there, Oskar gets a recording deal and becomes rich. The owner of the record company turns out to be Bebra, the midget-clown. They become close, and then, like everyone Oskar is close to, Bebra dies. Lonely and uncertain, Oskar stops drumming.

The final three chapters describe the events that caused Oskar to be tried for the murder of Nurse Dorothea in 1951 and to be placed in the psychiatric hospital from which he is writing. After Nurse Dorothea is murdered, Oskar is walking in the fields outside Düsseldorf, and finds her severed ring finger. He keeps the finger as a memento because he had been in love with her. He then meets a man, Vittlar, with whom he becomes friends. He asks his friend to turn him in to the police for Nurse Dorothea's murder, which Vittlar does. Oskar did not commit the murder, but he wants to go to prison for the crime so that he can get his name in the papers and take shelter behind the white bars of a hospital bed; this is the closest he will ever come to recreating the security he felt during his childhood when he was allowed to sit under his grandmother's skirts. Oskar is put on trial for the murder and convicted. He is forced to live in a mental hospital, where he writes his memoirs. The prospect of release from the hospital terrifies him. He believes that he is chased by the terrible figure of the Black Cook, a witch from children's folklore tales. Oskar drops into a despairing silence, unable to relieve the guilt of his past or to face the uncertain future that awaits him outside the hospital.


Individual Responsibility

The Tin Drum demonstrates that evil cannot be attributed to a single person or a single nation, and that ordinary people are capable of either good or evil at any particular moment. This theme is demonstrated in several ways, but mostly by analogy. Grass, through Oskar, rarely tells readers directly how to think about Germany's Nazi past. Instead, he uses characters and events that mirror historical events. Oskar regularly compares himself to both Jesus and Satan. He gets his philosophical inspiration from both Goethe, considered the father of German Enlightenment, and Rasputin, a charlatan monk who wormed his way into the court of Russia's last tsar. Oskar's "presumptive fathers" are Alfred, a decorated soldier who is basically a follower at heart, and Jan, a sickly coward who cannot even fire a gun. Grass creates these dualities as moral examples for the reader to compare to the historical examples scattered throughout the book. Similarly, Grass uses the novel to show that hanging blame for Germany's Nazi period on a few "notorious" men, and then pretending the German people were misled, is merely a way to deny that all Germans, perhaps even all Europeans, bear some responsibility for the atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s. To the German people, Grass seems to be saying that all humans have the seed of evil, not just the famous Nazis who were put on trial. All people committed shameful acts that they must confess. All share responsibility for what happened in the Nazi period.

Guilt, Responsibility, and Blame

The single most central theme of this book is guilt—individual, not national. The idea of national guilt bypasses the personal responsibility that all Germans, according to Grass, share for causing World War II. Related to the idea of guilt are the issues of responsibility and blame. A revealing incident early in the novel shows how these three themes work together.

At three years old, Oskar decides not to grow. Rather than announce this intention and accept responsibility for the decision, Oskar instead stages an accident by falling down the cellar stairs and landing on his head; this ensures he will not be held accountable for his failure to grow. As a result of this incident, though, Oskar's father, Alfred, gets blamed by the rest of the family for leaving open the cellar door, though he in fact did not. This blame is repeatedly brought up whenever a family quarrel occurs. Thus, Alfred is wrongly blamed for the rest of his life for an act that Oskar in fact bears responsibility for. Oskar feels only a small amount of guilt for putting his father through this trouble, and never accepts responsibility for the trouble he causes his entire family. The incident exemplifies how, throughout the novel, the wrong person is blamed and forced to accept the guilt for the actions of another.

When the war comes, the issues of guilt and responsibility occur in relation to the deaths of Oskar's two "presumptive fathers." German soldiers arrest Jan after the siege of the Polish Post Office, to which Oskar got Jan to take him against Jan's will. Oskar at first relates this as a simple, straightforward matter of Jan being on the losing side. However, later in the book Oskar admits that he was in part responsible for Jan's arrest because he implied to the Germans that Jan had kidnapped Oskar to use as a human shield. Thus, Oskar is partly to blame for Jan's execution. Guilt makes Oskar acknowledge his part in the execution after he at first hides it. Similarly, knowing full well that Alfred is trying to hide his Nazi badge from the Russian soldiers, Oskar finds it and gives it back to him. Alfred then tries to swallow the badge, but the pin gets caught in his mouth. The Russian soldiers, confused by Alfred's gestures, kill him. At first, Oskar seems to bear an inadvertent responsibility for Alfred's death, yet for a second time guilt prompts him to change his story and confess that he deliberately opened the pin before he returned the badge.

The issues of guilt, responsibility, and blame converge at the end of the novel when Oskar accepts the blame for a murder that he did not commit. This action helps him partly make up for the deaths he has caused. It contrasts Oskar favorably with the patrons of The Onion Cellar: "respectable" middle- and upper-class citizens who use artificial means to make themselves cry so they can pretend they have come to terms with their responsibility for the Nazi past. Oskar's trial and incarceration give him the opportunity to reflect on his past and to confess, to the best of his ability, his sins. Grass's partly Catholic background comes through in the idea that confession is necessary for atonement, no matter how painful the process may be.

Nationalism and Political Movements

Grass distrusts blind loyalty to abstractions, and through Oskar's narrative, shows how mindlessly following abstractions can lead to trouble or, worse yet, to chaos. This is shown symbolically in a scene in which Oskar uses his drum to divert a Nazi parade. Oskar begins drumming in 3/4 waltz time, an alternative rhythm to the linear 4/4 beat of the parade drums. He then notes that the rally goers are as content to march in 3/4 time as they are to march in 4/4, a symbolic indication that followers are likely to follow anything and rarely genuinely believe in a cause. The scene also likens nationalism—the belief that personal identity is tied to a specific ethnicity, region, or state—to a unifying rhythm or beat with the power to attract the masses in an almost subconscious, primal way.

Through Jan and Alfred, the novel shows how large-scale political movements destroy personal relationships. The two men remain friends for years, even while they knowingly share relations with the same woman. However, Agnes's death symbolically kills the idea of a harmonious central Europe. After her death, each man, Alfred especially, grows ever more deeply embroiled in national politics. By the time of Jan's death they have not seen each other for a year, isolated on their respective sides of Danzig—Polish and German.

Most importantly are the destructive effects of nationalism as reflected in the life of the drunken trumpeter Meyn. While Meyn is a happy drunk, he remains friendly and plays the trumpet "too beautifully for words." When Meyn joins the SA, the civilian troops of the Nazi regime, however, he becomes sober, but much less friendly. He loses his ability to play the trumpet beautifully and suddenly realizes his loneliness. He responds to his discontentment by brutally killing his four cats and then setting fire to the local synagogue. Adherence to an ideal makes Meyn inartistic, miserable, and violent.

The Absurdity of War

The Tin Drum stands as one of the great mid-twentieth-century absurdist novels about war. Along with Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Joseph Heller's Catch-22, The Tin Drum treats war as anything but glorious. All three authors fought in World War II and drew on their experiences in writing these books. All three show that war is pointless; that it is as likely to bring out the worst in people as it is to bring out the best; that surviving it is more a result of accident than of valor; and that survivors are not necessarily winners.

A scene that truly highlights the absurdity of war in The Tin Drum occurs in the first three chapters of Book Two during the siege of the Polish Post Office. Jan, cowering and whimpering, attempts to stick his leg out of the window in hopes that it will be shot and he can take refuge among the wounded. It concludes with a remarkable description of the explosion, in which the "bricks laughed themselves into splinters." Ultimately the scene underscores the meaninglessness of war and illustrates how people do strange, absurd things when confronted with war's powerful, yet nonsensical, drama. There is no glory, no honor, no victory in war; just lives and societies twisted or destroyed in the names of worthless abstractions.



On November 9, 1938, the Nazi party let loose a wave of attacks against Germany's and Austria's Jews, destroying thousands of synagogues, Jewish businesses, and Jewish homes, as well as torturing and killing many Jewish Germans. These actions came to be called Kristallnacht, or "Night of Broken Glass," because of the shattered glass that littered the streets the following morning.

According to the Nazi government, the violence was a popular response to the November 7 assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in Paris, by Herschel Grynszpan, a Jewish teenager whose parents had been recently expelled from the Reich along with seventeen thousand other Polish Jews. In reality, the attacks had been well planned by the SA, SS, and local Nazi party organizations. Nazi Storm Troopers killed at least ninety-one Jews and injured many more. For the first time, large numbers of Jews were arrested and transported to Nazi concentration camps where hundreds of them died within weeks. Prisoners could be released only after they had arranged to emigrate from Germany and agreed to cede their property to "Aryans."

The Nuremberg Trials

The novel's focus on the role of ordinary Germans who supported the Nazi regime made it uncomfortable reading for many Germans. Until its publication, the primary German historical interpretation of the Nazi era was that National Socialist crimes had been committed by a few fanatical leaders. This idea appeared to be supported by the Nuremberg Trials of key Nazis in 1945–46.

The Nuremberg Trials were conducted by the Allied governments at the insistence of the United States. The trials were held in Nuremberg, Germany, a potent symbol since it was where the Nazi government made its first laws regarding German citizenship, including or excluding people based entirely on heritage and family history. The Nuremberg Trials involved many legal firsts. For the first time, an entire government was declared criminal for its actions. For the first time, waging a war of aggression was declared a criminal act. For the first time, the concept of a "crime against humanity" was made an explicit legal category for prosecution.

In the first and most famous set of trials, twenty-four men and six organizations were indicted. The most famous of these men were Hermann Goering, chief of the Nazi air force; Rudolf Hess, Hitler's personal deputy; and Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments. The trials exposed to the world the extent to which the Nazi regime had applied its racist policies. It became something of a show trial, a drama in which the world public could affix blame and openly punish men they believed had set the world in turmoil. Depending on their indictments, many men were sentenced to death, while others received life sentences and a few were acquitted.

Post-World War II Literature

The Tin Drum is one of the earliest works of postwar German literature to raise the issue of the involvement of ordinary Germans in Hitler's National Socialist regime. In particular, Book Three of the novel directly addresses the reluctance of middle-class and well-to-do Germans to accept their share of responsibility for the Nazi era. To the German public, Grass's depiction of the Nazi past without specific reference to National Socialist policies was probably the most disturbing facet of the novel.

In the decade just after World War II, novels that touched on the war depicted it mainly by showing ideals such as courage and honor. Novels such as John Hersey's A Bell for Adano (1944), James Jones's From Here to Eternity (1951), and Pierre Boulle's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1952) left little room for irony in their treatments of the war. German novels from the same period, such as Heinrich Böll's The Train Was on Time (1947) dealt in gritty, realistic detail with the aftermath of the war and the consequences of starting it.

By the mid-1950s, many novelists began to take a much harder and more ironic look at the war itself. Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night (1961) tells the story of an American who pretends to be a defector to the Nazis, but is in fact an American spy. He is subsequently tried and convicted for being a Nazi, his service to the Allies wholly unrecognized. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1962) characterizes the lives of members in the Army Air Corps as a mixture of boredom and psychological trauma. At this time, even the German realist author Böll took a much more cynical and ironic look at the war and the reconstruction of German society in The Clown (1963). Most literary novels and stories about World War II written between 1949 and 1975, including The Tin Drum, take an absurdist approach to it, showing the war as irrational and meaningless.


In Jo-Ann Mort's essay, "In Defense of Günter Grass," she suggests that Grass will be remembered for "his literary interventions—reclaiming the German language through the fantasies of his most famous character, Oskar, the thirteen-year-old boy from The Tin Drum who refuses to grow up." When it was published in 1959, the novel received widespread critical acclaim, but it was also controversial because of its irreverence toward German and religious institutions and its straightforward presentation of sexual matter. This divided response was illustrated when the Bremen city council reversed the decision to award the novel the 1959 Bremen Prize for Literature, which, Theodore Ziolkowski, notes in "Günter Grass's Century," "[heralded] some forty legal actions brought against Grass in the next few years on grounds of obscenity, pornography, and blasphemy."

After it was translated in the few years following its publication, The Tin Drum earned Grass a reputation as the next great German writer. He became the most widely read post war German writer in the world. His later novels, especially Dog Years (1963) and Local Anesthetic (1969), received equally high praise. However, when Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, it was primarily for that first novel published forty years prior. In his presentation speech to Grass, Dr. Horace Engdahl of the Swedish Academy, referring directly to The Tin Drum said, "Grass broke the spell that lay over the German past and sabotaged the German sublime … this was an achievement far more radical than all the ideological criticism directed against Nazism."


The film adaptation of The Tin Drum (1979) was released to both wide acclaim and harsh criticism. Directed by Volker Schlöndorff, and starring twelve-year-old David Bennent, the German-language film covers the first two-thirds of the novel, bypassing Oskar's time in Düsseldorf and the mental hospital. It presents Oskar's story as Oskar sees it, handling absurd events in a realistic manner. Because of the size and complexity of the novel, the film leaves out large sections of the story. Nevertheless, it still provides excellent interpretations of key scenes and retains much of the novel's dark and ironic tone. This film won many awards, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Most critics concur that Grass deserved the prize. Iain Bamforth, writing several years later in "Take a Pig's Head, Add One Spoonful of Medium Rage" for the London Review of Books, goes so far as to call it "redundant," as Grass "long seemed bigger than the award." But writer and National Review editor David Pryce-Jones relegated Grass's win to "political correct-ness" in "The Failure of Günter Grass: Another Nobel Bomb." Grass's political activism, primarily for liberal causes, has perhaps tainted his reception with conservative commentators, who often blast the political positions taken in his books and dislike Grass's frank handling of sex and violence. Pryce-Jones, one such critic, believes the book is "misleading" in that it "encourages the mystification that [Germans] couldn't really help themselves." However in his book Günter Grass, Richard H. Lawson argues that it is almost impossible to define the book because it "resists any single-level interpretation … its mode is that of highly developed ambiguity." With his frequent publication of both poetry and fiction, Grass continues to be critically reviewed, but no matter what he writes, he is still most widely known as the author of The Tin Drum.


Jo-Ann Mort

In the following essay, Mort explains how Nobel Prize-winning author Grass has helped to re-establish the German-language literary tradition that was tarnished by Nazism and the Holocaust.

If timing is everything, one can imagine how pleased Gunter Grass's publishers were to have the Nobel Prize for Literature announced during the Frankfurt Book Fair this past October, where Grass was an honored participant. But there was a greater significance to Grass's participation than the announcement of the award. For, in a profound way, Gunter Grass's output—his literary career—helped make a German city a publishing and literary center by cleansing the German language of the Nazi stain.

After all, one of the casualties of the Holocaust was the German language. How could one use—or trust—the language or build a nation of literary worth after Hitler's book burnings and extermination camps? But today, Frankfurt stands as one of the most important, and one of the most cosmopolitan, literary centers in the world.

Grass, as part of what he terms "the Auschwitz generation—[belonging] "not as criminals, to be sure, but in the camp of the criminals," feels a strain no American writer would feel. Although each creative writer forms his or her work by reshaping language to a particular vision, the burden of using a language contaminated by the Nazis has been an everpresent burden for Grass and his comrades.

Indeed, he took Adorno's now famous dictum—that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz—to mean something other than silence. "There is no end to writing after Auschwitz, no such promise can be made unless the human race gives up on itself completely."

It is for his literary interventions-reclaiming the German language through the fantasies of his most famous character, Oskar, the thirteen-year-old boy from The Tin Drum who refuses to grow up, that Grass will be remembered.

But, for Grass, political activism and the chronicling of it is as important a component of his own legacy as his novels and poems. "A writer must face up to the test of reality; and that can't be done if he keeps his distance," he wrote against his critics who said that the literary life and politics don't mix.

His political activism—and his very clear commitment to democratic socialism—caused shrill attacks against him in the American press when he won the Nobel Prize. Most notably, Grass was accused by Jacob Heilbrunn in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece of a "nostalgia for East Germany" and castigated as a "leftist dinosaur." On the New York Times op-ed page, James Atlas took up the same cause: during a literary panel, Grass had challenged Saul Bellow about the ability of American capitalism to grapple with poverty and economic inequalities. Atlas put this forward as proof of Grass's leftist (read communist) sentiments.

Heilbrunn's chastising remarks about Grass's "illusions about communism" are ridiculous if one reads or listens to Grass. Even his fears about reunification were not unrealistic. His fear of a unified Germany as a military power has not been justified by events. But his concern about economic inequality in the two former Germanys was prescient. Divisions between the rich West and the poor East have led to serious problems in the new republic and are the cause, in part, of the current social democratic decline, especially in the poorer, resentful East, where the Social Democratic Party (SPD) continues to slip and the former German Communist Party (PDS) continues to rise.

Heilbrunn asks, who won the cold war? And guess what? Ronald Reagan's military buildup is once more hailed as the reason for the collapse of the evil empire, judged positively against Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, whose embrace by Grass earned him the American pundit's wrath.

No doubt Grass would enjoy being associated with Brandt and attacked along with his hero. But Brandt's and Grass's commitment to democracy does not need to be justified. The attacks on Grass remind us that the United States remains a parochial country, its pundits still fighting the cold war long after the Soviet Union has dissolved into tribal warfare, still unable to fathom the subtleties of social democratic politics.

True, Grass challenged American imperialism in our own backyard, joining with the majority of social democratic parties in Europe and many American leftists in defending Sandinista Nicaragua and Castro's Cuba, and he (and they) took much too soft a line on democratic rights. But he never defended communism. His article on Cuba in Dissent ("Pity on Cuba," Fall 1993) criticizes elections where nothing like a recognizable opposition was allowed to present itself to the voters." Earlier on, his "excessive" defense of these regimes was focused mostly on the argument that American policy had driven them into the arms of the Soviet Union—not an unreasonable claim, and one broadly supported on the democratic left, especially in Europe.

Ironically, while he has been vilified in the United States as a leftist, in left-wing circles in Europe and once upon a time, among the New Left in the States, he was criticized as a cheerleader for incremental change instead of non-stop revolution. Grass states clearly: "I am a Social Democrat because to my mind socialism is worthless without democracy and because an unsocial democracy is no democracy at all. A bone-dry, inflexible sentence. Nothing to cheer about. Nothing to dilate your pupils. Accordingly, I expect only partial achievements. I have nothing better to offer, though I know of better things and wish I had them."

It would behoove Grass's critics to reread his gem of a book From the Diary of a Snail. Grass wrote this journal-type book during the election campaign in 1969 when Willy Brandt and the SPD won election in the Federal German Republic for the first time since World War II. It not only chronicles Brandt's rise to leadership, but clearly shows how, for Grass, contemporary Germany is inextricably bound up with the Holocaust and with the need to rebuild democracy in its aftermath.

In From the Diary of a Snail, Grass describes his travels around West Germany while speech-writing for Brandt. Grass attempts to explain the landscape of twentieth-century Germany to his two young children, moving back and forth among the remnants of the past to explain the present. He begins his story in Danzig, the city where The Tin Drum is set, and the city of his own birth. Most chilling in his telling are the questions his own children ask him when they listen to the story of the Jews' expulsion from Danzig by the Nazis. After recounting to his children the experience of the convoy of children who went on the "kinder-transport" to England, leaving their parents for safety, his children ask: "Did they have to go to school, too? Did the all learn English quick? And what about their parents? Where did they go?"

Throughout the book, Grass is lyrically accompanied by a snail—"The snail is progress," he explains, and it is the perfect construct for Grass's incremental social democratic climb. His snail has seen decades of struggle, from Bebel to Bernstein to Brandt.

Today, with heroes like Brandt long gone and with communism and revolution having fallen away, Grass's snail is still on the move. In the new millennium, we will discover if social democracy can indeed create a decent society. Can it equalize a global order, with capitalist America at the helm? This pressing question puts Grass's concerns front and center.

Source: Jo-Ann Mort, "In defense of Gunter Grass," in Dissent, Winter 2000, pp. 90-91.

Carl Tighe

In the following essay, Tighe briefly explains that Grass's war experiences enabled him to become the writer he is.

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Source: Carl Tighe, "Pax Germanica—the Future Historical," in Journal of European Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3, 2000, p. 297.

Edith Kern

In the following essay, Kern writes that Grass's protagonist provides a farcial aspect to The Tin Drum, which in turns allows the reader to view the actions of the Nazi in a different light.

Günter Grass avails himself of different aspects of farcical laughter when he indicts the vicious small-town heroics of Nazi Germany in his novel The Tin Drum, viewing them in their grotesque ambivalence through the eyes of the novel's four-year-old protagonist, whose growth has been arrested by a fall and who thereby suggests the misshapen countenance of a clown or trickster permitted to say or do what no one else dare utter or engage in. The dwarf's defiant and irreverent beating of a toy drum makes the antics of organized Nazi marchers appear like those of Mardi Gras dummies, whom he, the powerless urchin, can put to flight. Military might and authority are thus degraded, the world seems turned farcically upside down, a different justice seems to prevail as fantasy triumphs over reality and, ultimately, over fear.

Source: Edith Kern, "The Importance of Not Being Earnest: Modern-Medieval," in Symposium, Vol. 38, No. 1, 1984, p. 27.


Bamforth, Iain, "Take a Pig's Head, Add One Spoonful of Medium Rage," London Review of Books, (October 28, 1999).

Engdahl, Horace, "Presentation Speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature 1999," The Nobel Foundation, (December 10, 1999).

Grass, Günter, The Tin Drum, translated by Ralph Mannheim, 1961, reprint, Pantheon Books, 1990.

Lawson, Richard H., Günter Grass, Ungar Publishing, 1985, pp. 19-40, 153-56.

Mort, Jo-Ann, "In Defense of Günter Grass," in Dissent, Winter 2000.

Pryce-Jones, David, "The Failure of Günter Grass: Another Nobel Bomb," in the National Review, October 25, 1999.

Ziolkowski, Theodore, "Günter Grass's Century," in World Literature Today, Winter 2000.