Gunter Grass and The Tin Drum

Der Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) by Gunter Grass

It would be almost impossible to draw a caricature of Gunter Grass because his features already appear to be a caricature of someone else’s face. His drooping eyelids, the spectacles perched at end of a long nose and the omnipotent pipe in mouth make him look like a cartoon a street artist may have sketched of James Joyce.

The link between the two could have remained entirely superficial, only arising if the two were mistaken at an identity parade, were it not for some words at the end of Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. In it, the main character Stephen Daedalus comes to the conclusion that he “will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can.” Crucially, he writes in his diary one line that sums up the obligation of the writer, by voicing his intention “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

I don’t know if Gunter Grass ever read these words; I suspect he did, but I don’t know. Whether he did or not, by accident, coincidence, or design, Gunter Grass took up its call to arms most spectacularly in his first book The Tin Drum.

Never before had a country needed someone as much as Germany needed Gunter Grass. You could, if you were feeling especially pretentious, go so far as to say if Gunter Grass had not existed it would be necessary to invent him.

There existed with the fall of the Third Reich a moral vacuum in Germany to an extent never before witnessed in history. Even the values that most had clung to when they voted for the Nazis–nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-socialism, imperialism–even these values (however corrupt and despicable they were) were obliterated when Hitler ordered Germany to be destroyed as the Allies closed in. Hitler ordered for everything he had claimed to hold dear to be burned or razed to the ground and in so doing, let the spectacle slip and reality to show. To reveal the fact that Nazism was nothing but the triumph of nihilism. An all-consuming nihilism that, when there was nothing else to consume, eventually consumed itself leaving post-war Germany in a precarious moral position.

The uncomfortable truths of the gas chambers, of Mengele and the Zyklon and Dresden and the wiping out of an entire generation of the country’s youth were faced by silence or denial. A sense of guilt that could not be faced hung over a sense of loss that could not be spoken. In such a climate, Theodor Adorno spoke ominously, “After Auschwitz there can be no poetry.” Only by confronting the uncomfortable truths its crimes, its delusions, its silence, and even its loss, could Germany exorcise the past and prevent becoming ensnared within it or doomed to repeat it. A kind of collective psychoanalysis was needed to guide the nation from insanity to normality, but it would only gain real momentum when Grass took up Joyce’s call “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” with The Tin Drum.

A surreal parable, the book deals in positive myth-making to exorcise the ghost of the negative myth-making of Hitler, Goebbels and Leni Riefenstadhl, to replace the iconography of the swastika and The Eternal Jew with new icons or even old ones resurrected from pre-Nazi folktales. To replace the philosophy of nihilistic destruction with a philosophy of creation (or at least creative destruction) to show that life was worth living again. There were Germans who died under the Nazis who kept the prospect of real freedom alive (Sophie and Hans Scholl and their friends in the White Rose, Carl Von Ossietzky, Adolf Reichwein, Julius Leber, Ludwig Linnert, Von Staffenberg, Hans Oster, Dietrich Bonhoffer, Joachim Gottschalk) and though the book could not hope to achieve the process of de-Nazification, it could salvage, from their stands, the spirit to face the future.

The Tin Drum is a stunning read and is the reason why forty years after its release, Grass, praised for his “cheerful destructiveness and creative irreverence,” received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Presumably the prize committee had been comatose for the forty years in between, but better late than never. An essential book for Germany in a moral and intellectual sense, but just as importantly it is a great, great read.

It helps that Grass was half Polish (his mother was Kashubian: a Slav minority from Danzig) and was too young to be indoctrinated in the Nazi ideals. This Polish and working class background ensured that he was vaccinated against the Nazis and their petit bourgeois support base. With the wisdom of the outside looking in, he was nevertheless close enough to see the beast in its element.

A profoundly human tale, The Tin Drum is built from hallucinatory prose and an ability to see the extraordinary that lurks just beneath the surface of the apparently mundane. The story is of a child who decides never to grow past his current height of three feet because the world is such a horrible place, and then experiences many adventures that prove to him that he was simultaneously totally right and totally wrong in his belief. His family believes that his disability was caused by a fall down the cellar stairs, exhibiting “man’s understandable desire to find physical justification for all alleged miracles.” Never sentimental, Grass shows the child Oskar growing and discovering what it is that makes up life. He is too complex a character to symbolize anyone or anything specific. Sometimes kind, sometimes spoiled, always curious and filled with Freudian sexuality, and sometimes terrible and cruel he may be. But he is always human.

It is immediately apparent that Grass has an enormous capacity to perceive the lightest comedy and the deepest tragedy (both of which are on a thin, often indistinguishable barrier) in the everyday. For example, the farcical chase scene between the telegraph poles in the first chapter recalls Chaplin’s slapstick piss-take of Hitler in the magnificent satire The Great Dictator. Even in the first few chapters there are many vivid characters and moments that burn long in the memory after reading: the wide many-layered skirt of his grandmother, the remarkable anarchist rebel Joseph Koljaichek and his disputed fate, Oskar’s gift for exploding stained glass windows with his scream, the photograph album through which the dead live, the scars of Herbert Truczinski which tell a thousand stories, the Jewish toy merchant who takes all the toys in the world away with him out of this world, the last stand playing cards in the Polish Post Office, the Polish cavalry charging with swords at a blitzkrieg, Maria and the packets of fizz powder and little Oskar’s Tin Drum beating alongside and through each of them. And always, if not in the words then in the spaces between them, lurk the Nazis.

Oskar the narrator is simply everything the Nazis hate. He is disabled and thus is not the healthy athletic Aryan ideal, he is Polish and thus is not of pure genetic stock, and he is a musician, an artist, a freethinker and is not part of their blessed empire of soldiers and bureaucrats. His beliefs and behavior are also in opposition to Nazism though not in a conscious polemic sense. He revels in a hatred of cleanliness, for this implies order and perfection–two dangerous falsehoods of which he has a healthy skepticism. He is also the exponent of healthy change, moving on, pragmatism you could call it. “There are things in this world which sacred as they may be cannot be left as they are” is a statement at odds with a time when all talk was of Empires, Thousand Year Reichs, revenge and birthrights of Blood and Soil. At times, he is reminiscent of literary figures from the past: all notably imperfect anti-heroes such as Hamlet, Faust and Prince Myshkin. They represent the Everyman, the individual, imperfect masses of contradictions who struggle with life and conscience. But the beauty of them is the fact that they are imperfect, for imperfection is human. They try and they fail but gain nobility in their trying, in their exertion against all odds and their refusal to ignore emotion. They do not seek victory or martyrdom, they just seek to be (or not to be) and to do. And they, like Oskar, are the opposite of the inhuman false perfection of the Nazis who rather than wrestling with conscience, pride themselves on being above feeling. In a statement concerning the Final Solution of the “Jewish Question” Heinrich Himmler once stated, “to have stuck it out and at the same time–apart from exceptions caused by human weakness–to have remained decent fellows, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and shall never be written.”

Little did the Nazis realize in trying to ascend humanity, above empathy and compassion, they were, in effect, rendering themselves subhuman. These men of iron will and steel resolve were the hollow men, the men of straw, the men of nothing but destruction and their actions went against all that is sacred and all that has distinguished civilization from barbarism no matter how they tried to disguise it. You can speak of “special treatment” or “units to be processed” (or “collateral damage” for that matter) but slaughter remains slaughter. Even in Nazi mythology, there could never have been a great artistic figure like Hamlet because with their extermination of feeling and conscience they extinguished that in mankind without which there can be no heroics: the soul. Quite simply, when soullessness is a virtue, when man looks upon his fellow man suffering and feels nothing, everything, even art, is lost. Until then, we have a choice and a hope. Despite that which he has allowed to happen, Oskar like Germany itself, in his brutal honesty, his rebelliousness and his imagination, is proof that something must and something has survived beyond nihilism.

An undoubted delight in anarchism (“everything is permitted when it is snowing”) runs through a book that regards where “there is politics there is violence” so let us have as little of it as possible. Appalled and disgusted by the fascists, disappointed by the “feeble heckling” of the socialists and dismayed at the “sullen beer drinkers aggressiveness” of the communists, Oskar fits in nowhere but is a more important component of society than either of them. As the fool who highlights the absurdities and hypocrisies through simple common sense and brutal straight forwardness, he is an entity that totalitarianism cannot corrupt. Grass knows the danger of “a morality” (in the sense of state- or ideology-sponsored orthodoxy) in a world where every existential choice involves the creation of a multitude of moralities. He has an admirable consistency in his opposition to tyrannies even those “of the people” and seeks to secure the sanctity and sovereignty of being an individual. Hence the image of Oskar sabotaging the goose-stepping rallies with deliberately out of tune beats so the confused soldiers all march at different speeds. Oskar naturally, without even knowing why he is doing it, prevents them from finding the military rhythm that will annihilate the individual. This reflects Grass’ scepticism for all faith: faith in fatherland, faith in a god who will not grant Oskar a small private miracle, faith in an ideology or a fuehrer, a sceptisim which earns a Social Democrat a brutal death within the tale.

The playwright and former president of the Czech republic Vaclav Havel once said in a definition that embodies this philosophy of Gunter Grass, “We are the seekers of truth who fear those who claim to have found it.” For what is faith but believing in something you know to be false? And what faith does any good except faith in what humanity could be and is against all odds in pockets of resistance?

Rejecting the “grand narrative” explanations of life, Grass forms dichotomies, focusing on concepts and their opposites (Goethe and Rasputin, Angel and Devil, Christ and anti-Christ, Reason and Passion, Apollo and Dionysus) but taking care not to take sides. He encourages the audience to empathize with Oskar and then has him acquiesce in terrible acts to force us to have a scepticism of accepting heroes and villains and question the dichotomy itself. Should we always think of the either/or mentality, that there is good and evil, that you are for us or against us? Or should we see it as a farce, a world that is portrayed in black and white to hide the sinister shades of grey everywhere? And should we recognize the potential for terrible evil and good in every person through the conscious choices they make and recognize this as a great freedom and a great responsibility?

By rejecting the good/evil system of thought, Oskar maintains his freedom. Likewise, Grass refuses to demonize the Nazis, to dehumanize them into stock villains as they had the Jews. They were not predestined or predetermined to be evil, it was not the devil or some higher or lower force that possessed them. They were people, ordinary educated people (doctors, university graduates, chicken farmers, greengrocers) who brought evil about consciously through their choices. If you accept this, you accept that we also have an immense power in every choice to bring good, and in this there is hope. In a godless world, we are doomed to bring about our own destinies, our own futures through each choice and this is our salvation.

Far from being an angel and far from a devil, Oskar seeks to “harmonize chaos and intoxicate reason” and in doing so is beyond obedience to either the forces of evil or the forces of good (there is a danger in those who claim to be the forces of good for they are still a “force”) and defines himself as a rebel or in a better definition, an artist. In his illogical common sense, he shows the apparently logical to be absurd and dangerous as medieval court jesters once did to hold despots to account. In a society gone mad, it is left to the inmates of psychiatric wards to be guardians of reason. There is mention in The Tin Drum of a Nazi who is stricken from membership for “conduct unbecoming of a Nazi” because of cruelty to animals. This absurd joke evokes humor but also a feeling of unease. It is funny because we know it is ironic that a Nazi could be found guilty of cruelty to animals and yet the gassing of invalids and the rape and butchering of women and children in the death camps is perfectly acceptable in their prevailing moral code. Grass uses laughter as a tool to smuggle questions into the minds of the readers. Should we be laughing when the mechanics of the joke are also those that sent six million Jews to the crematoria? Incidentally it is based upon truth. Himmler once said about the Jews, “We Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude to animals, will also adopt a decent attitude to these human animals, but it is a crime against our own blood to worry about them.”

Oskar’s rebellion is that of the free spirit against all matter of final solutions and explanations and systems, even those that claimed to be just and righteous. (For didn’t even Nazism do so?) Remember who the first enemies targeted by the Nazis were, not the Jews or the gypsies or homosexuals. It was the artists, the Dadaists, the writers, the free thinkers, because they posed the most problems to the orthodoxy. In a strange roundabout way, the Nazis gave artists proof of their own moral potency and power by choosing to wipe them out first. Only by clearing away the artists, the askers of questions, could what happened later become acceptable. “Art is accusation, expression, passion,” shouts the students’ art instructor in The Tin Drum. That is the reason Hitler failed as an artist and why he persecuted artists before any other group. When Hitler himself was an artist he sought order, perfection, exact replicas of landscapes and postcard
depictions of buildings as accurately and soulless as possible. He could not succeed as an artist because he could not evoke the rebellion of real art, the fearless abandon, the rational intoxication of the senses. He could not do it but he did fear it. And from fear comes hatred. So from the beginning, the Nazis burned books and “degenerate art” because they knew this embodied free spirit (skepticism, free will, rebellion). In The Tin Drum Grass says, “even bad books are books and therefore sacred” and he is right. For what is literature if not the conscience of society? This is why Hitler burned them. To clear the way so he could later burn human beings.

Grass is a storyteller, a parable teller at his deepest. He is not a philosopher. He just tells a good story that means a lot. If Oskar teaches us anything, it is in that phrase, “Oskar is a realer Jesus than he is.” From that we can decipher that we don’t have to be Christs or victims to avoid being Hitlers. But we do have to question everything always, question even our questioning, for humanity to stay afloat and to remain individuals worthy of that title. We need to step back and remember that Nazism was a democratic phenomenon and so we must always question that which we take for normal, that which we accept as acceptable, which may in the future, from the outside looking in, be seen as the depths of barbarism.
Grass restores humanity to his language and his culture or at least begins to. It is the job for the rest of us to do the same with our own.

With the fall of the Third Reich, democracy enabled Grass to open his mouth and he’d be damned if he shut it again. The intelligentsia applauded when he first spoke, first asked the awkward questions, then when he continued they became embarrassed, the shuffling of feet could be heard, then they became angry and sought to do him harm with criticism. But still he persists and thank Christ he does. While everyone gleefully celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification, Grass, the forger of the German conscience, spoke up against the tide, a voice in the wilderness to borrow a biblical term, “Whoever thinks about Germany at this moment should not forget Auschwitz……As long as we are remembered we live on. Forgetting is the seal of death.” They granted him that outburst, hoping for him to retreat into silent retirement but they were wrong. Of all the iconography concerning the fall of communism, perhaps the most profound and prophetic was not the fall of the Berlin Wall or the statues of Stalin lying on the ground or the wrecking balls swinging for the monolithic face of Marx, but was a simple sketch by Andrei Krauze showing a mass of birds escaping from a wooden wicker cage, briefly taking flight long enough to cram themselves into a metal cage. From one oppressor to another, out of the frying pan into the fire, swapping state nihilism for consumer nihilism.

Grass knew this. He knew that they were buying into the spectacle of wealth and freedom, the image of it without the substance. There would be no secret police in this new state. There would not need to be. Having fought successive systems of authoritarianism, he was not willing to give up now so he realigned his targeting sights. And so at the age of 75, he is welcome proof, along with the likes of Tony Benn and Noam Chomsky, that people do not have to mellow with age and that a cliche may be a cliche that exists solely in the heads of the patronizing youth. Gunter Grass has shown that growing old disgracefully is admirable. indeed perhaps it is the only thing to do. The scourge of the authorities, the eternal rebel, he has proved himself to be a Nobel Prize winning pain in the ass for governments in Europe and America. Proud of the German refusal to join War on Iraq, the responsibilities and implications of war weigh heavily on the collective conscience of Germany and on none more than Grass. Only those who have seen war at its most barbaric can appreciate the true meaning of reserving it only as a terrible last resort. Gunter Grass has learned through experience to be suspicious of talk of pre-emptive strikes and living space and crusades and God being on people’s sides (curiously always those with the largest collection of cruise missiles and B-52s). Conscripted into the German Army as a mere boy, he saw the ferocity of combat (in which he was wounded) but also the hollowness of the causes for which men are made to fight, the patriotic sleight of hands and distractions that disguise essentially a goldrush at gunpoint. This is why I trust the words of Gunter Grass a thousand times more than I do the draft dodgers in charge in Washington. He has seen the abyss and can teach us how to avoid it while they, intoxicated with the bravery of being out of range, set a course directly for it.

Though their writing styles are vastly different, Gunter Grass reminds me of George Orwell. Not only because he aims to foster common human decency (Orwell’s definition of socialism) but also because he is the guardian of objective truths, facts that remain facts no matter what the opinions around them dictate. Facts that are facts no matter how awkward or unwanted they are. In doing so, he sets up a bulwark against totalitarianism, which is basically institutionalized deception according to whatever ideology it happens to be whether it be that in Pravda or that on CNN. He has set himself against the cretins known as holocaust deniers and the subtler revisionists who seek to revise history from false new angles to make a name for themselves. As long as facts remain sacred beyond belief, as long as 2 + 2 = 4 there is a hope. Or, as he puts it in The Tin Drum, the sugar loses none of its sweetness no matter who rules Danzig. That is the reason why he turns his attention to the sinking of the cruise liner the Wilhelm Gustloff with 6000 refugees in the icy black waters of the Baltic in his most recent book In Retrogression. He sets his mind to speaking out against the murder of two million Germans after the war, because he is not afraid of embracing the awkward truths, even if these people were Nazis or voted for Nazism they were murdered civilians and they were two million stories and fates that must be told, that must be borne witness to. To ignore them, to falsify history or turn our heads would make us no better than Nazis. 2 + 2 = 4 means the apparently unspeakable must be spoken. Which is why we will always need people like Grass.

Before you come to the conclusion that this essay is entirely sugar coated I have to admit I’ve found a lot of people who hate this book. Its vastness (almost six hundred pages long) means some find it laborious. This I think says more about the current literary climate where impatience is a virtue, where the “consumer” demands instant gratification and chapters are getting progressively shorter as if the writers seek to bundle the person to the end as quick as possible. For those whose attention span has not yet been replaced by that of a goldfish, the book is large but far more rewarding than other books of a similar length. There is much more pleasure to be gained from The Tin Drum than say, Ulysses, which set an unfortunate precedent of writing books for critics rather than people, and resembles a good novel ruined by aspiring to be the world’s longest crossword.
Saying that The Tin Drum is influenced by Ulysses in so much as it is written in a bewildering (I reached for the thesaurus for that) variety of styles by which the narrator tells his story from his cell in a mental institution. He employs the “solipsistic, dramatic, catechistic and the catalogic” and while I have no idea what these mean, I’m sure those of you who fancy yourselves as critics are getting stiff at their mere mention. What is evident is that while all these literary parlour tricks became Joyce’s end (or dead end) they do not for Grass. Joyce, though a brilliant writer, allowed his tricks, like the tune of a snake charmer, to hypnotize him into believing that
stuffing his head up his own arse was not such a bad idea. Grass happily loves his audience enough to employ these tricks simply as a variety of means to tell a damn fine story.

Too often such essays like this seem like obituaries. I hope Grass lives for another forty years for the world would be a poorer place without him.

“As long as man hopes he will go on turning out hopeful finales,” it says in The Tin Drum. This is mine. Adorno said after Auschwitz, poetry is impossible. Grass disagreed in the most poetic of prose. For to give up, to concede that the world is brutal and barbaric and will remain so, is a surrender and an acceptance that the burners of books and human beings have won.

After Auschwitz, and precisely so that the architects of Auschwitz do not succeed, there must be poetry. It is our duty and our calling.

One Response

  1. Thanks for paying homage to
    Thanks for paying homage to Gunter Grass. He is one of the few remaining vestiges of humanity’s hope. I consider him to be Nietzsche’s Zarathustra – a man who tried keeping morality alive and actual and not simply a tool of power. Unfortunately, it looks as if the material objects, our individual consumer identities, have sent Gunter Grass back to the mountain top before his body has reached the point of departure. Morality has once again, as Gunter Grass feared, vanished – and the reunification of Germany was the spiritual tide announcing consumerism’s victory and life’s capitulation.
    Here’s to a great writer and your refreshing words of encouragement – maybe it’s only a battle lost and not the war.

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