Crabwalk
Günter Grass, translated by Krishna Winston
Harcourt
234 pp.; $25

Günter Grass has always polarized his fellow Germans, as he has continuously written about Germany's Nazi past. His literary breakthrough, The Tin Drum (1959), was in fact one of the first German novels that plainly addressed the cruelties of the Nazi regime. For decades, Grass has been regarded as a major European writer who has clearly left his mark on world literature; novelists as various as John Irving and Salman Rushdie have repeatedly expressed their indebtedness to him. Thus it came to hardly anyone's surprise that the prolific German author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.

Now at 75, Grass has remained faithful to his literary mission by writing a novella on a historical incident that had been suppressed for a number of decades. In Crabwalk, Grass revisits the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ship that embarked from Gotenhafen/Gdingen on January 30, 1945 filled to the brim with thousands of German refugees. Westward bound, as the eastern territories of the Third Reich were under attack by Soviet troops, the Wilhelm Gustloff never reached its destination. When the ship was sunk by Soviet torpedoes, more than 10,000 Germans, among them 4,500 children, were killed—approximately six times the loss of life from the Titanic.

The Nazi regime never released any information about the fate of the ship and its passengers, not wishing to further demoralize Germany's already discouraged soldiers and citizens. After World War II, the incident in the Baltic Sea was hardly mentioned in either West Germany or East Germany. Since West Germans had to come to grips with the stigma of being a society of former perpetrators, war crimes ...

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