“History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising.” (page 122)
So does Gunter Grass attempt to capture the essence of history within his novel Crabwalk. I read it back during my beach vacation last summer. The weather today is more appropriate for it though. Outside my home it is cold, grey and raining. We had some freezing rain overnight. The title for the novel comes from Grass’ interesting approach to history.
“…should I do as I was taught and unpack one life at a time, in order, or do I have to sneak up on time in a crabwalk, seeming to go backward but actually scuttling sideways, and thereby working my way forward fairly rapidly?” (page 3)
The novel shifts from the past and the present and, further, it shifts non-linearly around within each timeframe. The present is fictionalized. The past is factual. So, in this sense, Grass has created a “historical” novel that moves forward, stops, begins with another element, moves forward again, stops, moves to another elements, then back again to move a previous element further along. The end result in a linear narrative, but the style is to scoot along a bit, retrace your steps, then scoot along again, not unlike a crabwalk.
So, the first major point to make is that, for Grass, the unfolding of history is non-linear. This is actually not that unusual within the historical novel context. Anyone who has read War and Peace, for example, will realize Leo Tolstoy does the same thing.
The novel centers on a host of factual and fictional characters. Factually, there is Alexandr Marinesko, a Soviet submarine captain who is a drunkard when not on his boat and has outright contempt for the tyrannical world of Soviet Communism. There is David Frankfurter, a Jew who murdered the Nazi bureaucrat Wilhelm Gustloff. Then there is the ship named after the ‘martyred’ Nazi. Initially, the Wilhelm Gustloff is a “classless cruise ship” of the Strength through Joy program (mingling Germans in socialist fashion whether rich, middle class, and poor on each cruise – a symbol of the socialist aspect of Nazism) before being transformed briefly into a hospital ship during the Battle of France, then coming to rest near the port of Danzig as a U-boat training vessel, rotating usually 4 companies of trainees for a 4-month period.
Fictionally, there is the narrator of the story, whose mother was on the Gustloff the night it sank, barely surviving the disaster and giving birth to him on that fateful evening of January 30, 1945. The narrator is a mediocre journalist, who has devoted much of his life research the sinking of the ship. There is also the narrator’s own estranged son (due to a divorce), Konrad, whom he accidentally discovers in the chat room of a neo-Nazi website devoted to the sinking of the Gustloff.
For me the story is not as interesting as how Grass handles history, the crabwalk through history. These characters are not connected physically either in fact or fiction but they are all connected by this one tragic event, intersecting at this historical point both in the present, as it happened, and in the future, as it is remembered and debated. Each one is moved forward slightly by Grass’ constant ramble all around the events and characters concerned.
The narrator himself jumps around in history. He takes a tour of the magnificent ship. “When we visited E deck, where the German League girls from Hamburg has settled into the ‘swimming youth hostel’ with its bunks, we saw on the same deck the indoor swimming pool, with a capacity for sixty metric tons of water. And further numbers, which I did not bother to take down. Some of us were relieved that they spared us the number of tiles and the number of individual chips in a colorful wall mosaic populated by virgins with fish tails and fabulous sea creatures.” (page 61)
Grass fills his novel with a myriad of historically accurate details. Details you aren’t likely to find in many, less-fictionalized resources about the disaster. That is because (and this one of the many things “Crabwalk” attempt to convey) narrative details, so important in a novel, are not of much value from a strictly historical perspective. So, a second point to be made is that novels are in some ways superior to academic history in expressing the narrative of historical events. There is more to history than mere facts. Novels deal with the associations between facts that sometimes get lost in the traditional histories.
For example, the night the ship pulls out of port, overloaded with refugees fleeing the Soviet retribution for the countless Nazi atrocities committed on the Eastern Front, there were four German captains aboard. They were constantly arguing about everything. Should the ship risk sailing in shallower waters that are mined to avoid the threat of a submarine attack? Should it go into deeper waters to avoid possibly colliding with the mined coast? Should it move at 12 knots or 15 knots. The Gustloff has been in port for over three years and the captains disagree over what speed is best for the long untested engines. These sorts of human details are not usually included in ‘straight’ histories.
Then there is the troublesome Marinesko and his submarine. “The Gustloff was not alone as it steamed along as a distance of twelve nautical miles from the Pomeranian coast. The Soviet submarine S-13 was following the same course. The submarine had waited in vain in the waters near the embattled port city of Memel, along with two other units of the Baltic Red Banner Fleet , for ships departing or bringing reinforcements to the remnants of the German 4th Army. For days nothing came into view. While he waited, the captain of S-13 may have been brooding over the impending court-martial and the interrogation he would have to undergo at the hands of the NKVD.” (pp. 128-129)
“At nine o’clock in the evening all four captains are standing on the bridge, arguing over whether it had been right to carry out Petersen’s order and set running lights, an order merely given because shortly after six that evening a convoy of minesweepers had been reported by radio to be approaching in the opposite directions. Zahn had opposed the move. The second navigation captain likewise. Petersen did allow some lights to the turned off, but kept the port and starboard light on. With only the torpedo boat Lowe serving as an escort, and with no lights indicating its height or length, the darkened ship continued on course through diminishing snowfall and heavy swell, approaching Stolpe Bank, marked on all nautical maps. The predicted moderate frost registered minus 18 degrees Celsius.” (pp.134-135)
S-13 is able to close with the Gustloff not least because the German ship was provided with only one anti-sub escort ship for protection. “But before Marinesko’s order to fire is issued and can no longer be retracted, I must insert into this report a legend that has been passed down. Before S-13 left Hango Harbor, a crew member by the name of Pichur allegedly took a brush and painted dedications on all the torpedoes, including the four that were now ready to be fired. The first read FOR THE MOTHERLAND, the torpedo in tube 2 was marked FOR STALIN, and in tubes 3 and 4 the dedications painted onto the eel-smooth surfaces read FOR THE SOVIET PEOPLE and FOR LENINGRAD.” (page 138)
We come back to the beautiful mosaic swimming pool area at the moment of attack. “This torpedo from tube 3, whose smooth surface carried the inscription FOR THE SOVIET PEOPLE,” exploded beneath the swimming pool on Deck E. Only two or three girls from the naval auxiliary survived. Later they spoke of smelling gas, and of seeing girls cut to pieces by glass shards from the mosaic that had adorned the front wall of the pool area and by splintered tiles from the pool itself. As the water rushed in, one could see corpses and body parts floating in it, along with sandwiches and other remains of supper, also empty life jackets. Hardly any screaming. Then the light went out.” (pp. 140-141)
Grass shows contempt for history’s normal infatuation with numbers. “But the more four thousand infants, children, and youths for whom no survival was possible…remained, and will remain, an abstract number, like all the other numbers in the thousands, hundred thousands, millions, that then as now can only be estimated. One zero more or less – what does it matter? In statistics, what disappears behind rows of numbers is death.” (page 145)
A large battle cruiser arrives in answer to the Gustloff’s distress calls. But it causes more harm than good. “Fact is, the Hipper, likewise overloaded with refugees and wounded, paused only briefly, but then turned away to continue on course to Kiel. Furthermore, when the warship, with its ten thousand tons of displacement, executed its turning maneuver at full power in the immediate vicinity of the disaster site, a large number of people floating in the water were sucked into the boat’s wake; not a few were shredded by the propellers.” (page 158)
More distain for exact numbers. A third point in Grass’ approach to history is that facts themselves aren’t worth much without human associations. “The numbers I am about to mention are not accurate. Everything will always be approximate. Besides, numbers don’t say much. The ones with lots of zeros can’t be grasped. It’s in their nature to contradict each other. Not only did the total number of people on board the Gustloff remain uncertain for many decades – it was somewhere between 6,600 and 10,600 – but the number of survivors had to be corrected repeatedly: starting with 900 and finally set at 1,230. This raises the question, to which no answer can be hoped for: What does one life more or less count?” (page 162)
“We do know that the majority of those who died were women and children; men were rescued in embarrassingly large numbers, among them all four captains of the ship. Measured against the roughly five thousand children who drown, froze to death, or were trampled in the corridors, the births reported after the disaster, including mine, hardly register; I don’t count.” (page 163)
Despite great success in accomplishing his orders…“Apparently Aleksandr Marinesko was disappointed when he returned to Turku Harbor and found that he was not welcomed as befitted a hero, even though he had resumed his mission and had sunk another ship, the former ocean liner General von Stuben, with two torpedoes fired from the stern on 10 February. The fifteen-thousand-ton ship traveling from Pillau with over a thousand refugees and two thousand wounded – those numbers again – sank, bow first, in seven minutes. About three hundred survivors were counted.” (page 164)
Marinesko, for being a drunk and bad-mouthing the Soviet regime while under the influence, received a dishonorable discharge due to being “an indifferent and negligent attitude toward his duties.” His application for the merchant marine was rejected. He ended up as a simple dock hand.
For Grass, great historical events are not holistic. They are always fragmented back out to their human elements. While history is something that happens much of the time beyond the control of its participants (another similar theme with Tolstoy), ultimately it is the effect of history of human beings that matters. Crabwalk is filled with many things, but hardly any of them have to do with nations or military doctrines or what makes war work. Instead, Grass tells us that these things are simply not as important as the little human triumphs and tragedies that can be explored more meaningfully through fiction than through strict enslavement to just the facts, only the facts.