Americans remember World War II as "the good war," the one fought with stoic heroism by "the greatest generation." For Europeans, it is a scar that won't stop itching, a remembrance of pain and disgrace. Even for those people whose nations were on the winning side, sadness and horror intrude into memories of glory. Novelists can capture the mixed emotions that go with war better than historians. It's no accident that Ian McEwan's Atonement--perhaps the most admired British novel of the past decade--has at its center the retreat of British forces to Dunkirk, a story that mixes courage, fear and incompetence in equal measures.
For Germans, especially, the memory of war poses an existential problem. The enormity of German war crimes was so great, and the extent to which the postwar generation assumed a collective guilt for the Nazis' horrors so remarkable, that it has not been easy for Germans (much less others) to face another side of the truth of war: Germans suffered too. They didn't just lose tens of thousands of young men in battles far from home. British and American air forces bombed their cities into landscapes from hell, while in the winter of 1944-45--when the Red Army swept through Eastern Europe--millions of refugees were forced to flee west as the doomed Wehrmacht fought with an almost demented bravery to defend them. It is as an act of recovering German suffering that Crabwalk, the new novel by Gunter Grass, is worth reading. "We have a right to mourn our dead," Grass said to me when I visited his home earlier this year, "despite the crimes that we committed."
Crabwalk (Harcourt; 234 pages) tells the story of a journalist, Paul Pokriefke, who was born as his mother escaped the sinking Wilhelm Gustloff, a cruise ship carrying refugees that was sunk by a Russian submarine in the Baltic Sea in January 1945. The number of those who died will never be known, though around 7,000 seems a reasonable guess. It was the greatest disaster in maritime history.
Purely as a novel, Crabwalk is a disappointment. The plot, which turns on the efforts of Pokriefke's tortured teenage son Konrad to understand the tragedy, is predictable. With the exception of Pokriefke's mother, a harridan who dotes on her grandson, the characters are not drawn finely enough to grab the reader. But as a window into the compromises and dishonesties with which Germans have had to live for two generations, the book packs a punch.
Grass had long wanted to write about the Wilhelm Gustloff, he says, partly because his own family could easily have been on the ship. His mother was never able to talk to him about what she experienced when the Russians moved into Danzig. "There is no family in Germany that did not learn some kind of lesson from the two World Wars," says Grass. In Crabwalk, a character based on Grass--himself a man of the left--laments the "staggering failure" of the left's silence in the face of such misery. That silence is ending.