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I met Grass in his home village of Behlendorf, a place of neat, brick-built farms an hour's drive from the city of Hamburg, whose elegant solidity looks rooted in the ages. In truth, Hamburg is a phoenix. In 1943, wrote the German novelist W.G. Sebald in On the Natural History of Destruction, a set of 1997 lectures recently translated into English, the British bombed Hamburg so heavily that a fire storm "lifted gables and roofs from buildings, tore trees from the ground and drove human beings before it like living torches." The absence of any body of literature discussing the Allied bombings, Sebald thought, was evidence of the timidity of German art. But books like Crabwalk have begun to reclaim an important part of the German experience.
In the recent past, Germans both inflicted and endured terrible suffering. With that history, it seems strange to say that Germans are lucky, but in one sense, they are. War is all around us, and yet it is untouchably distant. But Germans, says Grass, "understand what war means." Wars may be necessary, even just. But a nation that has lived through one knows that they are never good. --With reporting by Ursula Sautter/Bonn