Grass Publishes

Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum, greeted with both critical praise and public outrage, forced Germans to reexamine their own complicity in bringing about the nightmare that was the Third Reich.

Summary of Event

Beginning in the early 1950’s, West Germany experienced what is often called the Wirtschaftswunder, World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];reconstruction
Wirtschaftswunder a miraculous economic recovery after the devastation of the country during World War II. The mounting tensions of the then-raging Cold War made a rearmed Germany strategically useful to the U.S.-led Western bloc nations. The U.S. government began the economic and military rehabilitation of its former enemy to establish a front line of defense against a possible Soviet bloc invasion of Western Europe. A rising prosperity among the West German population accompanied the military buildup. By the end of the decade, West Germany had recovered from much of the devastation caused by the bombing and the battles of World War II. Tin Drum, The (Grass)
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[kw]Grass Publishes The Tin Drum (1959)
[kw]Tin Drum, Grass Publishes The (1959)
Tin Drum, The (Grass)
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[g]Europe;1959: Grass Publishes The Tin Drum[06000]
[g]Germany;1959: Grass Publishes The Tin Drum[06000]
[g]West Germany;1959: Grass Publishes The Tin Drum[06000]
[c]Literature;1959: Grass Publishes The Tin Drum[06000]
[c]World War II;1959: Grass Publishes The Tin Drum[06000]
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Grass, Günter

West Germany’s economic and military partnership with the Western bloc engendered an attempt on the part of many Germans to disassociate themselves from their country’s Nazi past. Many German teachers, historians, writers, and government officials argued that Adolf Hitler and his movement represented a historical anomaly, not the logical development of German history. Hitler came to power, these apologists maintained, because of a special set of circumstances: the German defeat in World War I and the ensuing Treaty of Versailles (universally despised among all social classes in Germany), the economic dislocations in Germany during the Weimar Republic (especially the country’s great depression), and middle-class fear of a Communist takeover. The German nation as a whole, they concluded, should not be forced to bear the guilt for atrocities committed by a group of madmen who illegally seized control of their government.

During the period between 1945 and 1959, a whole body of literature emerged in Germany and elsewhere underscoring the thesis that most Germans had deplored Hitler and the Nazis. Accounts of various German resistance groups that had actively sought to overthrow Hitler appeared alongside stories of individual Germans who had helped rescue numerous Jews from deportation to concentration camps. German artists, writers, and scientists pointed out that many of their number emigrated shortly after Hitler came to power. Most of those who remained insisted that they had been part of the “inner emigration,” that though they had remained in Germany they had never cooperated with the regime and had worked in subtle ways to thwart Hitler’s purposes.

Günter Grass’s iconoclastic novel Die Blechtrommel (1959; The Tin Drum, 1961) shattered the moral complacency of German intellectuals and the German people, forcing them to acknowledge their own responsibility for the triumph of Nazism. Nazism;popular German complicity Born in the free city of Danzig (which had been forcibly separated from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles) in 1927 to a grocer and his wife, Grass grew up during the Nazi era. Like most German children, he was a member of the Hitler Youth and thus was subjected to Nazi indoctrination throughout his childhood. Drafted into the army in 1944, he was wounded and finally captured by soldiers of the U.S. Army. Released from a prisoner-of-war camp in 1946, he worked at various jobs in a nearly destroyed Germany that was occupied and administered by the victors of the war.

In 1951, Grass resumed educational pursuits interrupted by the war, enrolling in the Fine Arts Academy at Düsseldorf. He married another student at Düsseldorf, traveled with her to Paris, and while she continued her studies, began writing poetry and plays and pursuing his interest in sculpture and graphic arts. Moving to West Berlin in 1954, Grass published a book of poetry that won him an invitation to join Group 47, an organization of German writers. The members of Group 47 were determined to rejuvenate their country’s literary tradition, which had been virtually destroyed by the intellectual repression of the Third Reich.

Grass had won minor acclaim for his poetry prior to The Tin Drum, but in 1958, Group 47 awarded him its prepublication cash prize for his novel. When the novel appeared the next year, it caused one of the greatest uproars in the history of German literature. Translated into most major languages over the next few years, the novel won international critical acclaim, often accompanied by public condemnation. Grass himself instantly became the best-known and most controversial figure of postwar German literature.


In addition to the prepublication prize of Group 47, The Tin Drum won three major international literary awards during the years following its publication. In 1965, while Grass was accepting the coveted Georg Buchner Prize Georg Buchner Prize , members of a youth organization in Düsseldorf publicly burned copies of his novel. Despite critical acclaim and many awards, Grass and The Tin Drum became the target of more than forty lawsuits and innumerable denunciations in the letters-to-the-editor columns of virtually every publication in Germany. People from all social strata in Germany accused Grass of pornography, blasphemy, sacrilege, slander, defamation, and many other heinous crimes.

Despite the various reasons given by Grass’s many detractors for their denunciation of him and his novel, the furor over The Tin Drum arose from one central theme: Grass refused to exculpate himself or any other German from the guilt of the Nazi regime. (On August 12, 2006, Grass revealed in an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that briefly he had been a member of the Waffen Schutzstaffel [SS], but not a member by choice. Public condemnation and accusations of hypocrisy were swift. Grass’s 2006 autobiography Beim Häuten der Zwiebel
Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Grass) [Peeling the Onion, 2007] reveals more.)

In the novel, Grass used as his storyteller a deranged short-statured person named Oskar Matzerath (who willed himself to stop growing at the age of three to gain protection from the insane society of the interwar period and who had magical powers imparted by a succession of tin drums), Grass identified Nazi affinities in most of the people and all the institutions of German society.

Critics have called Oskar’s account of the Nazi era wildly satirical, wickedly humorous, and often morally chilling. Oskar presents a German religious institution only too willing to accommodate itself to Hitler’s regime. Some of his most damning barbs are directed at Grass’s own Catholicism, but Protestants are not spared their share of guilt.

The picture of the world-acclaimed German educational institution presented by Oskar suggests that its discipline and regimentation accommodated Hitler’s purposes admirably. The German political tradition of authoritarianism and antiliberalism almost invited a Hitler to take power. The Nazis capitalized on and institutionalized a widespread view of women that relegated them to a subordinate status in family relationships and the workforce. All economic classes willingly sacrificed their personal freedom to gain the economic prosperity that Hitler promised and delivered. In short, Hitler was no accident but the logical development of German history. Therefore, all the evil of the Nazi era was the direct responsibility of all living Germans. Still more disquieting was the implicit suggestion that the same forces that had brought Hitler to power were still operating in contemporary German society.

Oskar portrayed those Germans who had engaged in active resistance to Hitler’s regime as having been opposed only to Hitler himself and not to the substance of Nazism. He also dismissed those German intellectuals engaged in the “inner emigration” as being nothing more than court jesters for Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Taken in total, the novel condemned all Germans and insisted that they acknowledge the moral and spiritual shortcomings of their institutions; little wonder that almost every German reader found something offensive in The Tin Drum.

Despite the controversy surrounding Grass and the widespread condemnation of The Tin Drum, the novel was widely read (more than half a million copies sold in Germany during the five years following its publication) and discussed, especially by young people. The West German government began insisting that students be taught the history of the Nazi era, which had been until then neglected in the postwar schools. In the succeeding decades, The Tin Drum and Grass’s subsequent novels and poetry became the foci for the people, the intellectuals, and the artists of a whole nation reinterpreting its own past and reexamining the moral foundations of its institutions.

When Ralph Mannheim’s translation of The Tin Drum appeared in the United States in 1961, Grass immediately won acclaim from many critics as Germany’s greatest living writer. Literary critics in France, Denmark, and many other countries went so far as to acknowledge Grass as the world’s greatest living novelist and praised his courage in raising such controversial issues in his own country. A few critics were perceptive enough to point out that the elements of German society that Grass satirized so scathingly and that led directly to the triumph of Nazism could be found in every industrialized nation. Although Grass directed his message to Germans, many of his admirers argued that all humankind must learn from his pages or suffer a resurgence of the tyranny that nearly engulfed the world before 1945. Tin Drum, The (Grass)
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Further Reading

  • Grass, Günter. The Günter Grass Reader. Edited by Helmut Frielinghaus. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2004. Collection of Grass’s writings in translation.
  • _______. My Century. Translated by Michael Henry Heim. New York: Harcourt, 1999. The novel that won for Grass the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature. A series of one hundred stories that reflect on the history of the twentieth century from a German point of view.
  • Hänicke, Diether H. “Literature Since 1933.” In The Challenge of German Literature, edited by Horst S. Dämmrich and Diether H. Hänicke. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1971. A broad account of German literature since the advent of Hitler. It is valuable in understanding the context of The Tin Drum and in showing how Grass’s novel was both a culmination of previous German literature and, at the same time, a harbinger of a new German literary tradition.
  • Hatfield, Henry. “Günter Grass: The Artist as Satirist.” In The Contemporary Novel in German: A Symposium, edited by Robert R. Heitner. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967. Virtually a paean of praise to Grass and The Tin Drum. Its major value is in its explanation of the satirical intent of many passages in the novel that are obscure to readers not intimately familiar with German history and the German language.
  • Hollington, Michael. Günter Grass: The Writer in a Pluralist Society. London: Marion Boyars, 1980. Although Hollington devotes only one chapter to The Tin Drum, references to the novel permeate his entire book. Hollington credits Grass with forcing Germans to look candidly at the Nazi era and with inspiring a younger generation to fight diligently against the complacency of its elders.
  • Maurer, Robert. “The End of Innocence: Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum.” In Critical Essays on Günter Grass, edited by Patrick O’Neill. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. A long interpolation of Grass’s novel complete with several questionable conclusions. Shows the many literary influences manifest in The Tin Drum, ranging from Voltaire to Thomas Mann. Contains several reviews of Grass’s first novel and a number of articles that will help readers understand Grass himself and the controversy that still surrounds him.
  • Miles, Keith. Günter Grass. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975. Although only chapter 2 deals exclusively with The Tin Drum, readers will learn much about the novel and about its impact in the introduction and in the other seven chapters. Interpretations of and insights into The Tin Drum are perceptive and very useful to readers trying to understand Grass’s often cryptic prose.
  • Preece, Julian. The Life and Work of Günter Grass: Literature, History, Politics. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Examines Grass’s life and his work as a response to German political history.
  • Tank, Kurt Lothar. Günter Grass. Translated by John Conway. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1969. Contains a short biography of Grass and considerable analysis of his early works, most especially The Tin Drum. Best for those familiar with German literature and literary criticism.
  • Willson, A. Leslie, ed. A Günter Grass Symposium. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971. The seven articles in this slender volume discuss various aspects of Grass’s prose and poetry. Will aid more advanced students of Grass’s work in understanding the complexities of The Tin Drum.

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