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Culture

The Taboo Breaker

With his new novel, Nobel-prize winner Günther Grass confronts a subject previously dealt with only by the right wing. It’s part of an ongoing taboo-breaking run by Germany’s literary legend.

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The German literary giant

Like so many other wartime topics, it is one Germans have swept under their carpet of post-Nazi shame and atonement.

The Soviet submarine-sinking of the "Wilhelm Gustloff", a German liner carrying refugees fleeing Nazi Germany from the advance of the Soviet army, has appeared in only a few nonfiction books to-date. The subject matter has seen more prominence among the extreme right wing, who have used it as propaganda.

Why then, has one of Germany’s literary giants and prominent leftist political thinkers decided to write a 224-page book about it?

It could be just the latest indication that Germany is slipping out from behind the shadow of the World War II guilt that has created an atmosphere of hesitancy in dealing with controversial wartime topics critically.

Günther Grass himself has taken not one step in that direction, but three.

In addition to the novel’s publication, Grass has come out this past week against the ban of the right-wing National Democratic Party and in favor of re-publishing Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

"One should be allowed to read such madness," he argued.

Grass’s prominence

The comments have created quite a stir because, when Günther talks, Germany listens.

The 74-year-old native of Danzig (Gdansk), on the Polish Baltic seacoast, has long be recognized as one of the most prominent of Germany’s postwar authors. He wrote poems, plays and essays before shaking up the literary scene in 1959 with Tin Drum. The novel was a satirical take on pre-war Germany and, in 1999, won him the Nobel Prize for literature.

He has followed it with a slew of political and sociological books and essays that have won both praise and drawn criticism from Germany’s literary establishment. "My Century" which he wrote before his most recent novel, was a running commentary on each of the last 100 years.

Buchcover: Grass - Krebsgang

Im Krebsgang, Günter Grass Erscheinungsdatum: 2002 ISBN: 3882438002 EUR 18,00, DM 35,20 Verlag: Steidl

In "Im Krebsgang," roughly translated as "Crabwise," Grass chooses to focus on just one event: The January 30, 1945 sinking of the liner by Russian torpedoes. About 9,000 German wartime refugees, mostly women and children died in the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea in one of the worst disasters in naval history.

The sinking which occurred in the period following the Nazi regime’s collapse and the Soviet army’s advance is one of the taboo wartime topics for most Germans.

Praise from unlikely places

"In the likely bestseller, Grass has broken a historical taboo," wrote the daily, Die Welt.

His newest has drawn praise from the most likely of places. Even a columnist for the heavily-conservative Bild, which stands on the other side of the political spectrum from the leftist Grass, thanked the author.

"We, the expelled, may cry together," wrote Franz Joseph Wagner, who fled from the east with his mother.