Crabwalk by Gunter Grass is the story of a man who is searching for information about the boat that sank the night he was born. His research opens his eyes to both truths about his family and the dangerous ways in which Nazi ideals live on in certain communities.
Paul Pokriefke was born the night the Wilhelm Gustloff sank. The ship was attacked by Soviets. His mother, Tulla, was aboard and survived, giving birth to Paul on the lifeboat as they moved toward the shore. The ship was named after a Nazi who was killed by a Jewish student in 1936; as a result, the person Gustloff was a symbol for Nazis to rally behind.
Despite his mother's fascination with the sinking ship, Paul isn't interested. He's a journalist by trade but hasn't found anything particularly intriguing about the ship even with his mother's encouragement. However, Paul finds out that neo-Nazi communities actually still discuss what happened on the Wilhelm Gustloff and decides that it's something interesting enough to write about.
An old man—who Grass never names—encourages Paul to look deeper. Paul writes the book, tracing the journey of his mother as well as the events that led to the sinking of the ship. Tulla actually encouraged Paul's son Konrad to help explain to the world what happened on the ship. Paul and his son are, however, estranged.
While doing research, Paul finds out that his son is part of neo-Nazi circles. Konrad masquerades online as Wilhelm and argues with another boy who calls himself David—they've taken up the identities of the Nazi man and his killer. They argue online on a message board over whether the Soviets were justified in sinking the Wilhelm Gustloff. The two boys are, however, friends. When they visit the monument for Gustloff, however, David spits on it and Konrad kills him.
He turns himself into the police and says that he shot David because he, Konrad, is German. He's sentenced as a minor and sent to a correctional facility. Paul notes that he seems to move on from his neo-Nazi ideals—but that the ideals he propagated live on in online communities where Konrad is seen as a martyr, much like the original Wilhelm Gustloff.
For years, Paul Pokriefke has resisted the urging of his mother, Tulla, to write down the fateful story of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an oceanliner whose sinking in the Baltic by a Soviet submarine near the end of World War II almost took Tulla’s life. As a journalist, Paul is well qualified for such a writing task. He overcomes his reluctance to delve into the past only when he finds right-wing propaganda on the Web that exploits the maritime disaster.
Pushed along by the old man, an unnamed former citizen of Danzig (now Gdask, Poland) with a keen interest in the story, Paul reluctantly begins to research the history of the ship, which was named after Wilhelm Gustloff, a German Nazi Party functionary who, in 1936, had been assassinated by the Jewish student David Frankfurter in Switzerland. Gustloff had become a martyr for the Nazi cause.
Although Tulla barely survived the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and even gave birth to Paul during the perilous rescue operation, she still has fond memories of the ship that before World War II was used by the Nazis for recreational purposes to promote their concept of a classless society. Paul, however, comes across a debate on the Web in which a person named Wilhelm (as in Gustloff) and one named David (as in Frankfurter) engage in virtual reincarnations of the two historical characters.
Paul writes a detailed report about the Wilhelm Gustloffand its prewar voyages, but he is concerned about the exploitation of the ship’s fate by right-leaning circles. He is even more shocked when he discovers that his son, Konrad, uses the pseudonym Wilhelm on his Web site.
In jumping from the past to the present, Paul writes that when World War II broke out in 1939, the Wilhelm Gustloff was first converted into a hospital ship and then into floating barracks for sailors in training in a harbor...
(The entire section is 1,699 words.)