Crabwalk Summary

Crabwalk is a 2002 novel by German writer Günter Grass that revolves around the sinking of the German ship the Wilhelm Gustloff during World War II.

  • The narrator, journalist Paul Pokriefke, was born during the sinking of the Gustloff, which was named for a Nazi Party official assassinated by a Jewish man named David Frankfurter.
  • Paul’s son, Konny, adopts neo-Nazi beliefs and, under the assumed name “Wilhelm,” begins debating a seemingly Jewish man called “David” online.
  • Konny and David meet in real life, and Konny shoots and kills David. He is sentenced to seven years in juvenile prison.


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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Crabwalk is a work of fiction centered on the historical events leading up to and following the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff, which occurred on January 30, 1945. The fictional narrator, journalist Paul Pokriefke, was born as the ship was sinking, and the circumstances surrounding his entrance into the world have haunted the events of his life.

To describe the eventual impact of the fateful sinking of the Gustloff, the narrator uses a technique which he calls “crabwalking,” which involves maneuvering among various timelines in order to convey the pain and challenges various characters have faced. In doing so, the author blends his own story into the factual circumstances surrounding the death of Wilhelm Gustloff, who is considered a martyr in some circles.

One timeline examines the conflict of David Frankfurter, the eventual assassin of Wilhelm Gustloff. As a Croatian Jew, Frankfurter was overcome by his own inner turmoil as the climate in Europe became increasingly anti-Semitic. Frankfurter briefly considered ending his own life but decided to instead turn his anger outward. As his target, he chose a Swiss leader of the German Nazi Party, Wilhelm Gustloff. Frankfurter carefully plotted his crime by tracking Gustloff’s movements, which were published in local papers. When he knew that Gustloff had arrived home from a trip, Frankfurter appeared at the door and was welcomed by Gustloff’s wife. After waiting for a few minutes in Gustloff’s office, Frankfurter’s plan came to fruition when Gustloff finished a conversation and appeared to greet his visitor. David Frankfurter immediately shot Gustloff four times and then calmly left the home. He immediately notified the authorities of his crime, conveying no sense of remorse for his actions. He served approximately half of his eighteen-year sentence. 

Gustloff was celebrated as a martyr among members of the Nazi Party, even though his health had prevented him from ever actively serving in the military during the war. He received a tremendous funeral, and all sorts of public spaces were renamed to honor his memory. One such tribute occurred when a new luxury ship, whose purpose was to provide a reprieve from ordinary life for German workers, was christened to bear Gustloff’s name. 

This ship spent about a year and a half providing lavish vacations to German workers and their families while maintaining a “classless” system among passengers. These pleasure cruises around Europe ended with the start of World War II; at this time, the ship was repurposed as a hospital ship. Eventually, it was used to carry both German military members and refugees as the Russian Army advanced into Poland and the Baltic States.

At this point, the fictitious events of Crabwalk blend into historical events. One of the (fictional) fleeing refugees is Ursula “Tulla” Pokriefke, an unwed teenage girl who is in her eighth month of pregnancy. When she boards the ship, she is immediately separated from her parents and never sees them again. Tulla is taken to the maternity wing of the ship, along with other pregnant women, where she can be more closely monitored. When the ship is hit by three torpedoes, launched from a Russian submarine which was commanded by Aleksandr Marinesko, Tulla goes into labor. She manages to escape the doomed ship, and her son is born as the Gustloff sinks.

The other central storyline involves the narrator’s son, Konrad “Konny” Pokriefke, affectionately called “Konradchen” by his doting grandmother. After the narrator and his wife, Gabriela, or “Gabi,” divorce, Konny lives with his mother and is rarely visited by his father. As he gets older, he becomes obsessed with the details of Wilhelm...

(This entire section contains 985 words.)

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Gustolff’s assassination and with the ship which bore his name. In the early days of the internet, young Konny develops a website dedicated to those topics. His father stumbles across the site but doesn’t mention it to his son; instead, he quietly observes his son’s online behavior.

In a chat room on the site, Konny assumes the name “Wilhelm” and begins debating the significance of the “martyr’s” place in history. His primary adversary is a boy who assumes the name “David”; therefore, the old grudge between the Jewish assassin and the German “martyr” is recreated through their ongoing banter. 

Konny eventually suggests that he and “David” should meet in person; surprisingly, “David” agrees. The two meet and spend a day meandering casually through various historical sites. Any cordial feelings evaporate at the site where a memorial to Wilhelm Gustloff once stood; when “David” spits on the ground which is sacred to Konny, Konny quickly takes out a Russian pistol and shoots “David” four times. He then walks to the nearest phone booth and reports his crime. 

Because he is still a teenager, Konny is tried in juvenile court. During the proceedings, it is revealed that “David’s” real name was Wolfgang Stremplin. Furthermore, his parents disclose that their son had no Jewish heritage. Konny is unflinchingly unremorseful, standing by his decision to murder Wolfgang because he presented himself as a Jew; Konny maintains that he killed the boy “on a matter of principle.” 

Konny is sentenced to seven years, and the narrator is conflicted about whether this is a fair punishment. He visits his son several times in juvenile prison; Konny becomes an accomplished ping pong player and scores well on his college entrance exams through distance learning opportunities. Although Konny cuts off contact with his mother, who is content to move on with her life, he remains amiable with his father, whom he had previously kept at an emotional distance. During one visit, however, Konny smashes a model of the Gustloff which he had painstakingly assembled.

Not long after this visit, the narrator finds a website devoted to Konny’s efforts. A collective “we” promises to “wait for” and “follow” Konny’s thinking and conduct. The narrator realizes that “it doesn’t end.”


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