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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This novel by Günter Grass tells the story of a little-known maritime disaster: the attack on and sinking of a refugee ship called the Wilhelm Gustloff (named after a supporter of the Nazi party who was assassinated during World War II). Crabwalk is mainly narrated by a journalist who has direct family connections to the disaster, in which over nine thousand German refugees, half of them women and children, were killed when the ocean liner was sunk in the Baltic by a Soviet submarine torpedo.

In the novel, Grass explores the ways in which Nazi ideology informs the reception of historical events and warps some peoples’ understanding of them. One quotation from the novel that implies the ruthlessness of the Nazis is this: “In statistics, what disappears behind rows of numbers is death.” The meaning seems to be that in looking at numeric facts about, for example, loss of life during wartime, one focuses on statistical comparisons or benchmarks rather than the idea that the numbers refer to a group of people whose lives have been ended, often suddenly, and possibly in horrifically painful or violent ways. Because the novel’s protagonist discovers that his own son has been influenced by Nazi propaganda, it seems this emphasis on cold, dispassionate interpretation of facts is still a lingering influence of the Nazi movement.

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