The main themes in Crabwalk are retribution and hate, the role of parents, and the ambiguous nature of heroism.
- Retribution and hate: David Frankfurter sought retribution for the Nazis’ hateful campaign against the Jews, while Konny seeks retribution for the murder of Nazi official Wilhelm Gustoff.
- The role of parents: Paul feels he and his wife have failed their son, who, while living with his grandmother, has turned to right-wing ideology and murder.
- The ambiguous nature of heroism: Grass explores the question of what determines a “hero” through the figures of Gustloff, Frankfurter, Marinesko, and Konny.
Retribution and Hate
Various characters in Crabwalk seek retribution for the injustices of the past; the inability to embrace forgiveness fuels endless cycles of hatred. Much of the conflict in the novel is based in individual pain that grows until it explodes onto others. Hitler’s campaign in the late 1930s and early 1940s was constructed based on extreme racism; nevertheless, his ideas found a receptive audience. People like Wilhelm Gustloff, who became a leader of the Swiss Nazi Party, were often compelled to join this campaign of hatred because of their own personal conflicts. This ideology placed them in direct conflict with men like David Frankfurter, a Croatian Jew whose health struggles and personal academic failures compounded his inner turmoil. Unable to reconcile his feelings of disappointment, rejection, and alienation, Frankfurter decided to meet Hitler’s campaign of hate with a pointed act of retribution. Frankfurter thus assassinated Gustloff because he represented the ideals of the larger Nazi Party. This murder impacted generations of people, creating emotional divisions between those who created a martyr out of Gustloff and those who felt that Frankfurter was justified in his actions.
Almost half a century later, the atrocities borne out of hatred during World War II continue to fuel conflict. Konny, whose parents are often absent and emotionally unavailable, is drawn to the stories his grandmother tells him about her own past; he therefore becomes emotionally invested in the murder of Gustloff and believes that he must rectify the grave injustice inflicted upon his hero. Konny carefully crafts his revenge, murdering his online adversary, “David,” using almost the exact technique that David Frankfurter had employed. Konny feels no remorse for his actions, much as Frankfurter lacked any sense of regret for his crime.
In the final words of the novel, the narrator reflects, “It doesn’t end. Never will it end.” Like Frankfurter, Konny is idolized for his beliefs, and others vow to “follow” him. Each act of retribution gains the attention of new followers, therefore spreading hate and malice endlessly from one generation to the next.
The Role of Parents
In Crabwalk, the struggles and shortcomings of parents negatively influence their children, and these effects seem to compound with each generation. Tulla was happy to escape the watchful eye of her disapproving parents as soon as she boarded the Gustloff, and her parents’ deaths didn’t cause her any real sense of remorse. Tulla emerged from the tragedy fiercely independent, determined to survive in the face of overwhelming odds. This sense of independence influenced her parenting style, and Paul considers his mother a stoic and emotionless figure in his life. Although she entertained the company of various men throughout the narrator’s childhood, Tulla never offered Paul a real father figure to guide him; consequently, Paul floundered as a father himself, and when Gabi left with their son, Paul didn’t object.
At various points in the conflict, Paul comments that he wishes he had never survived the sinking of the Gustloff and that he had never become a father at all. Paul is plagued by feelings of inadequacy and weakness, and unlike his mother, he is not motivated to overcome his challenges. Instead of taking charge of his life, Paul is a passive observer and allows his son to become increasingly involved in dangerous online activities. Paul recognizes the dangers of his son’s online chats but never confronts Konny regarding his progressive slip into racist and intolerant views. As a result, Konny, who feels alienated by his mostly absent father, seeks the love of his grandmother. Her stories are the catalyst Konny needs to...
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fuel his own resentment, and he becomes obsessed with seeking retaliation for the crimes of the past. When Konny cuts his mother out of his life, she is happy to move on without him. Later, the narrator watches as Konny violently destroys the model of theGustloff. Like the ship, Konny’s life is seemingly destined for tragedy and disaster.
Parents are portrayed in the novel as painfully unequipped to support the needs of their children, and these failures intensify as each new generation inherits a legacy of pain and emotional ineptitude. The novel suggests that parenting requires a sense of diligence, empathy, and insight that this family has never mastered; their failures collectively culminate in Konny’s shocking lack of a moral compass.
The Ambiguous Nature of Heroism
While a hero could be defined as a person who is admired for their courage or bravery in the face of adversity, this novel asks readers to consider the lens through which heroes are judged. To Nazi supporters, Wilhelm Gustloff is a martyr because he was killed by a Jewish man in the midst of an intensely anti-Semitic movement. To others, his murderer, David Frankfurter, is a hero because he represents the power of the underdog to fight back against the powers that seek to destroy him. This conflict is a reminder that the determination of a hero is based on the values and conscience of a particular culture; one person’s hero is quite possibly another’s enemy.
Alexsandr Marinesko believed that he should be honored as a Russian hero for his “successful” wartime mission of sinking the Gustloff—sending thousands of women and children plunging into the icy sea and to their almost immediate deaths. The official title of hero wasn’t withheld from Marinesko because he killed thousands of refugees, however; instead, his struggle with alcohol was the reason provided for the government’s refusal to acknowledge his efforts as heroic. After his death, he was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, and the Museum of Russian Submarine Forces was renamed after him.
The novel demonstrates that recognizing a person’s “heroic” efforts is often dependent on cultural and historical contexts. The “brave” acts heroes perform often rely on the perception of an “enemy,” which is thus also an ambiguous classification.