Critical Evaluation

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Günter Grass’s iconoclastic novel The Tin Drum shook the moral complacency of the German people and forced them to acknowledge their responsibility for the triumph of Nazism. Earlier, Grass had won minor acclaim for his poetry, but in 1959 Group 47, a German association of young artists and writers, awarded him its prepublication cash prize for The Tin Drum. When the novel appeared, it caused one of the greatest uproars in the history of German literature. Translated into most major languages over the next few years, it won international critical acclaim. Grass himself instantly became the best-known and most controversial figure of postwar German literature.

In addition to Group 47’s prepublication prize, The Tin Drum won three major international literary awards. In 1965, while Grass was accepting the coveted George Büchner Prize, members of a youth organization in Düsseldorf publicly burned copies of The Tin Drum. Despite critical acclaim and many awards, Grass and The Tin Drum became the targets of more than forty lawsuits and innumerable denunciations in the letters-to-the editor columns of virtually every publication in Germany. People from all social strata in Germany accused Grass of pornography, blasphemy, sacrilege, slander, defamation, and other heinous crimes. The furor over The Tin Drum arose from one central theme, that Grass refused to exculpate himself or any other German from guilt for the Nazi regime. In his novel, Grass identifies Nazi affinities in most of the people and in all of the institutions of German society.

Critics have called Grass’s account of the Nazi era wildly satirical, wickedly humorous, and morally chilling. Grass presents a German religious institution only too willing to accommodate itself to Adolf Hitler’s regime. Some of his most damning barbs are directed at Grass’s own Catholicism, but Protestants are not spared their share of guilt. The picture of the acclaimed German educational institution presented in The Tin Drum suggests that its discipline and regimentation prepared the way admirably for Hitler and his movement. In Grass’s book, the German political tradition of authoritarianism and antiliberalism almost invited a Hitler to take power. Grass also showed how the Nazis capitalized on and institutionalized a widespread view of women that relegated them to a subordinate status in family relationships and the workforce. In The Tin Drum, all economic classes in Germany willingly sacrificed their personal freedom to gain the economic prosperity that Hitler promised and delivered. In short, Grass insisted that Hitler was no accident but the logical development of German history; therefore, all the evil of the Nazi era was the direct responsibility of all Germans living at the time.

After World War II, West Germany’s new economic and military partnership with the Western bloc engendered an attempt on the part of many Germans to disassociate themselves from their country’s Nazi past. Many German teachers, historians, writers, and government officials argued that Hitler and his movement represented a historical anomaly, not the logical development of German history. Hitler came to power, these apologists maintained, because of a special set of circumstances: the German defeat in World War I and the ensuing Treaty of Versailles, the economic dislocations in Germany during the Weimar Republic, and middle-class Germans’ fear of a Communist takeover. The German nation as a whole, they concluded, should not be forced to bear the guilt for atrocities committed by a group of madmen who illegally seized control of their government.

During the period between 1945 and 1959, a body of literature in Germany and elsewhere propounded the thesis that most Germans had deplored Hitler and the Nazis. Accounts of various German resistance groups...

(This entire section contains 1005 words.)

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that had actively sought to overthrow Hitler appeared alongside stories of individual Germans who had helped to rescue Jews from deportation to concentration camps. German artists, writers, and scientists pointed out that many of their number had emigrated shortly after Hitler came to power. Most of those who remained insisted that they had been part of the so-called inner emigration, that though they had remained in Germany they had never cooperated with the regime and had worked in subtle ways to thwart Hitler’s purposes.

Grass portrayed those Germans who had engaged in active resistance to Hitler’s regime as having been opposed only to Hitler himself and not to the substance of Nazism. He also dismissed those German intellectuals engaged in the “inner emigration” as being nothing more than court jesters for Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Taken in total, the novel condemned all Germans and insisted that they acknowledge the moral and spiritual shortcomings of their institutions—it was little wonder that almost every German reader found something offensive in The Tin Drum.

Despite the controversy, The Tin Drum was widely read and discussed in Germany, especially by young people (more than half a million copies sold there during the five years following its publication). The West German government began insisting that students be taught the history of the Nazi era, which had been neglected in the immediate postwar era. In the succeeding decades, The Tin Drum and Grass’s other novels and poetry became the foci for an entire nation as it reinterpreted its past and reexamined the moral foundations of its institutions.

After The Tin Drum appeared in translation in the United States in 1961, Grass was acclaimed by many critics as Germany’s greatest living writer. Literary critics in France, Denmark, and many other countries went so far as to rank Grass as the world’s greatest living novelist, and they praised his courage in raising such controversial issues in his own country. A few critics were perceptive enough to point out that the elements of German society that Grass satirized so scathingly—which, according to him, had led directly to Nazism—became present in every industrialized nation in the second half of the twentieth century. Although Grass directed his message to Germans, many of his admirers argued that all humankind must learn from his pages or suffer a resurgence of the tyranny that nearly engulfed the world before 1945.


The Tin Drum