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The Tin Drum | Context


Danzig in the 1930s and 1940s

When Grass was growing up, the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk) was a city-state mostly populated by Germans. It was under the protection of the League of Nations and administered by Poland from 1919–39. In the early 1930s, the Nazi Party gained control of the government, and in 1938, Adolf Hitler demanded that Poland turn over the city to Germany. Poland refused, and Hitler invaded in 1939. Hitler's Home Guard proceeded to rid Danzig of both Jews and Poles. Grass grew up during this terrifying series of events; they were the foundational experiences for his trilogy of novels, beginning with The Tin Drum, reflecting the Nazi drive to create an Aryan nation and the culture of "neighbor against neighbor" that resulted.

Germany in the 1950s

After World War II, Germany was divided into four separate zones. France, Britain, and the United States occupied three zones, and the other was occupied by the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, its premier. Germany's capital, Berlin, was similarly divided; East Berlin was ruled by the Soviet Union and West Berlin was administered by the Allies. The goal was to demilitarize Germany until it was ready for a legitimate, reconstituted government.

Defeated and divided, Germany was economically dependent upon the occupying countries. The Soviet Union stripped East Germany of its manufacturing capability. In contrast the Western Allies, led by the United States, promoted economic recovery in West Germany. Grass, however, regarded the focus on material recovery as misplaced. He believed too little emphasis was placed on Germany's moral responsibility for its actions during the war.

The Allies wanted to unify Germany in the early 1950s, but Stalin refused. Instead he enacted a blockade to keep the West from supplying West Berlin. He hoped to force the West to surrender the city. In response, the Allies airlifted supplies to West Berlin. Eventually, Stalin ended the blockade, but the two parts of Berlin remained separate. Residents of the restrictive German Democratic Republic (East Germany) began to defect to the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). While West Germany slowly began to recover economic strength, East Germany stagnated under Soviet rule.

In recognition of its responsibility for the Holocaust, West Germany signed a reparations agreement with Israel in 1952. This response, however, did not appear to Grass to be sufficient, considering the tragedy of the Holocaust and the millions of lives destroyed during the Nazi era. The Tin Drum earned Grass the title of Germany's "moral conscience" because he freely and forcefully acknowledged the ugliness of Germany's actions.

Response to Theodor Adorno

Like many post-Holocaust writers and thinkers, Grass was fully engaged with the ideas of German philosopher Theodor Adorno, whose 1949 assessment of the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz created an international stir. Adorno reasoned that the barbarism of the German people pervaded the language. Grass responded very specifically to this argument in The Tin Drum, making the 1959 novel not merely an anti-war story and chronicle of German apathy but also a demonstration of the possibilities of a moral language, freshly conceived.

In his Nobel Prize lecture in 1999, Günter Grass revisited Adorno's view of a corrupt German language. Grass declared that the writer's duty was to "take the goose step out of German" to pursue "a matter of principle": a turn to "narration as a form of survival as well as a form of art." Moreover, he recognized that the principle holds for all writers—that is, for all liars: a point he confirms in recalling his childhood "addiction to lying for its own sake because sticking to the truth would have been a bore." Lies become for the author a means of exploring the truths (of which there are multitudes, he insisted): "Satire is the name of the art form I have in mind, and in satire everything is permitted, even tickling the funny bone with the grotesque." With a final nod to Adorno, Grass concluded: "The only way writing after Auschwitz ... could proceed was by becoming memory and preventing the past from coming to an end ... only then could the wound be kept open and the much desired and prescribed forgetting be reversed." Thus Grass advised his audience on how to read and accept a novel that wounds, a work that demands vulnerability, a collective sense of humor, and close attention to the very nature of language itself as a mark of the reader's humanity.

Critical Reception of The Tin Drum

Heralded worldwide, The Tin Drum was translated into more than a dozen languages. Its picaresque take on Grass's childhood and experiences in wartime Germany is both humorous and grotesque, earning it praise and inciting horror. Grass gained a reputation as the "conscience of his generation," and the book was cited as a major reason for his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999. The satirical embellishment of events in the book was compared to the "magical realism" of Latin American literature, although Grass preferred the term "broadened reality" to express his technical choices.

A film based on the novel, produced in 1979 by Volker Schlöndorff, caused a controversy in the United States because of scenes suggesting that Oskar, as a child, engages in sexual contact with various adult characters. In 1997, the Oklahoma City police confiscated copies of the film from the public library, claiming it contained child pornography. The library filed a lawsuit, and in 1998 a federal judge ruled that the film could not be considered pornography because it was based on a well-known work of literature.

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