German "Victimhood" During World War Two: A New Chapter in Germany’s Coming to Terms with Its Past?

Essay, 2013

11 Pages, Grade: 1,0


The Second World War and its historical categorization remains a disputed topic within the German society. Still, the way of how Germans are rethinking their history is in a state of flux. While the question of collective and individual German guilt has attracted increased scientific and popular attention since the late 1960s, more precisely after the Eichmann and Auschwitz trials, German intellectuals and the German media have in recent years turned their attention, again, towards German suffering during the war.[1] This can be seen as a recourse within a new framework. Already in the immediate postwar period, Germans depicted themselves as victims of the war and its settlement. The preferred self-image was that of being first a victim of Hitler’s and then of enemies hands.[2] Once again, though very late, Germans today consider their own countrymen as victims. In movies and books, they depict themselves and their ancestors not only as villains, but also as people who endured air bombing, starvation, and expulsion.

This revived way of storytelling began around the new millennium and focused especially on Germany’s civilian population. An important stimulus for Germany’s coming to terms with its past, or Vergangenheitsbewältigung, was once again triggered by Günter Grass, born in 1927 in Danzig, one of the country’s most popular and successful authors. Already as a member of the famous Group 47, he had – inter alia – initiated a new concept to rejuvenate German literature, particularly with his book The Tin Drum. He also contested a denial of civic responsibility and guilt in past and present, which he saw occurring in the consumerist-driven Bonn Republic.[3] His first two books written in the new millennium, the novel Crabwalk, published in 2002, and his autobiographic work Peeling the Onion, released in 2006, were widely analyzed and sparked off a heated debate on both German guilt and German suffering.[4] By using both books as a case study, this essay examines the main issues that were addressed by Grass and points out today’s situation of German Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Crabwalk – Struggle backwards to move forward

Grass’s novel Crabwalk deals with the question of how the Nazi past still influences Germany’s present and its younger generations due to the alleged suppression of memories and the taboo status for stories about German suffering. He uses the history of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff, the infamous Kraft durch Freude cruiser, which sunk on January 30, 1945 in the Baltic Sea and tragically engulfed about 9,000 mostly young people in the abyss,[5] to illustrate on the basis of a family story how Nazi propaganda has survived over time. His main protagonist and narrator is Paul Pokriefe, the son of Tulla Pokriefe, who was born fatherless some minutes after his mother had been rescued from the sunken ship. Decades later, while exploring the incident on the internet, Paul discovers that his son Konny is a webmaster of a Nazi-webpage called, which commemorates the eponym of the ship and its later victims. In the end, Konny kills his main rhetoric adversary of the webpage’s chat room, who pretended to be a Jew with the fictitious name David and who constantly revealed Konny’s lies about the ship and German history in general. His father desperately tries to save his son from Nazi propaganda but ultimately fails to do so.

The whole novel is divided into different subplots, which mix the fictional family story of the Pokriefes and the history of the ship, i.e. its construction and later use as a Nazi cruiser. Furthermore, it unfolds the stories of its eponym and latter’s assassin as well as the Soviet submarine captain who attacked the Gustloff. The book’s title Crabwalk stands for the way Grass narrates, as he travels back and forth in distant times and places. Additionally, he uses the crabwalk as a symbolism of how he considers German history to be evaluated and reflected. He describes it as a process of “walking diagonally towards scent marks and other secretions of history”.[6] Only by allowing oneself to struggle backwards, one could move forward.[7]

The first topic of German victimhood is the issue of a generation who, for the most part, had to grow up without a father, either because he was dead, imprisoned, or, as in the case of the protagonist Paul Pokriefe, unknown. Paul speaks of having only replaceable phantoms as father figures. The question of descent and identity is a persistent pain in his life.[8] This lack of belonging was the burden of a whole generation that grew up after the war. A large part of the postwar generation did not know who their fathers were and what they had done.[9] But Paul also refers Konny’s Neo-Nazi ideology to his failure as a father and even further to his own growing up without a father. This is later likewise stressed by the court’s psychologist.[10] Here, a direct connection between the hardship of Paul, who missed an integral emotional component of his childhood, is drawn to the bad maturing of his son.


[1] The most recent art work dealing with German suffering, which came out in March 2013, is the highly disputed movie Generation War (German: Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter), which tells the story of five young friends, whose lives are wrecked by “Hitler’s war”.

[2] Judt, Tony: Postwar. A History of Europe Since 1945, London 2005, p. 269f, p. 810.

[3] Ibid., p. 276.

[4] Beyersdorf, Herman: “Die-Heimat, Verloren -.-”: “Vertreibungsliteratur” and the Younger Generation(s), in: Journal of the Australasian University of Modern Languages, Vol. 108, No. 2 (2007), pp. 93-109, here p. 94. Beyersdorf describes it as unsurprising that the publication of Crabwalk was followed by a series of newspaper articles, TV documentaries, and popular books on German expulsion towards the West and the bombing of German cities.

[5] The sinking of the Gustloff attracted two different generations of German film makers: the first movie was shot in 1959 called Night fell over Gotenhafen (German: Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen). The second movie, a production of the public-service broadcaster ZDF, was shown in 2008 under the title The Gustloff (German: Die Gustloff). Both movies are similar in the way that both strongly focus on the victimhood of German civilians on board of the Gustloff. Therefore, both give an excellent example of how German suffering was an important subject of the Vergangenheitsbewältigung during the 1950s and after 2000.

[6] Grass, Günter: Im Krebsgang, Göttingen 2002, p. 18.

[7] Ibid., p. 107.

[8] Ibid., p. 22.

[9] Judt, Tony: Postwar, p. 417.

[10] Grass, Günter: Krebsgang, pp. 184, 193.

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German "Victimhood" During World War Two: A New Chapter in Germany’s Coming to Terms with Its Past?
Diplomatic Academy of Vienna - School of International Studies
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Master of Arts Christopher Reichow (Author), 2013, German "Victimhood" During World War Two: A New Chapter in Germany’s Coming to Terms with Its Past?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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