Banging the Drum For Poland by Michał Karski

Here are some more thoughts on the Günter Grass article in the New York Times.

Although the NYT did amend its phrasing concerning Poland, nevertheless I don’t think the subject is quite at an end. I sent the following opinion piece to their Op-Ed department last Sunday, but it doesn’t look as if it will be published. The NYT very courteously informs its prospective Op-Ed contributors that there is a huge volume of submissions and that if there is no response from the paper within three business days, then the writer is free to offer the piece elsewhere.

The following is what I sent in:

Banging the Drum For Poland

So Günter Grass is still making waves  – and perhaps being rediscovered by a new generation as a result? I’d like to comment, if I may, not about the current furor engulfing the venerable, if controversial laureate, but instead specifically about his best-selling novel ‘The Tin Drum’.

A recent article in the New York Times (8th April) described the book as an “allegorical exploration of Nazism in Germany and Poland”. That it explores Nazism in Germany, most people would readily accept, but Poland?

I had read the novel about halfway through some years ago, but put it aside for another day. (Perhaps I found it too difficult, perhaps I found the main character not entirely sympathetic or perhaps my attention span was not what it is today). At any rate, I have just finished reading the entire book (and definitely struggling a bit towards the end, I have to admit). The main thing that struck me was whether the above description was quite accurate in the first place? Could it even be said to be an allegorical exploration of Nazism in Germany, let alone Poland?

A piece such as Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’ would certainly fit that description, but the Grass novel seems to be essentially a fictionalized autobiography in the form of a strange mix of surrealism, traditional German ‘Bildungsroman’, the occasional stream of consciousness’ passage, also the occasional bit of drama thrown in, and the subject of Nazism itself appears merely as a recurrent background theme. (In fairness, when Nazi cruelty does appear, it is treated with an appropriate measure of revulsion – ‘Kristallnacht’ in Danzig; the fate of the defenders of the Polish post office), but the question remains: how far does the book actually explore Nazism in Germany? Was it a sensation at the time of its first publication simply because it dared to address a hitherto taboo subject?

As for exploring “Nazism in Poland” – and I’m pleased to see that the original extremely contentious wording was changed in the NYT article – I can’t quite see how (pre-war and wartime) Poland actually figures in the book at all, except for the occasional brief mention. Most of the action is set in Danzig (which we now know as Gdańsk), and at the beginning of the book it is made clear that this was a ‘Free City’ under League of Nations protection, but with a German name and a predominantly German population. We are also made aware that the city was incorporated into the Third Reich soon after the outbreak of hostilities.

There is a mention, early on in the novel, of the ‘Quixotic’ Polish cavalry (who reappear later in the book as avenging phantoms) – and here Grass is reflecting the widely-believed myth, spread by German propaganda newsreels, about Polish lancers being pitted against German tanks, cf. The Battle of Krojanty

– but apart from that, Grass does not really mention what was happening in pre-war, or indeed Nazi-occupied Poland, other than perhaps the brief references to Fajngold’s experiences at Treblinka.

All the same, it may actually be a positive thing that the NYT correction draws attention to the fact that Nazism was imposed on Poland against the will of the population, something which needs emphasizing, it seems to me, given the distortions of history which have sometimes emerged in recent years.

We have had superb and moving portrayals of conditions in Poland under Nazi occupation – Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ and Polanski’s ‘The Pianist’ come to mind – but generally there has been a notable lack of material in the English-speaking World, particularly on celluloid, depicting Polish resistance to the Nazis, whether by the Underground or by the Armed Forces in exile.

Strange as it may seem, and readers may disagree, but I actually believe that the last mainstream film to deal with this subject with any degree of accuracy (after the British-made 1969 film ‘The Battle of Britain’), was Mel Brooks’s remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s ‘To Be or Not to Be’, and that was back in the eighties.

As for ‘The Tin Drum’ as allegory; maybe I’m being too literal, or perhaps others see in the novel something which I’ve missed.

And finally, as an afterthought, is Grass’s novel, like Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, not only one of the greats of twentieth century literature, but also one of the ‘great unreads’?

Michał Karski

Thank you, PAC, for your own unfailing courtesy in publishing the above comments.

The Brooks film referred to, despite the occasional lapse into rather broad humor, does follow the Lubitsch original fairly closely and the original, of course, was a dark satire, daring in its time, aimed directly at the Nazis and their anti-Semitic policies. It also highlighted Polish opposition and resistance to the Nazi regime. Although it was released in 1942, this was still at a time before the full horror and scale of Nazi atrocities became widely known in the world.

As for Grass himself, given what we now know about him, he appears to have rather undermined his own position as a critic of Germany’s Nazi past.

Michał Karski





  1. Michal Karski says:

    In case anyone thinks I have been unnecessarily critical of Günter Grass and the revelation about his brief service in the German army, here are his own thoughts, as reported in the UK’s ‘Daily Telegraph’ a few years ago: (Note the description of ‘The Tin Drum’ as an examination of wartime Germany)

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