Tuesday February 5 10:48 AM ET, 2002
Novel About 'German Titanic' Breaks Taboo on Past
By Adam Tanner
BERLIN (Reuters) - German Nobel Prize winning author Guenter Grass kicked off a national debate with the publication of a novel on Tuesday focusing on the suffering of German World War Two refugees fleeing the Red Army in the east.
Millions of Germans were expelled from Poland, Russia and Czechoslovakia after World War Two, losing their homes and roots as ordinary citizens paid the price for Adolf Hitler's war that left 50 million dead across Europe.
Their suffering is rarely commemorated in a nation still seeking to overcome the shadows of Nazi crimes.
Grass's latest book ``Crab Walk'' focuses on the plight of the German liner 'Wilhelm Gustloff' carrying thousands of refugees from near Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) which a Russian submarine sank in January 1945.
More than 8,000 people died in what became known as Germany's Titanic -- more than five times as many as the 1,500 who lost their lives when the real Titanic sank in 1912.
Yet while the 'Wilhelm Gustloff' is one of the worst disasters in sea-faring history, its story is scarcely known even in Germany.
History lessons have avoided the subject, mindful of Germans' role as aggressors rather than victims in the war, and the fate of the ship has been the domain of neo-Nazi propaganda.
``With this book Guenter Grass keeps the tragedy of millions of people who suffered greatly in the expulsion from the east or who lost their lives from being forgotten,'' former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher wrote in his newspaper column.
``Guenter Grass is writing not to settle scores, but to counter forgetting about the horrors and the distress always associated with the war,'' he said.
About 9,000 refugees and wounded soldiers boarded the Wilhelm Gustloff on a freezing January 30, 1945, day hoping to escape the rapidly approaching Soviet army.
But the ship -- named after an assassinated Nazi official and launched as the world's largest cruise liner in 1937 -- was hit by Russian torpedoes that evening.
``Thousands of people immediately broke into a terrible panic,'' survivor Karl Hoffmann wrote later. ``They clawed their way upward, pushing and shoving mercilessly.''
``Those who fell were lost. Children that slipped from their mothers' arms were trampled to death.''
Grass was born in the Baltic city of Danzig and most of his best work has been set in that port city. He has long served as the voice of a German generation that came of age in Hitler's war and bore the burden of their parents' guilt.
``My mother and I fled over land,'' widely read columnist Franz Joseph Wagner wrote in the popular Bild newspaper on Tuesday. ``So many of my relatives died while fleeing.''
``We, the expelled, may cry together. (Grass) I thank you for this,'' he wrote.
Yet the suffering of Germans expelled from the east remains a diplomatic can of worms, especially as the European Union prepares to expand to the east in Poland and the Czech Republic. Many locals there fear Germans will use EU rules to try to claim or buy back pre-war property once within German borders.
Conservative chancellor candidate Edmund Stoiber has recently angered Czech leaders by defending Germans who were expelled from the Sudeten region now in the Czech Republic.
When Germany started compensating Nazi-era slave labourers, some Germans forced to work in Stalin's post-war Soviet Union said they deserved money too. Germany and Russia ignored them.
The debate may now intensify.
``In the likely bestseller, Grass has broken a historical taboo,'' Die Welt newspaper wrote in a front-page Tuesday story.