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Representation, Subversion, and Eugenics in Günter Grass's 'The Tin Drum'

Representation, Subversion, and Eugenics in Günter Grass's 'The Tin Drum'

Peter O. Arnds
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 192
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    Representation, Subversion, and Eugenics in Günter Grass's 'The Tin Drum'
    Book Description:

    In receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, Günter Grass, a prominent and controversial figure in the ongoing discussion of the German past and reunification, finally gained recognition as Germany's greatest living author, a writer of international importance and acclaim. Grass's 1959 novel 'The Tin Drum' remains one of the most important works of literature for the construction of postwar German identity. Peter Arnds offers a completely new reading of the novel, analyzing an aspect of Grass's literary treatment of German history that has never been examined in detail: the Nazi ideology of race and eugenics, which resulted in the persecution of so-called asocials as "life unworthy of life," their extermination in psychiatric institutions in the Third Reich, and their marginalization in the Adenauer period. Arnds shows that in order to represent the Nazi past and subvert bourgeois paradigms of rationalism, Grass revives several facets of popular culture that National Socialism either suppressed or manipulated for its ideology of racism. In structure and content Grass's novel connects the persecution of degenerate art to the persecution and extermination of these "asocials," for whom the persecuted dwarf-protagonist Oskar Matzerath becomes a central metaphor and voice. This comparative study reveals that Grass creates in the novel an irrational counterculture opposed to the rationalism of Nazi science and its obsession with racial hygiene, while simultaneously exposing the continuity of this destructive rationalism in postwar Germany and the absurdity of a 'Stunde Null', that putative tabula rasa in 1945. Peter O. Arnds is associate professor of German and Italian at Kansas State University.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-649-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    In German literature there are two texts in which the telling and remembrance of history is accomplished by the use of a drum. One is Heinrich Heine’s Ideen: Das Buch Le Grand(Ideas: The Book Le Grand, 1826), the other, Nobel Laureate Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1959). While the drum of Heine’s tambour-major Le Grand conveys the spirit of the French revolution and announces Napoleon, Grass’s Oskar Matzerath evokes German history in the making and drums for the remembrance of this history. A further connection between these two texts is established through Napoleon’s famous words quoted by Heine...

  6. 1: Representing Euthanasia; Reclaiming Popular Culture
    (pp. 10-27)

    Before elaborating on Grass’s strategies in his use of popular culture, this study must address a pivotal question: to what extent does Oskar become a victim of Nazi persecution? The novel has two temporal levels that converge at the end: the period from 1952 to 1954, during which Oskar Matzerath is an inmate of a mental asylum, from where he narrates his story, and the retrospective account of his life, which starts in 1899 and ends with his thirtieth birthday in September 1954. The central historical periods are the Third Reich and the postwar years. Oskar witnesses this time from...

  7. 2: Heteroglossia from Grimmelshausen to the Grimm Brothers
    (pp. 28-48)

    Without attempting to be all-inclusive in its discussion of heteroglossia in Grass’s novel, which would be a Gargantuan enterprise, this chapter presents those texts that through their carnivalesque features have either been acknowledged as having influenced Grass’s novel (Rabelais and Grimmelshausen) or with which, upon closer structural analysis, Grass’s novel engages in an intertextual dialogue (fairy tales, trickster myth, commedia dell’arte). The carnivalesque features that Bakhtin discusses all belong to a popular culture rooted in the trickster myths. In Europe this myth resurfaces in the carnival tradition, the medieval Feast of Fools and the Feast of Asses,¹ and extends to...

  8. 3: The Dwarf and Nazi Body Politics
    (pp. 49-76)

    Grass’s text comments on National Socialism’s obsession with the body, the Nazis’ worship of the desirable body and their persecution of the undesirable body. The years from 1933 to 1945 were a time in which the bodies of millions of people were sacrificed for the high ideals of a few. The Nazis, who were convinced that a healthy spirit can only be found in those who have a healthy, well-shaped body, perceived “Körperschönheit als Lebenswert,” physical beauty as an indicator of life’s value and thus worthiness of life as opposed to the ugly body as life unworthy of life. This...

  9. 4: Oskar’s Dysfunctional Family and Gender Politics
    (pp. 77-96)

    In the Third Reich the persecution of the physically disabled and other groups of so-called asocial life was linked to the perception of them as nutzlose Esser (useless mouths to feed). The parents’ abandonment of their children, the question of food (especially in the war years) and the grotesque body connect the historical level of Grass’s novel with the fairy-tale world. Grass’s portrayal of his dysfunctional family, the Matzeraths, parodies the patriarchal gender patterns of the fairy tales discussed in this study. Die Blechtrommel shares with the Tom Thumb tales and Hauff’s dwarf tales such motifs as the complicated relationship...

  10. 5: Oskar as Fool, Harlequin, and Trickster, and the Politics of Sanity
    (pp. 97-123)

    In Die Blechtrommel Grass harks back to the Grimms’ international vision of the folk-tale and revives the Kunstmärchen, the literary tales by Wilhelm Hauff. He revives the grotesque in the dwarf tale that the Nazis suppressed or misinterpreted and makes use of a key theme in the literary history of the dwarf tale. The dwarf is typically seen as not only physically disabled but, because he looks like a child, as mentally less developed, even insane as well. It is interesting in this context that Oskar Matzerath is not only persecuted by the Nazis, but also locked up in an...

  11. 6: Gypsies, the Picaresque Novel, and the Politics of Social Integration
    (pp. 124-151)

    Abel was a keeper of the sheep, Cain a tiller of the ground. That is, the first was a nomad and the second was sedentary. The quarrel of Cain and Abel has gone on from generation to generation, from the beginning of time down to our own day, as the atavistic opposition between nomads and the sedentary, or more exactly as the persistent persecution of the first by the second. And this hatred is far from extinct. It survives in the infamous and degrading regulations imposed on the Gypsies, treated as if they were criminals, and flaunts itself on the...

  12. Epilogue: Beyond Die Blechtrommel: Germans as Victims in Im Krebsgang
    (pp. 152-160)

    This study has focused on the victims of Nazi biopolitics, primarily the physically and mentally disabled targeted by the euthanasia program. In a discussion of Oskar Matzerath as a folklore dwarf and of fairy tale motifs as a vehicle for historical representation, it ought to be pointed out that Oskar is a hunchback dwarf also in the Benjaminian sense. Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) used this metaphor of the little hunchback (das bucklicht Männlein) throughout his work. Hannah Arendt even suggested that Benjamin’s whole life could be placed under the sign of the hunchback dwarf. She contends that just before his...

  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 161-170)
  14. Index
    (pp. 171-178)