Study Guide

The Tin Drum Setting

By Günter Grass

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Danzig, Düsseldorf

Most of this book is set in Oskar's hometown, the city of Danzig, which is today known as Gdansk, a port city in Poland. Permit Shmoop a bit of history: After World War I, The League of Nations (precursor to the UN, but you knew that already) made Danzig an independent city, since Germany and Poland were fighting over it and they thought this would solve the problem. So the Germans ran the city government but the Poles got access to the port and a separate Post Office. About 75 or 80% of the people who lived in Danzig were German. Since Oskar's not sure who is father is, he doesn't know if he's Polish or German, but people assume he's German because Alfred Matzerath is German.

One of the things that makes the book so difficult is that Oskar overloads us with details about the city. We learn the street names, the tram routes, the cemeteries, the inscriptions on the buildings, the sights, sounds, and smells of every neighborhood. For example, his father:

"took his son Oskar by the hand and traveled with the Number Five tram to Langgasser Gate, because the synagogue there was on fire, as were those in Zoppot and Langfuhr." (16.18)

Unless you've spent time in Danzig in the 1930s, these details can get pretty confusing. Anyway, Oskar's family scrapes by with a barely middle-class life, but it's home.

The borders of Danzig are forever changing. Depending on what government is in control, Oskar's grandmother can either cross the border to visit him or not. At the beginning of Chapter 32, Oskar lays out an insane four-page history of how many times the city of Danzig has been captured, abandoned, then conquered by someone else:

First came the Rugii, then the Goths and Gepidae, then the Kashubes […] Gyddanyze became Danczik, Danczik became Dantzig, later spelled Danzig, and now called Danzig-Gdansk. (32.1)

The constantly shifting boundaries of Danzig do a good job of reflecting Oskar's own sense of unsettledness.

Like many Germans, Oskar leaves Danzig for West Germany during the huge population migrations that took place after the end of WWII. Düsseldorf is supposed to be a city of Germany's prosperous future, but with Europe's economy in ruins, the only way to make a living when Oskar gets there is on the Black Market. But where Danzig was the place of his childhood, Oskar lives as an adult in Düsseldorf.

The War

WWII and its aftermath provide the historical background for Oskar's life. And if you can see through the surrealism and dreamlike prose, all the events are described exactly as they happened. You can look it up. The rising influence of the Nazis in Danzig; the famous defense of the Polish Post Office and execution of the defenders; the collapse of the economy and subsequent currency reform; the Allied invasions of Normandy; the Russian soldiers who raped and looted even as they were supposed to be liberating the city; the chaos and mass migration that followed the re-partitioning of Europe. There's quite the history lesson in there. After all, the purpose of the book was to re-awaken the German memory of the prewar and wartime era.

At first, Oskar experiences the war from a distance, and life goes on as usual—just radio communiqués from the fronts, some silly Nazi parades, postcards from cousins in the army, a picture of Hitler replacing the family's portrait of Beethoven. But as the novel progresses, the war gets closer. Oskar's girlfriend Roswitha gets killed by an Allied shell during the bombing in Normandy. Uncle Jan dies defending the Polish Post Office. And the Red Army finally enters Danzig, storms into the cellar of Oskar's home, and kills his father. Doesn't get much closer than that.

The end of the War didn't mean the end of Oskar's troubles. With Danzig bombed and burned, some concentration survivors wander back to Poland, dazed and traumatized. Oskar joins the millions of Germans who fled or were expelled back to Germany, traveling in freight cars and robbed and assaulted along the way. After years of struggling, Oskar finally gets to benefit from the postwar economic recovery and ends up living the sweet bourgeois life of the rich and famous.

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