Study Guide

The Tin Drum Memory and Guilt

By Günter Grass

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Memory and Guilt

I'll begin long before me, for no one should describe his life who lacks the patience to commemorate at least half his grandparents' existence before detailing his own (1.13).

We're not sure why Oskar wants to write his life story, but he recognizes that his personal history begins long before his birth. This is a pretty strong statement that we have to explore the past to understand ourselves.

[…] you helped them to know themselves. Many a respectable, elegant lady, many an upstanding uncle, […] would never have recognized the thief that dwells within had your voice not led them to steal, nor would they have undergone such change as citizens […] (10.25).

Most people succumbed to temptation as they passed the shop windows that Oskar broke open. Oskar wonders if it was his evilness that led them to temptation, but he concludes that it was their own nature. They were unaware of it until they did the stealing. Grass has said that many people believed they had been led in some shadowy way by Hitler into going along with the Nazi regime. He obviously doesn't buy that.

There were many who later said she cursed my presumptive father Matzerath and called him her daughter's murderer. There was also talk of my fall down the cellar steps. She took the tale over from Mama and never allowed Matzerath to forget his supposed guilt for my supposed accident (13.17).

Oskar's grandmother tries to make his father feel guilty by reminding him of the things he did that might have contributed to his mother's death. This is an example of how Grass describes the errors of memory—little Oskar threw himself down the steps; Matzerath had nothing to do with it, really. The adults constructed a different, and false, narrative based on what they saw.

I've just read through my last paragraph again. […] it has managed, as succinctly summarizing treatises often do, to embellish now and then, if not to lie.

To which must be added: […] Oskar […] put on a show of pathetic weeping and pointed at Jan, his father, with accusatory gestures.

[…] that day marks the assumption of my second great burden of guilt (20.1-2, 6).

Oskar's just finished telling about the fall of the Polish Post Office and how his father Jan was led away by the soldiers. But he reconsiders, because he's left out a self-incriminating part. In the second telling, he admits to being responsible for Jan's capture and eventual execution.

Yet on days when a rude feeling of guilt simply refuses to leave the room and presses me back into the cushions of my hospital bed, I tend, like everyone else, to make allowances for my ignorance, an ignorance that was just then coming into fashion and, like a jaunty hat, still looks oh so good on many a person today (20.8).

This is probably Grass's clearest accusation against Germans in the postwar period. It was pretty common to claim ignorance about the Nazi era. Oskar describes this as "putting on" an attitude, like you'd wear a fashionable hat to make a statement about yourself. This question's a whole area of scholarship: how much did the average German citizen know about what was happening to Jews? Quite a bit, according to some authors.

That rainy afternoon in Saspe Cemetery had not stilled my handiwork; on the contrary, Oskar redoubled his efforts and devoted all his energy to the task of destroying the last witness of his shameful conduct with the Home Guard, his drum (21.2).

Oskar refers here to the drum he got at the Polish Post Office, the scene of his betrayal of Jan. He wants to beat it to death so he can get a new "guiltless drum." But he finds it's not easy to destroy guilt; it takes him three months to destroy the memory of the Polish Post Office.

[Fajngold] began to administer a daily dose of disinfectants to himself, his whole family, little Kurt, Maria, and me, as well as my cot. […] I learned of whole boxcars filled with carbolic acid, chlorine, and Lysol, which he had sprayed, strewn, and sprinkled when he was still disinfector at Treblinka (33.23).

Fajngold, the Holocaust survivor, has guilt of his own. He's the sole survivor in his family, because he was given the job of disinfecting the gas chambers and sprinkling lime over the corpses. His memories and his guilt destroy him; he hallucinates his family as still alive. His horrible memories, too difficult to recall, get expressed as compulsive attempts to disinfect everything, to make everything go away.

It would never occur to me to see myself as a member of the Resistance on the basis of six or seven disrupted rallies, three or four assemblies and parade marches drummed off stride. The term is quite fashionable these days. You hear of the spirit of Resistance or Resistance Circles (11.2).

Oskar's commenting on those people in the postwar period who call themselves Resistance fighters, just on the basis of a few minor acts of defiance like refusing to black out their windows during air raids. Grass believed that lots of ordinary German citizens downplayed their participation in the rise of the Nazi regime. He once told the BBC that there were so many "antifascists" in Germany after the War that he couldn't understand how it was possible that Hitler stayed in power for so long!

Nor was it true that the party pin was open when I picked the bonbon up off the concrete floor. The pin was first opened within my closed hand. I passed the sticky bonbon to Matzerath, pointed and jagged, so they would find the badge on him, so he would place the party on his tongue, so that he would choke on it […] (32.35).

In his re-telling of the incident when his second father was killed, Oskar admits that he had more of a role in it than he first let on. But he still admits to nothing more than very slight regret. Grass continues his theme about forgetting: Matzerath tried to get rid of the evidence of his Nazi affiliation, but that doesn't save him. It kills him.

"Take the whole thing, run back to Gerresheim, […] take my gift to the police station on Furstenwall, turn me in, and tomorrow you'll find your name printed in every newspaper." (45.72)

Oskar decides to encourage Vittlar to turn him in for the murder of Sister Dorothea, a murder he didn't commit. This occurs just after Oskar sees two men arresting someone for defending the Polish Post Office many years earlier, a man Oskar recognizes from that day in 1939. Oskar rescues the man by magically drumming up the Polish cavalry. So why does Oskar choose this time to confess to a crime? Maybe he thinks that he's finally atoned for what he did at the Post Office and is now ready to pack it in.

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