Study Guide

The Tin Drum Warfare

By Günter Grass

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Jan had been called up three times but had been rejected on each occasion owing to his poor physical condition, which, given that in those days anyone who could stand even halfway straight got sent to Verdun to assume the eternal horizontal on France's soil, tells you all you need to know about Jan Bronski's constitution (3.16).

It looks like Oskar's uncle Jan was saved from dying in the war (at least for a while) because the dude was too sickly. The army was willing to take just about anybody who could stand on two feet, so the description is supposed to give you an idea of just how weak Jan was.

Oskar couldn't come out from under the grandstand immediately, since SA and SS officers were banging away at planks with their boots for over an hour, snagging tears in brown and black cloth, apparently looking for something within the framework—a Socialist, perhaps, or a team of Communist saboteurs (9.55).

After manipulating the Nazi marching band with his drumming, Oskar knows that he could get into really big trouble. The Nazis don't mess around with people who try to disrupt things for them. And yet Oskar tells us time and again that he doesn't care about politics. He just likes being a trickster.

[M]y uncle, who'd been totally lifeless for some time, shoved his right leg up to the loophole and lifted it in hopes that the scout car might spot it and take a shot at it, or that some stray bullet would take pity on him and graze his calf or heel, providing the wound that lets a soldier retreat with an exaggerated limp (18.43).

Poor Jan has no interest in fighting. He just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the Germans attack the Polish Post Office. He knows that not being in the army probably makes him look like a wimp, so he hopes to get a superficial battle scar. Jan probably represents most civilians who would rather have no part of this war.

They'd brought in flamethrowers and, shying away from a frontal assault, had decided to smoke out the remaining defenders. This had moved Dr. Kichon to take off his steel helmet, seize a bedsheet, and when that didn't seem enough, pull out his silk handkerchief, wave them both, offer the surrender of the Polish Post Office (19.32).

Yeah, so once an army gets close enough to start using flamethrowers on you, it's a good idea to start waving a white flag. This vignette mirrors the larger situation: the Germans completely outgunned the Polish army, and Poland fell within weeks.

And so the squadrons charged the steel-gray flanks, and gave a further tinge of red to the evening's glow upon the land. I hope you'll forgive Oskar for adding this final couplet and for the poetic nature of the battle scene. I might have done better to indicate the number of men lost by the Polish cavalry, and commemorate the so-called Polish Campaign with dry but impressive statistics, But if asked, I could introduce an asterisk here, add a footnote, and let the poem stand (20.24).

Oskar couldn't care less about the number of Polish soldiers killed. He's mocking the idea of the tragic war heroes by romanticizing the scene and dismissing the reality of the situation. Is this Grass ridiculing the idea of the glory of war?

They shouted at him to show them his palms […] all of which provoked my Kalmuck, who had been watching calmly up till then through narrowed eyes, to set me down carefully, reach behind him, bring something into horizontal position, and fire from the hip, emptying the whole magazine, firing before Matzerath could choke to death (31.50).

It's payback time for Nazi collaborators in Poland when the Russian army arrives to liberate the country. Not everyone in the novel dies at the hands of the Nazis. The Allies kill Oskar's lover in the Normandy invasion.

LANKES: They're gathering prawns, sir…
HERZOG: Clear the beach immediately, it that understood?
LANKES: Yes, sir. But they're just gathering prawns.
HERZOG: Man your machine gun, Lankes! (27.183-186)

This scene represents the absurdity of war—a group of nuns gathering food for an orphanage are gunned down. It's arbitrary and unnecessary. It's an example of the "just following orders" defense that many Nazi war criminals used after the end of the War.

In July of nineteen-forty, shortly after special communiqués had announced the rapid success of the campaign in France, bathing season opened on the Baltic (21.31).

This is a pretty awesome example of Grass's juxtaposition of the backdrop of the war against the everyday lives of the people living through it.

Whereupon she jumped from the truck herself, ran over to the field kitchen in her high heels with the mess kit, and reached her hot morning coffee at precisely the same moment as an incoming naval shell (27.204).

A more tragic example of the intersection of the war with mundane activities.

Then, as we have seen, came Marshal Rokossovsky. Seeing the undamaged city [Danzig], he recalled his great international precursors and set the city ablaze with his artillery, so that those who came after him could work off their excess energy by rebuilding it (32.6).

At the beginning of Chapter 32, Oskar decides to give us a history of the Polish city of Danzig that lasts several pages. It's his way of saying that wars and conquerors are nothing new to Danzig, since the place has been conquered and abandoned dozens of times in its long history. Oskar sees the futility and absurdity of wars and conquerors. Europe's borders never stay the same for long.

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