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tin drum

Barbara Lodge considers the relevance of some Germany literary classics on life today...

That is, of course, Günter Grass’s tin drum, his “Blechtrommel”. I’ll return to that post-war novel via a visit to Thomas Mann’s chilling pre-war novella “Mario and the Magician” (“Mario und der Zauberer”) and Heinrich Böll’s 1950s moral tale “The Laugher” (“Der Lacher”).

In our time of national dissonance, these twentieth century German authors are worth (re)reading. They had a keen eye and ear for right-wing nonsense both before and after the Nazi period and offer us historically distanced advice on how we might best respond to our own social turbulence.

“Mario and the Magician” is an exploration of the demagogue in the person of a magician on stage in an Italian seaside town, who seduces his audience by playing to their unspoken desires. He can do this despite being quite plainly repulsive. There is little need to point up current and recent parallels here.

“He had very ugly hair” and “small hard eyes, with flabby pouches beneath them.” He “talked without stopping—but only in vague, boastful, self-advertising phrases.” He was “cocksure” and “irritable,” and he dealt sarcastically with those who crossed him. Billed as an “entertainer” and “magician,” he turned out to be a powerful hypnotist, and he embarrassed and humiliated people while the audience applauded him and laughed at his victims.

Mann based the tale on his own experience during a seaside family holiday in Italy in 1926. Mann was not taken in by the performer but depicts the strength of the performer’s hypnotic powers in the response of the anonymous German narrator, who is appalled but cannot pull himself or his children away; as such, he is as complicit as the enthralled audience.

Only violence, the noise of a gun-shot, breaks the spell. Mario, a young waiter from the audience, is lured into a sexual act on stage by the magician and, waking from hypnosis to public humiliation, kills him. Up to that point, Mario too had enjoyed the show and discomfort of other audience members. Only personal tragedy provoked his opposition. Tolerance of abusive authority is individual.

However the key message of the story is – and is arguably pertinent in our society – that demagogy does not coerce people into evil acts they would otherwise oppose, rather permits people to commit evil they previously have had to suppress. As spectators of demagogy, we may look on in passive disbelief, even find the demagogues amusing – which is both dangerous and dangerously easy.

Post-war, the maintenance of individual integrity in an authoritarian society was a concern of Heinrich Böll, the first German novelist to address the war from a German perspective in his Trümmerliteratur (literature of ruins). The eponymous “Laugher” in his story is a professional laugher (still used nowadays in American TV…..). His employers pay him to cover weak, unfunny-funny dialogue with his range of cackle-to-Roman laughter. He is skilled yet he hates it; he is an honourable man who prefers “the truth”, yet he continues. He comes to hate his laughter and loses the sense of self. His response? Silence in his private life, a silence which infects his wife - a complicit silent response to a deceitful society.

In contrast, Grass’s red and white enamelled tin drum, a present to Oskar from his mother on his third birthday, is noisy. Whilst symbolically complex, it is essentially a tin alarm to those with tin ears deaf to rising authoritarianism. Silently or mindlessly following an ideology can lead to disaster;

Grass, who in 2006 acknowledged war-time membership of the Waffen SS as a teenager, understood this. Oskar and his drum are not complicit. At a Nazi parade, Oskar beats his drum in a 3/4 waltz time against the 4/4 march. It works – rally-goers move from military 4/4 to dancing along to 3/4. However, success is temporary, as it becomes clear, then as now, that a mass may follow any beat, if it unifies them in some nebulous way: nationalism? sovereignty? racial “superiority”? class?

The drum needs to keep drumming to disrupt the unexamined herd response – whether it is government exhortations to clap or to celebrate or to ignore.

Or to put it another way in Grass’s words:

"The job of a citizen is to keep their mouth open."
  • Thomas Mann 1875 – 1955: Nobel Prize for Literature 1929
  • Heinrich Böll 1917 – 1985: Nobel Prize for Literature 1972
  • Günther Grass 1927 – 2015: Nobel Prize for Literature 1999 .