Barbara Lodge considers the relevance of some Germany literary
classics on life today...
KEEP OUR “TIN DRUM” DRUMMING AGAINST THE NONSENSE
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”
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
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
Günther Grass 1927 – 2015: Nobel Prize for Literature 1999 .