Analysis of Günter Grass’s Dog Years

In Dog Years, the German novelist Günter Grass (1927–2015) gives his readers a panoramic view of German mentality before, during, and after World War II. The third book of the Danzig Trilogy, this work, following The Tin Drum and Cat and Mouse, consists of three parts narrated by three different individuals. At the center of the novel is the story of the German shepherd dog that the party leadership of the city of Danzig presents to Hitler on the occasion of his 42nd birthday.

Through the reminiscing of Brauxel (who, the reader learns at the end of the work, is the persona of the novel’s Eddi Amsel), the first narration introduces the land and people around the Vistula River during the years 1917–27. It presents the major participants: Eddi Amsel, the son of a Jewish merchant, who constructs scarecrows; and Walter Matern, the miller’s son. Through Brauxel’s reminiscing, the reader learns that Eddi’s father was a well-to-do Jewish merchant who had fully integrated himself into the German community. He attended church, sang in the choir, and even fought and died for Germany in World War I. Given this integration, Brauxel debates with himself whether Alfred Amsel was a Jew and decides the case could be argued either way, “for all origins are what we choose to make of them.”

Günter Grass

Günter Grass. Alan Riding/The New York Times

At the age of five, Eddie starts building scarecrows that resemble people in the community. During his first school year, Eddi is often called names and beaten up by the anti-Semitic boys in the community, Walter Matern included. When Walter notices that Eddi has built a scarecrow figure that resembles him, he opts to defend Eddi against the other boys. A close friendship between the two boys develops.

The second portion of the novel, which covers the years 1927 to 1945, is conveyed through love letters that Harry Liebenau writes to his cousin Tulla Pokriefke. Tulla, a pale, pimply girl, is portrayed as conniving, cruel, and vicious. Through her, the reader is introduced to the German shepherd dog Harras, whose offspring, Prinz, becomes Hitler’s birthday gift. In this portion of the novel, Grass shows the Jews increasingly persecuted as the Nazi Party gains prominence. One evening Eddi is badly beaten by a group of masked men. The perpetrator who exacts the harshest punishment grinds his teeth like Eddi’s friend Walter. After this incident, Eddi leaves town, and Walter is promoted to platoon leader of a group of militia known as Storm Troopers (Strumabteilung, or SA men). War breaks out, and Walter joins the army. Walter and Harry, who is an air force auxiliary member, are transferred to the vicinity of Stutthof concentration camp. They notice a pervasive sickly-sweet odor that never fades. While they try to dismiss the cause of this acrid smell, Tulla forces them to acknowledge it as the burning of human flesh by confronting them with a human skull she has taken from a pile of bones dumped outside the camp. Harry’s chronicle concludes with the collapse of the Third Reich and the final military operations, which are described as a hunt for Prinz, who has escaped from Hitler’s bomb shelter and is now searching for a new master.

In the third and last section of the novel, spanning the years 1946–56, Prinz makes his way to a prisoner-of- war camp, where he finds Walter, who narrates this final portion. Upon his release, Walter wants to take revenge against all those who tormented him for being a communist sympathizer. He is not able to exact his vengeance on the men themselves, but upon contracting venereal disease, he makes every effort to infect as many of their wives and daughters as possible. In Berlin he meets Brauxel (Eddi), who takes him into the former potash mine. Here, deep in the bowels of the earth, Walter sees that Brauxel has created scarecrows that are now mechanical monstrosities. These monsters, created in the image of humankind, are able to express every emotion, thought, and act of man, including every aspiration and degradation. The tour of the mines ends with Walter watching a newly graduating class of robotic scarecrows offering an oath of allegiance to Brauxel & Co. When the two men prepare to leave, Brauxel ties Prinz to the entrance of the mine to guard it. Walter does not protest this act because he realizes that in Brauxel Prinz has now found his new master.

In his work Günter Gross, Keith Miles notes that in using three different narrators and perspectives, Grass attempts to convey the difficulty one mind has to “assimilate and describe the force, the horror and the complexity the material under review describes.” By fragmenting the narration in this manner, Grass ensures that the reality, which the reader is invited to examine, is fractured and contradictory. Dog Years, however, does more than simply address the difficulty of dealing with the past. As scholar Alfred Hanel observes, the main thesis of this work is that Germany has not yet come to terms with its past and thus “has forced feelings of guilt underground.”

Cicora, Mary A. “Music, Myth, and Metaphysics: Wagner Reception in Günter Grass’ Hundejahre.” German Studies Review. 16, no.1: 49–60.
Goheen, Jutta. “Intertext-Stil-Kanon: Zur Geschichtlichkeit des Epischen in Günter Grass’ Hundejahre.” Carleton Germanic Papers 24: 155–166.
Miles, Keith. Günter Grass. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975.
Reddick, John. The “Danzig Trilogy” of Günter Grass: A Study of The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years. London: Secker & Warburg. 1975.
Schuchalter, Jerry. “Otto Weininger and the Theme of German- Jewish Friendship in Günter Grass’s Hundejahre.” Nordisk Judaistik: Scandinavian Jewish Studies. 13, no. 2: 83–100.

Categories: German Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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