In a provocative book published recently in Germany, a Hamburg scholar named Klaus Briegleb appeared to take on the entire national literary establishment for indulging in self-censorship of the most dangerous kind. Titled Neglect and Taboo: How Anti-Semitic Was the Group 47?, the book puts forth a kind of conspiracy theory about the writers who laid the intellectual foundations of West Germany after the war. By setting the ground rules for the new literature, Briegleb argues, these members of the so-called Group ’47–among them Hans Werner Richter, Alfred Andersch, Heinrich Böll and a younger generation including Günter Grass and Martin Walser–banished the Nazi past to silence, even as they purposefully nurtured its democratic opposite.

For a group often associated with the anti-Fascist left, the notion seems farfetched. Grass, for one, has for decades invoked Auschwitz as an ever-present reality in German life. But Briegleb’s polemic nonetheless stirred up considerable interest as a counterpoint to a far larger debate about the role of taboos in literature–one that is traceable to W.G. Sebald, most known in the United States for his novels Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn. In 1997, Sebald gave a series of lectures on “Air War and Literature” in which he contested that, indeed, German writers had remained virtually mum about certain aspects of the Nazi years. His primary concern, however, was not German guilt but German suffering–namely the deaths of some 600,000 civilians during the Allied bombardment, which he argued had never been adequately rendered in prose:

There was a tacit agreement, equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described. The darkest aspects of the final act of destruction, as experienced by the great majority of the German population, remained under a kind of taboo like a shameful family secret, a secret that perhaps could not even be privately acknowledged.

Even before their 1999 publication in German–and now in English in the posthumous volume titled On the Natural History of Destruction–Sebald’s lectures were received as a general indictment of late-twentieth-century German writing. “Was there and is there for writers a ban on representation, a story-telling taboo, that must finally be overcome today?” wrote Volker Hage, the chief book critic of Der Spiegel, in a much-discussed essay on Sebald a few months after the lectures. After conducting his own literary survey, Hage decided there was, and concluded that what was needed was little short of a revolution: “Could it be that German postwar literature will truly only begin at the end of the century, at the turn of the millennium?”

To Group ’47 veterans like Grass and Walser, Hage’s call has proven irresistible, or at least prophetic. Walser, who is as known for his taboo-breaking statements as his excellent fiction, led the way, first with an autobiographical war novel, A Bubbling Spring (a metaphor of the author’s discovery of language), and then, this past summer, with a hugely controversial contemporary satire, Death of a Critic. A Bubbling Spring is set in rural southern Germany and describes–without mentioning the Holocaust–a civilian youth’s experiences during the Nazi period; Death of a Critic takes aim at a leading real-life German critic, who is Jewish, breaking a supposed taboo on the negative or ironic portrayal of Jewish characters in German fiction.

Grass, in turn, has taken up the issue of German victims with calculated effort in Crabwalk, a 200-page novel based on the Russian torpedoing of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff in early 1945. Though the Baltic Sea tragedy caused more than 9,000 civilian deaths and ranks as the worst naval disaster of all time, it had been all but banished from German memory: “No one wanted to hear the story,” Grass’s narrator says. “For decades, the Gustloff and its awful fate were taboo.”

By late last summer, Der Spiegel, which had been pouring fuel on the fire with a big series on the fate of German civilians in the eastern territories of the Third Reich, was talking excitedly about a “choreographed taboo break” and a “risky game with German history.” Then, in November, historian Jörg Friedrich focused the debate squarely on Sebald’s theme of aerial bombardment, with the publication of Der Brand (“The Fire”), a comprehensive account of the Allied air offensive that describes the British and American bomber commands in language hitherto reserved for the Nazis. A bestseller in Germany, the book sparked outrage in London, where (without apparent access to the German text) the British press proceeded to carpet-bomb what it took to be unprincipled revisionism.

It is tempting to ask what Sebald would have made of these developments. An expatriate who spent much of his life in Norwich, England, not far from “more than seventy airfields from which the war of annihilation was waged against Germany,” he died in a car accident in 2001. With the English-language publication this spring of both On the Natural History of Destruction and Crabwalk, at least, it is now possible to consider Sebald’s thesis in full next to one of its most important responses. Where Sebald takes aim at those writing early after the war who “hardly seemed to notice the horrors which, at the time, surrounded them on all sides,” Grass is at pains to atone for his generation’s sin of omission: “Why only now?” the first chapter of Crabwalk begins, as if anticipating the criticism even before the reader has begun.

By Sebald’s account, On the Natural History of Destruction was not intended as a manifesto. The air war lectures, he writes, were conceived “as merely a rough-and-ready collection of various observations, materials, and theses,” and even after substantial revision, the published version retains a disjointed feel. Sebald presents less a linear argument than an accumulation of meanings filtered through lapidary descriptions, personal musings, historical notes and, above all, literary criticism. (The heavily edited excerpt that appeared in November in The New Yorker has a far more directed feel, much of the text’s open-endedness having been eliminated.) As in Sebald’s elegant works of fiction, there is, running through the veins of the lectures, an autobiographical pulse:

I spent my childhood and youth on the northern outskirts of the Alps, in a region that was largely spared the immediate effects of the so-called hostilities. At the end of the war I was just one year old, so I can hardly have any impressions of that period of destruction based on personal experience. Yet to this day, when I see photographs or documentary films dating from the war I feel as if I were its child, so to speak, as if those horrors I did not experience cast a shadow over me, and one from which I shall never entirely emerge.

This shadow, he says, had

haunted my mind, and finally impelled me to go at least a little way into the question of why German writers would not or could not describe the destruction of the German cities as millions experienced it.

But much of Sebald’s self-reflection (including the above passages) has in published form been relegated to an epilogue. The 1999 German edition was complemented with an essay on Alfred Andersch, a Group ’47 writer of considerable repute in the early years after the war and, Sebald says, “a good example of the unfortunate consequences” of the literary conformism he identifies in the silence about the Nazi era. The posthumous English edition of On the Natural History of Destruction further includes two other literary essays, so that the air war lectures now make up only the first half of the book.

The overall effect of these changes is to present the lectures themselves as criticism–a kind of discursive commentary on the writers who did attempt to address the devastation of German cities. The list is surprisingly long, but few, if any, are up to the task: Hermann Kasack, whose The City Beyond the River (1947) Sebald regards as the “key text” in this group, is guilty of “ignoring the appalling reality of collective catastrophe” and reverting to “the code of the Fascist intellectual world.” Other contemporaries fare no better: Hans Erich Nossack indulges in “false notions of transcendence”; Arno Schmidt buries himself in “linguistic fretwork”; Peter de Mendelssohn is just plain “embarrassing.”

Only The Angel Was Silent, a little-known Heinrich Böll work “marked by irremediable gloom,” and a passage in a 1968 novel by Hubert Fichte meet with significant praise. As Sebald notes, however, the Böll novel remained unpublished for almost fifty years; and the Fichte text, which he calls “a very plausible literary approach” to the Allies’ destruction of Hamburg on July 27, 1943, is actually not literature at all but rather a take from a contemporary autopsy report. The appeal, Sebald explains, is “the information value of such authentic documents, before which all fiction pales.”

While not, strictly speaking, an “authentic document,” Günter Grass’s Crabwalk does set out to create what he terms a “literary assessment” of German suffering. Like the bombing campaign, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was, despite almost sixty years of neglect, an event of epic destruction. Stuffed with some 10,000 German refugees fleeing from the fast-encroaching Red Army–including, we are told, some 4,500 infants and children, 1,000 U-boat sailors and 370 young women’s naval auxiliaries–the giant but poorly equipped Gustloff set sail from the Silesian port of Gotenhafen on January 30, 1945, and headed west, toward Kiel. That evening, in the frigid waters of the Bay of Danzig, the ship was torpedoed three times at close range by the Soviet submarine S-13. It went down with some 1,200 survivors.

But the Gustloff tragedy did survive in the subconscious of postwar Germany, Grass suggests, tormenting the few who remembered it as a symbol of the national self-censorship that reigned after 1945. In fact, the Gustloff represented a double taboo: It was named for Wilhelm Gustloff, a Nazi “martyr” who was assassinated by a Jew named David Frankfurter in 1936.

Even now, Grass finds himself inhibited, though the calamity cries out for “a German requiem or a maritime danse macabre.” Thus he creates Paul Pokriefke, a present-day, middle-aged hack journalist, as his first-person narrator. “Now it was too late for him,” Paul says of Grass. “He hadn’t invented me as a surrogate, rather he had discovered me, after a long search, on the list of survivors, like a piece of lost property.”

Pokriefke is both far more and far less than a Grass stand-in. A kind of German Everyman, his life is inextricably linked to the Gustloff tragedy: He escaped the torpedoed ship in the womb of Tulla, his unwed mother, who had been in the hospital ward on an upper deck; and he was born on a rescue boat. Growing up in East Germany, he escapes to the West shortly before the Berlin wall goes up, becoming a journalist and traveling across the political spectrum from right to left and back again, mimicking the course of German society. Today, his baggage includes Tulla, his East German mother; a divorced West German wife; and Konrad, his right-wing-sympathizing son. (Readers of Grass will recognize Tulla Pokriefke from Dog Years and Cat and Mouse, in which she appears as a young woman in Danzig before and during the war.)

With these accoutrements, it quickly becomes apparent that Crabwalk is as much an allegory of postwar Germany as a tale of forgotten history. Tulla, representing the shamed war generation, is obsessed by the Gustloff tragedy, which, for different reasons, neither the East nor the West Germans were willing to discuss; Paul, as the democratically committed child of war, would rather forget it; Konrad, the confused teenager, is inevitably drawn to the grandmother and her untold story via neo-Nazi fringe groups, the only forum he finds to exchange information about the event.

In tight, laconic prose, the parallel stories of the Wilhelm Gustloff and Paul’s belated quest into his past unfold. Paul soon discovers that he is competing with his son to piece together the tragedy. Konrad, already a few steps ahead of him, has established a right-wing website with a slanted version of the facts. Paul discovers a chat room devoted to the Gustloff in which someone whom he suspects is Konrad uses the virtual name “Wilhelm,” after the Nazi martyr, to exchange racially edged barbs with another user who goes by “David,” the Jewish assassin.

The tension builds as Grass traces the twin paths of the Gustloff and the captain of the enemy S-13 submarine in the years, months and minutes preceding the tragedy. In the crablike fashion of the book’s title, Grass–as Paul–closes in on his literary prey, steps back, lunges forward again, before finally attacking it, head on, in a few pages of cool, documentary reportage. The reader is taken aboard the different parts of the ship and made to feel the agony of the final moments, but also shown the mood on the submarine and Soviet feelings about Germany; the weather is described and the botched rescue detailed.

But the narrative cannot be sustained. Paul abruptly pulls us back to the present, where Konrad, who can no longer be rescued from his revisionist account of the Gustloff story, has planned out a fateful encounter of his own. At Konrad’s instigation, the virtual “Wilhelm” and “David” have agreed to a real-life meeting at the site of a since-destroyed memorial to the Nazi martyr Gustloff. As we gradually discover, David, who is a contemporary of Konrad’s, is but yet another postwar German character type, the anti-Nazi:

At the age of fourteen, [he] adopted the name David and became so obsessed with thoughts of atonement for the wartime atrocities and mass killings, which, God knows, were constantly harped on in our society, that eventually everything Jewish became somehow sacred to him.

So, history is fated to repeat–or reverse–itself, and, in somewhat melodramatic fashion, the Wilhelm-David meeting, like the original Gustloff-Frankfurter encounter and the ship-submarine engagement, can only culminate in tragedy.

There is much to be said for Grass’s cutting take on German society, and his characters speak to many real phenomena–the right-wing movement on the Internet; the recent trend of obsessive philo-Semitism; the profound generational divides–that have arisen out of suppression of the past. The historical story that Grass is at such pains to retrieve, however, is trumped by its own telling, with the event itself reduced by the contrived contemporary setup in which it is framed.

All this taboo-breaking is too late, and Grass wants us to know he knows it. Even as he writes, he acknowledges that history can no longer be rendered without addressing the social ills its neglect has produced, and Crabwalk is peppered with authorial mea culpas:

This business has been gnawing at the old boy. Actually, he says, his generation should have been the one. It should have found words for the hardships endured by Germans fleeing East Prussia: the westward treks in the depths of winter, people dying in blinding snowstorms, expiring by the side of the road or in holes in the ice when the frozen bay known as Frisches Haff began to break up under the weight of horse-drawn carts after being hit by bombs…. Never, he said, should his generation have kept silent about such misery, merely because its own sense of guilt was so overwhelming, merely because for years the need to accept responsibility and show remorse took precedence, with the result that they abandoned the topic to the right wing. This failure, he says, was staggering.

There is perhaps too much effort in this self-criticism, which is, after all, a profession of guilt about having too much guilt. In the end, Crabwalk succumbs to the same weakness Sebald identifies in the literary culture that preceded it: In his essay on Andersch, Sebald makes a devastating critique of a writer who worked for the Nazis and morally compromised himself during the war, only to transform his past into resistance and internal exile in his postwar writings. Sebald implies that such reworking of the past may indeed have contributed to the vacuum that produced right-wing extremism as well as the neglect of Germany’s own hour of defeat.

By making their own taboos taboo, Grass and his colleagues are like those writers, immediately after the war, whose “redefinition of their idea of themselves” highlighted the unsatisfactory nature of literary atonement. As Sebald concludes in his preface to On the Natural History of Destruction, “such a preoccupation with retrospective improvement of the self-image they wished to hand down was one of the main reasons for the inability of a whole generation of German authors to describe what they had seen, and to convey it to our minds.”