My Century

My Century

Paperback(First Edition)

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In a work of great originality, Germany's most eminent writer examines the victories and terrors of the twentieth century, a period of astounding change for mankind. Great events and seemingly trivial occurrences, technical developments and scientific achievements, war and disasters, and new beginnings, all unfold to display our century in its glory and grimness. A rich and lively display of Grass's extraordinary imagination, the 100 interlinked stories in this volume-one for each year from 1900 to 1999-present a historical and social portrait for the millennium, a tale of our times in all its grandeur and all its horror.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156011419
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 11/01/2000
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 735,386
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

GÜNTER GRASS (1927–2015), Germany's most celebrated contemporary writer, attained worldwide renown with the publication of his novel The Tin Drum in 1959. A man of remarkable versatility, Grass was a poet, playwright, social critic, graphic artist, and novelist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999.

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I, trading places with myself, was in the thick of things, year in and year out. Not always in the front lines, because there were wars going on all the time and a soldier's better off in the rear, but in the beginning, when we were up against the Chinese and our battalion reported to Bremer-haven, I was in the front of the middle unit. We were volunteers, nearly all of us, but I was the only one from Straubing, even though I'd just been engaged to Resi, my dear Therese.

    We were waiting to board ship, the North German Lloyd building at our backs and the sun in our eyes. The Kaiser stood on a platform high above us and gave a spirited speech out over our heads. We had these new broad-brimmed hats to keep the sun out. Sou'westers, they were called. We looked real dapper. The Kaiser, though, he wore this special helmet with the eagle shining against a blue background. He talked about solemn duties and the cruel foe. We were all carried away. He said, "Keep in mind the moment you land: No mercy shall be shown, no prisoners taken ...." Then he told the story of King Attila and the Huns. He praised them to the skies even though they wreaked all kinds of havoc. Which is why the Social Democrats later published those shameless Hun letters and made nasty remarks about the Kaiser's Hun speech. He ended with our orders for China: "Open the way to culture now and forever!" We gave three cheers.

    For someone like me from Lower Bavaria the long sea voyage was hell. When we finally landed in Tientsin they were all there: the British, the Americans,the Russians, even real live Japanese and small troops from minor countries. The British turned out to be Indians. There weren't many of us to start with, but luckily we had the new five-centimeter rapid-fire cannons, the Krupp ones, and the Americans were trying out their Maxim machine gun, which was one hell of a weapon. So Peking fell in no time. In fact, by the time our company marched in, everything seemed over and done with, which was a pity. Though some of the Boxers were still making trouble. They were called Boxers because they had this secret society they called I Ho Ch'uan or "righteous fists" in our language. That's why the English—and then everybody else—talked about the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers hated foreigners because they sold the Chinese all kinds of stuff. The British particularly liked selling opium. That's why things went the way the Kaiser ordered: There were no prisoners taken.

    For the sake of order the Boxers were rounded up in the square at Tienanmen Gate, right in front of the wall dividing the Manchu city from the ordinary part. Their pigtails were tied one to the other. It looked funny. Then they were either executed in groups or had their heads chopped off one by one. But I didn't write my fiancée a blessed word about the horrors; I stuck to hundred-year-old eggs and steamed dumplings Chinese style. The British and us Germans we liked using our guns, we wanted to get things over with, while the Japanese followed their time-honored tradition of head chopping. The Boxers liked being shot better because they were afraid of having to run around hell with their heads under their arms. Otherwise they were fearless. I saw somebody licking his chops over a rice cake dipped in syrup just before he was shot.

    There was a wind blowing through Tienanmen Square; it came from the desert, stirring up clouds of yellow dust. Everything was yellow including us. I wrote that to my fiancée and enclosed a little desert sand in the letter. And because the Japanese executioners got a clean cut by chopping the pigtails off the Boxers, who were just young fellows like ourselves, there were lots of little piles of them lying around in the dust, and I picked one up and sent it home as a souvenir. Back in Germany I wore it at Fasching and everybody was in stitches until my fiancée threw it in the fire. "It could've haunted the house," Resi said two days before we were married.

    But that's another story.


Seek and ye shall find. I have always enjoyed rummaging in junk, and late in the fifties there was a Chamissoplatz dealer whose black-and-white shop sign promised antiques, though the valuable pieces lay buried deep in junk. Since my interest was piqued by curios as well, I discovered three picture postcards bound with a string and depicting mosque, sepulchre church, and wailing wall through a dull sheen. Postmarked January '45 in Jerusalem, they were addressed to a certain Doctor Benn in Berlin, but the post office had been unable to locate the addressee amid the city's debris and had marked them undeliverable. I was lucky that Kurt Mühlenhaupt's treasure trove in the Kreuzberg district had offered them shelter.

    The message—interspersed with curlicues and stick figures and continuous over the three cards—was difficult to decipher, but ran as follows: "Truly the times are out of joint! Today, the first of March, with the burgeoning new century resplendent in its stiff-legged "one" and you, my barbarian and tiger, stalking the far-off jungles for prey, my father, Herr Schüler, took me by his Eulenspiegel hand and he, I, and my glass heart boarded the suspension railway on its maiden journey from Barmen to Elberfeld. Up over the black Wupper! It is a hard-steel dragon winding and wending its thousand-footed way over a river blackened by Bible-pious dyers with the effluents of their inks for little recompense. On, on the ship cruises, roaring through the skies, while the dragon advances on heavy ringèd feet. If only you, dear Giselher, at whose sweet mouth I have shuddered with bliss, could float across the Styx, the other Wupper, with me, your Sulamith—or shall I be Jussuf the Prince?—until falling rejuvenated reunited we were consumed. But no, I have been saved here on holy ground and live only for the Messiah, while you are lost, apostate, my hard-faced betrayer, barbarian that you are. O lamentation! Can you see the black swan on the black Wupper? Can you hear my song playing plaintively on a blue piano? ... But now we must disembark, Father Schiller says to his Else. On earth I was in the main his good little girl...."

    It is a known fact that on the day the opening of the first, four-and-a-half-kilometer, stretch of the Wuppertal Suspension Railway was celebrated Else Schüler was no child but a woman of thirty or more, wife to Berthold Lasker and mother of a two-year-old son, but age in her scheme of things was always flexible, which only makes the three signs of life from Jerusalem addressed to Doctor Benn and posted only weeks before her death that much more informative.

    I did not haggle long; I paid a collector's price. And Kurt Mühlenhaupt, whose junk was always special, gave me a wink.


It was a minor event in Lübeck when the student in me bought his first straw hat to wear while strolling to the Mühlentor or along the banks of the Trave. Not a soft felt or a bowler; no, a flat-topped, buttercup-yellow, vainglorious straw hat, which, having just become the rage, was called either the elegant canotier or more folksy boater. Women too wore straw hats, theirs trimmed with ribbons, but for a long time they also laced themselves into fishbone corsets: few were brave enough to parade in front of, say, the Katharineum in the health movement's new, free-flowing dresses that aroused and mocked us students.

    There was much new at the time. The Imperial Post Office, for instance, had just issued uniform stamps for the entire Reich featuring a metal-bosomed Germania in profile. And since progress was the keynote of the day, many straw hatters were curious about the times to come.

    My hat had all kinds of adventures. I shoved it back on my neck while admiring the first Zeppelin. I laid it next to the newly published scourge of bourgeois sensibility, Buddenbrooks, while sipping coffee at the Café Niederegger. Then, during my first year at the university, I wore it through Hagenbeck's Zoological Garden, which had just begun operation, and, thus protected, I observed apes and camels in the open while they covetously observed me and my hat.

    Mistaken for another's on the dueling floor, forgotten altogether in the Alster Pavilion—time after time a new straw hat was wanted, to doff with verve (or dispassion) to the ladies. After a while I started tilting it to the right the way Buster Keaton did on the screen, only nothing could make me sad like him; everything made me laugh, which meant that in Göttingen, where, now wearing glasses, I earned my degree, the gangling, comic, photogenic Harold Lloyd of the later years, fumbling with his straw hat while hanging from a clock hand, was more my look.

    Back in Hamburg, I was in the throng at the opening of the Elbe Tunnel. From the Chamber of Commerce to the Warehouse District, from court to chambers we ran waving our straw hats when the world's largest ship, the high-speed North Atlantic steamer Imperator, sailed out of the harbor on her maiden voyage. There were plenty of occasions for hat waving. And once when I was taking the air along the banks of the Elbe near Blankensee with a minister's daughter on my arm—she later married a veterinary surgeon, that spring or autumn, I can't remember which—a gust of wind made off with my flimsy headdress. It rolled, it sailed. I chased it in vain. Disconsolate—not even Elisabeth, the object of my love at the time, could give me solace—I watched it drift downstream.

    Only after completing my apprenticeship and entering the civil service could I afford straw hats of better quality. They remained in fashion until many thousands of straw hatters in small towns and large metropolises—including me at the Supreme Court in Schwerin—crowded around gendarmes in the street reading off proclamations of war in the name of His Majesty. Many tossed their boaters in the air, relieved at being released from civilian life and willingly exchanging—quite a few for good—their shiny, buttercup-yellow straw hats for the field-gray headgear known as spiked helmets.


The finals began just after half past four on Whitsunday. We'd taken the night train from Leipzig—the team, three substitutes, the coach, and two gentlemen from management. Sleeping cars? Not a chance! No, the whole Leipzig club—me included—went third class. (The fare wasn't peanuts, you know. It took a lot to scrape it together.) But our fellows stretched out on the hard seats, and till just before Uelzen the train was a symphony of snores.

    Anyway, we pulled into Altona bushed, but in high spirits. As usual, they took us to an ordinary parade ground; it even had a gravel strip running through it. We protested, but a lot of good it did us. Herr Behr, the referee from Altona Soccer Club 93, had roped off the sandy but otherwise perfectly even playing field and marked the center line and penalty area with wood shavings.

    The only reason our opponents, the Prague team, got to play was that those birdbrains in the Karlsruhe Club management fell for a dirty trick: they believed a misleading telegram and failed to show for the preliminary round in Saxony and the German Soccer League decided on the spot to put the Prague Club in the finals. It was the first match and the weather was perfect, so Herr Behr had a nice crowd of roughly two thousand spectators, though the five hundred marks they tossed into his tin bowl didn't nearly cover expenses.

    Things got off to a bad start: just before the whistle the ball was nowhere to be found. The Prague team protested, but the spectators laughed more than they hooted, and everybody was in high spirits when the ball finally lay there on the center line and our opponents, the wind and sun at their backs, kicked off. Before we knew it they were down at our goal making a cross from the left wing, and it was all that Raydt, our beanpole of a goalie, could do to save us from falling behind so early in the game. But then Friedrich of Prague scored a goal. We held our own for a while, though the passes came fast and furious from the right. We finally squeezed a goal out of the flurry and pressure in front of Prague's penalty area, but Prague, who had a strong goalkeeper in Pick, tied the score just after halftime. From then on they couldn't hold us back. In the space of a few minutes Stany and Riso managed to score five goals between them. All hell broke loose and the crowd kept going wild. There was barely time for the cheers to die down. Not even their star center halfback, Robitsek—who, by the way, fouled Stany really hard—could stop us. Herr Behr gave bad-boy Robi a warning, and Riso scored a seventh goal for us just before the whistle blew.

    Prague had been praised to the skies, but turned out to be quite disappointing, especially the forward line. Too many return passes, lax in the penalty area. Later, people said Stany and Riso were the big heroes, but that's wrong: it was the teamwork. Even so, Bruno Stanischewski—whom everybody called Stany—was a perfect example of what players of Polish extraction had been for German soccer over the years. Because I've been in management for quite some time now—I'm treasurer—and I go to lots of away matches, I had the privilege of watching Fritz Szepan and his brother-in-law Ernst Kuzorra, the Schalke stars, play, I saw their great victories, and I can state without fear of contradiction that if after the Altona championship German soccer started looking up, it was due in great measure to the spirit and skill of Germanized Poles.

    But to get back to Altona: it was a decent match, if nothing spectacular. Still, even in those days, when Leipzig was the undisputed champion of Germany, reporters liked to spice up their stories with the stuff of legend. In any case, word got round that the reason Prague had been so slow on the uptake, especially during the second half, was that the night before, they'd had a grand old time with the ladies of the Reeperbahn. Well, I have it from Herr Behr, the referee, in his own hand: "The best team won!"


"At our mine in Herne it started up right before Christmas...."

    "Hugo Stinnes's mine, you mean...."

    "But there's cart problems all over the place. At the Harpener Mines, when they don't fill 'em full up or there's too many chunks that ain't pure coal..."

    "And then there's a penalty...."

    "Right, inspector. But us miners we're peace-loving folk, and there's other reasons for the strike. The worm sickness, for one. It's all over the district. Every fifth miner's got it. And the bosses they play it down...."

   "The horses got it too, you want my opinion...."

   "No, it was them Poles brought it with them...."

    "But everybody's striking, Poles included, though they're a cinch to keep in their place...."

    "With schnapps, you mean!"

    "Bullshit! We're all of us blotto half the time...."

    "In any case, the strike committee is quoting the Berlin Peace Treaty of May '89, where it calls for an eight-hour shift...."

    "Eight-hour shift, ha! The cart trips are getting longer and longer...."

    "At our mine in Herne we're up to ten hours a day...."

    "And there's more and more cart trouble these days, you want my opinion...."

   "Over sixty shafts are being picketed...."

   "There's blacklists again too...."

    "And in Wesel the Fifty-seventh Infantry Division is standing ready...."

    "Come off it! All we've ever had are gendarmes...."

    "But at our mine in Herne the inspectors like you they're going around with armbands. And clubs ..."

    "Pinkertons is what they call them, after that American, the one who came up with the dirty trick...."

    "Hugo Stinnes is closing down his mines, 'cause there's a general strike...."

    "Well, all over Russia they're having what you might call a revolution...."

    "And Comrade Liebknecht in Berlin ..."

    "But the army marched right in and shot up a storm...."

    "The way our boys down there in Africa take care of them Hottentots ..."

    "Still, more than two hundred mines in the district are out on strike...."

    "Eighty-five percent all told ..."

    "Though it's been pretty quiet so far, inspector...."

    "Not like in Russia, where the revolution's on the upswing ..."

    "Which is why they're starting to take action against the Herne strikebreakers, comrades...."

    "Stinnes is dead set against a settlement...."

    "Russia's in a state of war...."

    "Our boys really gave it to the Herero and them other Hottentots...."

    "The Russians will have a harder time of it with the Japanese...."

    "At our mine in Herne there's even been some shots fired...."

    "Yeah, but in the air only ..."

    "Still, you should've seen us run...."

    "From the mine gate clear across the forecourt ..."

    "No, inspector. Not soldiers. Just police ..."

    "But that didn't stop us from running...."

    "Time to make tracks, I said to Anton...."


My father before me worked for a Bremen shipping company in Tangier, Casablanca, and Marrakesh, and that long prior to the first Moroccan crisis. He was a man plagued by worries, a man for whom politics, especially in the far-off person of Chancellor Bülow, muddied the balance sheet. As his son, who managed to keep our concern above water in the face of powerful French and Spanish competition but made the rounds of the saffron, fig, date, and coconut dealers with no true passion and therefore spent less time in the office than in the teahouse and prowled the souks for entertainment, I found the constant crisis banter at table and club absolutely ludicrous. I consequently viewed the Kaiser's spur-of-the-moment call on the Sultan from a distance and through an ironic monocle, especially as Abd al-Aziz himself proved capable of reacting to the unannounced state visit with remarkable pomp, shielding his eminent guest with a picturesque bodyguard and English agents while secretly securing the favor and patronage of France.

    Despite the much mocked mishaps at the port—where the launch, sovereign and all, nearly capsized—the Kaiser made an impressive entrance, riding into Tangier on a borrowed, clearly nervous white horse, but firm in the saddle. The people even cheered. However, it was his helmet and the light signals it beamed to the sun that elicited spontaneous admiration.

    Later, the teahouses and even the club were flooded with cartoons showing the eagle-bedizened helmet engaged in lively dialogue with His Majesty's mustache—and no face in between. Moreover, the cartoonist—no, I was not the perpetrator; he was an artist I'd known in Bremen, one of the Worpswede art colony crowd—succeeded in drawing the helmet and handlebar mustache in such a manner that the rounded, richly decorated headpiece and its sharp spike harmonized perfectly with the domes of the mosques and their minarets.

    The grandiose entrance gave rise to nothing more than worried telegrams. While His Majesty made spirited speeches, France and England formed ententes to deal with Egypt and Morocco. I found the whole thing laughable. As laughable as the sudden appearance of our gunboat the Panther in the waters outside Agadir six years later. It made a sensation, of course, but all that remained was the impression of the Kaiser's helmet flashing in the sun. Industrious local coppersmiths soon had imitations for sale in every marketplace. For many years—more years than our trade with the country held up—one could buy Prussian spiked helmets en miniature and larger-than-life as souvenirs or utilitarian spittoons.

    My father, though, who always feared the worst in more than matters of trade, and who, not entirely without reason, would call his son "Flighty Golightly," found nothing in all this to make him laugh; instead, he took it as further grounds for uttering beyond the dinner table his painful pronouncement: "We are being surrounded; the British and French are surrounding us in league with the Russians." And on occasion he disturbed us with its corollary: "The Kaiser may be good at sword-rattling, but his politics are made by others."


Call me Captain Sirius. My creator's name is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, better known as the author of the world-famous Sherlock Holmes novels, which offer a strictly scientific account of criminology. But almost as a sideline he attempted to warn his insular England of a danger in the offing when, eight years after our first seaworthy submarine was launched, he published a brief book which he called Danger! and Other Stories, which came out in German translation during the war, in 1916, under the title The Submarine War, or How Captain Sirius Did England In, and was reprinted here seventeen times before the war was over, but now unfortunately seems to have fallen into oblivion.

    Thanks to this prophetic little book I, in the person of Captain Sirius, succeeded in convincing the King of Norland, the Reich's ally, of the daring yet perfectly rational possibility of using a mere eight submarines—which was all we had—to cut England off from her supplies and literally starve her to death. Our submarines were called the Alpha, the Beta, the Gamma, the Theta, the Delta, the Epsilon, the Iota, and the Kappa. Unfortunately, the last was lost in the Irish Sea during our otherwise successful mission. I was the captain of the Iota and commanded the entire flotilla. We scored our first successes at the mouth of the Thames near Sheerness: aiming my torpedoes amidships, I sank in quick succession the Adela, laden with mutton from New Zealand, the Oriental Company's Moldavia, and the Cusco, the latter two laden with grain. After further successes along the Channel coast and all the way to the Irish Sea, involving the whole flotilla either in squadrons or one by one, prices—first in London, then throughout the island—began to rise: a fivepenny loaf of bread soon cost a shilling and a half. By systematically blocking all major ports of entry we drove already exorbitant prices higher and unleashed a countrywide famine. The starving populace protested against the government with acts of violence. It stormed the Empire's sanctuary, the Stock Exchange. Anyone belonging to the upper classes and able to afford it fled to Ireland, where there were still at least potatoes to be had. In the end proud Albion was forced to conclude a humiliating peace with Norland.

    The second part of the book consists of statements by naval officers and other experts, all of whom confirmed Sir Arthur's warning of the submarine menace. One of them, a retired vice admiral, advised England to build storehouses for grain, like Joseph in Egypt, and to protect homegrown agricultural products by means of tariffs. There were urgent pleas to abandon England's dogmatic insular mentality and finally get down to building the tunnel to France. Another vice admiral suggested that trading vessels be allowed to ply the seas only in convoys and that swiftly moving dirigibles be specially equipped to hunt out submarines. Intelligent propsals all, their worth alas, having been corroborated during the course of the war. I could wax particularly eloquent on the subject of the depth- or water-bombs.

    My creator, Sir Arthur, unfortunately forgot to report that while a young lieutenant in Kiel I was present as the crane lowered the first seaworthy submarine into the water—all hush-hush, top secret—at the Germania Shipworks on 4 August 1906. Before that I had been second officer on a torpedo ship, but I volunteered to test our new underwater weapon in its early stages. As a member of the crew I was in the U-1 when it was lowered thirty meters under water and made it to the open sea on its own steam. I should point out, however, that Krupp, using the design of a Spanish engineer, had even earlier built a thirteen-meter craft that went five-and-a-half knots under water. This Forelle aroused even the Kaiser's interest. Prince Heinrich himself went down in it once. Regrettably, the Reich's Naval Office obstructed the Forelle's expeditious development. There were, moreover, difficulties with the gasoline engine. But when the U-1 was put into commission in Eckernförde a year behind schedule, nothing could stop it, even though the Forelle and our thirty-nine-meter ship, the Kambala, which came equipped with three torpedoes, were later sold to Russia. I was unfortunately detailed to attend the ceremony at which they were handed over. Orthodox priests, dispatched specially from Petersburg, anointed the vessels with holy water fore and aft. Following a lengthy overland journey they were launched in Vladivostok—too late to use them against Japan.

    Still, my dream came true. Much as he shows an instinct for sleuthing in his books, Sir Arthur could never have suspected how many German youths—like me—had dreamed of the speedy descent, the wandering eye of the periscope, the bobbing tanker just waiting to be torpedoed, the command of "Fire!," the many and much acclaimed hits, the intimate camaraderie, and the pennants waving on the triumphant return home. And not even I, who have been involved from the start and have entered literature along the way, not even I could have suspected that tens of thousands of our lads would never emerge from their underwater dream.

    Thanks to Sir Arthur's warning, our repeated attempts to bring England to her knees unfortunately came to naught. All those deaths. But only Captain Sirius was condemned to survive every descent.

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