Hundejahre; Dog Years

Hundejahre; Dog Years (1963)This novel is about the friendship (and enmity) between a German, Walter Matern, and a half-Jew, Eddie Amsel. It explores myths and stereotypes about Germans and Jews. Walter Matern corresponds to the stereotype of Germans as ‘Dichter und Denker’; ‘Poets and Thinkers’. He studies Heidegger’s philosophy, joins the Communist Party and then the SA, and later volunteers for the armed forces (Wehrmacht). Eddie Amsel corresponds to the Jewish stereotype of mercurial artist and financial wizard. He is a talented sculptor who builds scarecrows from every available material. The underlying principle of his work is modernist collage, and so it comes as no surprise that his work is seen as degenerate by the Nazis. Matern procures SA uniforms for Amsel and he turns them into mechanical saluting Nazi scarecrows. Matern is offended by this, so he enlists some fellow SA men to take revenge. They dress up as crows and give Amsel a vicious beating. Amsel flees and later returns under various assumed names: Haseloff/Goldmäulchen/Brauxel/Brauchsel. Amsel keeps changing his identity, whilst Matern keeps changing his ideological allegiances. The two characters have a strange relationship which is both symbiotic and antagonistic.

The narrative includes a brilliant pastiche of Heideggerian philosophy, as well as references to Otto Weininger, a Viennese intellectual whose father was a Jew. Weininger completed his sexist and anti-semitic tract Geschlecht und Charakter; Sex and Character in 1903 shortly before killing himself.

The middle section of the novel (Book Two) is narrated by Harry Liebenau, a cabinet-maker’s son who writes love letters to his cousin Tulla Pokriefke. Tulla enjoys persecuting Jenny Brunies, the adopted gypsy daughter of the schoolteacher Oswald Brunies. Tulla even reports Oswald Brunies for stealing Cebion pills, which leads to him being taken to the Stutthof concentration camp, just outside Danzig. A subplot concerns Harras the dog, who sires Hitler’s favourite dog Prinz. Prinz survives the Führer’s demise and accompanies Matern on an odyssey through post-war West Germany in Book Three. This is a monstruous novel about a monstrous period in history, told from a German perspective.

Further Reading

Scott H. Abbott, ‘Grass’ Hundejahre: a realistic novel about myth’, German Quarterly 55 (1982), 212-20

Wes Blomster, ‘The documentation of a novel: Otto Weininger and Hundejahre by Günter Grass’, Monatshefte 61 (1969), 122-38

Wayne P. Lindquist, ‘The Materniads: Grass’s Paradoxical Conclusion to the Danzig Trilogy’, Critique 30 (1989), 179-92

Michael Minden, ‘“Grass auseinandergeschrieben:” Günter Grass’s Hundejahre and Mimesis’, German Quarterly 86:1 (2013), 25-42