Last week, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in advance of his new autobiography, “Beim Häuten der Zwiebel” (“Peeling the Onion”), Günter Grass — Nobel laureate, public intellectual and arguably the greatest modern novelist in German — revealed his membership in the Waffen-SS, saying that he had been inducted into the ranks of Nazism’s most vicious paramilitary unit during the waning days of World War II.
After the admission, Grass retreated into silence, leaving a void soon filled with reams of screeds and apologias — most of the former directed not at the writer’s past but at the silence he’s maintained for decades. These have been delivered with a significant degree of Schadenfreude, especially in light of Grass’s decades-long career as Germany’s professional conscience, and his reputation for having held so many — politicians, artists and thinkers — to the highest moral standards that he himself now appears to have publicly failed.
According to the interview account, in August 1944, Grass, at the age of 17, had volunteered for submarine service but was instead routed to the SS, which at that late date was becoming desperate for new blood. Heinrich Himmler’s brainchild, the Waffen SS was not an Army unit but rather an elite enforcement squad of the Nazi Party and, later, its government; known as one of the most ruthless organizations of modernity, it was responsible for the management of both concentration and extermination camps and for carrying out assassinations and other acts of state terrorism. Grass’s was the 10th SS tank division, and with it he saw action at Lausitz in March and April of 1945, until he was wounded then taken prisoner.
In many ways, his confession is the last great scandal of a generation that necessitated a figure as moral as Grass once positioned himself to be in order to expose its own vital deceptions. Grass’s “Frundsberg” tank division’s last mission, which was left unfulfilled because of American capture, was to have been to spirit Hitler out of Berlin. Grass’s late admission now seems like a similar backdoor “escape,” a maneuver whose desperation is typical of many of Grass’s generation — Germans who would seek postwar identity under the rubric of the Flakhelfer (literally “flak helper”, designating child combatants who typically served in anti-aircraft), whose complicity was said to be unwilling, a matter of being conditioned from a young age to an evil that no child could hope to understand. Today, distance is still being measured, most visibly in a rallying toward Grass’s public punishment. Polish President and former Solidarity dissident Lech Walesa now regrets granting Grass the Freedom of Danzig, Grass’s hometown (now the Polish city of Gdansk); German politician Wolfgang Boerson has been demanding that the Nobel committee rescind its prize, to which the Swedes have responded with polite refusal.
It’s nearly impossible for Americans to understand Grass’s former role in German life, at least among those of his own generation. Grass had been a Nationaldichter, a position to which our poet laureate is mere paperwork, the mediocre mark of officialdom. If Philip Roth, Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon (the three Americans most mentioned as Nobel contenders) would publicly accuse President Bush of certain indiscretions, or even crimes, hardly any of our newspapers would hand over significant space; the American public has been historically mistrustful of art’s encroachment on politics — especially now, in a world in which art has been depoliticized into mere entertainment. A close political companion of Willy Brandt, later a cynical critic of Helmut Kohl and the so-called German Economic Miracle that boomed the bombed-out nation into today’s unified, stable prosperity, Grass always has been shrilly profound, intellectually adrift in the Niemandsland between fact and fiction, practical politics and stunt provocation; a stooped, mustachioed figure smoking his pipe when not speaking his mind; an agitator equal parts peacock and priest. Nothing quite like him can exist in a country that hasn’t had Germany’s past, and so the public’s current demand for an American-style atonement, with all the trappings of a talk-show confessional, belittles the tradition that Grass until now has embodied, and it furthers, too, the destruction of all sensitive, subtle critique.
To be sure, Grass’s detractors are right, but it doesn’t much matter. Anyone who intends to totally discredit Grass should first take a year and read his wondrous novels (again, if not for the first time). From “The Tin Drum” to his most recent, “Crabwalk,” they’re works of the most naked genius and now can be read as atonements in advance, pre-emptive aesthetic strikes against their maker’s darkest truth. Even the most appalled cannot deny the books’ brilliance; they deserve every prize we ever could embarrass them with, and despite any revelation they should continue to be read, and widely. Of course, Grass’s present unbinding comes with curious timing: The interview in which he let fall the shadow of his record was actually a junket for the release of his “Peeling the Onion,” which at this very moment is being maniacally translated into English for the edification of all who would seek to read and think before accusing.
And that’s what might be truly distressing, that indiscretions can become co-opted for sales. It might be that yesterday’s mistakes can become tomorrow’s opportunities for self-exploitation, but it would be kinder, and much more inspiring of thought, to regard this whole fiasco as a type of Warholian campaign — that Grass is engaging in a late-model manipulation of our culture.
Unfortunately, one can’t help but note that Grass seems neither iconoclastic nor unburdened, but rather like a writer dutifully undergoing the publicity gauntlet, taking his knocks while getting the word out. His autobiography already has sold in the tens of thousands of copies and is on its third printing within a week of release.
Of course, there’s publicity and there’s public. As reported by Der Spiegel, Grass’s SS service has been a matter of record ever since his American capture. (Why has no one attacked any of Grass’s biographers? This lacuna has been their lapse nearly as much as it has been his.) That magazine has reprinted Grass’s American prison records, in which his SS unit and serial number are given.
As a teenager, Grass studied firsthand the horrors that mankind can perpetrate; his life demands respect for its trauma. Anyone who condemns Grass for his silence must not know what it means to have shame, or to feel regret, or to allow those feelings to inform a life’s reinvention. It should suffice to say that had Grass never served in the SS, he might never have written the novels that made him Günter Grass, the novels whose humanity allows us to feel so betrayed by their author’s unfortunate deception.