Peeling the onion

Despite saying that Germany should 'keep the wound open,' Gunter Grass hid his own war wounds for 60 yrs.

October 18, 2006 22:02
Peeling the onion

gunter grass 88. (photo credit: )


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In advance of the publication of his new autobiography, Beim Hauten der Zwiebel, ("Peeling the Onion"), Gunter Grass dramatically revealed, in an interview last August with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, that he had served in the Waffen-SS. Grass, who turned 79 on Tuesday, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. He is Germany's most prominent public intellectual, having built his literary and public career as a valiant crusader for de-Nazification of post-war Germany. It is now clear that Grass, who has always maintained that as an intellectual of note it was his responsibility to remind Germany of its profound national shame and to "keep the wound open," has carefully hidden his own wounds for six decades. Since this interview and a single subsequent television appearance, Grass has petulantly refused to grant additional interviews, providing only a few well-scripted public readings and carefully-structured public appearances, as he did recently at the Frankfurt International Book Fair. He has thus left the task of making sense of his 60 years of deception and sudden self-disclosure to others. Gunter Grass was born in 1927 in Danzig, the formerly free city unilaterally annexed by Hitler on September 1, 1939 and retaken by the Russian Red Army in March, 1945. After the war, almost the entire German population of the city was expelled by the Poles and Russians and their possessions expropriated without compensation by the Polish state. The city was renamed Gdansk. Grass has frequently said that the Germans deserved the expulsion, as partial atonement for their collective sins. Regarding his own military service, until now he had maintained that he was merely one of the so-called Flakhelfer, the young combatants who were enlisted into anti-aircraft teams, most of them too young to object to or even understand the events surrounding them. Joseph Ratzinger, now better-known as Pope Benedict XVI, was a Flakhelfer who was drafted into a missile battery protecting a BMW factory. Grass believes that they met while in the American POW camp. But Grass wasn't drafted into the armed forces - he volunteered. He was not a Flakhelfer - he served in the Waffen SS, Heinrich Himmler's personal elite army, an enforcement squad of the Nazi government that managed the concentration and extermination camps and was known for its ruthlessness and viciousness. He served in the 10th SS tanks division, which was entrusted with the mission to get Hitler out of Berlin. Grass saw action in March and April, 1945; in mid-April, he was taken prisoner by the Americans. The Nuremberg Tribunal declared the Waffen SS to be a criminal organization. In theory, Grass, although young and clearly lacking any real authority, could have been prosecuted for his service. Grass now says that he didn't realize where he was being sent until he showed up for basic training. But he acknowledges that he volunteered for the military. "I wanted to be a hero," he says in the interview, "but it was also the lack of space at my home in my parents' apartment. As was the case with many who grew up in such tight quarters in those days, making it to the front, becoming a soldier, was liberating in a sense." And once he got there, he was proud. "The Waffen SS," he says, "was nothing frightful, but rather an elite unit... where things were hot, and which, as people said about it, had the heaviest losses." More significantly, Grass now admits, he admired Hitler. "One forgets easily in what a skillful and modern way the Hitler Youth and Jungvolk were raised... Hitler's slogan that 'youth must be led by youth' was tremendously effective," he adds. Grass, of course, is not the only prominent German or even the only prominent German author of his generation to have served in the Nazi forces. But Grass has incarnated himself as Germany's intellectual and historical conscience. His books, including international best sellers such as The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, provided him with the podium from which he never hesitated to take politicians, artists, intellectuals and public figures to task, demanding that they meet the highest moral standards. Like most successful writers, he seemed to have built a bond of trust with his readers. Although he never said so, he seemed to have implied, and certainly allowed the German and international public to believe, that he was not guilty of the unspeakable evils of Nazism that he so condemned. Few countries accord their authors the status that Germany has accorded to Grass. With his stooped, unassuming yet seductive manner, his deliberately unstylish pose, thick glasses and Walrus mustache, one hand characteristically thrust in his pocket and a pipe tightly held in his mouth, Grass was admired by both the establishment and the media and held almost unprecedented political and social influence, far greater than other authors of his generation, such as Heinrich Boll. His revelations retroactively cast some of his actions in a very different light. In 1985, when US president Ronald Reagan and chancellor Helmut Kohl commemorated the 40th anniversary of the end of the war and planned to go to Bitburg Cemetery, where graves of Waffen-SS soldiers, buried next to regular German and US troops, had been discovered, Grass denounced them furiously - joining Jewish leaders such as Eli Wiesel. It is ironic that Grass himself could have been buried there. RESPONSES TO Grass's revelations have been, and continue to be, mixed. John Irving, who has cited Grass as a major influence on his writing, said that he is still a hero in his eyes and called him, "A daring writer and a daring man." Portuguese writer, Jose Saramago, called Grass's critics hypocrites. "He was 17 years old at the time of his enlistment. Does the rest of his life not count?" the German press quoted Saramago as saying. Responses in Germany, in contrast, ranged from critical to apoplectic. The prominent Welt am Sonntag newspaper called his revelation "moral suicide." The Deutsche Zeitung referred to Grass's "glass house," saying that he had "taken upon himself to throw stones in the name of a whole generation." Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews, said the admission negated Grass's longtime criticisms of German politics and society for not adequately dealing with the Nazi past. "His long years of silence over his own SS past reduce his earlier statements to absurdities," Knobloch said in a prepared statement. Historian Joachim Fest flatly declared, "I would no longer buy even a used car from this man." A strange coalition of conservative German politicians (whom Grass had always criticized), Poles and some Jewish groups, demanded that the Nobel Prize committee rescind its prize. The Swedes politely refused. Several prominent Polish leaders demanded that the city of Danzig rescind Grass's honorary citizenship. The city decided not to, but Lech Walesa, former Polish president and Solidarity dissident, announced that he regrets granting Grass the Freedom of Danzig Award. In response to this criticism, Grass himself has issued several ambiguous and even provocative statements. His clear lack of contrition is obvious and he shows no repentance for either his service or his silence. In fact, Grass seems to minimize the significance of both, paying more attention to his own subjective perceptions and family dynamics. "... Although this played a role within the period of time I describe - my younger years - I address the far more critical issues in an entirely different context," he says in the TV interview. "One is the fact that, in my blindness as a member of the Jungvolk (German Youth) and Hitler Youth, I didn't ask questions, didn't ask the right questions of those who were close to me, my family, for example... these are the things that really interested me, far more so than what I got myself into - unintentionally by the way - with the Waffen-SS." In Beim Hauten der Zwiebel, he writes, "The minute I invoke the thirteen-year-old boy I was at the time, take him to task and feel tempted to judge him, he eludes me. He doesn't want to be evaluated or judged. He flees to his mother's lap and says, 'I was only a boy, just a boy'... And my membership - well, I was drafted into the Waffen-SS and didn't exactly volunteer, which was just as idiotic." ("Exactly," referring to the fact that while he volunteered for the armed services, he was assigned to the Waffen-SS.) He has made it clear that he feels that he was victimized by the Nazis and is now being victimized by the public. "What I am experiencing now, currently, this is supposed to make me an unperson and call everything into question after the fact, everything that made my subsequent life what it was... I would at least want you to believe that I have learned the hard lessons taught to me in my younger years; my books stand as witness to it, as do my political acts," he has said on television. AT HIS FIRST book reading following his disclosure, which was sold out well in advance, the well-dressed, very chic Berlin audience murmured approvingly when the moderator announced that Grass would not answer any questions and applauded when Grass announced that he will not desist from his political statements. "People like Gunter Grass helped form Germany as it is today, with such a strong democracy," says Helga Flugel, 28, a third-grade teacher in Berlin. "I admire him and I always will admire him. "Young Germans like me don't want to think about the Nazis. Berlin is an exciting city, with wonderful culture and happenings. It is a world capital, and we would like to forget what happened in the Nazi era. Grass has prevented us from forgetting. No matter what he did, I think he is still a hero and it angers me that people are so critical." But Kristina Volke, of the Culture in Germany Commission in the German Bundestag (Parliament), retorts, "What did Grass expect and whatever is he thinking now? Did he think that we would feel sorry for him? Embrace him? Accept his flaws? He wants us to forgive and comfort him and make him our hero again. He is a smaller man than I had thought." Volker Holbrack, Building Director of one of Berlin's building societies and an elected member of the borough parliament of Berlin-Mitte, believes that Grass's motivations are simple and crass. "Grass waited until after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, because if he had revealed the truth, he wouldn't have received the prize," Holbrack says. "And he timed the announcement to promote the book." The public mea culpa and media silence do seem to be very strategically staged. Grass has dropped just enough information to keep the public thirsty for more. His statements in the earlier interviews and subsequent readings have been enigmatic, enticing. In the ARD television interview, for example, when asked why he didn't reveal his past earlier, Grass says, "I could have mentioned it... and I ask myself the same question. I discussed this in my book, including my silence on the issue. The book is now available, so readers can form their own opinions. That is why, in the current situation, I can only direct readers to my book." At the public reading in Berlin, Grass says that he wrote the book "in order to write about how a 13-14-15-year-old accepts things and keeps quiet. I wanted to write about the unanswered questions of a 15-year-old." Yet then he contradicts himself and casts doubt on his own metaphor of the peeled onion. In his interview, Grass contends that all autobiography - presumably including his own, is unreliable because it is based on memory. "Memory is very tricky, making things more beautiful and ugly than they were. It is not trustworthy," he says. If this is a deliberate strategy, it is a successful one. Peeling the Onion tops best-seller lists in Germany, with 150,000 copies of the 479-page hardback edition sold in the first two weeks after its release. Publisher Gerhard Steidl plans to print 250,000 copies. The English-language edition will be published in September 2007 around Grass's 80th birthday, according to publisher Harcourt, Inc. Claudia Glenewinkel, publicist and spokeswoman for Gerhard Steidl, angrily denies that Grass's motivations are self-serving. "Mr. Grass is a man of the highest moral courage," she tells The Jerusalem Post curtly. "He has now revealed what he could not reveal before, and must reveal now, as he writes his own autobiography. Mr. Grass is a successful author; he does not need to stoop to such tactics." BUT COMMENTATOR and publicist Jens Jessen writes in the Die Zeit newspaper that, "There is a vanity, and lack of seriousness, about this that is alienating and disturbing." Jessen believes that Grass's behavior highlights additional reasons, infrequently discussed, for the attraction that Nazism held for so many Germans. "Grass points out with verve the anti-bourgeois attitude of the Nazis and the fascination of the Nazi 'Volksgemeinschaft' (people's community) in which there are no class differences and religious darkness," Jessen writes. The Left, Jessen continues, has always had a fascination with fundamentalism and even with fascism. "Hitler's state satisfied not just the right-wing true believers, but also appealed to left-wing hopes and desires... [there was] a particular susceptibility to Nazi propaganda by the petit bourgeois and proletarian segments of the population." Grass continued this trend, Jessen says, with his support for the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, admiration for communist Cuba and fervent hatred for the United States. Years ago, Grass crudely commented that he had "not been confronted with genuine racism in the Third Reich" and only first confronted it as a prisoner of war when he witnessed the racism of American soldiers toward their black fellow servicemen. Last June, addressing the International PEN (the international association of writers), Grass denounced what he called the "hubris of the only superpower in the world" and the "armed force used by the superpower to defeat the terrorism it itself is responsible for." He referred to the US as "the moral equivalent of terrorists everywhere." These are other, less attractive, reasons for Grass's popularity, Jessen contends. Mocking the image that Grass and others like him have so carefully cultivated, ignoring the darker sides of their political positions, Jessen wrote that "at 78 years of age, Grass still appears like someone who could again immediately fall into another ideology if only it were anti-bourgeoisie enough and promised an end to the class society." Interestingly, although they continue to deal with Grass's current statements and have now begun to analyze his past, the German press has yet to ask itself the obvious question: How is it that Grass escaped the same automatic record check imposed on every public figure in Germany - the record check that Grass himself demanded of everyone else. Even Michael Jurgs, Grass's official biographer, complains that Grass did not confide in him - but seems to take no public responsibility for his own lack of research. The information was accessible. Immediately after Grass's revelations, the press prominently displayed his American POW card, in which his Waffen SS unit is clearly listed. It has been on file, available to the public, since then. Jessen seems to believe that Grass did not admit his past because he believed that it would discredit him and prevent him from becoming the prominent crusader he wanted to be. But Grass, Jessen says, was mistaken. "Had Grass spoken earlier about the SS, it would have lent weight and power to his own moral condemnations. It would not have hurt his accusations that others had insufficiently addressed or failed to master the past, but by contrast, would have enhanced their power, made them and him more credible for this admission of error." Stephan Stetter, lecturer in International Relations at Bielefeld University, disagrees with Jessen. "The great paradox is that Grass, probably unintentionally, may have actually served the greater good by hiding his past. He could not have forced Germany to face up to the Nazi era if he himself had admitted to his role in that era." Germany has changed since the Nazi era, Stetter insists - and Grass helped to create that change. Grass claims to represent the new German national culture - moderate, peace-loving, introspective, horrified by its Nazi past yet willing to confront it. Grass's revelation, Stetter continues, "is alienating, ridiculous and ludicrous even. But Germany has progressed so far from the Nazi era that the damage Grass has done to his personal reputation will not leave deep scars on his books. We will learn to ignore what he says and listen to what he writes."

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