Gunter Grass’s journey from the Nazi frontlines to the vanguard of anti-Americanism.
In his voluminous political writings throughout the years, Gunter Grass always insisted that his role, as an artist and an intellectual of note, was to remind Germany of its profound national shame -- the Nazi era -- and “keep the wound open.” But earlier this month it emerged that for over sixty years the Nobel Prize-winning novelist had been concealing just such a wound from public view.
Grass stirred worldwide controversy when he admitted that he had been a member of Hitler's notorious Waffen SS in the final months of World War II. Having set himself up for decades as his country's moral conscience, in which capacity he was always urging his fellow countrymen to “come clean” about their wartime past and seek forgiveness, the moralizing Grass stood revealed as a hypocrite of colossal proportions.
But the timing of Grass’s confession is not inexplicable. It appears to be a cynical public relations ploy to promote sales of his forthcoming autobiography, Peeling the Onion. Hence Grass made his startling disclosure in a two-page interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany's leading national newspapers. The first print run of his book has since sold out.
Grass’s revelation adds a new twist to the personal narrative he has carefully fashioned over the years. Heretofore, the conventional wisdom had it that Grass, like many of his generation, was drafted into the Nazi army, the Wehrmacht, serving as an anti-aircraft soldier, but was in no sense a true-believer in the Nazi cause. Grass did nothing to discourage the prevailing view and much to bolster it. He had long stressed that he and other German youth were “too young to have been a Nazi, but old enough to have been formed by the Nazi regime.”
Grass now tells a different story. Though he maintains that he was drafted into the 10th SS Panzer Division “Frundsberg,” part of the Waffen SS, serving from September 1944 until the war's end, he now concedes that “Germans joined with enthusiasm and with popularity.” Grass further says that he himself had eagerly volunteered to join the Nazi U-boat fleet, only to be rejected due to his young age. And so far from rebelling at the idea of SS service, Grass says he considered joining the SS the ideal career move, thinking the elite military units would both provide him with an exit from his despised bourgeois home and a direct route to Hitler, to whom the teenaged Grass remained loyal until the Nuremberg war crimes trials.
At first blush, Grass’s conversion from SS man and Hitler admirer to leftist icon and relentless foe of capitalism, German bourgeois society and especially America, may seem incongruous. But as German commentator Jens Jessen, writing in the newspaper Die Zeit, notes, there is a common thread underlying his political weltanschauung. Jessen writes that in his work "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.’” At 78 years of age, Jessen darkly comments, the Nobel laureate 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.”
Nor is that the only link between Grass’s ardently leftist present and his Nazi past. For instance, there is his strident contempt for Catholicism and the authority of the Catholic Church -- a driving theme in the Nazi persecution of German Catholics. It was a contempt that manifested itself most sharply in the 1950s, when Grass, then in the dawn of his international celebrity, tirelessly maligned the conservative Chancellor of West Germany Konrad Adenauer, a Catholic. Grass unabashedly regarded Adenauer as a worse evil than the Nazis who preceded him in power. Recalling the era, Grass once sneered, “We were under Adenauer, ghastly, with all those lies, with all that Catholic fug. The society of that day was fed by a kind of stuffiness that never existed under the Nazis." Similarly, Grass ridiculed Adenauer for exhibiting what he called a “philistinism [that] hadn't existed even under the Nazis.” As Jessen observes, such utterances suggest that Grass never freed himself "from the hocus-pocus of Nazi propaganda.”
It’s certainly true that the passage of time has not made Grass appreciably less susceptible to the allure of authoritarian rulers, even if left-wing dictators have replaced the Fuehrer in the spotlight of his imagination. In the 1980s, Grass happily sang the praises of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, blaming it’s eventual downfall on his preferred bête noire, the United States. Not a Communist in his own right, Grass nonetheless found that he had no difficulty making the Soviet Union’s case when the United States proposed to deploy cruise missiles in Germany to defend the country against Soviet SS-20 ballistic missiles. “A people that fifty years later is still suffering the consequences of its failure to resist Hitler’s seizure of power ought to have learned to recognize different but comparable dangers before it is too late and thus look upon the right to resist as a democratic imperative,” Grass intoned in 1987. Thus did the United States become, for Grass, the effective successor of the Third Reich.
Communist Cuba, on the other hand, earned his admiration. As late as 1993, when well-documented tales of Castro’s terror had thinned the ranks of his apologists, Grass was still touting the glories of the revolution, claiming that Cubans “were less likely to notice the absence of liberal rights” owing to the “self-respect” they had purportedly gained. Most famously, Grass nursed an abiding affection for communist East Germany, becoming a leading opponent of German unification. Unwilling to see the GDR join the West, with its abominable capitalism, Grass cleaved to the dream of a confederation of two German states, a “third way” that allowed him to indulge his hopes for a socialist utopia that history had denied. Parallels to Grass’s Nazi youth were unmistakable. Just as Nazi propaganda captivated him in his youth, so the socialist vision was now too appealing to surrender.
German voters suffered from no similar delusions. They unanimously voted to make Germany whole. Grass was unmoved. Instead of deferring to the wishes of his countrymen, the novelist took to mercilessly savaging post-unification Germany. It was, he claimed, eternally tainted by the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Worse yet, by allying itself with the West, and particularly the United States, Germany had lost its “essential substance.”
Here again Grass betrayed something of his former self. Once a soldier in the Nazi quest for Germanic racial purity, Grass now demanded that Germany adhere to an economic and cultural purity, one in accordance with his socialist dreams and his contempt of the United States. Paul Hollander once wrote that “[f]or Grass, as for many other critics, the rejection of the United States and the rejection of his own society became intertwined; he detested West German society primarily because it was becoming Americanized, that is, materialistic, greedy, and polluted physically as well as spiritually.” German unification merely fanned the flames of his hatred.
Neither the terrorist attacks of September 11 nor the U.S.-led “War on Terror” have prompted a change in his thinking. On the contrary, Grass’s disdain for the United States has, if anything, only increased in recent years. In a 2003 op-ed for London’s Guardian, Grass accused the United States of inventing the threat of terrorism. “We know how people create enemies where none exists,” Grass wrote. The only serious threat to world peace, Grass held, came from the United States and its president: “It [the US] stands there in its hubris, unashamed and dangerous to the rest of the world. The current US president is the perfect expression of this common danger we face.”
Insofar as Grass acknowledges the reality of terrorism, he reposes the blame squarely on the United States. In a 2003 interview with the German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, Grass lectured that “the deep reason for the increasing terrorism” was “disappointment” born of poverty. Informed that the September 11 hijackers hailed from wealthy backgrounds, Grass refused to budge. “In any case,” he retorted, “war is the wrong reaction to terrorism.”
On this point -- America’s supposed culpability for worldwide terrorism -- Grass has stayed consistent. In a June address before the annual International PEN Congress, an international association of writers, Grass made a point of inveighing against “the hubris of the world's only superpower” and professed his indignation that “[a]rmed force is used by this superpower to defeat the terrorism it is itself responsible for.” Grass then appealed for the United States to be viewed in its appropriate light: as the moral equal of terrorists everywhere. “Although we meticulously keep count of the victims of terror attacks, terrible though their number is, nobody bothers to count the dead caused by American bombs or rocket attacks,” Grass groused.
Coming from an admitted member of the Waffen SS, such moral equivalence may seem beyond perverse. Yet it is entirely characteristic for the world-famous intellectual who migrated from one political extreme to the other without the intervention of reflection and who has remained faithful to only one guiding idea--that the West, as symbolized by the United States, is always in the wrong.
In the gloaming of his career, it would be unrealistic to expect Grass to reconsider the convictions that have cemented his reputation as a writer and, less deservedly, a political prophet. It is doubtful, in any case, that he is open to persuasion. Reflecting on his support East Germany in the late 90s, Grass maintained that whatever else was recorded by history, he had been right to take his stand with communist tyranny. “I believe it is a good thing that a writer does not sit on the side of the victors,” said Grass. From his time in the service of the SS to his decades-long romance with communist regimes, it is indeed the one thing of which Grass can never be accused.
Stephen Brown is a columnist for Frontpagemag.com. Jacob Laksin is a senior editor for Frontpagemag.com.
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