“…I, who for years had questioned others…” --Günter Grass, 1979
The line between moralist and schmuck is very thin.
A posture of atonement runs through the work of German writer Günter Grass. For the Nobel laureate, the Holocaust has been a didactic perch from which to lecture his countrymen.
Grass depicted Kristallnacht in his most famous novel from 1959, The Tin Drum. His Holocaust-themed essays include “A Father’s Difficulties in Explaining Auschwitz to His Children” and “Willy Brandt at the Warsaw Ghetto.”
“I was five years old when Hitler and the National Socialists took power,” Grass remarked in 1983. “I was thirty before I realized that my whole life—and my children’s and their children’s lives as well—would be blighted by the effects of that seizure of power.”
Grass opposed the unification of West and East Germany in 1990 with more references to the Holocaust: “This state [unified Germany, established in 1871] laid the foundation for Auschwitz. It formed the power base for the latent anti-Semitism that existed in other places as well. It helped provide an appallingly firm foundation for the radical ideology of National Socialism.” Grass added a dire prediction that has yet to come true:
Anyone thinking about Germany these days and looking for an answer to the German Question must include Auschwitz in his thoughts. That place of terror, that permanent wound, makes a future unified German state impossible. And if such a state is nevertheless insisted upon, it will be doomed to failure.
Given this persistent insistence on national memory and guilt, one wonders: How did Grass the Righteous Prophet behave during World War II?
In August before the release of his new memoir, Peeling Onions, Grass revealed that he served in a combat unit of the SS toward the end of the war. The pre-publication timing and belatedness of this revelation has angered many Germans.
“His long years of silence over his own SS past reduce his earlier statements to absurdities,” president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews Charlotte Knobloch remarked.
On the one hand, the SS conscripted the 17-year-old Grass. It seems unreasonable to condemn a man for adolescent behavior begotten by force.
Then again, Grass wasn’t a reluctant teenage Nazi. He has described “my bedazzlement as a Hitler Youth,” an unsuccessful attempt to volunteer for submarine duty, and recounted in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of Germany’s surrender, “…on May 8, I was a naïve 17-year-old who had believed in the ultimate victory right to the end…for me it was not the hour of liberation; rather, I was beset by the empty feeling of humiliation following total defeat.”
One gets the feeling that Allied victory more than introspection prompted Grass’s postwar conversion to anti-fascist apostle. Had Nazi Germany survived, one envisions the bedazzled Hitler Youth as a zealous propagandist for the Third Reich.
The moral significance of Grass’s adolescent Nazism can be interpreted differently. As an adult, however, he has trivialized Nazi crimes and eastern Germans’ subjugation under the “German Democratic Republic” (GDR).
Grass not only opposed unification before the GDR’s sublime collapse in 1990; he portrayed West Germany as an aggressor after unification. A character in his 1995 novel Too Far Afield refers to unification as “this Anschluss, this annexation,” use of “annexation” appearing three more times. Grass previously referred to “Unification in the form of annexation of the GDR” in a 1985 speech and defended such usage after unification.
“Anschluss” is the infamous term for Hitler’s annexation of his native Austria in 1938, “annexation” also evoking the fate of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland the same year. It is a vile falsification to apply those words to the end of Germany’s monstrous division. (Has Grass forgotten the postwar Stalinist Anschluss that spawned the GDR in the first place?)
With similar vileness, Grass would have preferred a longer captivity for eastern Germans. “The internal process of democratization should have been pushed further, before the opening of the [GDR’s] borders was announced,” he remarked in a November 1989 interview. In the same interview, Grass belittled the Soviet-crushed June 1953 workers’ uprising in East Berlin by saying “there were only 350,000 people in the streets.”
Grass also praised the GDR for “a slower pace of life and therefore more time to talk to people.” The East German protagonist of Too Far Afield likewise remarks, “What was all that about an illegitimate state? Within this world of want, we lived in a comfy dictatorship.”
So that’s the literary spin on totalitarian degradation and persecution. Journalist Anna Fundler observes regarding the nature of terror in the GDR:
At the end, the Stasi [the GDR’s secret police] had 97,000 employees—more than enough to oversee a country of seventeen million people. But it also had over 173,000 informers among the population. In Hitler's Third Reich it is estimated that there was one Gestapo agent for every 2000 citizens, and in Stalin's USSR there was one KGB agent for every 5830 people. In the GDR there was one Stasi officer or informant for every sixty-three people [emphasis added]. If part-time informers are included, some estimates have the ratio as high as one informer for every 6.5 citizens.
A more personal and creepy kind of spin appears in Grass’s 1999 Nobel Lecture:
My mother's favourite cousin…worked at the Polish post office of the Free City of Danzig [now Gdansk, Poland]. He was a regular at our house and always welcome. When the War broke out the Hevelius Square post office building held out for a time against the SS-Heimwehr [Home Defense], and my uncle was rounded up with those who finally surrendered. They were tried summarily and put before a firing squad. Suddenly he was no more. Suddenly and permanently his name was no longer mentioned. He became a non-person. Yet he must have lived on in me through the years when at fifteen I donned a uniform, at sixteen I learned what fear was, at seventeen I landed in an American POW camp…
Grass knew he had been part of the SS when he said these words.
He knew it when he wrote about the SS in novels like The Tin Drum and Dog Years.
He knew it when he condemned Ronald Reagan and Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1985 for visiting a cemetery where some SS members were buried.
Was Grass’s dishonesty cowardice or opportunistic calculation? Both? Whatever the root, the man who repeatedly called for candor about the Nazi period and once wrote an essay titled “What Shall We Tell Our Children?” deceived his own children and countrymen for almost half a century.
“Take a good look at the hypocrites,” Grass wrote in that essay.” “Distrust their gentle smiles.”
 Günter Grass, On Writing and Politics, 1967-1983 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), p. 76.
 Grass, Two States—One Nation? (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), p. 6.
 Grass, “The Gravest Generation,” The New York Times, May 7, 2005.
 Grass, Too Far Afield (San Diego: Harcourt, 2000), p. 383.
 Quoted in Julian Preece, The Life and Work of Gunter Grass: Literature, Politics, History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), p. 175.
 Two States—One Nation?, p. 16.
 Too Far Afield, p. 270.
 Fundler, Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall (London: Granta, 2003), p. 57.
 On Writing and Politics, p. 90.
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