Günter Grass's revelations about his Nazi past will end the temptation to take his political pronouncements seriously—which is no bad thingby Hans Kundnani / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
Beim Häuten der Zwiebel by Günter Grass (Steidl, €24)
To most people outside Germany, Günter Grass is just a writer. In Germany, however, he has always been something more. Since revealing this August that, as a 17 year old, he was a member of the Waffen-SS, Grass has regularly been described as Germany’s “moral conscience.” Yet even that description does not quite convey his precise role in postwar Germany or explain the wider significance of the revelation, made—cynically, his critics say—ahead of the publication of his memoir, Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion, to be published in Britain next September).
Born in 1927, Grass was a Flakhelfer—one of the boys who went through the Hitler Youth and who were drafted into service operating anti-aircraft batteries at the end of the second world war. His generation experienced the Nazi period but were too young to be tainted by guilt.
It was this experience that became the great theme of Grass’s work, beginning with the publication of his first novel, The Tin Drum, in 1959. Again and again Grass urged Germany to break its postwar silence about the Nazi period and to honestly face the past. He intervened in almost all the big public debates in West Germany from the 1960s onwards, lambasting others, increasingly harshly, for their failure to learn the right lessons from the past.
Grass’s was in many ways an exemplary generation. Others—such as those born around or after the war and who came of age during the student rebellion of 1968—also thought of themselves as exposing the Nazi past, but they ended up going to such extremes in their revolt against Adenauer’s West Germany that they repeated some of the mistakes of their parents. Grass soberly accepted liberal democracy and campaigned for Willy Brandt and the Social Democrats, who the all-or-nothing 68ers saw as sell-outs. He and the Flakhelfergeneration represented a Germany that was acutely aware of its past and the responsibilities it had inherited—so much so, in fact, that it could even lecture other countries about dealing with the darker chapters of their own histories. It was not therefore surprising that Grass was the most prominent West German intellectual who opposed reunification—he epitomised, perhaps more than any other German, the “Bonn republic” that it brought to an end.
It now turns out, however, that the story was not so simple. Boys born in 1927 were the last cohort to be drafted into the regular army at the end of the war. But Grass had in fact volunteered even before he was old enough and was subsequently drafted, as a 16 year old, into the 10th SS Panzer division. In effect, Grass’s admission turned him from a mere Flakhelfer into a member of the so-called “perpetrator generation.” In Beim Häuten der Zwiebel, he eloquently describes how “the boy who was apparently me” grew up idolising Max Schmeling and dreaming of becoming a U-boat man. Believing in Hitler was, as he puts it, “child’s play.”
But precisely because it is difficult to blame Grass for what he did at such a young age, it is troubling that he kept his membership of the Waffen-SS secret for 60 years afterwards, apparently even from his wife. It certainly casts his interventions in various public debates in a very different light, in particular his withering attack on Chancellor Kohl for inviting President Reagan to commemorate the dead at a military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985, where members of the Waffen-SS were buried.
The central metaphor of Beim Häuten der Zwiebel is that memory is like an onion that has to be unpeeled, layer by layer, despite tears, in order to reach the truth. However, in the chapter entitled “How I learned to fear,” dealing with his time in the Waffen-SS, Grass switches to a different metaphor. Memory becomes a decayed film that blurs, jumps and breaks. The narrator continually undermines his own recollections, posing a series of questions that he leaves unanswered: did his draft letter include the dreaded initials SS, as historians say that it would? How did he react? What did he do during his time in the Waffen-SS?
Grass provides only a sketchy account of the months he spent on the eastern front in 1945, while making clear that he does remember one thing: he never fired his weapon. After being wounded and ending up in a US POW camp (where he claims to have met another 17-year-old German Catholic boy, Joseph Ratzinger), he is no less horrified by the sight of white American soldiers calling black GIs “nigger” than he is by finding out—apparently for the first time—about the Holocaust. Grass ends up evading and relativising the Nazi past in exactly the way that he often criticised both individuals and Germany as a whole for doing.
Shocking as all this is, given Grass’s status as the exemplary postwar German, it is now mainly of historical significance. Since reunification, Grass has become increasingly irrelevant as a political figure. The endless and somewhat narcissistic debates between the Flakhelfergeneration and the 1968 generation about German identity after Auschwitz have become ever more obscure. The storm surrounding Grass’s revelations was, in effect, an epilogue to Germany’s postwar history. If one of its consequences has been to turn him in Germany into what he is elsewhere—just a writer—then it is not before time.