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…