Over the weekend, Guenter Grass, 1999 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, admitted that he had voluntarily joined the Waffen SS, an elite German military unit, as a 17-year-old in 1944. In the interview (G) in the FAZ which he spilled the beans, Grass reports that he originally volunteered to join the U-boat service when he was 15, but then received the call-up order a year later, and found he would instead be sent to the SS. He joined, he says, not out of ideological conviction but to escape a restrictive family atmosphere and a "feeling of being cooped-up."
After the admission, all hell broke loose. In recent times, Grass has been better-known for his political engagement than for his creative output. Grass is a left-wing member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and is unafraid to mix himself into politics; even appearing onstage at SPD rallies (see left; Grass with former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder). Grass has attacked conservative politicians with rhetorical daisy-cutters, and has made plenty of enemies.
They are all coming out in force now. Some juries are considering withdrawing literary prizes they’ve given him, the "culture expert" of the conservative party has already called for him to return his Nobel Prize, and former ally Lech Walensa has called on Grass (G) to consider returning his honorary citizenship of the city of Gdansk.
Historian Joachim Fest says Grass’ moral authority has been "heavily damaged" and snarked: "Now, I wouldn’t even buy a used car from this man anymore." Further, Fest — a World War II expert — calls Grass’ story of initially volunteering for the U-boat service (then seen as heroic and relatively uncontroversial), but later being called-up to the SS, as "very incredible." Robert Menasse, an Austrian writer, comes to Grass’ defense, pointing out that Grass voluntarily admitted the fact, and that one could surely understand the desire of a young, "sensitive" writer to escape a stifling family atmosphere.
Nevertheless, Grass’ credibility does seem to be taking a selective, but deep hit. The mere fact that he joined the SS is not necessarily a problem; thousands of young German men who were not enthusiastic Nazis did the same thing. The problem is that (1) he concealed the fact out of "shame" for 62 years (only his wife knew); while (2) attacking numerous politicians as former Nazis and/or accusing them of covering-up or minimizing the horrors of the National Socialist regime. The cliche is that Grass became the "moral arbiter of the nation" (moralischer Instanz der Nation). This authority seems to be history now. Another illustration of the old adage: "It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up."
As a high point of hypocrisy, many critics are zeroing in on Grass’ bitter critique of Ronald Reagan’s decision to join then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl in a 1985 visit to the Bitburg cemetery, which contained the the graves of almost 50 SS members. Reagan’s speech portrayed some of the SS members — many of whom were young boys at the time of their death — as "human beings crushed by a vicious ideology." At the time, Grass slashed Reagan and then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl for a "distortion of history (Geshichtsklitterung) whose cold calculation as a media opportunity equally injures Jews, Americans, and Germans."
I think Reagan’s visit was a dumb idea, and his speech clumsy and naive. Grass’ problem, however, is explaining his own past without reminding people of parts of the speech he once so memorably attacked:
[T]he crimes of the SS must rank among the most heinous in human history — but others buried [here] were simply soldiers in the German Army. How many were fanatical followers of a dictator and willfully carried out his cruel orders? And how many were conscripts, forced into service during the death throes of the Nazi war machine? We do not know. Many, however, we know from the dates on their tombstones, were only teenagers at the time. There is one boy buried there who died a week before his 16th birthday. There were thousands of such soldiers to whom nazism meant no more than a brutal end to a short life.