Ja, Guenter Grass was a Nazi

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."

Grass_schroederAfter 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.

6 thoughts on “Ja, Guenter Grass was a Nazi

  1. Thesis: The first thought which came to mind was “give him a break!”. He was 17 years old and it was the middle of a war for craps sake! Some of this seems to be piling on.

    Antithesis: My second thought was that to some extent Herr Grass asked for it. He has been notoriously and almost rabidly anti a lot of things and people, accusing them unjustly of things which they are not – but which it appears Herr Grass was himself a long time ago.

    Synthesis: I feel sorry for the poor man. Not only for what is happening to him now, though that is bad enough. Perhaps more so for the fact that Gunter Grass has lived 62 years in a lie – always knowing that what he said about others was also true of himself at one time. Always feeling ashamed – and taking out that shame on his targets. I suspect his notorious vitriol was actually self-hate.

    The poor man. Pity him.


  2. Well, the old story: he should be more careful if he lives in a glass house.

    The most intriguing thing to me is: Why did he decide to tell about it now? I think some secrets should die with us, specially because he said he as very ashamed about it. And now that germans are apparently dealing better with Nazi-horror and the World War II issues comes this guy to.. spoil everything out?! I hope it´s not just another cheap marketing strategy, since Mr. Grass hasn´t been writing many interesting books lately.


  3. Herr Grass doesn’t need our pity or our puny angry looking anon faces shaking our fists at him in our purported self-righteousness. His work and his life stand for him….meaning the 2-3 years in the German Army are miniscule in comparison to the only acts a writer, with his pen and his storytelling can perform. Yes he was silent, Yes it would have been better if he had been up front earlier, yes he criticised others for giving any recognition to the German war machine. The final analysis God will give. So don’t worry about writing “Tut-tut Mr Grass” Worry about your own lives in stead.

    By the way I live here in Japan, and compared to the soul-searching that has gone on in Germany over the years. I wonder at your constant whinning.
    Time to get on with other issues and show by our deeds in this time what we have learned in the past…we are all capable of turning towards our animal-self and away from the light at any time…We are all responsible for “deaths and human suffering” through our inaction and action and by the same turn of the collective soul, we are all capable at any moment of turning the faint glimmer of light (which some call an approaching train 😉 into a place where justice and truth and mercy prevail. We face these choices at every moment of our lives. and no moment is too late, or too early….And this is part of what I have gotten out of reading Herr Grass’ work.


  4. I read a beautiful summation of Gunther Grass by the essayist Christopher Hitchens. The finale:

    ‘”Let those who want to judge, pass judgment,” Grass said last week in a typically sententious utterance. Very well, then, mein lieber Herr. The first judgment is that you kept quiet about your past until you could win the Nobel Prize for literature. The second judgment is that you are not as important to German or to literary history as you think you are. The third judgment is that you will be remembered neither as a war criminal nor as an anti-Nazi hero, but more as a bit of a bloody fool.’



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