Guenter Grass: Two Defenses, One Attack

John Irving defense Guenter Grass "as a writer and a moral compass" here:

The man (and the writer) is a model of soul-searching and national conscience. People are saying he deliberately withheld this information until after he won the Nobel prize for literature, because he would never have won the prize if it were known he’d been in the SS…

The fulminating in the German media has been obnoxious. Grass is a daring writer, and he has always been a daring man. Was he not putting himself at risk – first at 15, then at 17? And now, once again, at age 79? And, once again, the cowardly small dogs are snapping at his heels.

Peter Gay joins in:

I think that whatever Mr. Grass has said in election campaigns (usually as a loyal Social Democratic speaker) or in his powerful novels, all essentially on the present or the recent past, retains its value.

… Ralph Giordano, a German writer and, by the way, a Jew, has noted that Mr. Grass was only 6 when Adolf Hitler was invited to become Germany’s chancellor. (The overused phrase “seizure of power” badly distorts what happened around Jan. 30, 1933, the date of the Führer’s accession. A coup d’ état would have been bad enough; that Hitler’s appointment was perfectly legal only makes it worse for German history.) And Mr. Giordano has asked, reasonably enough, “What else could he have done during that time in the face of the Nazis’ all-powerful propaganda apparatus?” And answers his own question: “Nothing.”

Grass’ confession seems to have been met with rather more patience and understanding from English-speakers — especially his writer colleagues — than in Germany. One of the reasons must be that these writers know Grass primarily, or only, from his novels and from meetings with him.

They also probably know little about many of Grass’ innumerable moral and political judgment calls (for Grass, the two virtually always go together) that don’t have to do with World War II. Take it away, Christopher Hitchens:

When German reunification finally occurred after 1989, [Grass] referred to it with scorn as an Anschluss whereby the West had annexed the former "German Democratic Republic." When challenged on the absurdity of this, he wielded the truncheon of moral blackmail and said that, after Auschwitz, his critics had no right to speak about history. At a discussion in a Berlin theater at about that time, I heard him defend these propositions and felt that I was listening to a near-perfect example of bogus pseudo-intellectuality. By this stage, he had already become something of a specialist in half-baked moral equivalences. At the PEN conference in New York in the mid-1980s, for example, he had sonorously announced that conditions in the South Bronx put the United States on a par with the Soviet Union … I didn’t like being lectured by a second-rater then and I like it no better when I discover I was being admonished by a member, however junior or conscripted, of Heinrich Himmler’s corps d’elite.

Believe what you will about Hitchens, he knows how to end a polemic. With a truncheon:

"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.

2 thoughts on “Guenter Grass: Two Defenses, One Attack

  1. That was an excellent takedown, wasn’t it Andrew? ‘Second-rater’? ‘Bloody fool’?!!!

    If ‘The Flounder’ really is as bad as Hitchens argued it seems to have been uncommonly aptly named – in English metaphor if not in German.

    After reading you and Hitchens I think I’ll have to modify my opinion of Herr Grass. It never was very high, but pretentious moralising psuedo-intellectual twit seems about right. He did write at least one decent book I guess. That’s something.

    Like

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