August 20, 2006

Günter Grass

Posted in Germany, Guenter Grass at 4:42 pm by billdawson

[ed. note: I edited this entry to remove the original german excerpts of the Keese article. The side-by-side german-english didn’t look good. Of course you can see the full german text at the Welt am Sonntag site.]

I have spent an astonishing amount of time over the last few days catching up on the stories about Günter Grass’s admission that he was part of the Waffen-SS during the last months of the second world war. I doubt if there is much coverage of the topic in the States, so if you are interested and you need a backgrounder, the english Wikipedia entry about Grass includes a decent overview of the events of the last week.

My own opinion — should anybody care — is that it certainly diminishes the political Günter Grass and rises to the level of a disgrace for which he should be deeply ashamed and embarrassed.

It was a gigantic mistake to remain silent about this for 60 years. What if he had disclosed this early on? I think that would have definitely impacted his ability to be the explicitly political moralizer that he turned out to be (Bitburg, etc.), but I think he still could have gone on to become the literary moral conscience of the nation that some make him out to be. In other words, I don’t think his admission really impacts his novels (I have read only one, by the way.) Had he admitted from the get-go that he was part of the Waffen-SS, I think his novels still could have had the impact that they did. In fact, perhaps the knowledge that the author was himself, as a teenager, a member of the Waffen-SS, would have made the novels even more compelling to his German audience.

Choosing as he did to be much more than “just” a novelist, to be overtly political and, especially, to be so accusatory towards others whom he deemed to be covering up or minimizing their own or Germany’s guilt, his silence was very shameful indeed.

To make it worse, it seems as though he is not being very forthcoming about it all. Of all the articles I have read on the subject, my favorite to date has been Christoph Keese’s “Was bleibt von Günter Grass?” (“What’s left of Günter Grass?”), available at the website of the German newspaper “Welt am Sonntag.” It is my favorite because Keese manages to be very critical, yet not too emotional or overboard (as opposed to another article which I’ll discuss later). And he gives some good reasons why we might consider Grass’s “confession” as a less than complete account. I’ll translate some of Keese’s most interesting remarks below.

[Note: because this is a rather lengthy post, I’ve split it so that it doesn’t take up such a big piece of the front page. Click the link below to continue reading.]

Grass isn’t interested in whether or not he is being convincing; otherwise he would not have been so sloppy with his answers to Ulrich Wickerts questions in the ARD interview about the lateness of his revelations. “It was buried in me,” he said. “I didn’t become part of it by my own doing” or “I didn’t do anything wrong.”He would never let anybody get away with such statements. … What can we gleen from his confession? …

The Confession: “I signed up voluntarily, but not for the Waffen-SS, but rather for the submariners, which was just as crazy,” said Grass in the FAZ [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung] interview. “But they [the submariners] weren’t taking anybody anymore. The Waffen-SS took whatever they could get during these final months of the war in 1944/45.” These are the sentences with which he set off the scandal. But what sounds like an open confession actually raises more questions than it answers.For example: after his unsuccessful attempt to join the submariners did he later voluntarily join up with the Waffen-SS?

[my emphases]

I’m glad Keese is also confused about whether Grass was conscripted into the Waffen-SS. Because after reading a ton of other articles about the confession, and before coming across Keese’s, I had seen people assert both that he had and had not been conscripted. Some seem to think it definitive that he was drafted straight out of his mandatory war-time work (Reichsarbeitsdienst) into the Waffen-SS without any choice of his own. Others seem to think that his voluntary effort to join the submariners was then simply transferred (so to speak) over to the Waffen-SS a few years later; i.e., it was all part of the same voluntary act. At Medienkritik, David (I believe it was David, though the article I link to is a translation) explicitly says, “he joined the Frundsberg division of the Waffen-SS in 1944 – voluntarily.” But the FAZ interview linked to by David only seems to say that he volunteered for the U-Boats, then — two years later — was drafted (einberufen, which could also be “summoned”) by the Waffen-SS.

Grass also says that he didn’t understand, when he got the call-up, that he was headed for the Waffen-SS. Many find this unbelievable. Keese:

One must look closely at the corresponding passages in the book; they say a lot about the supposedly remorseful Grass. It pertains to the letterhead on the call-up notice – did the letters “SS” appear on it or not? If the runes were there, then Grass would need to explain why he didn’t escape service. Others did just that. But Grass flees into amnesia: “All attempts [to clearly remember] fail. The letterhead remains hazy. The rank of the signatory is unclear, as if it had been degraded afterwards. The memory remains a blank sheet, despite conversations which might be helpful with details; or is it I who doesn’t to decipher what is written on the onion skin?” [Grass’s autobiography is titled “Peeling Onions”.]

What is an author saying with such flowery evasion? Something like this: “I don’t want to say that ‘SS’ was on the letterhead, but I also don’t want to deny it, in case someone is later able to show me the original.”

Here and elsewhere, Grass further obsures rather than elucidate. What was it really like? We can turn to other sources. In his book, “In My Brother’s Shadow”, Uwe Timm described how these things went. The recruit – often a volunteer, even during the final months of the war – knew exactly what was up and was usually rather proud of it since he was going into the “elite SS”. Grass too?

Perhaps he was thrilled with the call-up, perhaps he knew exactly what to expect, perhaps he even volunteered. We can’t simply assume so. But his several memory lapses open up room for speculation. The book offers no information as to what, precisely, he did while in the SS. He has already lied plenty and falsified his biography. In the Günter Grass House in Lübeck is an exhibit which makes him out to have been a Flakhelfer between 1943 and 1945. The text on the exhibit would have been given to him for approval, or he would have at least seen it. He either enabled or allowed the conscious deception of the public.

I find it particularly interesting that, according to Keese (I am trusting him, since I have not read the autobiography), Grass offers few or no details of what actually occured during his service. (What, was he trying to block it all out by banging on a tin drum all those months?) I’ve read that he also alleged to have never fired a single shot. That seems pretty extraordinary if he really was part of this front-line unit during such a hard-fought period of the war. But I’m of course not an expert on the doings of the Lundsberg (or any other) division of the Waffen-SS. The point is, why should we believe him if, as Keese indicates, he allowed himself to be considered a Flakhelfer all these years?

Keese’s criticism of the late revelation — and excuses (or lack thereof) for the lateness itself — is also very cogent:

Grass preferred to remain quiet. Of all people, that same man who always and immediately had opinions and who for his entire life always shot from the hip. Anyone who reviews the mountains of archives of Grass the polemicist can find a quick judge who, without much hesitation, lambasted, insulted and condemned those who were not of his opinion. Strauß was “to the right of the NPD”, Springer was a new Hugenberg, Kiesinger and Lübke nothing more than old Nazis.

This Präceptor Germaniae [teacher of germany] was not interested in differentiation. He wanted to sharpen and simplify. He is the eternally displeased, a stirrer up of things, a loud moralist, a hard campaigner, a judge. Why did he remain quiet? Certainly not for artistic reasons, but rather for political reasons. This lifelong role of his, his entire existence as a “moral instance”, was possibly only without the stigma of the “Waffen-SS”. Only then could he condemn Kiesinger, Lübke, Strauß, Springer and many others, only then could he attack Kohl’s 1985 reconciliation gesture at the soldier’s cemetary at Bitburg because the bones of SS men lay there, only then could he toss reformed democrats into the same pot with real neo-nazis.

Grass lied to the public for decades so as to not endanger his existence as the great teacher.


He focused his energies on aggression against the symbols of his own failures. His entire Bitburg tirade now reads like a Freudian study of projection and patricide.

Ouch. But I don’t find these accusations to be over-the-top or unfair. I think Keese argues his points rather well. I can’t (for lack of time and energy) continue to translate so much of it, but there is really lots more in the essay. He points out, for example, that the book went out to 500 reviewers — yet only one, Frank Schirrmacher of the Frankfuter Allgemeine Zeitung, seems to have come across the “confession.” What does that say about the others, or about Grass’s standing (i.e., “untouchable”) in the establishment? And how on earth did this escape everybody’s attention for 60 years? No one, not even a political rival (Grass is, himself, a card-carrying member of the Social Dems), ever looked into the public record? I’m particularly surprised that someone at a Springer publication didn’t ever try to dig up dirt on Grass (no pun intended). Apparently it would not have been too difficult to come across the report of his release from American custody; the report clearly states he was part of the Waffen-SS.

As stated, I found Keese’s essay compelling because its “harshness” is not at the expense of truth — he examines Grass’s words and acts and draws what I think are reasonable (and very interesting) conclusions. That all compares favorably to what is, to date, my least favorite article on the Grass affair, Daniel Johnson’s “An Open Letter to Günter Grass” at the New York Sun. In short, I think Johnson really does go over the top. Though I respect Johnson’s claim that he feels betrayed by Grass, I don’t care for much of the way he goes about showing it. By the final sentence of the second paragraph of the first part of the letter, I knew I was going to have a problem: “And I want to show solidarity with the victims, living and dead, of the regime you tried so hard to prolong.” Now that is what I call going over the top. As Keese so responsibly shows, there is plenty in Grass’s actions (or inaction) to judge without needing to invent or to exaggerate.

We find out later in the “letter” what, specifically, Johnson means by Grass trying to prolong the national socialist regime. It turns out that the Waffen-SS division to which Grass belonged — the Lundsberg division — was tasked with fighting their way to Berlin to rescue Hitler from his bunker. As we know, they failed.

Johnson also finds it appropriate to compare Grass to Eichmann and Waldheim. Yes, he is careful to limit the comparisons, but why even make them? Unless he knows more than we do, it is completely absurd for Johnson to mention Eichmann’s name at all in this “letter.” His excuse for doing so is that Eichmann, like Grass, “reinvented” himself after the war. If Johnson needed examples of self reinvention, I’m sure he could have found someone more appropriate than Eichmann to compare with Grass. Not even (in my mind) Waldheim should be compared to Eichmann in the same essay, and, to take that further, I don’t believe a comparison of Waldheim to Grass is fair. That leaves Grass miles from Eichmann in terms of useful comparisons. I assume I don’t need to elaborate on why I think Eichmann should not be compared in any way to Grass.

As for Waldheim…

Johnson initially uses Waldheim as an example of someone who got caught, late in life, in a lie (or at least an omission) about war service. Yes, in this way they are indeed similar. But Johnson cannot stop himself:

But you were in a different league of culpability from the Kiesingers and Globkes and Waldheims. You, unlike them, were a member of the Waffen SS. The Waffen SS was declared a criminal organization by the Nuremberg tribunal just after the war.

Let’s take a step back (and a deep breath.) Grass was indeed a member of a criminal organization (as defined by Nuremberg judgments — visit and search for “Conclusions”.) The resolution of the question of whether he was drafted or volunteered will determine whether or not he, himself, can thus be considered “criminal.” However, Johnson is simply taking advantage of the convenience of the breadth of that judgment. From what we know at this moment (which, admittedly, and as Keese points out, is not much), Grass neither committed nor witnessed atrocities. Whether or not he was a conscript, he was certainly not an officer. Waldheim, though perhaps a Schreibtischtäter (desk criminal), was an officer in areas where atrocities were very definitely and systematically committed. The scope of Waldheim’s silence and amnesia (or lies:call them what you will) is far more serious and troubling than anything we know about Grass. To use just one example, the commission of international historians tasked by the Austrian government to evaluate the Waldheim affair concluded that Waldheim’s apparent amnesia (or lack of knowledge) about the deportation of Salonika’s jewish population was based on five arguments, each of which the commission purports to have refuted in their report. In other words, they didn’t buy even one of Waldheim’s arguments. (See The Waldheim Report, Museum Tusculanum Press 1993, p. 108 [US, UK, CA].)

These are just a few of the examples of what I felt was a rather over-the-top and therefore unsuccessful essay by Daniel Johnson. As I was reading it, the german word ubertreiben kept coming to mind. I guess that’s a good sign that I’m finally (after 6 years of living here!) comfortable enough with the German language that it sometimes even provides words to my mind before english.

A final note for now about Grass: this scandal will take on a whole new dimension if it is later discovered that the Stasi used their knowledge of his service to pressure (i.e., blackmail) his political persona.


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