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The German Stain

The self-destruction of Günter Grass.

11:00 PM, Nov 9, 2006 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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GÜNTER GRASS self-destructed at the beginning of Europe's literary season. However, what, to foreign observers, may look like a near-fatal fall from the moral high horse Grass had saddled in the 1960s may not be the inevitable punishment for unbridled hubris. Rather, it may be a simple case of my pragmatic mother's axiom that old folks show their true character as they lose the will to compromise.

Grass, who will turn 80 next fall, caused outrage in Germany not because he revealed in his new memoir Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion) that he had served in the Waffen-SS as a 17-year-old, but because he, who for much of his career had harassed politicians, intellectuals, and ordinary Germans into facing their Nazi past, seemed so unashamed when he revealed that he had, for more than half a century, concealed his own brown secret.

Immediately, there were suspicions of opportunism. Grass was accused both of keeping the SS-secret under wraps to remain a viable candidate for the Nobel Prize (which he won in 1999) and of releasing the news just slightly in advance of the memoir's publication to generate interest.

But the story of Grass's use of his past and its presentation to the public is not merely a tale of opportunism. It is a story of the emancipation, for better or worse, of the German public from its moral and aesthetic dictators.

FOR THE PUBLIC the story began on Saturday, August 12, when the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung announced the headline "Günter Grass: I was a Member of the Waffen-SS." The article was accompanied by a front-page editorial written by one of the paper's five publishers, and supplemented inside with a 2-page interview with Grass.

The lead article reported in the first paragraph that Grass admitted that he was a member of the Waffen-SS; that he would comment on his military service in his memoir to be published in September; and that in the accompanying interview he explained his motivation for "breaking his silence" as: "it was irking to come out." The opening sentence simply stated that "Günter Grass admitted that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS." But the time and place of Grass's confession were not mentioned.

It was immediately apparent that the "news" of Grass's service in the Waffen-SS had not been spurred on by newly discovered facts. Instead, it was being deliberately announced by the top culture editors at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for reasons that would become clear as the story unfolded.

IN FACT, the news about Grass had been out since July 2006. In mid-July Grass's publisher, Steidl Verlag in Göttingen, distributed some 550 advance copies of the memoir to reviewers. The confession of Grass Waffen-SS service appeared on pages 126 and 127. But nothing happened. No one jumped at the revelation.

For its part, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung's planning for the Grass memoir had begun in April 2006. "It was clear from the start," wrote the literary editor Hubert Spiegel on August 19 (a week after the news had first appeared in the paper), "when Grass writes his memoirs, it's an event. Therefore we asked the Nobel laureate to make his memoirs an event in the paper, an artistic event, by contributing his own handiwork." The editors asked Grass to design a special eight-page supplement to be printed on glossy paper and distributed with a Saturday edition of the paper in late August.

Reading Spiegel's August 19 report about the making of the supplement, the motivation of the editors begins to become clear. In the 1960s and 1970s , a headline happily broadcasting "Grass confesses Waffen-SS membership" in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung would have been taken as a conservative act of revenge on a leftist figure. Not so in 2006. The Frankfurt paper is still conservative. But Grass is no longer simply a liberal activist.

He is now Germany's greatest literary artist, the only living German writer of international repute, and the only writer who, in novel after novel, from the Tin Drum (1959) to Crab Walk (2003), transformed German history into mesmerizing literary art. He developed a baroque style of linguistic impreciseness that dissolves hard facts into earthy sensual pleasures. He is a regionalist, culturally rooted in the landscape around Danzig, where he grew up, and implicitly hostile to the capitalist cosmopolitanism of a borderless European Union. What Grass has come to represent is the possibility of creating, once again, a particular German art. It was his creation of a new German aesthetic over the course of 50 years that the culture editors at the Frankfurt paper had planned to celebrate.