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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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The problem with the celebration, though, was that in his memoir Grass quietly corrected his well-established biography. He had always claimed that he had been drafted in 1944 as a Flakhelfer, a minimally trained youngster loading anti-aircraft guns. In his memoir Grass explained that he had volunteered for service in the Navy in the summer of 1943 because he wanted to escape the indignities of an impoverished, petit-bourgeois life in a two-room hell-hole where he was forced to listen to his father fulfill his connubial duty. Grass was called up a year after signing his papers as a volunteer, joined his unit of the Waffen-SS, Division Frundsberg, in September 1944, and was sent into combat in March and April of 1945. Grass is somewhat hazy on the issue of when, precisely, he realized that he had signed on to the Waffen-SS.

In 2003, several prominent literary intellectuals of impeccably liberal views had been outed as having been members of the Nazi party. The revelations permanently damaged their reputations. Thus the editors at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung knew they had a problem. They wanted to honor a distinguished man. But the man had done the unforgivable: Not only had he remained silent while pushing others to confess, but he had actually lied about his military service during the Nazi years (for instance to his biographer Michael Jürgs).

Unfortunately, by mid-August, no critic with an advance copy had taken that problem public and thus off the hands of the Frankfurt editors.

So they decided to go it alone. On August 12, a week before the celebratory supplement was scheduled to appear, the editors put the biographical "news" on the front-page of the paper. And all hell broke lose. A furious debate ensued, raged for two months, and ended in a nifty twist from which Grass is unlikely to recover, at least in Germany.

THE NEWS of Grass's "confession," produced a shock among intellectuals and triggered red-hot anger in ordinary Germans. Politicians, public intellectuals, and writers, especially those abroad, tended to defend Grass, saying that while it was certainly not nice to have volunteered for the SS as a youngster, it was awfully good of Grass to come clean now. (The alternative presumably being to have his secret dug up by a doctoral student while he was moldering defenseless in a dusty grave.)

Ordinary folks, though, weren't fooled. Their outrage, fueled by suspicions of Grass's insincerity and opportunism--as well as his long history of public moralizing and heckling--had been inflamed not by the August 12 lead article, but by the interview, in which Grass had not only shown himself to be naïve but also mind-bogglingly callous.

The journalists who had posed the 37 questions of the printed interview were later criticized as much too soft by the liberal weekly Die Zeit. Yet it was the very softness of the questions and the exquisite politeness of the journalists toward the old man that had tempted Grass to speak unguardedly.

Twice Grass evaded questions about why it had taken him so long to admit his service in the Waffen-SS. Pinned down, Grass argued, in one of his baroquely twisted sentences: "It is certain that I believed that with what I was doing in writing I had done enough." Presumably, Grass meant that his writing had expiated his sin.

Later in the interview, Grass praised the fact that after the war his contemporaries in the Soviet-occupied East were immediately given a new and believable ideology ("eine neue und glaubhafte Ideologie"), while in the west and emerging from American internment, he was ideologically on his own ("in the wilderness") and had to figure out how to cope with his Nazi past.

Grass condemned Adenauer and his Catholic narrowness ("we had Adenauer, horrible, with all the lies and with the whole Catholic foul air") and he argued that not even the Nazis had been as philistine and petit bourgeois as the Adenauer '50s. Still later in the interview, he called the Nazis attractively "antibürgerlich"--meaning that they opposed parental authority rooted in 19th-century bourgeois values.

To these observations Grass added two more shockers. Asked whether he had any idea what fear the sight of an SS uniform could cause, he said he had had no inkling. He pointed out for many months after the war that he didn't believe that Germans had committed the crimes he saw in the pictures of concentration camps he was given to look at during his POW internment by the Americans. It was not until Baldur vonSchirach confessed at the Nuremberg trials in 1946 that Grass came around to accepting the reality of the crimes.

Grass even added that while he was first learning about the German crimes in the American POW camp, he observed white Americans insulting their black country men: "Suddenly I was confronted with direct racism," he said.