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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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NONE OF THIS was well received by the public. Letters to the editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung were extremely critical of Grass. Letter writers provided historical details about the Waffen-SS, stressed that Catholicism and other forms of Christianity had given some Germans the strength to resist the Nazis, and pointed out the philistine nature of Nazi Germany.

Taking its cue in part from the letters, the Frankfurt paper began running articles that reconstructed the historical elements of Grass's active service. The culture editors at the paper came to Grass's defense, but their hearts didn't seem to be in it. The review of Grass's memoir, which the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published on August 26 was positive, but not glowing. The memoir was no longer the great artistic event the editors had been so sure it would be.

A couple weeks later, the paper turned (with considerable relief) to serializing Joachim Fest's autobiography Ich nicht (Not I), a straight-forward memoir about resisting cooptation by the Nazis.

As September wore on, Grass became increasingly defensive. In public appearances he downplayed his volunteering for service and stressed his involuntary involvement in the SS. With a chip on his shoulder, he embarked on his author tour. But angry letters kept arriving at the Frankfurt paper and the editors kept printing critical voices. On September 29, the paper devoted its cultural front page to Grass once more: It printed two letters Grass had written in 1969 and 1970 to Karl Schiller, a fellow social democrat and Germany's economics minister at the time. In the letters Grass urged Schiller to confess his membership in the NSDAP "without a big mea-culpa-gesture." The letters were accompanied by an analytic article, in which the author used the word "Verdrängungskunst" (art of suppression) to describe the Grass letters. The next day the paper was attacked by the former president of the University of Lübeck for accusing Grass of cultivating the Verdrängungskunst and for denying him the right to attack former Nazis.

The Frankfurt paper, first accused by liberal journalists of helping Grass sell his memoir and assisting in his attempted cover-up, now stood accused of attacking Grass for his evasion of truth.

In early October, the Frankfurt Book Fair began and Grass saw his memoir shoved aside to make way for a novel written by an American--in French--purporting to be the intimate memoirs of a sexually deviant former Nazi. Who could compete with that?

Grass, never one to admit defeat, appeared at the book fair and, as the New York Times reported, "drew a crowd that listened raptly as he defended his decision not to confess having been part [of the Waffen-SS]." He excoriated the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for publishing his letters to Schiller and "said he had taken legal action against the paper."

In mid-August, the German Jewish writer Henryk Border predicted that "Grass is finished" and German bloggers now spell his name "graSS." But Grass is a survivor. And he's got fame on his side, which always attracts the support of fellow writers, like those who rushed to praise his courage when his revelation first hit the papers.

Not least among these supporters are some 50 Arab authors and intellectuals who signed a declaration of solidarity with Grass and declared that the criticism of Grass was a maneuver to detract attention from the Israelis' crimes in Palestine and Lebanon. Grass will troop on and do what he has done in all his literary work: turn a crushing humiliation into literary art.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.