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.
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.
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.