Peeling the Onion
by Günter Grass
Translated by Michael Henry Heim
Harcourt, 425 pp., $26
I studied German literature in college and found the whole "Germany-confronts-its-past" theme riveting at the time. I read Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, first in English and then, dictionary in hand, slogged through the original, Die Blechtrommel. I must have seen Volker Schlöndorff's film version of the book three times. I later wondered, I admit, whether this was truly a great novel or, like Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, something that simply catches you at a certain stage of life. Over time I read other books by Grass, like The Flounder and Headbirths: Or the Germans Are Dying Out. I never felt similarly enthralled.
Grass always had the reputation--in some circles, at least--of "thinking too much of the pocketbook," as a German professor friend once put it. This has been one of the many arrows slung at Grass since the publication of -Peeling the Onion in Germany earlier this year. The major news event has not been Grass's prose or a thousand other details from this rich memoir. Rather, Grass's revelation that he was, as a young man, a member of the Waffen-SS is what has sold books, generated reviews, and put the author on leading op-ed pages.
Many of Grass's admirers were stunned, of course, by the author's revelation. Grass biographer Michael Jürgs talked to National Public Radio about his own disappointment. Some stalwarts, like John Irving, have stuck with Grass. In a column for the Guardian and then in an essay for the New York Times Book Review, Irving claimed that Grass remains his "hero" and "moral compass."
It seems a bit of a stretch.
Grass's enemies have reveled: Grass, the self-proclaimed conscience of postwar Germany, turns out to be nothing but a hypocrite, they sing. Christopher Hitchens opined in Slate that one had always had the feeling that Grass "was something of a bigmouth and a fraud." It's hard to deny. In 1985, Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl wanted to visit a cemetery in Bitburg to honor German war dead. Forty-nine members of the Waffen-SS were also buried there, the majority young soldiers like Grass. Knowing full well the details of his own biography, Grass chose to launch a shrill, self-righteous tirade against Reagan and Kohl.
Of all the reviews I've read of Peeling the Onion, I admire most Timothy -Garton Ash's essay in the New York Review of Books for its balance and restraint. Garton Ash has been one of the few to at least try to separate the literary from the political when reading Grass. Garton Ash takes Grass to task for his political failings, to be sure, but gives the author high praise for this memoir: "This memoir still stands" writes Garton Ash, "as a fine, mature work, the closing of a circle, a nonfiction companion to the incomparable Tin Drum."
Grass recounts how his childhood came to an end when the war started in Danzig. He was 10 years old. In school he remembers a friend who seems to know more than anyone else about German losses in fighting in Norway. The friend disappears one day. His own schooling ends at the age of 15, when Grass and classmates are drafted and sent to man antiaircraft guns around the city. Grass had volunteered to be a U-Boat seaman, but had been rejected. But then, in September 1944, he was called up, sent to Berlin, and then to Dresden where he was given orders to report to the Waffen-SS.
Writes Grass: "Enough evasions. I was silent about something, which I had accepted in the stupid pride of my young years. But the burden remained and nobody could make it lighter."
In truth, I am not especially agitated by the fact that Grass was a member of the Waffen-SS. He was young, desperate to leave home, caught up in the turbulence of the time. He had absolutely nothing to do with atrocities. His hypocrisy is duly noted.
For me the greater scandal has been that Grass--a vicious anti-American with a panoply of anti-Western inclinations--should have been celebrated for so long in the first place. Grass used his literary celebrity to promote some of the most dreadful causes of our time. Most recently, he advised his friend Gerhard Schröder on ethics and -foreign policy. Like Schröder, Grass was part of the moralizing no-blood-for-oil mob before the Iraq war, a group that cynically morphed its ranting against George W. Bush to a chorus of "Bush is naive for having thought Iraq is ready for democracy." All this was happening while Grass's friend Schröder got into the pipeline business with the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
During the Cold War, Grass could scarcely control his rage about America. United States foreign policy, he once insisted, was aimed at "destroying us all." There was simply no difference for Grass between the Soviets in Afghanistan and the United States in Central America. As a personal guest of the Sandinistas' secret police chief in Nicaragua, Grass once declared that he was "ashamed that his country was an ally of the United States." The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa chastised the German writer for his views on the region: Why should a "one-party state" be the ideal for Latin America, asked Vargas Llosa. Grass, the tireless opponent of U.S. interventionism and imperialism, had made no secret of his fondness for spreading the Cuban model.
In 1989-90, Grass opposed German unification. He showed contempt for East Germans when they rejected at the polls their chance to form a "true socialist state." He had once denounced freedom-loving Poles as similarly misguided.
I wish I could read Peeling the Onion while separating all this out. But why should I? Grass is a hectoring and sanctimonious anti-American, with dubious commitment to liberal democracy. If he had had his way, the Nazism and totalitarianism of the right, which he so deplored, might well have been replaced by various forms of left totalitarianism. He once said that poverty in New York was akin to human rights abuses in the Soviet Union.
I figure that, if you cannot have the slightest emotional or intellectual connection to the author you are reading, why bother? That is, unless the book is assigned to you for review. Which, for the huge majority of you readers, it isn't.
Jeffrey Gedmin is president of Radio Free