Tuesday, August 15, 2006

More on Günter Grass, Nobel Laureate and hypocrite extrordinaire

Günter Grass embodied to many in Germany the lessons learned from its Nazi past: Uncover, confront and oppose moral cowardice lest it corrupt the nation/individual. Pity he didn't take his own advice.

Now the Germans he gulled for so long are upset. The IHT has a good look at the controversy:
For decades, the novelist Günter Grass has assumed a voice of moral authority in Germany, one that endlessly exhorted his compatriots to confront their Nazi past. So Grass's confession over the weekend that he was in the Waffen SS, the combat arm of the Nazi organization that carried out the Holocaust, has produced dismay in its purest form.

Now, even Grass's most ardent fans find themselves walking the moral fine lines that pervade debates on Germany's past, praising the Nobel- winning novelist's work and noting that he stands accused of no crime.

But the admiration cannot obscure their outrage that Grass waited over 60 years to tell the whole truth. [...]

By Monday, this hitherto unknown chapter of Grass's life was shaping up as a signature event of the German literary year, one bound to thrust Germany back into a debate about the past only a few weeks after joyous, flag-waving Germans lent a new, unabashed face to patriotism during the World Cup.

To many, the revelation, on the eve of publication of his autobiography, "Peeling Onions," which briefly discusses the SS episode, smacks of a bald attempt to sell more books.
That and he probably wanted to get the truth out before someone else published the information are the most likely reasons. This will certainly help sell more books, and probably guarantees a quick translation into English.

Had this information been released by anyone else his reputation would be in tatters.
Others have found reason to defend Grass, who is widely regarded as a literary figure of the first rank, for doing what any German would have done then. [...]

In the book, whose relevant excerpts were obtained by the International Herald Tribune, Grass makes clear that his reluctance to confront "the word and the double letters" - the Waffen SS - stemmed from pure embarrassment.

"After the war, I wanted, out of growing shame, to forget the things which in my young years I embraced with dumb pride," Grass writes.

This explanation rings thin to many of those who have pored over classics like "The Tin Drum," Grass's 1959 tale of Oskar Matzerath, a dwarf who witnessed the cataclysmic war years from Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland.

For decades, Germans have heard Grass, whose politics have always leaned left, lecture on confronting the past. [...]

Now, all of Grass's past exhortations are colored by his fresh admission, and by his reluctance, evident in the interview, to do more than allude briefly to his feelings in 1944 and 1945.

To Hellmuth Karasek, one of Germany's leading literary critics, the message is that Grass should now keep silent.

"I hope that finally he has sense to shut his mouth," Karasek said. "He should simply enjoy being a great writer."

Others smelled the opportunity to settle scores. The conservative Christian Democratic Union was often a target of Grass's criticism, notably for its inclusion of former Nazis, and its politicians were quick to admonish now.

"Günter Grass has been making moral demands on politicians his whole life," Wolfgang Börsen, who handles cultural policy for the party, told the tabloid Bild. "Now he should make these demands of himself and honorably give back all the honors he received - including the Nobel Prize," awarded in 1999.

Grass, now 78 and of the German generation shaped entirely by the war, has long admitted that he was fascinated by the Nazi regime.

He has also said before that he tried to join the navy at age 15 but was turned down, and that he came to understand the scope of the Nazi crimes while a prisoner of war under American control from April 1945 through 1946.

But Grass's new statements have redefined his life between October 1944 and April 1945, when he was wounded and captured by the Americans.

Grass had told Jürgs, his biographer, that he had been a Flakhelfer, a young assistant on antiaircraft batteries, in Berlin until he headed east to avoid the advancing Red Army.

Now, his story is that he was drafted around his 17th birthday in October 1944, sent to Dresden for training in the Waffen SS, the branch of the SS devoted to combat and not, like the SS proper, to carrying out the Holocaust. [...]

Though lyrical and highly descriptive, the six pages on the Waffen SS in the autobiography give little insight into Grass's motivations and mental state in late 1944. Under questioning by Schirrmacher and another interviewer, Grass revealed only slightly more.

He said he was keen to join the military at age 15 in part as a rebellion against his family. Once he was drafted at age 17, Grass said he quickly learned that military life was a boring and dangerous grind, and he resorted to tricks like drinking oil from a sardine can to fake jaundice and get into the infirmary.

The guilt that he felt later - which he said prodded him eventually into writing the current book - was absent at the time. Later, he said, his guilt became inextricably connected to the question of whether he could have recognized, at the time, what was happening to him. [...]
Like many scandals, it's not the act (who could hold fighting for one's country as a 17 year old against him?), but rather the cover-up which is harming him. That and the fact he's now in the hypocrite hall of fame.