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Stripping layers of illusion from Gunter Grass

Americans who were born in the prosperous 1920s, raised through the Great Depression, and came of age during the years of World War II are often referred to as our "greatest generation," as much for what they did for the country after the war as during it.

But there is much darker appellation for Germans who were born in the Weimar Republic, raised under Hitler and his Nazi Third Reich, and survived the horrors of the war and the even more horrible disclosures of the Holocaust that came at the war's end -- a group that included my own parents and my German born aunts and uncles.

They are called "the poisoned generation" -- tainted by the racist, fascist indoctrination of their youth, and shattered by the consequences of their own blind loyalty at war's end.

They survived to rebuild a prosperous, industrialized democracy in a now reunified Germany, but carry the burden of their Schuld, their "collective responsibility" and shame to their graves.

The greatest writer of their generation, and arguably the most important cultural figure to emerge from postwar Germany is Gunter Grass, the Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland) born Nobel Prize-winning author of "The Tin Drum," the first and best-known book of his "Danzig Trilogy." That 1959 novel is not only a key work of European "magical realism" (Grass prefers to call it "baroque realism") but more importantly, the first great work of German-language literature to confront the legacy of Nazism and the war years head on.

Faced with the prospect of growing up into the moral and political climate of Nazi Germany, Oskar Matzerath, the infantile protagonist of the "Tin Drum" wills himself to not to grow up at all. He opts to stay in the body of a 3 year old -- a disruptive enfant terrible rudely banging his drum of moral outrage across the German landscape.

Reading the novel for the first time in my early 20s, I understood my parents' decision to leave Germany after the war was necessary, not just serendipitous.

Catapulted into literary stardom in his early 30s, Grass became a cultural hero to some, but his immersion in European politics over the past four decades -- notably as ghostwriter for the late Willi Brandt and intellectual spokesman for the left-of-center German Social Democratic Party -- has made him even more enemies. When "Peeling the Onion," his memoir of growing up during the war and postwar years was first published last August in Germany, a heretofore undisclosed chapter of Grass's own war record rocked all of Germany, and set off a firestorm of controversy throughout much of the literary world.

There were even calls for Grass to give back or be stripped of his Nobel Prize.

So much has subsequently been written and editorialized about Grass's membership in the German Waffen-SS in the closing months of the war that a little context is necessary.

The facts, simply stated, are as follows: Shortly after his 17th birthday in October 1944, Grass, who had been previously been assigned to mandatory youth service as an anti-aircraft flakhelfer in the Luftwaffe auxiliary, was drafted into the German Wehrmacht and sent to the Bohemian Woods for training as a tank gunner. The tank unit to which he was assigned belonged to the Waffen SS, which by late 1944 was no longer Himmler's elite, volunteer-only Aryan strike force, but rather a seriously degraded rear guard unit pulled back from the Eastern front to protect Berlin from the Red Army's onslaught.

Grass's three months of service in the Waffen SS is depicted brilliantly as a sequence of discontinuous sounds, smells and images held together by the thinnest tissue of narrative in the memoir chapter called "How I Learned Fear." It comes to an ignominious end when he is separated from his routed unit, spends a week in the woods trying to evade both patrols of Russian soldiers and feared Nazi MP "bloodhounds" before "falling in" with an infantry unit and being wounded in an artillery attack on April 20, 1945 -- the Fuhrer's birthday.

Since these facts have since been documented, there is little dispute about the inconsequential role Grass played in the war. Nor has there been any attempt on his part to suggest he was anything but an enthusiastic young Nazi, "a believer till the end," he writes. "What I did cannot be put down to youthful folly," is his sober self-assessment.

The sense of betrayal many Germans and non-Germans feel about Grass's cover-up of his war experience -- surely six months in the SS ought to be worth at least a bullet point in one's artistic resume -- does not negate his achievements as world-class novelist, but goes to the heart of his credibility as public figure, "the conscience of postwar Germany" as he was formerly known in many quarters.

Many Americans remember that when President Ronald Reagan and Chancellor Helmut Kohl laid a memorial wreath in a German military cemetery near Bitburg that included some SS graves in 1985, it was a very sanctimonious Gunter Grass who led the outcry of European intellectuals condemning that action.

What are we to make of that exercise in moral posturing today?

As literary memoirs go, "Peeling The Onion" -- the title derives from a German idiomatic expression about how stripping away the layers of illusion in one's life inevitably brings tears -- is one of the most remarkably adept and engrossing accounts of how a great literary sensibility is formed that I have ever read.

Grass is such a spectacular literary performer that every scene, every vignette carries with it the richness of German vernacular language and the hijinks of literary invention. There is, for instance, an unforgettable account of cooking classes conducted by a former "master chef" conducted entirely in pantomime and without a morsel of real food in an American prisoner of war camp after the war. And there are Grass' numerous and detailed attempts to convince himself (and us) that the devout young Catholic scholar named Joseph whom he meets and has many long philosophical discussions with at that same camp was Joseph Ratzinger, later the Bishop of Munich, Catholic Defender of the Faith, and now Pope Benedict XVI.

That said, if one approaches this book with the hope that it might offer something of a definitive statement about Grass' selective memory or German experience as whole during the war and postwar years -- the memoir begins in 1939 when Grass is 12 and ends as "The Tin Drum" goes to press in 1959 -- one is bound to be disappointed. Grass offers no excuses other than his recurrent sense of shame for his refusal to admit to the double-lettered SS rune, as a part of his own past: "Ignorance could not blind me to the fact that I had been incorporated into a system that planned, organized, and carried out the extermination of millions of people. . . I will have to live with it for the rest of my life."

My own father, who was not a world class novelist, said it better once: "Everything we learned before the war was not only wrong; it was evil," he told me.

R.D. Pohl is the editor of the News poetry page.

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>Peeling the Onion

By Gunter Grass, translated by Michael Henry Heim

Harcourt, 425 pages, $26

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