Uncovering Nobel laureate's Nazi past

Peeling the Onion, by Günter Grass, Harvill Secker, ISBN 978-1846550621; $59.95 website

Uncovering Nobel laureate's Nazi pastThe publication of Günter Grass’s memoir comes surrounded by considerable controversy due to revelations last year that the Nobel laureate had been a member of the Waffen SS. We have long known that Grass was a member of the Hitler Youth, was drafted into anti-aircraft batteries in the final stages of World War II and had ended up as an American POW. We didn’t know that as a 17-year-old he had volunteered for the armed services and had then been assigned to Nazism’s elite unit.

The ensuing furore was clearly charged by culture wars over questions of complicity with Germany’s Nazi past. Grass’s work had always posed important questions about Germany’s failure to come to terms with the past; this latest revelation focused attention on his own failure in this area. Peeling the Onion unsettles our reading of that previous work while also perhaps representing its most developed achievement.

The memoir deals with a common theme in German letters: the growth and education of the young artist, albeit refracted through the extreme conditions of Nazi Germany. It skips over Grass’s very early years, beginning in the period beyond childhood innocence — which he puts at eleven or twelve years old — and continues up until the publication of his first and defining work, The Tin Drum. If the hero of that first novel refused to grow up, this was clearly not an option for Grass.

The memoir’s central metaphor suggests the attempt to redress the ambiguities of memory, to peel away its layers and reveal things covered over. The narrative begins in Grass’s native city of Danzig (present day Gdansk), one of the places to witness the opening salvos of the Second World War.

Grass worries about his past thoughts and actions, often disallowing the comfort of retrospective justification and excuse. This work may not satisfy critics expecting some more direct form of confession, but it does powerfully underline the ordinariness of responsibility.

Uncovering Nobel laureate's Nazi pastGrass didn’t have a choice when he was drafted into the Luftwaffe auxiliaries and the Labour Service but he doesn’t allow this to excuse him or others.

The sequence in the book causing the most controversy addresses and focuses on the period where Grass actually volunteered for active duty in an attempt to join the submarine fleet. This was partly for the mundane reason of trying to escape a claustrophobic family flat. Then at seventeen Grass was accepted and assigned to tank gunner training in the Waffen SS. If he was not actively complicit — he was not aware of war crimes until after the War — he was at this point "incorporated into a system that had planned, organised and carried out the extermination of millions of people."

Grass admits that he has always held onto the fact that he never fired a shot during the War as a way of alleviating the shame that he carries. If he held any illusions of heroism they soon died with the fear and confusion of the disintegrating war front. When he arrived in Berlin, it was already in flames. The corpses of executed deserters hanging from trees were signs of the prevailing desperation. His war ended when he was wounded and sent to a military hospital.

Grass was put in an American POW camp in Bad Aibling where he played dice with a "bookish Bavarian" called Joseph, "a gentle know-it-all": "We talked about God and the world, about our experiences as altar boys — his permanent, mine very much auxiliary." Grass can’t swear his friend’s name was Ratzinger but he notes the tabloid reports of the Pope’s internment in Bad Aibling as a young man.

The immediate postwar period has Grass work as a farmhand and a miner. He felt no guilt at this time; many dismissed the holocaust as propaganda. Of this he states plainly: "It was some time before I came gradually to understand and hesitantly to admit that I had unknowingly — or, more precisely, unwilling to know — taken part in a crime that did not diminish over the years and for which no statue of limitations would ever apply, a crime that grieves me still."

It is consistent with his stress on the ordinariness of failure and responsibility that Grass admits to wide-ranging personal shortcomings beyond the Nazi period. He held little concern for his family or anything beyond himself in the period just after the War; his interest in dancing and girls was an attempt to forget. With a nod to the taboo topic of admitting Germans also suffered in this period he tells us that he learned only later that invading Russian soldiers had raped his mother.

Grass met with the important coterie of postwar writers, Group 47, on the basis of some poems he had written. It was the weight of the past, however, that propelled him into looking for form and words to deal with a personal and societal history. In the Summer of 1956 he left Berlin with his new wife for Paris in search for an apartment and the words that eventually began his novel: "Granted: I am an inmate of a mental institution..."

This is a brave work by the 80-year-old writer. The admission that Grass makes is so very late and as he says he will continue to carry that shame. Yet his careful weighing of experience, history and responsibility is compelling, particularly in a climate that values moralism over more complex seeing. We can only hope that this kind of reckoning offers some inoculation against the return of a murderous twentieth-century legacy.



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