Gnter Grass's Silence

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German author, artist and Nobel laureate Gnter Grass

It would be a tough day for anyone, the day you admit you were a member of the Nazi Waffen-SS. Sixty years after war's end, there continues to be, to put it mildly, a p.r. problem for Germans who belonged to Heinrich Himmler's personal army, the largely volunteer force that staffed the concentration camps and crushed the Warsaw Uprising.

Now imagine making that confession after a lifetime of establishing yourself as Germany's most ardent advocate of full disclosure and penance. There you are, having been jabbing a finger in the German body politic's chest for 60 years, accusing them of failing to own up to their collective responsibility for the war. And it turns out you've had a dirty little secret of your own all along. This is exactly what happened on last week to Gnter Grass, the novelist and Nobel literature laureate who was the voice of Germany's war generation. The admission came in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, in advance of the release next month in Germany of Grass's new autobiography, Peeling the Onion.

"It was a weight on me," Grass, 78, told the paper. "My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book. It had to come out finally." Grass says he originally signed up for submarine duty at 15, but was turned down, and two years later, in 1944, was directed instead to the SS, though he says he didn't realize he was being shipped there until he showed up for basic training. Why volunteer in the first place? "Above all, I wanted to get away from home," he told the paper. "Away from the close quarters, away from the family. I wanted to end all that, and that's why I volunteered."

Grass had always maintained he was a flakhelfer, a youth conscript forced to work anti-aircraft batteries. The alibi placed him right in the mainstream of his peers, who came to be called the flakhelfer generation — those who claimed they were unwilling participants in the war effort and especially its atrocities.

Newspapers across Germany were predictably atremble over Grass's revelation. The Welt am Sonntag called Grass' admission "moral suicide," and compared his insistence that he never fired a shot while in the SS to Bill Clinton's saying he smoked weed but didn't inhale. Other papers cried "too late" and wrote at length about the glass house Grass had been living in. Over in Poland, Lech Walesa said Grass should give back his honorary Polish citizenship. At least one conservative politician in Germany, perhaps looking for payback after decades of being nettled by Grass, has called for his Nobel Prize to be rescinded.

What's being lost in all the giddy gotcha is an acknowledgement of the continued importance of Grass' message of reckoning with the past. Young Germans don't want to talk about the past. At the World Cup, they were delighted to be able wave their flags like Americans at a Fourth of July demolition derby. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has remained silent on a controversial proposal to build a Berlin memorial to the German families who were refugees from occupied territories after the war. Even Germany's most famously repentant flakhelfer, Pope Benedict XVI, n Joseph Ratzinger (who was assigned to a missile battery protecting a BMW factory near his hometown during the war), has strayed from the cautious path of reckoning and reconciliation. His recent speech at Auschwitz, which seemed in part to recast the Holocaust as a cleverly disguised attempt on the life of the Christian faith, left many people scratching their heads.

It's no small historical irony that Grass and the future Pope were both POWs together in an allied prisoner camp at Bad Aibling. Grass told the Allgemeine that he and the future Pope were friends of sorts, even though Ratzinger was "extremely Catholic" and fond of quoting things in Latin. "He seemed a little uptight to me," said Grass. "But he was a nice guy."

Imagine, then, an alternate history, in which Grass had made his confession about his time in the SS back in that camp to his prim campmate. The confession might well have given him a clearer conscience. But that might have been a terrible thing for a postwar Germany trying to come to terms with its complicity in the Nazi horrors.

If Grass had not been living with this wretched little skeleton in his closet, he might never have written a word. Like 99% of his compatriots, he might have just dusted himself off at war's end, said his 20 Hail Marys, and gone about joining the blithely ahistorical postwar boom. Instead, a haunted Grass cranked out a series of brutal novels about the war and childhood in occupied Poland, beginning with his powerful 1959 novel The Tin Drum. Those unforgettable narratives, along with a good measure of his public hectoring and politicking, helped his entire country stave off collective amnesia for decades. So while his opponents, and even a share of his friends, are piling on him about the lies he told about his past, it's worth considering that those personal lies helped keep alive important national truths.