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Günter Grass was in the Waffen SS

After Günter Grass confessed that he was a member of Waffen SS at 17, Germany erupted

The admission of German Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass that he was a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II has provoked everything from rage to empathy in the German press.

Until now, biographies of the writer, who was born in 1927, have asserted that Grass was conscripted as anti-aircraft personnel in 1944 and then served as a soldier. After being injured on April 20, 1945, he was taken into war captivity by the Americans.

On August 12, Grass explained in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (excerpt in German) that he was not in the armed forces but in fact in the Waffen SS, in the 10th SS tank division "Frundsberg". He said he was called up in the late summer of 1944 when he was just about 17. The following autumn and winter he was trained as member of a tank crew and he was involved in rearguard action of the German army in Lausitz in March and April 1945, until he was wounded on April 20. He ended up in an American war prison soon afterwards.

The Waffen SS, which came into existence in 1933, was not originally part of the armed forces but rather a unit of the Nazi party, distinguished by its extreme brutality and ruthlessness. The list of crimes, especially the those in the concentration and extermination camps and the war crimes in the so-called "combat of the partisans," is long and horrible. The massacres of Oradour sur Glane or Sant'Anna di Stazzema, in which entire communities including old people and babies were slaughtered, were the doing of the Waffen SS as was the retaliatory massacre of Czechs after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942."

A chronicle:

12 August 2006

Grass said in the interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:
"It had to come out, finally. The thing went as follows: I had volunteered, not for the Waffen-SS but for the submarines, which was just as crazy of me. But they were not taking anyone any more. Whereas the Waffen-SS took whatever they could get in the last months of the war, 1944/45. That went for conscripts but also for older men, who often came from the Air Force - they were called 'Hermann Göring donations.' The fewer intact airfields there were, the more ground personnel were stuck in army units or in units of the Waffen-SS. It was the same with the navy. And for me, I am sure I am remembering correctly, the Waffen-SS was at first not something scary, but rather an elite unit that was always sent to trouble spots, and which, according to rumour, had the most casualties."

He said he volunteered mainly to "get away. From constrictions, from the family. I wanted to put an end to all that, and so I volunteered. And that's also something odd: I enlisted at the age of 15, and promptly forgot the details of the process. And it was the same for many of my birth year: We were in the work service and suddenly, a year later, the conscription order lay on the table. And that must be when I first realized: it is the Waffen-SS." Asked whether he had feelings of guilt, Grass answered: "At the time? No. Later on, this guilt feeling burdened me as a disgrace." It wasn't until he heard the testimony of Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach in the Nuremberg trials that he "believed that the crimes had actually taken place."

Later, he thought that "what I did in my writing was enough." The 1950s did not seem to be the right time to confess. "We were under Adenauer, ghastly, with all those lies, with all that Catholic fug. The society of that day was fed by a kind of stuffiness that never existed under the Nazis."

(What Grass is referring to in this last sentence is also the subject of Götz Aly's essay "I am the people" about the revolutionary "now or never" attitude of the Nazis.)

Here a longer excerpt of the Grass interview in German. His autobiography "Beim Häuten der Zwiebel" (Peeling the onion), in which he addresses this chapter of his life, was released hurriedly on August 16; publication originally was set for September 1.

The first reactions:

12 August 2006

Germany - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In an editorial, Grass interviewer Frank Schirrmacher comments: "To be perfectly clear, it is not a question of guilt and crime. Grass was practically still a boy. And even later, he never portrayed himself as a resistance fighter." And yet: "Anyone familiar with the rhetoric of post war excuses and finger-pointing might think they are not hearing right. The author who wanted to loosen all tongues, who took as his life's theme the secretiveness and suppression of the old Federal Republic of Germany, admits his own silence which, according to his own words, must have been absolute. ... How would it have been if Franz Schönhuber's [former head of the extreme right-wing Republikaner party] Waffen-SS tract, 'I was there,' had been confronted with its counterpart, under the headline, 'Me, too'?"

Germany - Der Tagesspiegel. Gregor Dotzauer expressed shock: "Whoever hears this, whether disbelieving or stunned, may think it is a bad joke even after seeing it in convincing black and white, both in the literary recollection and in the interview. Günter Grass, Germany's most celebrated living writer, the Nobel Prize winner, the conscience of the nation, the writer of legends, was a member of the Waffen-SS... A cheap joke of history? Or a truth whose bitterness cannot yet be fully measured? The categories flounder, because it gives rise to so many tones of meaning: for the work of Günter Grass, for his role as bearer of left-wing precepts, for the entire intellectual balance of the country, which his inner struggle and questions on foreign policy still fought out, against the backdrop of 12 long years under Hitler."

Voices from the weekend:

12/13 August 2006

Joachim C. Fest (79), Historian: "I wouldn't buy a used car from this man. I don't understand how someone can present himself as the nation's guilty conscience for 60 years and then admit to himself having been deeply involved." (Bild)

Martin Walser (78), writer: "The most responsible of all contemporaries can not disclose after 60 years that he landed in the Waffen SS through no fault of his own. That casts a devastating light on our climate of coping with its normalised modes of thinking and talking. Grass' independent statement should act as a lesson to this adaptable moral climate." (Stuttgarter Nachrichten)

Ralph Giordano (83), Author: "Worse than making a political error is refusing to deal with it. Grass has been doing this internally for a long time, and now he's turned to the public. For me, he doesn't lose moral credibility – not at all." (WDR)

Walter Jens (83), philologist: "Grass' admission is balanced, precise and reasonable. A master of penmanship reflects and considers: what have you forgotten to report in your long life? He's done that and gained my respect in the process."

Erich Loest (80), Author: "Grass does not need to be accused for what he has said. He was very young and was without any influence that could have prevented him. I also wanted to register with the Waffen-SS but my school director prevented it. Grass should tell us, why he is only writing about it now." (Tagesspiegel)

Klaus Theweleit (64), Essayist and cultural studies scholar: "This is an advertising campaign for a publicity addict who has written a new book. When Grass reads in a survey that not 102 percent of all Germans know who he is, ideas like this occur to him." (Tagesspiegel)

Klaus Bölling (77), journalist and government spokesman from 1974-1981: "I don't presume to pass moral judgement. And his disclosure does not belittle his literary work. But as contemporary I have to wonder: Why did such an intelligent man, the Praeceptor Germaniae that he sees himself to be, not mention this long ago?" (Tagesspiegel)

Hellmuth Karasek (72), literary critic: "Had he admitted earlier to his membership in the Waffen SS; he might have risked his Nobel Prize. Grass deserved the Nobel Prize more than any other German author. But suddenly, everything appears in a new light." (NDR)

Dieter Wellershoff (80), writer: Wellershoff, who also fought as a volunteer, but who reported it much earlier, nonetheless defended Grass. Grass' statements, he says, should not be used to morally condemn the writer. "We live in the world in which we were born." Wellershoff didn't want to judge the fact that Grass took so long to break the silence on his own role in National Socialism. Possibly he feared the "rage of the critics." (Kölner Stadtanzeiger)

Michael Wolffsohn (59), historian: "You too, GG... ? You too are going to ooze the truth!" Coming from the generation after Grass, Wolffsohn also knows what would have been a more appropriate moment for the exposure. "In April 1985, he had a golden opportunity. At the time, Germany and the world were heatedly discussing the Bitburg visit of Chancellor Helmut Kohl and American president Ronald Reagan: Should they go together to the cemetery where the soldiers from the Waffen SS lay? They went... Back then, in April 1985, GG should have stood up and explained: I too was involved." But Wolffsohn offers no verdict: "Through his constant silence, it's GG's moralising and not his fictionalising work that is being devalued." (Netzeitung)

14 August 2006

Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung. Gustav Seibt is less shocked by the fact itself than by the lateness of the admission. "Grass' tendency to pass sharp moral judgements often seemed a bit ill-considered. Even now with his 'admission', he presents himself as deeply nauseated by the fug of the Adenauer era – and shows at the same time that he contributed to precisely this fug with his silence. And is the enormous dramatic effort with which Grass is now presenting himself to the public, not a last attempt to morally trap the error and to preserve a lack of ambiguity? Given the circumstances, it seems that what is being exposed is more foolery than guilt and it leaves an after-taste of vanity."

Switzerland - Neue Zürcher Zeitung. "Posing as a self-assured moralist, and not without vanity, Günter Grass is trying to convert his admission of guilt into aesthetic-ethic capital." Roman Bucheli is not impressed by Grass' late admission to having been a member of the Waffen SS. He's particularly appalled by his uninterrupted dogmatism. "More anger is on its way. The FAZ – which doesn't exactly distinguish itself with tough questions – mentions the name Celan towards the end of the interview. At the end of the 1950s, Grass lived in Paris for four years and was friends with Paul Celan. Of him we learn: 'He spent most of his time buried in his work and at the same time trapped in his real as well as excessive fears.' Grass doesn't waste any time considering the possibility that Celan's 'excessive fears' might be founded in such haunting voids of silence to which he is only now conceding. Impossible to imagine what would have happened, had Celan known that his friend had been a member of the Waffen SS. Smugly, Grass adds to his memories of Celan: 'When he read his poems aloud, you wanted to light candles.'"

Germany - Frankfurter Rundschau. The author Wilhelm von Sternburg considers Grass' admission, more than sixty years later, to be worthy of recognition. "But it's sad that Günter Grass did it in such a loud way and that he chose such an unworthy moment. The suspicion that someone is trying to promote his book is fatal, given the historical circumstances. This really must not be misused to create a new best-seller. That robs the confessor of too much credibility. Grass had better opportunities to give his confession. Now he's made a deal with a newspaper and both will profit from it."

Germany - Die Welt. Burkhard Spinnen calls for "caution," noting that Günter Grass has learned from his mistakes as few others have. "For many years, my father still received invitations from some military veterans' club. My mother remembers his comment about it: 'You can just toss it out!' Günter Grass has gone way beyond such views and statements. He belongs to a minority of his generation that has demonstrated what can be considered and demanded beyond a mere taboo of mass insanity and criminal ideology. The 'blemish' in one's own biography can lead to pain and self-criticism, but also to a lifelong attempt to better the situation. And so we must show as much caution as we sons and daughters of such fathers can muster." Eckhard Fuhr puts it concisely in his commentary on the opinion pages: "He is simply our national poet."

Germany - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The storm of comments quickly gathered. Historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler asks: "Why does that all have to come out now, and in such a tortured way? He should have said it before. I can't imagine that anyone would have turned it against him back then, at the end of the 1950s, early 1960s." Michael Jeismann looks into the history of the "Frundsberg" tank division, whose last - unfulfilled - mission was to get Hitler out of Berlin. "In other words: Grass could have freed Hitler. But they stayed in Spremberg, and Grass did not free Hitler."

Germany - Berliner Zeitung. Stephan Speicher admires Günter Grass' clever media strategy. But he has a few questions still. "When Grass says that he ended up in the Waffen SS through no fault of his own, that's believable. Lots were in that situation. You can't make any accusations there. But there are two things I'd like to know from Grass. What did he live through in those last weeks of the war? In the interview, this question is never put to him, in his new book, he claims that he can't remember. 'But then the film tears. As often as I repair it and let it run again, it's just a jumble of images.' That is strange; it is the time to which the author paid his most attention. Most men of his generation remember very well. More irritating is the question of why he decided to speak up so late – because in fact there is no more serious accusation to me made than that?"

Austria - Die Presse. Anne Catherine Simon asks, "Was he silent? In the novella 'Cat and Mouse,' Grass describes as in a symbolic way a child seduced by the Nazi regime. He never denies that he belonged and that he believed in Hitler until 1945." But why did he not speak much earlier about his own entanglement, Simon asks. For example, in 1985, "when Helmut Kohl and US president Reagan visited the military cemetery in Bitburg, where the graves of Waffen-SS soldiers also lie? Many were incensed by this - including Grass. Only his wife, not his children, knew the truth. Even more surprising is what the Austrian author Robert Schindel uncovered on Saturday in Die Presse: 'Grass told me about it more than 20 years ago. He talked about it privately, often.' Why not publicly? Did he want to protect his position, and his hoped-for Nobel Prize?"

Austria - Der Standard. Robert Menasse runs to the side of Günter Grass: "The larger problem I have with this story," says Menasse, "is with the self-righteous like Walter Kempowski." He let it me known that Grass' confession "came a little late." Menasse: "A 17 year old who is talented and sensitive, who wants to get away from home, can be seduced by anything. Grass' membership in the Waffen SS would only have been inexcusable if he had later insisted that he had done the right thing. If, in a word, he had gone on living in the spirit of the times."

Czech Republic - Mlada fronta dnes. "Even if he wasn't an evil person, Günter Grass has shown that he was a weakling," writes Teodor Marjanovic commenting on Grass's surprising confession. "Grass was a moral authority in these unsettled times. He was a person whose great achievement it was to make it possible for Germans to examine their Nazi past without grimacing or hypocrisy. And now he has confessed that for most of his life he has remained silent about what he himself did during the war. Some may say, 'So what?'. Even Pope Benedict XVI was a member of the Hitler Youth and was drafted into the Wehrmacht. But the Pope deserted the army and didn't conceal his past. The Grass affair resembles the Kurt Waldheim scandal. The former UN Secretary General remained silent about the fact that during the war he was in command of units that committed atrocities in western Bosnia. Although Grass's assurance that 'he didn't shoot even once' is believable, his confession still has a nasty taste to it. It has come unacceptably late."

Spain - Canarias 7. Francisco Suarez Alamo, director of the Spanish daily, does not expect Grass's declarations to tarnish his image. "Almost everyone will be understanding and some will even go so far as to praise the writer's act. That is what happens when one lives within clearly defined ideologies: one finally forgives everything. Grass will be portrayed as a young Nazi who was a victim of his misunderstanding of the events unfolding around him and hostage to a repressive system. Yet it is obviously due to the passivity of ignorant young people and adults that others got on with the job of filling the concentration camps with dead bodies."

Belgium - Le Soir. Belgian author Jacques De Decker sees in Günter Grass's revelations the culmination of the German writer's literary project. "Grass's whole work, or nearly, is an X-ray image of Germany's (bad) conscience viewed through the convulsions of the last century. He has not approached these tragedies and traumas as a thinker or theorist, but as a poet and an occasionally visionary graphic artist ... Is Grass a provocateur? He has never ceased to be in his writings, etchings, and public statements. This latest declaration, which comes as the prelude to the first book where he reveals himself as is (hitherto he had only ever talked of himself under the cover of fables and metaphor), is a new way of pursuing his project: through the desire that his descendants should understand."

Italy - La Stampa. Italian political scientist Gian Enrico Rusconi interprets Grass's statements as "a subtle shift in German's collectif perception of their own past ... The new generations, more than others, have had to prove that they felt ashamed in the name of the entire nation and Günter Grass has been, in the name of collective responsibility, both protagonist and prisoner of this critical and emancipating process. In more recent times Germany has gained new national dignity and Grass has been able to take a fresh look – not of indulgence, but of liberation. His admission is no mundane matter, but a signal for the whole nation ... It is a sort of 'literary permission' to launch a collective experience that the writer wants once again to be able to interpret."

Poland - Rzeczpospolita. Krzysztof Gottesmann draws parallels between Günter Grass and those who once worked for the Polish state security service, noting that confronting the past is a difficult process on both sides of the German-Polish border. "The Poles and the Germans experienced the two greatest cataclysms of the 20th century: communism and National Socialism… Even today both nations are having difficulties dealing with their past. Confronting the dark side of history, of one's shame, personal responsibility and mistakes, and how individuals were implicated in the events, is an important task for a nation… It has taken Grass, who has become the conscience of many Germans, over 60 years to talk openly about his past – to confess and assume responsibility for his actions. Does this damage his credibility? The answer is yes, because you can't separate the work of an artist from the creator and his life."

The British and American papers summarise the comments in the German media.

15 August 2006

Germany - Spiegel Online. Publicist Henryk M. Broder is not too surprised by the confession of Grass: "The normal case of citizen Grass illustrates how strong the craving is for authorities and role models, even in a liberal and permissive society. And that is why the disappointment is so great when you find out suddenly that you were following a false idol. But Grass can't do anything about that. On the contrary, Grass the politician has repeatedly demonstrated an arrogant incompetence, which his fans misunderstand as the wise words of the great prayer leader. There is only one annoying aspect of the affair: That through Grass, the Waffen-SS will be rehabilitated. If Grass was there, and his hands did not get dirty, our boys must not have been so bad - just fighting troops, somewhat aloof, the material of which novels are made. The memorial has been knocked down. But the pedestal remains."

Germany - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Writer Erich Loest says: "I've been very agitated for days, and can't think about anything else." Loest is mystified by the belated confession, but nevertheless insists: "I still count myself among his friends, among those who say he waited too long, but in the end he told the truth."

Printed side by side are excerpts from Helmut Kohl's memoirs, particularly regarding the 1985 controversy over Bitburg and the Waffen-SS, and Grass' criticism of Kohl from that year.

Germany - Die Welt. Tilman Krause may not be able to review the book yet because of the embargo imposed by the Steidl-Verlag publishing company, but he's already read the wartime chapter from Grass' memoirs, and is taken by it. Krause writes: "One forest scene, in which he - as soldierly simplex, separated from the troops - sings children's songs in order to determine whether the person whose noises he has heard, but whom he cannot see in the darkness, is a friend or foe, presents a moving homage to the storytelling role model of Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. He sings 'Little Hansi went alone...' until he hears the hoarsely sung, but infinitely comforting tune, echoing back: 'Into the wide world yonder... ' With such impressive condensations, one is only too glad to forget this thing with the Waffen-SS."

Also cited in a somewhat complex on-line dossier, which presents the most recent articles, as wells as a dpa interview with Grass: "They want to turn me into a non-person."

Journalist Wolf Lotter is downright furious about the role Grass played in former West Germany. He rages: "The national poet became a moral compass for the nation like none other of his generation, a good German, one who seemed capable of change because had lived through himself. This 'I was changing myself' was much more acceptable to most Germans than was open opposition to National Socialism. The counterpart, or perhaps, the opportunist, was much more compatible to the actual constitution of the Federal Republic than the original, whom one found less trustworthy. The little 'Flakhelfer' was the ideal candidate to represent the moral air-superiority of a 'better Germany.' In keeping with this, Grass primarily wrote autobiographically."

Germany - Berliner Zeitung. In his reflections on the case of Grass, Arno Widmann finds a downright Brechtian motto: "Signposts are not role models." "The signpost does not move. And neither did Günter Grass. He did not want to tread this path. He drew conclusions from the downfall of the Third Reich, he analysed the situation but not himself. Like many others - and Franz Fühmann is a fantastic, laudable exception - he only managed the leap into the new democratic society by separating from himself. He shed his old skin in the hopes of escaping it. I don't know if I should say he succeeded - or not?"

Germany - Spiegel Online. Austrian author Robert Schindel tells in an interview that Grass talked about his SS time with him and a small group of others more than 20 years ago. "He said that the he had been recruited by the Waffen-SS. He had voluntarily registered for the submarines before that, they didn't take him. But because he had already registered voluntarily, they took his registration to recruit him to the Waffen SS – that was obviously common practice at the time. That's what he said... We talked about it for a quarter or a half hour, he talked a bit about his injury, and then we went on to other topics – none of is were shocked."

16 August 2006

Germany - Berliner Zeitung. Documents about Günter Grass' membership in the Waffen-SS have been accessible to the public at the Wehrmacht information center (Deutsche Dienststelle) in Berlin-Wittenau for decades, reports Christian Esch. "The provisional war prisoners' statements contained the information that Grass was taken prisoner on 8 May 1945 near Marienbad, that his civilian profession was given as 'pupil', but tacked on the end was his service as assistant gunner for the 'SS tank division Frundsberg.' Signed: Günter Grass, war prisoner number 31 G-6078785. The document was apparently filled out after his transfer to another POW camp on 3 January 1946, as his age is given as 18. The document is available to the public - 'no one has asked for it up to now,' says Peter Gerhardt, deputy head of the information centrer ... Grass is a public figure, whose data is not restricted to family members only. 'Any biographer could have seen the information,' says Gerhardt."

Germany - die tageszeitung. Political scientist Claus Leggewie sees Günter Grass' late confession as a dilemma of West German intellectuals: they have overcompensated for the National Socialist past, while at the same time avoiding admitting personal guilt. "That's how transformation processes after dictatorships work. And those born between 1900 and 1930 reacted contraphobically. That's the only way to explain the verve with which prominent individuals fought against a possible relapse and the 'Adenauer fug.' In 1990, Grass turned against German reunification, because he feared in all seriousness the return of the great German Reich. He knew how 'seductive' National Socialism was, which is why, incidentally, he was so opposed to the totalitarian mood of the 68ers. Grass' sharp judicial strictness is a form of overcompensation: I exercise this role and thereby exonerate myself in retrospect."

Germany - Frankfurter Rundschau. The historian Hans Mommsen considers all the fuss both typical and dishonest. "The relentless critics not only fail to recognize that one can't chastise a 17-year-old boy for membership in the Waffen SS; they also fail to acknowledge the right of individuals to their own, private confrontation with the total disintegration of values that came with the collapse of the Nazi regime, a disintegration that triggered speechlessness, even repression, among those who were aware of it."

Poland - Gazeta Wyborcza. Günter Grass's admission that he served in the Waffen-SS has provoked harsh reactions in Poland. Politicians of the ruling Law and Justice party have called for Grass to be deprived of his honorary citizenship of the city of Gdansk and former Polish President Lech Walesa said that if he were Grass he would immediately give up his honorary citizenship. The daily's editor in chief, Adam Michnik, responds to Walesa's demands, saying: "In his novels and essays, at public appearances and in interviews, Günter Grass always resolutely criticised and exposed the crimes of National Socialism, including those committed in Poland. For many years, Grass was Poland's most loyal and generous friend in Germany, and he paid a high price for his friendship. German Nazis attacked him because he stubbornly insisted that Germany recognise the Oder-Neisse border. The communists attacked him because he supported the Polish democratic opposition right from the outset… To forget all this now would be foolish and ungrateful. It would be shameful to negate all that just because of a mistake he made back in 1944 when he was very young."

Germany - Die Zeit. In the On-line edition of Die Zeit, Evelyn Finger is equally disgusted by Grass and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ): "In keeping with the kid-glove style of the interviewers, they only ask the question 'Why now?' after 120 lines and then they let the interviewee get away with his downright dadaistic answer: 'My silence over the years is one of the reasons why I have written this book.' So now Günter Grass breaks his silence because he was silent for so long. And the FAZ turns it into a great confessional event, with fourfold photo shoots from the German forest, with a humble, shrunken-looking Grass in profile. In the foreground are many shadows, in the background a golden light. And that is the promised enlightenment that the FAZ unfortunately never delivers, in two entire, ad-free pages. What's scandalous about the Grass scandal is not the news that a 17 year old was briefly in the Waffen SS and that a prominent writer was too cowardly to admit it. The scandal is the exaggerated mea culpa gesture with which Grass actually avoids every real confrontation. Behind that pathetic screen of a general confession, he organized his defence alone."

Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung. Was the Grass Interview nothing more than a PR coup? Reporter Hans Leyendecker did some research: "Those involved are pretending to be as innocent as lambs. Grass publisher Gerhard Steidl claims that he didn't realise the explosiveness when he read it the first time. In about February, he studied the manuscript and was particularly interested in Grass' description of how he went from being a sculptor to a writer." Which is why the FAZ proposed a supplement. "At the end of June, Steidl says, the last corrected version of the 480 page work was completed. In the middle of July, the FAZ had a talk with Grass in his village of Behlendorf. Only when FAZ publisher Frank Schirrmacher repeatedly ask about the Waffen-SS, did it 'become clear' to Steidl 'what was being talked about.'"

USA - Washington Post/AP. According to a report of the Washington Post, writer John Irving defended Günter Grass in a mail to Associated Press. "Grass remains a hero to me, both as a writer and as a moral compass; his courage, both as a writer and as a citizen of Germany, is exemplary, a courage heightened, not lessened, by his most recent revelation. The fulminating in the German media has been obnoxious. Grass is a daring writer, and he has always been a daring man."

17 August 2006

BBC - UK. Salman Rushdie says the news disappointed him. But he still thinks that the works of the writer will not be "undone" by the admission and that Grass' past was a "youthful mistake."
"Grass has spent his adult life opposing the ideas he espoused as a child and that in itself is an act of courage. He's a friend of mine and I don't intend to change that."

USA - New York Sun. Daniel Johnson, in an open letter, reminds Grass of the moral superiority with which he chastised former Nazis like Globke, Gehlen or Kiesinger. And then Johnson is pissing on Grass "from a very great height indeed": "The truth that now emerges, Mr. Grass, is that you were one of the last-ditch defenders of the Third Reich. You were a soldier in the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundberg. Let us be clear: The Waffen SS did not run the death camps, but its troops - some 900,000 of them by the end - were deeply implicated in the Holocaust and responsible for many of the worst atrocities of the war. We await with interest your account of your own part in these war crimes, but your memoirs will be treated by historians with suspicion, as no more reliable than those of other SS men - Adolf Eichmann's, for instance, which he wrote while awaiting his trial and execution. No doubt the comparison shocks you. But Eichmann, like you, was an imposter."

Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung. "That is the real Methusaleh conspiracy," reveal writers Eva Menasse and Michael Kumpfmüller with reference to the hordes of the over-70 set that are filling the feuilletons with their commentaries on Grass. Are there no other topics? The war in Lebanon, for example? "Where were the German intellectuals who would have said: we don't need Auschwitz to out ourselves here? We are on Israel's side not because Nazi Germany murdered 6 million Jews but because Israel is a democratic state with enemies that want to destroy not only it but all democratic societies of the West? ... Let's talk about the terrorist attacks that were prevented in London, let's talk about our relationship to Islam, let's talk about the limits of liberality. It's about us and our future." (Here their manifesto in English)

Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung. Sociologist Heinz Bude demands that the "younger generation" accept the "uniqueness" of the "flak helper generation." They had more to talk about than their sexual preferences. The "awareness of what humans are capable of sharpened their perspective on phenomena that appear to us younger folk as unbelievably regressive in civilisational terms. They are internally calibrated to matters of fact that we try in vain to capture with terms like terrorism, fundamentalist and ethnicism."

Germany - Der Tagesspiegel. From artist to artist: Director Volker Schlöndorff expresses compassion for Günter Grass. "Someone as experienced with the media as you are, dear Günter, doesn't do such a thing by mistake, and certainly not because you underestimated the consequences or in an attempt to strategise: providing the rope as well... Once you had started to write beyond fiction, it was only a matter of time, and a question of style, until you would remove the skin, and not just of the onion. As an author you subject your own story, like your fictive heroes, to the only law that is sacred to you, that of art. And if this means that the public monument that is your lifework crumbles, it's not your fault. The monument is the victim of the same demons that have always being preying on you."

Germany - Spiegel Online. Spiegel Online. Jens Todt dug up a veteran of the Waffen-SS who served in the same division as Grass. "'I researched a bit after I heard about him,' said the former Waffen SS man Edmund Zalewski, 'but nobody could remember Günter Grass.'" After the war, Zalewski worked in the Dürener metal works, "but he never lost touch with his former colleagues from the SS. Zalewski is still the secretary of the 'Frundsberg Comradeship,' a veteran's group whose members meet annually at war sites. 'At this point, we are down to 60 comrades, that used to be different, of course,' says Zalewski, 'but now we are all at least 80 years old.'"

Germany - Frankfurter Rundschau. Yesterday, the Grass autobiography "Peeling the Onion" hit the market, two weeks before it was supposed to appear. "What had to get out? And in what language? A language of guilt, of urgency, of overcoming?" Ina Hartwig had a peek into the book: "Grass seems to be in his element when he's embellishing, he seems to be sure with his feelings. His depiction of the glowing blocked energy that torments the pubescent youth; on the subject of his onanistic practices, Grass writes in a very readable way."

Germany - Frankfurter Rundschau. Poet Durs Grünbein considers why Grass went to war as a 17 year old. "There certainly was a great drive to join up - the very idea of an intensive life. The soldierly writer type still fed upon this. Within a few weeks, an unbelievable fund of intensive images was generated, images of euphorically charged situations that one can develop like a film for a lifetime. I also see a gap in pathos between a member of the Waffen-SS and a flak helper or a Pimpf [the youngest Hitler Youth members]. The flak helpers were the ones who became the philosophers and journalists. But the true writer naturally is a war horse. That's why he is more important. So my first instinct was: I don't believe it. I simply don't think it is true. Maybe it is only a legend, good for rounding out a work."

Germany - Die Zeit. Jens Jessen finds Grass' self-pardoning in the FAZ interview practically alarming: "The way he vigorously emphasizes the Nazis' 'anti-middle class' stance and describes the fascination for the co-called 'people's community,' in which 'class differences or religious arrogance' no longer play a major role, the way he pits himself against the 'ghastly' Adenauer period 'with all the lies and the whole Catholic fug' and in the end even suggests that such 'stuffiness' never turned up among the Nazis - this reveals an intimate empathy that makes you forget - for a moment - that Grass ever grew up and liberated himself from the hocus-pocus of National Socialist propaganda. The 78-year-old man appears before us as one who could immediately fall into an ideology, if it comes across as anti-middle class enough and promises an end to the class society."

Hungary - Magyar Hirlap. Julianna R. Szekely draws parallels between the debate about Günter Grass and the scandal when Istvan Szabo's past as a Stasi informant was revealed, and she defends both artists: "It's a terrible mistake to let an event in the life of an artist overshadow the value of his life's work. One of the things that make both Grass' and Szabo's works so wonderful is that they portray guilt and sin, defeat and triumph over life's problems, and not from a distanced, objective point of view but in a moving and intensely involved way." Szekely reserves her criticism for those who condemn Grass and Szabo. In her eyes they are hypocrites who act as if "they were born with pure souls, the products of an immaculate conception." Szekely argues that they, too, have sins on their conscience but unlike Grass never asked themselves the question: 'Could you have understood back then the full implications of what you were doing?'"

Czech Republic - Mlada fronta dnes. Viliam Buchert argues that although Günter Grass may have lost his halo by admitting to having served with the Waffen-SS, it was still an important step. Buchert examines Grass's admission in the context of the Czech Republic's communist past. "Many people refuse to admit to having collaborated with the state security service. Now that Grass has made his confession, we must ask ourselves what is to be done with those who collaborated with National Socialism or communism. Those who are guilty should openly admit it. You don't have to be religious to see that repentance and clarification should be rewarded with forgiveness. But as usual, the Czechs prefer to turn a blind eye on their past… Günter Grass's confession has made it clear how far we are from having come to terms with our past. We refuse to confront the past simply because we don't want to."

18 August 2006

Germany - Frankfurter Rundschau. Author John Irving, having initially refused to take a public position on the Günter Grass debate, has now written a letter to the FR. "My friend and one-time mentor Kurt Vonnegut would have called the nationalistic babble in the German press a 'shit storm'. What I read from all the lead editorials, the lofty comments of my colleagues, the critics and journalists from all political camps is the following: all this is a predictable, hypocritical stripping down of Grass' life and work, carried out from the oh so cowardly standpoint of hindsight. It is from this standpoint that many of the so-called intellectuals set their sights on their goal. Grass remains for me a hero- as a writer and a moral compass."

Germany - Die Welt. Tilman Krause has now peeled the onion and is particularly interested in Grass the teenager. "It was definitely logically consistent – and that is the thorn in his side that explains the long silence, more than anything written - it was logically consistent that this young man landed in the Waffen SS. It was created for people like him, full of sexual frustration, social envy, resentment and emotional blocks. The Taliban commandos probably drew from the same ranks. And we're not going to want to deny Grass respect for having presented everything so unadorned. Whether we admire the probing honesty of his unsparing peeling of the onion or denounce it as a lapse that we would have preferred not to know about, will depend on how we feel about the author, whether we wish him well or not."

Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung. Writer Ivan Nagel, who had to hide as a Jewish child in Hungary while Grass, his contemporary, was in the Waffen SS, expresses empathy for the belatedness the author's confession: "I myself had no reason to feel shame - after all, I was one of the persecuted - and nevertheless for 55 years I could not speak about it. I understand Günter Grass, who only now is able to talk about his shame, his disgrace. Life is not a reference book that you can flip through at will; it is no finished manuscript that you can publish at any time."

Germany - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Swiss author Adolf Muschg has peeled Grass' onion "as a modern-day non-German, with the feeling of really being drawn into it," and concludes: "The shame of survivors is not uniquely German; and because it is accompanied by certain taboos, even respectable ones, I think I can understand why half a century can pass before one can speak with relief about having gotten out alive from the Führer's war... Only as representative of another Germany could the old man take the chance of returning to the simplicity of his name, which he had allowed to be stuffed into the calfskin of an SS uniform half century ago. The book is much more and much less than a confession. It has a lot to say."

19 August 2006

Switzerland - Neue Zürcher Zeitung
. Martin Meyer thinks it is a waste of time to hold Grass' SS membership against him. "It would be far more constructive to question the whys and wherefores of political journalists and celebrated orators. Because Grass' political moral stance accurately pinpoints the desires of the sort of overstrung ethical mentality which is out to reduce the world to simple formulae."

Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung. Novelist Christa Wolf staunchly refuses to be disappointed in Grass: "Unlike many people who have had their say in recent days, I say: Günter Grass is still the same person for me. But prior to his confession I didn't see in him any form of "moral authority" concerning a distressing phase in his distant past either."

Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung. Ijoma Mangold delivers a very ungracious review of Grass' autobiography "Beim Häuten der Zwiebel" (Peeling the Onion). He is particularly piqued by the titular metaphor which stands for continuous evasion. "It is no coincidence that Grass continually writes about the young soldier in the third person. Grass stages a moral drama in which he plays a duel role: the empirical and the poetical I; the character who falls in with Nazi's and the one who confronts his past; the character who represses the past and the one who analyses it; the sinner and the man who redeems himself through the power of literature. Grass does not want to paint things in a good light. But he is an ardent believer in the liberating, even redeeming powers of the artwork as a catalyst for remembrance."

Germany - Die Welt. When one reaches a certain age, one should avoid making TV appearances, opines Georg Klein after the Grass interview on ARD (English transcript). "While a private one-to-one conversation knows the mercy of tempered perception, while in the course of a tete-a-tete, a blind eye may be turned to many things - redundant obstinacy and late vanity among them - the compulsively technological nature of TV highlights everything that is unattractive and awkward, making it into a caricature. The old man, who is conscious of the fragility of his dignity, should avoid this medium as far as possible."

20 August 2006

USA - New York Times. Daniel Kehlmann sees Grass' confession as pure vanity: "Ambitious like most good writers, Grass must have had his eye on the Nobel Prize from early on. He knew he deserved it. The question of why he remained silent for so long about his past is in fact easy to answer: one visit with the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was sufficient for Borges never to receive the prize. Would someone who had served in the SS stand a chance?"

21 August 2006

Germany - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. American author and attorney Louis Begley (homepage) had this to say about Günter Grass and the Waffen-SS: "One would have hoped that during his humiliating avowal, Grass might have cast off the role of the moral apostle for which he is all too famous. I have to think about the shockingly absurd anecdote he told about the first time he was confronted with direct racism, when he heard a white American soldier calling his black comrade 'nigger'. Was Grass seriously expecting that anyone who might have heard mention of German racist propaganda before and during the war and who possessed a glimmer of common sense would have believed him?"

Poland - Rzeczpospolita. Fourteen Polish writers including Wislawa Szymborska, Stefan Chwin and Pawel Huelle have published an open letter in which they defend Günter Grass. "Grass's confession is a demonstration of courage, and illustrates the great tragedy of a person who admits that he has always perceived his guilt as a shameful thing. We are witnessing how his admission is being exploited by certain Polish politicians. We strongly object to the tragedy of this novelist being used for political games. We cannot allow politicians to play with people's destinies. We regard Grass's literary work and social commitment as efforts to compensate for his mistakes. We cannot and will not forget Günter Grass's friendship and the great services he has done Poland."

Germany - Die Welt. In an interview with Anjana Shrivastava, Daniel Goldhagen feeds Günter Grass with material for his next novel: "What is sadly missing in all the substantial literature about Nazism and the Holocaust, is a strong literary portrayal of Germany's moral degeneration under the swastika. Someone with Grass' literary talents could have done this."

22 August 2006

Germany - Die Welt. "Shame" is no decent explanation for Günter Grass' late avowal, writes Wolfgang Sofsky. "Overcome by shame, the man proclaimed vociferously that he had learnt his lessons from history. He shows the opposite of that which he purports to show. He does not bow his head, but raises it self-assuredly, full of a need to share his feelings. What was clamouring to get out of this author was not shame at having kept quiet but renewed evidence of his claim to moral high-ground. The author was fishing for praise for having confessed. Faced with this level of historical folly and shamelessness, the critic can only hide his head and request that nothing more be said about the matter."

Germany - Frankfurter Rundschau. Grey areas notwithstanding: Günter Grass' SS confession in his newly published autobiography is nothing less than a "stroke of genius" in terms of the politics of remembrance," writes a nonplussed Ina Hartwig. "Imagine someone like Martin Walser (who in his 1998 acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade called for an end to the instrumentalisation of Auschwitz and consequently came into conflict with Ignatz Bubis, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, on the question of German guilt - ed.) with his pompous 'feel for history' presenting us with such an unpleasant autobiographical detail, dished up with author's margin notes in red and onion tears! Walser, who jealously guards his personal memories and experiences because he feels they are threatened by a national culture of remembrance he denounces as kitsch. 'The moral cudgel of Auschwitz' (Walser's expression) is not something that could ever issue from Grass' lips. The way Grass – who comes from the Left – occupies precisely those themes that are traditional conservative territory – amounts in psychological terms to nothing less than genius. With Grass on board, it is comfortable to travel through the former Reich territories, West and East Prussia re-emerge from the fog of the Cold War, reflections about expulsion can take place under his watchful eye and it's even acceptable for the Germans to be victims too."

24 August 2006

France - Le point. In his "Notebook" column, Bernard-Henri Levy comments on the affair surrounding Günter Grass' late avowal. The first problem, writes Levy, is that the affair focusses on the intellectual Grass, who wanted to become – and actually did became – the "conscience of Germany." Meanwhile the affair is "emphatically not about the author who takes every liberty," in hiding his "dark, damnable side." Levy says he feels sorry for John Irving, who still admires Grass and holds him up as a "model", a hero and "moral mind": "If Grass remains a model, it's a result of that iron law which is never, or at least hardly ever, called into doubt: that amnesia is fate; that there are gaps in memory, black holes, abysses in which the worst elements swirl about before coming crashing down on one's head. A lie of this calibre, a single lie, even if it is played down as a bagatelle or 'youthful folly,' is like a dark ray, a tumour that spreads its metastases onto life.... Günter Grass, that fatty fish of the literary world, that flounder frozen for over sixty years of posing and lies, suddenly disintegrates into his constituent parts in the heat of belated truth. This form of thaw has a name: it is literally a debacle, when the ice starts to flow."

25 August 2006

Hungary - Elet es Irodalom. Rudolf Ungvary is critical of Günter Grass, who blinded out the every day persecution of Jews in the 1940s and refuses to condemn contemporary dictators today. "Before 1945, it was clear to all contemporaries of Grass – and not just the members of the SS – that there were Nuremberg Laws, that many Jews were disappearing. They heard clearly how Hitler hollered out his speeches. They knew that only representatives of one political camp were allowed to express their opinions. Was that not enough to wish for a defeat of fascism (independently of whether one had volunteered to be member of the party or a military organisation)?... Grass condemned America but had nothing to say to the threats of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Prior to 1945, he could know that something terrible was happening to the German Jews. And even now, he must be aware of what the Iranian president is demanding, namely that Israel be erased from the map of the world."

UK - The Economist. The magazine also puts its finger in the "Grass wound", looking in astonishment at how different Grass portrayal of his war experiences is in his autobiography "Peeling the Onion" from that of his experiences after the war. "What is interesting, however, is the unconvincing nature of his wartime recollections. That section of the book is colourless and stereotyped. Many of the scenes could have been lifted—and the suspicion remains that they were—from Mr Grass's frequent visits to the cinema.... Mr Grass may have satisfied his three hungers, but he has left a corner of doubt: why should his recollection of those few combatant months appear so weak?"

- Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Polish writer Stefan Chwin does not hold it against Günter Grass for speaking out so late about his time in the SS. He doesn't even seem all that surprised. "For all his vitality, Grass is a secretive and introspective person, and I've never attempted to understand him. I preferred him to remain like his books: nebulous, unclear, ambivalent. Oskar Materath is certainly not a positive hero and 'The Tin Drum' is not a 'clean' book. I've always sensed something strange about that book, which is precisely what I love about it. Real literature plays with truth and morals as one plays with fire."

Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung. It was known that Günter Grass penned a letter to the mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, but not that his letter was a reply to an email from Adamowicz. On the political pages, Adamowicz writes: "I asked him to tell the people of Gdansk how he came to be a member of the SS and why he had kept silent about it for so long. I sent off the mail with these questions last Saturday evening. I have to admit that I hardly slept a wink that night. Would he answer or not? And if he did, would he be content with just a few short paragraphs? In the night I sought answers to these questions which were worrying us in the favourite book of my youth, 'The Tin Drum'."

26 August 2006

Poland - Polityka
. This week the Polish magazine takes a literary turn. After discussing Polish-German relations last week in the context of the Grass debate and the Berlin exhibition "Erzwungene Wege", this week Adam Krzeminski investigates Grass' book as a literary event. "'Peeling the Onion' is precisely about how you can free yourself of guilt by talking about yourself, while at the same time keeping quiet about the truth and all the finangling. It's about how you can create a sort of 'bypass' with the help of literature, to give relief to clogged arteries." Yet Krzeminski also mentions that Poland "is rather indebted to Grass. If anti-German apprehensions are at a low in western Poland, it's largely thanks to him. He has allowed us to let go of the complex hanging over us that Poland is a fortress besieged by German revanchists."

27 August 2006

Chile - Reportajes. Now writer Mario Vargas Llosa has also come out on the "Grass case". For him, neither Grass' literary nor his political or moral merits can be put in question. In Vargas Llosa's view, the hefty criticism surrounding Grass has more to do with "people's image of the author Grass desperately tried to be for his whole life: one who expresses his opinions on every issue, and for whom life – as literature – adapts to one's dreams and ideas. A man for whom the writer is the absolute number one, simultaneously entertaining, teaching, giving orientation and guidance. Dear Günter Grass, we have blissfully carried this fiction around with us long enough. It's over now."

30 August 2006

Germany - Die Tageszeitung. Markus Joch reevaluates Günter Grass' novel "Cat and Mouse" in an attempt to glean "new information about Grass' relationship" to this part of the Danzig trilogy, written 1961, and to show how the author fictionally encoded the "insane machismo of his young years" in it. The fact that Grass tried to make his hero Joachim Mahlke "ridiculous, to shove his heroes' outlook away from his own, reflects the creative principle of of the entire story. The author gave his character a series of not-identical features, estranged him, in order to make the almost identical non-threatening – the alienation effect with security measures."

1 September 2006

Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung. The Polish author Pawel Huelle complains that Polish politicians are trying to capitalise on the Günter Grass case. In the last elections, the national conservative party Law and Justice (PiS), led by the Kaczynski brothers, successfully discredited Donald Tusk, the candidate of the Civic Platform, whose Kashubian grandfather was forced to serve in the Wehrmacht. Now it's got Pawel Adamowowicz, the mayor of Gdansk, in its sights. He is up for re-election and recently defended Grass' position. "It's typical. The people who've never lifted a finger for Polish-German reconciliation are now the self-appointed prosecutors of an eminent German – an outstanding writer and a true friend of Poland. Right up to the elections this autumn, Grass - along with Lech Walesa - will be the most famous honorary citizen of Gdansk to be vilified by politicians." See our interview with Pawel Huelle here.

12 September 2006

USA - The New Yorker
. The Dutch author and journalist Ian Buruma sums up the debate over Günter Grass and reviews Grass' "extraordinary" memoirs "Beim Häuten der Zwiebel." The scandal surrounding the book has hidden its "rare literary beauty," Buruma writes. "Günter Grass is one of the last examples of a German tradition that puts poets and thinkers on a high pedestal, from which they deliver, like prophets, their verdicts on the world. There are times, certainly, when the writer can use his moral authority to good effect: Thomas Mann during the war, Grass after the war. At other times, the very things that make a man such as Grass a great novelist—the capacity to turn experience into myth, for example—can be obstacles to cogent political analysis."

14 September 2006

Germany - Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Mona Nagger reports on an embarrassing letter of solidarity that Günter Grass received from 46 Arab intellectuals. "The signatories see in Grass' confession to having been a member of the Waffen SS a sign of courage that deserves respect and recognition. The critique of Grass is being interpreted as a campaign 'aimed at diverting attention from the Israeli crimes against Palestine and Lebanon.' The Israelis are depicted as 'Neonazis': 'They kill Palestinians and Israelis, destroy their countries, build a dividing wall around them and put them in camps.' The tone recalls quite clearly the language of the Iranian president Ahmadinejad." Nagger's conclusion: "The document says a lot about the sensitivities of many Arab intellectuals. They live in a world of conspiracy theories, far removed form reality; they mistake populist slogans and rhetoric for intellectual discourse and they see no need to take a serious look at the Holocaust and Nazi crimes."

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