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The staged confession

Roman Bucheli is anything but relieved by Günter Grass' recent exposure of uncomfortable truths

On August 12, Günter Grass admitted in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung that he served with the Waffen SS in World War Two. Here a survey of reactions in the German press.

In 1944, as a 17 year old, he was conscripted into the army as a flak helper and then served as a soldier before being wounded in the spring of 1945. That was the account that Günter Grass, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, gave of his service in the war until now. In his autobiography "Peeling the Onion," which will appear in September, Grass tells a surprising new version of the story which falsifies his previous statements: at 15, he volunteered for the submarine corps but was not accepted. Instead, he was enlisted in the Waffen SS two years later, and was happy to oblige. He was assigned to the tank division "Frundsberg" but in the chaos of the last months of the war, before he was wounded in April 1945, he claims not to have fired once.

In a two page interview that appeared in the Saturday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung, Grass admits that for him "the Waffen SS was, at first, nothing frightening." He considered it to be an elite unit, "that was active wherever things were critical, and where there were rumoured to be the most losses." On the question of why he volunteered for the armed forces, Grass answered, "For me, it was mainly about getting away. Away from the narrowness, away from the family." He avoids the question of why his confession was so long in coming. He says it was oppressing him, and the silence through the years was one of the reasons he decided to write the autobiography. "It had to get out, finally."

Posing as a self-assured moralist, and not without vanity, Günter Grass is trying to convert his admission of guilt into aesthetic-ethic capital. What we are in fact witnessing is a dismantlement of the self. Will his oeuvre – in which the German guilt for involvement in National Socialism is an inexhaustible theme, second to none – be damaged by this late confession? No, because literature plays by its own rules and some of his early work endures. There is no question, however, that since "Too far afield" and "Crabwalk", we have seen a growing divide between the creative power of imagination and what might be called an opportunistic proclivity towards indignation. Will the public person be damaged by the confession? Maybe not by the confession itself: who wants to blame a 17 year old for being conscripted into Hitler's elite army – which was responsible for numerous war crimes – at a time when the Waffen SS was no longer taking only volunteers? But the long silence and the staged form of the confession make some of his polemical interventions seem questionable in retrospect.

There has been no shortage of opportunities for Grass' self-revelation: when he protested against the visit of Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan to the war cemetery in Bitburg, where members of the Waffen SS also lie. Or in 2003, when he came to the defence of his friend Walter Höllerer, who in 1942, at the age of 19, had become a member of the NSDAP. Or a few weeks ago, when Grass spoke of the war at the opening of the PEN congress in Berlin: "I was sixteen when I became a soldier. I was seventeen when I learned fear. And nonetheless, I believed, right until the end, when everything was lying in ruins, in a final victory." All of these could have been opportunities to show that the discussion of the past cannot exempt the speaker himself.

Most marred, however, is the credibility of the intellectual who never hesitated to speak out, who never tired of objecting whenever he saw human dignity under threat. Now we discover in the moral rigour a kind of substitute act, whose polemics may never have been aimed at the thing alone, but were feeding on the glowing coals of silenced shame and guilt. This may have moved the author who was stylised as the conscience of the nation, to protest even louder and more vehemently, the more emphatically and yet unsuccessfully his own conscience demanded exposure in order to purge the burden of guilt.

This may enrage or irritate those to follow, for whom it has sometimes been all too easy to condemn those who proved to be no heroes in hard times. It's a question of temperament. What's depressing is something else that Günter Grass expressed in his long talk with the FAZ. Here we see not perfidy but a certain infamy. For instance in a sentence like this: "We had Adenauer, horrible, with all the lies, with all that Catholic fug. (West German) society at the time was characterised by a narrow-mindedness that was unknown even among the Nazis." No suggestion that Grass himself was a part of this society which he still denounces, that had sworn itself to a lie.

Then Grass tells us how he ended up in American captivity where he learned, apparently for the first time, of the horrors committed by the Nazis. In the same sentence he recalls the discrimination and insults that the black American soldiers were subjected to by their white comrades. "Suddenly, I was confronted with real racism." Coming from someone who had spent almost the entire war in Gdansk and must have seen deportations, this sounds like malicious mockery clothed in brazen naivete.

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. In the late 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, while 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."

The Hamburg-based German studies scholar Klaus Briegleb (more) spoke recently of an "assumed moral integrity," which, together with a "unique praxis of forgetting" in the circle around the Gruppe 47, of which Grass was a prominent member, contributed to a blossoming of German anti-Semitism after the Shoah. Günter Grass delivers – with a slight delay- evidence to support this thesis.


This article originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on August 14, 2006.

Roman Bucheli, born in 1960, studied German studies and philosophy. He has been writing for the NZZ Feuilleton since 1999.

translation: nb

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