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14/08/2006

From the Feuilletons is a weekly overview of what's been happening in the German-language cultural pages and appears every Friday at 3 pm. CET.. Here a key to the German newspapers.

Günter Grass' admission that he was in the Waffen-SS

The admission of German Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass that he was a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II has drawn both public rage and defence of the writer, who turns 79 in October. While some say the revelation devalues his life's work, others have shown more understanding for the pressures faced by the teenage Grass and the man who would later write such modern German classics as "The Tin Drum."


Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12.08.2006

Grass made the admission in a conversation with Frank Schirrmacher and Hubert Spiegel in the Saturday edition of the FAZ. The author, whose new autobiography, "Peeling Onions," is due out in September, said he was drafted at the age of 17 into the Waffen-SS - the combat force of the SS - in the final months of World War II. He spent three months with the division. The division later was declared a criminal organization by the Nuremberg Tribunal.

Said Grass: "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."

In an editorial, 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'?"


Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 14.08.2006

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." And international press reviews included the gamut of responses, from understanding (from the left) to malice (from the right). 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."


Die Tageszeitung, 14.08.2006

Gerrit Bartels comments on Günter Grass' years of suppression: "The author will now have to live with the fact that he can be charged with being calculating, whatever his psychological repression mechanisms might have been. Right after his international successes with "The Tin Drum," clearly it did not seem convenient to expose the darkest corners of his past - and certainly not in the later years, because the Nobel Literature Prize became more and more important. And during the long wait he had already considered - as he admits in 'Peeling Onions' - writing to the Nobel Prize Committee to ask that they not honour him; in other words, a premature refusal. A former Waffen-SS man would never have been considered for this prize."


Die Welt, 14.08.2006

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."


Der Tagesspiegel, 12.08.2006

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."


Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 14.08.2006


"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.'"


Frankfurter Rundschau, 14.08.2006

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."

Harry Nutt would have been happier to hear the admission a bit earlier. "How different and how much more enlightened would the historical debates of the last years have been if Grass had thrown his confession into the ring? The discussion of guilt and involvement, so incredibly important and painful for the history of West Germany, but also the discussion of pride and exoneration, could have been less fundamental and self-righteous if a beacon of Grass' political and creative magnitude had offered the contradiction of his youth as a case study."


Süddeutsche Zeitung, 14.08.2006


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."


From the weekend: A world of Brecht

Die Welt, 12.08.2006

Saturday was Brecht Day, marking the 50th anniversary of the author's death (August 14). Director Falk Richter recalls his first staging of "Im Dickicht der Städte" ("In the Jungle of the Cities") in Atlanta in 1998. "The cast corresponded roughly proportionately to the population of the city: twelve young black actors and two Latinos, who were earning their money outside the theatre as cashiers, bouncers or bar keepers, two middle aged white actors who lived in country homes outside the city, directed the theatre and came to rehearsals in four-wheel drives. The text was translated into contemporary American by a Texan dramatist. The young actors had never heard of Brecht. They thought Brecht was a young writer who lived somewhere in Chicago and had written a piece about the race wars in the USA."

Hellmuth Karasek describes the work of the Austrian citizen in the DDR. "As figurehead of the peace movement of the GDR – the Picasso peace dove adorned all Brecht curtains – he was granted the luxury of longer rehearsals and extended work. Although his theatre was explicitly anti-Stanislawsky, theatre without empathy, that Soviet cultural policy celebrated as the theory of Georg Lukacs. The peace propagandist Brecht used the role assigned to him in the Cold War as rigorously and egotistically as possible to the advantage of his theatre practice. The Berliner Ensemble am Schiffbauerdamm became something of an imposing second Bayreuth in the middle of the GDR."

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