Nobel literature prize-winner Gunter Grass is in the eye of a storm in Germany as the grand old man of letters comes under fire for revealing his teenage past as a member of the Waffen SS in the press. His drafting into the Frundsberg division in Dresden aged 17, after initially volunteering for U-boat service aged 15, is a matter of German Wehrmacht record, in files open to the public. Grass confessed to the Americans when they imprisoned him briefly in 1945, but leading literary critic Hellmuth Karasek is among those who regret he did not talk about it again for over 60 years: “He did, after all, relentlessly track literally everybody else who had kept silent about their political careers during the Nazi period”.
In fact Grass publically admitted to being a member of an anti-aircraft battery, and the Werhmacht, but was coy about his Waffen SS past. However he has never hidden his youthful fascination with the Nazis, and wove this into his personal role in the post-war “Vergangheitsbewaeltigung”, or “coming to terms with the past” movement that transformed Germany. He also said joining the army was his way of breaking away from home and family, none of whom survived the war.
His latest confession is in his autobiography, “While Peeling The Onion”, which has been rushed into the shops today, two weeks ahead of its publishing date. However, many understand why Grass kept quiet in the post-war paranoia, and appreciate what he has done to help Germany face up to its Nazi past.
“People like Gunter Grass helped to form Germany as it is today, with such a strong democracy”, said one person buying the book.
In the book Grass talks about his “burden of guilt…which no-one can lighten”. “I accepted much with the badly-placed pride of youth which after the war ashamed me with hindsight and stilled my tongue” he adds, and in the 60 pages devoted to his war service, says “I was a young Nazi who believed naively until the end…my belief brooked no doubt, no subversion”.
But in a literary career that began spectacularly in 1959 with his masterpiece “The Tin Drum”, and subsequent political activism, Grass became one of the most visible and outspoken German peace activists. He tore into Chancellor Kohl when he took US President Ronald Reagan to the Bitburg cemetery in 1985, where 49 high-ranking Waffen SS war criminals are buried along with thousands of other soldiers.
He also opposed German reunification in 1990, arguing that the country would be in danger of reverting to its role as a war-mongerer. In this the 78-year old writer was wrong, underestimating German youth, who seem to have learned their lessons well, lessons taught to them by Grass, among other people.
He also did much to reconcile the Germans with the Poles, as he was born in Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland, where he is an honorary citizen. The reaction to the confession there has been fierce, with the in-power Kaczynski brothers and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walensa particularly scathing, demanding he return the Gdansk honour.
However Archbishop Josef Michalik of the Polish Episcopate and veteran anti-Communist activist and Solidarity dissident Adam Michnik have leapt to his defence, with Michnik asking the question: “Why is it so hard for us Poles to understand the drama of the generation of young Germans who were fooled by the totalitarian Nazi propaganda?”
While it is true the row will not harm his sales, the book has been long awaited anyway, as love or hate Grass, he casts a long shadow over post-war world literature.