The most quoted line from Gunter Grass’s 2003 novel Crabwalk concerned the dark secrets embedded in Germany’s past. “History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet,” observes one of Grass’s characters. “We flush and flush, but the sh*t keeps rising.” So it does, as the Nobel Prize-winning Grass knows better than most, having now found himself at the center of an international furor for revealing in a recent interview that he served in the notoriously brutal Waffen-SS in the closing months of World War II.
It must be said that the admission did not come as a complete surprise. Grass has never hidden the fact he was, like many of his generation, a member of the Hitler Youth, and, at 15, an artillery soldier with the Nazi army, the Wehrmacht. Equally, he has been upfront about the indoctrination that impelled him uncritically into the arms of the Nazi war machine. These admissions, to be sure, always had a hint of self-interest: They were essential to the role of Germany’s national conscience that Grass has assumed for himself since launching his literary career in the 1950s. Having sinned himself, Grass alone could judge the sinner.
But it is telling that Grass felt compelled to cover up his SS past. After all, Grass has always maintained that his generation was “too young to have been a Nazi, but old enough to have been formed by the Nazi regime.” Membership in the SS undermines the distinctions: Unlike Nazi Germany’s conscripted army, the SS was for much of its existence a volunteer force: One had to want to join. Grass maintains that he was drafted. Still, he now allows that, far from being “seduced,” “Germans joined with enthusiasm and with popularity.”
What to make of this? On one hand, it’s noble of Grass to come clean so late in his career, when the truth about his past might have remained hidden from history. On the other hand, there is something hideously hypocritical about the man who once (rightly) denounced Ronald Reagan for visiting the military cemetery at Bitburg, the resting place of SS-veterans, now revealing that — interesting story — he once eagerly served in their ranks.
Hypocrisy ranking rather low on the list of transgressions, the intellectual world wants to convict Grass of something more meaningful. Thus German literary critic Helmuth Karasek theatrically proclaims Grass unworthy of his Nobel Prize, commenting that the Nobel Prize committee would have taken a very different view of an author “whom they knew had been a member of the Waffen SS and had long denied it.”
This is unfair. Whatever one makes of Grass’s admission—and I find it does nothing to increase my respect for the author, not least because he has used it as a marketing ploy to flog his forthcoming tell-all autobiography, Peeling the Onion — condemning the art for the wrongs of the artist is the worst form of philistinism. And the art, especially Grass’s The Tin Drum, arguably the greatest German novel of the last half-century, is real enough. Among the many leftist agitators who have been awarded the prize in recent years, Grass is that rare thing: a deserving recipient.
Closer to the mark is Munich professor Michael Wolffsohn, who has said that Grass’s “persistent silence [about his SS days] would devalue his moralizing works, but not his novelistic works.” But this errs on the side of generosity. Grass had forfeited any claims to moral seriousness long ago.
He retains an adolescent passion for socialism, seeing the capitalist West as irredeemably corrupt — this as he sells books by the thousands and reaps critical acclaim, even in the hated United States. Correspondingly, he has never encountered a left-wing dictatorship undeserving of his flattery. After touring a prison with a Sandinista handler in the 1980s, a smitten Grass waxed romantic about Nicaragua as a model society, where “Christ’s words are taken literally.” In 1993, he announced that “Cubans were less likely to notice the absence of liberal rights” on account of the “self respect” they had supposedly gained during the revolution. (One hopes his next book tour makes no stops in Miami.) Where others saw backwardness and misery, Grass saw revolutionary authenticity. “Beauty,” as he once put it, “is on the side of the hovel, and truth too.”
That conviction famously led Grass to oppose German reunification. Instead, he urged a “third way” that would hold out the promise of a socialist paradise in which he continued, against all evidence, to believe. That German voters unanimously rejected his discredited fantasy hardly fazed Grass, who now regards post-reunification Germany as the moral successor of the Third Reich. One had Hitler; the other is a “a land that was once unhappy but has been raped by ruthless Western tycoons.”
More unseemly has been Grass’s recent embrace of the claim, traditionally associated with the revisionist right but of late gaining converts on the left, that German suffering at the hands of the Allies is comparable to the atrocities carried out by the Nazis, a theme very much in evidence in Grass’s Crabwalk.
Grass comes to this conclusion not out of any lingering sympathy for the Nazi era but out of something more banal: an unreflective pacifism and an inability to make relevant moral distinctions, between aggression and retaliation, between tyranny and freedom, between fantasy and reality.
This is the point that now eludes his critics. Grass’s main flaw is not what he did sixty years ago but what he has failed to do since: namely, to grow up.
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