Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Günter Grass and the Waffen SS

I can still recall quite vividly the experience of reading The Tin Drum when I was 15. So w
hile I was away recently, among all my other reading, I finally got around to reading Günter Grass's rather long apologia in the New Yorker vis a vis his "forgetfulness" in ever mentioning his wartime service in the Waffen SS.

In 2006 he caused more than a ripple of controversy when he revealed this hidden fact. In many ways the heat of the controversy was not so much because he had actually enlisted in the Waffen SS as a young teenager at the end of the war (as had many others, with not a lot of choice), but rather that Grass - as someone who had made a good part of his career being a critic not only of Germany's Nazi past, but also of his contemporaries reaction to that past - now seemed in retrospect to have been a displaying a rather high level of hypocrisy.

The New Yorker piece is interesting - though it merely tells his story: one of many young boys called upon to defend the Fatherland (and reads more like a chapter out of Antony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin than anything) . And while he certainly doesn't try to sugar coat his feelings and views as a teenager, in the end it all seems rather self serving. Though I think this New Yorker piece, has it been written early in Grass's career would hold an entirely different meaning.

How I Spent the War

In 1943, when I was a fifteen-year-old schoolboy in Danzig, I volunteered for active duty. When? Why? Since I do not know the exact date and cannot recall the by then unstable climate of the war, or list its hot spots from the Arctic to the Caucasus, all I can do for now is string together the circumstances that probably triggered and nourished my decision to enlist. No mitigating epithets allowed. What I did cannot be put down to youthful folly. No pressure from above. Nor did I feel the need to assuage a sense of guilt, at, say, doubting the Führer’s infallibility, with my zeal to volunteer.... (full article

My only thought at the end of it was that it's such a shame that Max Sebald died so young. Not only did Sebald write extensively on Grass's work, but he also wrote in depth about the lack of personal grief and the collective psychology of denial of the German people in the years following World War II. What he would have said about all this would surely have been worth reading. And a strong antidote to Grass's own ultimately rather vapid justifications.

(Photo: The New Yorker - Grass, right, in 1944, at sixteen, when he was drafted into the Labor Service)


Anonymous said...

It's not a German phenomenon... Irrational rationalization, denial and hypocrisy is human nature. We've all got blood on our hands.

tim atherton said...

however, given the individual and the context, this goes rather a long way beyond the little white lies and day to day hypocrisy lies most of us practice. Or at least it does for most of us, anyway.