Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Günter Grass Postscript

Interestingly, Conscientious today linked to Timothy Garton Ash's piece in the New York Review of Books on the whole Günter Grass issue. One the whole it's a very good reasoned argument and makes some of the same points made above (though far better than I) - especially the key point that it was not the Grass served int he Waffen SS, but that he continuously covered it up for so long.

"Yet I'm afraid that Grass has only half a point. In fact, what is really surprising is that he is so surprised. Recalling the way in which Grass has repeatedly attacked leaders of the Federal Republic such as Helmut Kohl, the bishop of Kohl's home city of Mainz quotes Saint John: "Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone." For more than forty years, ever since he became a famous writer, Günter Grass has been one of the literary world's most inveterate stone-throwers. In thousands of speeches, interviews, and articles he has raged against US imperialism and capitalism; against German unification, which he furiously opposed, since a united Germany had "laid the foundations of Auschwitz"; against Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl, and all their journalistic supporters. Like one of the Teutonic Knights he admired as a child, he has laid about him to left and right—in recent years, mainly to right—with a bludgeon. He has set himself up as a political and moral authority, and delivered harsh judgements. His language has often been intemperate. Now it is payback time for all those he has criticized, directly or indirectly. In paying him back, some of his critics have fallen into precisely the mode that they previously criticized Grass for adopting: a simplistic, moralistic judgment, elevating the Nazi past to the single yardstick of morality or immorality.

This said, both outrage and amazement seem in order. Outrage not at the fact that he served in the Waffen-SS as a teenager but at the way he has dealt with that fact since. According to the historian Bernd Wegner, a leading authority on the Waffen-SS, the "Frundsberg" division in which Grass served as a tank gunner "consisted mainly of members of the RAD [Reichsarbeitsdienst, or Reich Labor Service] who had been conscripted under duress."[6] Since Grass had previously been conscripted into the Reich Labor Service, it seems likely that his earlier volunteering to fight in the U-boats had nothing to do with his being assigned to the Waffen-SS. There is no suggestion that he was involved in any atrocities. By his own account he hardly fired a shot in anger.

No, his war record is not the cause for outrage. Thousands of young Germans shared the same fate. Many died as a result. The offense is that he should for so many years have made it his stock-in-trade to denounce post-war West Germans' failure to face up to the Nazi past, while himself so spectacularly failing to come clean about the full extent of his own Nazi past. One painfully disappointed reaction comes from his most recent biographer, Michael Jürgs, whose life of Grass appeared in 2002. Grass spent many hours talking to Jürgs, yet allowed him to repeat the standard version that the novelist's war service had been as an auxiliary antiaircraft gunner (he was also that, briefly, before going into the Waffen-SS), and then in the Wehrmacht. This is not merely "keeping quiet" about your past. I'd say it counts as lying. What's more, if a conservative German politician had behaved like this, Grass himself would surely have called it lying, adding a few earthy adjectives to boot.

Worse still, knowing full well his own biography, he nonetheless denounced the joint visit by Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl to a cemetery in Bitburg in 1985 where, among many war dead, forty-nine Waffen-SS soldiers were buried. Of the forty-nine, thirty-two were under twenty-five years old. The youngest among them may well have been drafted like Günter Grass. He could have been one of them. To denounce the Bitburg visit without acknowledging that he himself had served in the Waffen-SS was an act of breathtaking hypocrisy, doublethink, and recklessness." (More
here - and well worth reading)

In the end I'm reminded of a ritual I witnessed a number of times. New intakes of conscript recruits into the German Bundeswehr where taken around the memorials of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration camp. Unlike Auschwitz, all that now remains - apart from a small museum - is some large monuments and, most telling of all, a series of huge stone faced mounds - each with the inscription "here lie 15,000 dead", here lie 20,000 dead" and so on. As the recruits walked solemnly and silently around taking this in, only their instructors could be occasionally heard reminding them - this must never happen again... we must never let this happen again.

I hope Garton Ash is correct that even if much of Grass's activism falls into disrepute (and I fear more of it will than Garton Ash's optimistic take on it), that the writings of Günter Grass will still retain their power to remind us in the same stark way. But would that he had taken this decision 40 years ago instead.

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