Reading the reactions–outrage, shock, compassion, righteous wrath, sadness, understanding, anger–to Gunter Grass’s confession that he served in the SS in the last phase of the Second World War, I couldn’t help wondering: what if he’d just shut up?
He kept his secret for decades; it might well have emerged after his death, but Grass wouldn’t have been in a position to care. He might have been spared the rituals of the public confessional: the pillorying, the mandatory mea culpa, the spirited defence by friends, the speculation that he was trapped by the Nobel Prize, the psychological analysis. Why was he silent for so long? I don’t know, but I’m wondering: when would have it been the right time to speak? Just after the war, before winning the Nobel, just after winning the Prize, when an SS man stood up at one of his readings and committed suicide in full public view–when would the perfect moment have arisen, the moment when we could see Grass’s Nazi record as a 17-year-old boy with clarity, and understand his silence in the years that followed? Why did he speak now? Perhaps, as the more cynical suggest, it was for the publicity–he’s just released his autobiography, Peeling The Onion. Or perhaps the explanation is simpler: perhaps he was just old, and tired, and willing, at last, to face his own demons.
How deeply does this affect Grass’s moral authority as a writer? Read Adam Hanft, who seems to have the clearest view of the affair of any of the commentators I’ve read this far.
I’m not convinced it’s healthy, in the long-term, for a society to pin the label of moral Zeus on anyone… Truly healthy societies don’t draw their moral authority from a single individual, or even a few of them. Evolved societies and cultures are able to situate and draw their moral conclusions from within….
Why should we expect Grass to be any less flawed than other artists who’ve let us down? Just because he brazenly trumpeted his own virtue makes him no less suspect than Elliott or Pound or Knut Hamsun, a true Nobel Prize-winning Nazi novelist. Grass served a valuable, therapeutic role in the late 50s and early 60s. He reminded us of the power of art to reveal, release and transform. Continuing to look to him as a moral compass – even when he began his Euro freak-out, opposing reunification and retreating into knee-jerk anti-Americanism – was Germany’s problem.
Two minor observations. The first is that, as for many Germans of his generation, Grass’s service in the Waffen SS was a curious accident of time. Had he been a few years younger, he would not have been eligible for the draft. Had he been a few years older, and if he’d been drafted in, say, 1942 instead of 1944, he would have spent his service killing people and executing Hitler’s more vicious orders instead of training to be an anti-tank gunner. It was a strange moment in Germany’s military history; he was part of the Waffen without ever being part of its notorious, unforgettable crimes.
The second is that the Grass affair began by sparking a debate that was perhaps healthy; some commentators looked at Germany’s attempts to come to terms with the past, some looked at how sharply we might separate an author’s life from his work, and at what point that separation might become morally indefensible. But it has now degenerated into the classic modern “say you’re sorry” farce. This goes something like so:
“I did terrible things, but now I’m sorry.”
“That’s not enough. Say you’re sorry.”
“I just did, but okay, I’m really really sorry.”
“You didn’t sound sorry. Again.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry. Please believe me, I’m sorry.”
“Na. Where are the CAPITAL LETTERS? And the exclamation marks? You’re not sorry enough, you sorry excuse for a person.”
“Okay, okay, I’m SORRY! I’M REALLY TERRIBLY AWFULLY SORRY! I MEAN IT!”
“You’re really sorry?”
“(Sobbing) Yes. I mean, YES!”
“Aw. That’s all right, then.”