(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, August 22, 2006)
“Why only now?” he says, this person not to be confused with me. Well, because Mother’s incessant nagging…Because I wanted to cry the way I did at the time, when the cry spread across the water, but couldn’t anymore…Because for the true story…hardly more than three lines…Because only now…The words still don’t come easily.
That was how Gunter Grass began his 2005 novel, Crabwalk . His narrator was tired, exhausted by the words he produced for a living. Only a naïve reader would confuse the character with Grass himself, but all through last week, the question everyone asked came from Crabwalk : “Why only now?”
In an interview given shortly before the release of his autobiography, Peeling The Onion , Grass said he had lied about his wartime service. The German writer has always maintained that he had been drafted in 1944 to serve in an anti-aircraft auxiliary unit. Now he admitted that he had served at 17 in the tank division of the dreaded Waffen SS, the fighting arm of the elite force responsible for the Nazi regime’s worst crimes. He spent his year in the SS on training exercises.
“Enough excuses. Still I refused for decades to utter the word SS and admit that I wore that double symbol. After the war, with growing shame, I wanted to keep silent about what I accepted in the stupid pride of my younger years,” Grass said.
His confession has led to furious debate. How could we trust an author who had lied about such a crucial fact? How should we read him now?
Those of us who came to a new understanding of Germany and the Second World War through Grass’s great Danzig trilogy cannot help but be disappointed. But should we now see his contentious, implacable, disturbing body of work as irredeemably suspect?
To pillory Grass would be to do exactly what Grass has asked us all his life not to do, which is to forget history. Gunter Grass never knew a Germany outside the Nazi regime. He was 12 when the Second World War began, which was also when he realized he wanted to be an artist. At 13, he won a short story contest—his first published story ran in the Hitler youth magazine, Hilf mit! (Lend a Hand).
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Grass spoke of how his mother’s favourite cousin, a worker at the Polish post office in Danzig, was executed when the postal workers resisted the SS-Heimwehr at the start of the war. Grass’s family never spoke of the cousin again.
“He became a non-person. Yet he must have lived on in me through the years when at fifteen I donned a uniform, at sixteen I learned what fear was, at seventeen I landed in an American POW camp, at eighteen I worked in the black market, studied to be a stone-mason…and wrote and drew, drew and wrote…”
Grass signed up for the draft as a 16-year-old, never thinking of the consequences. That was an act of will; and yet it should tell us a great deal about Nazi Germany that Grass saw no way out of being drafted into the same service that had been responsible for the death of his uncle. By 1944, the SS had broken down. No one has argued that Grass was personally responsible for any atrocities. At the time, he knew nothing of the Holocaust. “But while I didn’t know of these specific crimes, I did know I was part of a system that had planned, organised and carried out the destruction of millions of people…Something – – all too easily called complicity – – has remained until today. I will certainly have to continue living with it during my remaining years.”
He found his voice in the decades that followed the war, and he found his conscience. In his words, Grass turned to “narration as a form of survival as well as a form of art”. Why did it take him so long to tell the truth? Perhaps he never found the right moment, and when would that moment have been—just after the war, when the confession would have killed his hopes of writing? Just after winning the Nobel, when the indignation would have been stronger?
Perhaps he never found the courage. As a reader, I could wish that he had been braver, but I am not Grass, I have not lived for years with the burden of this secret shame. Now, in the twilight of his life; he has unburdened himself, to our horror, and to his relief. It does not change his work, though it forces us to read his books with greater knowledge, a sadder understanding.