The BS column: The long silence of Gunter Grass

(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.

2 comments

  1. Hi Nilanjana,Sorry, I don’t read BS and I must admit came across your piece only recently. This is what I’d like to share on the matter:The Polish ViewI too wish Grass was braver. But, sadly the city of Danzig (Gdansk, in Polish language), where he was born, grew up and was eventually, drafted into Waffen SS, can’t afford to be that ambivalent.Gdansk, is not an ordinary city. From the ancient times up to at least World War II it was a “Free Port-Town” (or a Free City State, if you like) on the Baltic Sea – the only warm water seaport in the region. Extremely prosperous, cosmopolitan (with a large population of Jews & Arabs) and progressive (some of the best renaissance art of Poland can be found here, sponsored largely by the mercantile community that besides trading and underwriting the Age of Enlightenment – ate breakfast in Antwerp, lunched at Venice and dined in Gdansk.) Poles from this region are held in high esteem for their commitment to trade, justice and freedom. Yes, Gdansk was a regional economic giant. It also formed Poland’s only access to sea known as “The Free Corridor of Danzig” a concession made by the League of Nations in the aftermath of WWI. An agreement that, geographically alas, separated Prussia from Greater Germany – and hence was a sore point with Hitler. So, it was no surprise that it was one of the first towns Germans attacked and introduced ethnic cleansing in.This is where the whole problem with Grass’ admission starts. The moral dilemma facing his people is the following:a)By the time, Grass enrolled into Wassen SS, Gdansk was under Nazi occupation forces. He did not join the “national army” but a “foreign army”. He was, incidentally, born of a German father and Polish mother.b)He was 17, and the year was 1944 — it is, you must admit, rather hard to believe that he was unaware of – how it was to live under occupation that too as a half-bred (Poles were viewed as racially “inferior” to German race by the Nazis). So, why did he voluntarily enroll into the most elitist section of the Nazi army?c)The problem becomes compounded by the fact that in most of his early post- WWII writings he consciously held an unequivocally high moral ground in denouncing Nazism and the socio-democrat polity that gave it birth. There are instances, for eg., where he has bitterly denounced former Nazi officers for “convenient amnesia” in admitting to war crimes. d)As you rightly point out, or should I say, hint – would such an admission have spoiled his chances at a literary career? Or let me ask the way Gdansk’s citizens are asking this question, “how could he, he who came from Free Danzig, engage politically and morally with the region without questioning his own motivation?”e)The timing of the confession. The interview came out after he had handed over the manuscript to his publishers. 1,50,000 copies of the autobiography were sold in the first two days of its release.Postscript: When the interview broke, the city of Danzig wanted to revoke the honorary citizenship it had bestowed on the writer. Disturbed, Grass rushed to Danzig and brought papers and explained. The city has officially accepted his explanation. The people, on their part, have fallen back on age-old ethnic divide that defines the region and its polity – “if he’s good, he’s a Pole, if he’s bad he’s German.”Cheers!

  2. Here is Postscript2: I may be wrong but Gdansk is probably the only city in the world to boast of two Nobel Prize winners: Gunter Grass and Lech Walesa.

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