For almost half a century, Guenter Grass had one adjective to throw at people with whom he disagreed: Fascist!
To the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999, this was the supreme insult.
Grass was often angry with his people, the Germans, because, he claimed, they had been unable to shed their Fascist past by acknowledging their share in crimes committed under Hitler’s rule. Throughout the Cold War, Grass supported the Soviet bloc against the West, because, he claimed, the Americans had allowed some Nazis to rebuild their lives in Federal Germany and elsewhere.
Now, Germans are shocked by the revelation that Grass had hidden his own Nazi past as a soldier in the Waffen SS, Hitler’s elite military unit, towards the end of the Second World War.
Grass made the revelation last summer in an interview with Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung ahead of the publication of his autobiography. He spoke of his decision to join the Nazi military force as a youth, and his experiences in the war until his capture by the US army. Thus, Grass was precisely one of those Nazis that the US had allowed to go free without accounting for their deeds.
The question is: why did Grass decide to come clean now?
Was this a publicity stunt to put him back in the headlines and help sell his autobiography? Or, should one see a religious dimension in this belated admission of guilt? Is the 78-year old novelist trying to prepare himself for the hereafter?
Only Grass would know the answer.
The answer he gave to FAZ, however, is far from convincing.
“The whole thing tormented me,” he said. ” My silence throughout all those years was one of the reasons I decided to write this book. At the time, I had volunteered to join the submarine force. But, they did not recruit. The Waffen SS, on the other hand, were taking all volunteers, young and old.”
Grass does not say why he was volunteering and which cause he wanted to fight for.
He says: “I remember very well that the Waffen SS had nothing terrifying for me. It was an elite unit which was always sent to wherever was hottest.”
This is interesting because for decades Grass criticised other Germans for pretending not to have known what was going on. In 1945, however, Grass could have easily found out about the nature of the Waffen SS by talking to virtually anybody in cafés or at home.
Grass is best known for “The Tin Drum”, a novel seen by critics as a satire on Nazi Germany.
A more careful reading, however, could reveal a different picture.
The novel takes place in Danzig (Gdansk) a Polish port that Hitler wanted to annex. Grass offers an account of fights between Poles and ethnic Germans, implying that the latter were somehow in danger, precisely one of the excuses that Hitler used for invading Poland. Having established moral equivalence between the Poles and the German invaders he then depicts war as an inevitable human evil, thus putting Hitler on the same bench as other war leaders in history. The implicit message is that all wars, including just ones, are equally bad. ( It was on that assumption that Grass campaigned against the liberation of Iraq in 2003).
Grass depicts the advent of Nazism as something almost magical and its effects on the Germans comparable to wizardry. His so-called magic-realism presents Nazism as a supernatural phenomenon, falling from heavens as it were, and not what it really was, a political movement rooted in history and nurtured by German romanticism.
Grass remains in denial even today.
He recalls his Waffen SS comrades, especially his unit commander, whom he describes as “a marvellous specimen of German corporal who attached great importance to camaraderie”, with evident nostalgia. Even after the almost total destruction of their unit, Grass did not want to abandon his SS uniform. His superior advised him that it was better to ditch the uniform and masquerade as a civilian to escape capture by the allies. He forgets to tell us how much carnage his “marvellous specimen of German corporal” and his ” comrades” had been responsible for before their unit was smashed by the Allies.
Grass does not seem to have learned much from his own experience, let alone that of his nation. He has always been looking for a cause and continues to do so. And, that cause has always been anti-democratic and, broadly speaking, anti-West.
As a young soldier in the Waffen SS, he was putting his life on line in defence of a regime that regarded democracy as “worse than syphilis”.
After the war, he became the darling of the pro-Communist left, attacking Federal Germany and defending the East German regime. Throughout the 1990s, he fought to prevent German reunification, accusing Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl of betraying German working classes by annexing East Germany.
Even today, Grass is still nostalgic about East Germany.
Here is what he told FAZ: “After my capture (by the Americans) I was freed in the West. I had to cope with all the errors and detours on my own. Other members of my generation, however, Cristina Wolf for example, or Erich Loest, ended up in the east (East Germany) which already had a new and credible ideology. There, they saw resistance fighters who had taken part in the Spanish Civil War and who had suffered under Hitler, and could be regarded as models. In the West (Germany), however, there was none of that. We had (Chancellor Konrad) Adenauer, with all the lies and his rancid Catholicism. Its society was characterised by the narrow petty-bourgeois spirit.”
Grass always looked for a “credible ideology” and never thought it possible to live as a free man without any ideology but with a set of firm ethical principles. As a youth, he found his dream ideology in Nazism, and as an older man, he saw it in reflected in the Berlin Wall. He clearly preferred Walter Ulbricht who built the war to Konrad Adenauer who built the German democracy. During half a century, he supported the Soviet empire in Central and Eastern Europe, the Maoists in China, the Castro brothers in Cuba, the Vietcong in Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and, later, Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
In doing so, he proved that he had learned the lesson that Waffen SS had taught him : the worst enemy of the people is democracy, especially the United States whose armies destroyed Hitler and, whose ideology later defeated Communism in the Cold War.
In his interview, Grass also recalls the “crimes committed by Britain, France and Holland in their colonial history.” But, he does not have a single word about the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Hochi Minh, Pol Pot, Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, and other heroes of “Grass-land”.
An astonishing observation in his biography reflects Grass’s hatred for the US.
He recalls the moment when GIs arrive at the camp where Grass was a war prisoner. Grass says that one GI, a white man from Virginia would not directly talk to another GI, a black man, driving a truck. In the truck taking Grass and other prisoners to the camp, the white Virginian, whom Grass describes as “a good man but a bit stupid”, asks Grass to relay orders to the American black driver.
This may or may not be true. Even today, there may be a Virginian redneck who would not talk to a black fellow-American soldier.
However, what is interesting is Grass’s conclusion.
He writes: “I cannot say I was shocked, but, suddenly, I discovered racism.”
That Grass did not find the Virginian soldier’s behaviour shocking is no surprise. After all Grass was a Waffen SS volunteer.
What is shocking is that Grass claims that until then he had not been confronted with racism. Living under Hitler for 13 years, and not having noticed racism? Grass must have been deaf and blind.
He may have forgotten Hitler’s refusal to shake hands with black athletes in the Berlin Olympics. But how could he have forgotten the millions of Jews, gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, Communists, Socialists, and disabled children and old people, whom the Waffen SS, that vehicle of romanticised “German camaraderie”, had murdered in the name of protecting the Aryan Master Race against “human vermin”.?