The Buried Past of Gunter Grass
There are some stories that leave you just shaking your head in disbelief. Like plot twists late in the movie that change everything completely. None of them are probably as shattering as the admission by the famous German novelist Gunter Grass that he was a member of Waffen SS, the elite Nazi force.
Gunter Grass is the most famous novelist from Germany, the nobel prize winning author of Tin Drum. He was a hard left-wing advocate for years. He was the heart and soul of German conscience. His writings forced people to reconcile with their past, to acknowledge the crimes committed by the Nazis. For such a man to admit now that he had served in the Waffen SS, is just nothing short of earth shattering.
The New York Times puts it this way:
In novels, plays, essays and newspaper interviews, Günter Grass has often told Germans what they did not want to hear: about their history, about their politics, even about themselves. For many on the left, since the 1960’s he has come to represent the conscience of a country with much to lament.
After winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999, he explained his obsession with Germany’s past. “There were extenuating circumstances,” he told the Swedish Academy, “mountains of rubble and cadavers, fruit of the womb of German history. The more I shoveled, the more it grew. It simply could not be ignored.”
The reaction in Germany to this admission has been one of disbelief and indignation: not that a teenager should have been recruited into the Waffen SS as Hitler struggled to avoid defeat, but that the country’s most prominent writer should have hidden this while hectoring others for their political and social sins from the comfort of the moral high ground. “I do not understand how someone can elevate himself constantly for 60 years as the nation’s bad conscience, precisely in Nazi questions, and only then admit that he himself was deeply involved,” Joachim Fest, a prominent historian and biographer of Hitler, told the newspaper Bild. “I don’t know how he could play this double role for so long.”
As an outsider, I can feel how big this revelation is. When I was in college, I read parts of The Danzig trilogy, his main body of work. In particular, I managed to labor through his most acclaimed work, The Tin Drum. When he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1999, there was sizeable media coverage about his life, his work as a leading critic of Germany's Nazi past. The Tin Drum was released in 1959. Now, after all these years, he has finally revealed that he too had a secret past. It is a great tragedy.
There is a great novel waiting to be written here. As a boy who grew up in the Nazi regime, was it wrong for Grass to join the Waffen SS? Once he found his conscience, why didn't Grass just admit that he erred when he was a teenager? To have carried his secret for so long must have torn him apart.
There are calls that his Nobel should be rescinded. I think he erred in judgement by not revealing this earlier, but it doesn't make his work and activism null and void. He might not have written all that he wrote, probably if not for this bit of his past. Grass' story is one of a man who probably repented all his life, a Jean valjean of our times. Let us not all be Javerts trying to prosecute him.
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