I went to see Gunter Grass on Monday night, over at the 92nd Street Y in the company of a good friend. Grass was there to read from Peeling the Onion, his recently published autobiography, in which Grass – a Nobel laureate and the conscience of postwar Germany in confronting its Nazi past – revealed that he had served in the Waffen-SS in the waning days of World War II, shocking his compatriots and the literary world alike with a revelation more than 60 years in hiding. It’s hard to emphasize enough how influential Grass has been to post-war German consciousness. Grass was the one who insisted that the polite, sinister silence be breached, that Germans be shamed into confession. For him to have held back this extra piece of complicity, even after long admitting his boyhood admiration for Hitler and the Nazis, has been baffling to say the least.
Israeli author Amos Elon made the introduction, then Grass strode onto the stage in a brown checked suit – a tall, lanky man whose short hair and bushy mustache were oddly dark for a man of 80 or so, though whether from stubborn natural pigment or personal vanity it was impossible to judge. He read in German with a clipped delivery and a storyteller’s lilt. It was a fine story, recounting how Grass got a “cushy job” at military training camp in 1944, painting murals for the canteen walls and spending a great deal of time sketching clouds and birch trees. Essentially though the story was about a fellow youth – an Aryan poster boy, perfect in every way except that he would not pick up the rifle in drill. He simply let it fall to the ground every time and persisted through filthy punishments and brutal hazings by his comrades, saying only: “We don’t do that.” The boy was ultimately shipped off to a concentration camp where, the other boys joked, they would concentrate his mind.
But this was all foreplay. Following the applause Grass, Elon and a white-haired women in heels and a black dress walked to their assigned seats at the center of the stage, with Grass in the middle. Elon set to: did Grass volunteer for the Waffen-SS? Grass answered in fairly good English, causing the elegantly dressed translator to sit in silence. He said he’d volunteered for the submarine unit but at that point in the war the submarines were finished so he found himself drafted into the SS and sent briefly to the Eastern front where he had the good fortune to be wounded. Elon asked him how he could maintain his fealty to Hitler and his belief in the Nazis while seeing the synagogues burned in Danzig and elsewhere, seeing what happened to the Jews in the streets and knowing that there was a concentration camp near every major city. Grass said he had been a believer. Even for a full year after the war was over, asked Elon incredulously, despite the ministrations of American re-education and trips to the concentration camps, and pictures of the atrocities and interactions with survivors. Elon kept pressing the point, coming always back in bewilderment to that full year after the war was over – which to him seemed the sticking point. Grass began to pause, to look off into the distance and place his fingers over his mouth when he answered. He had been a stupid young boy, he said, 15, 16. (Elon reminded him that he had been 17). Writing this book had been difficult, he said, because it meant going back and encountering this young boy who to him seemed very strange.
But Elon kept on, almost desperately, like a prosecutor at a miniature Nuremberg, incredulous in fact that Grass had only really come to the conclusion that the Nazis and the SS were criminals when a leading Nazi confessed as such at the Nuremberg trials. The interrogation became almost unbearable because it was really the wrong question – for a young man to have been seduced by the Nazis and have had his illusions disintegrate only gradually is forgivable, even understandable. Everyone from Helmut Schmidt to the current pope was similarly enamored of the Nazis. And yet as we waited for the real question to be asked, Grass’ responses grew more disturbing. He said perhaps it was difficult to understand for those who had not grown up in a closed society, that he was a stupid boy full of illusions and had told his mother as a boy of 11 or 12 so many tall tales about his imaginary adventures that she called him her little Peer Gynt. Here the audience laughed, but it was an evasion – the work of a charmer, a storyteller, in a tight spot. Grass started to come off like those German accomplices and perpetrators who hang themselves with their own discomfort in the blank stare of the documentary maker’s camera, the very same Germans whom he had led the charge to question and expose, forcing them to accept responsibility – historical responsibility, personal responsibility. Again and again he said he had been a stupid boy – a tautology not an explanation, like answering the question “why were you so blind?” with the words “because I couldn’t see.”
Finally, with my friend and I ready to burst with frustration, Elon asked: “Why did it take 62 years for you to tell anyone?” We exhaled as one. “This was the same question when all the attacks first happened last year,” Grass said, then added: “I’ve had enough of this,” at which the audience suddenly burst into applause, and laughter too. It was utterly bizarre, as if Grass had some right to be fed up with this most fundamental question, brought entirely on himself by concealing and then confessing, and which he has never really answered. Grass then muttered something about having already said it. Elon stopped him and asked him if he was actually saying that he had told people before. Grass said yes, in interviews, in the fifties and sixties, and nobody cared. “I forgot it myself,” said Grass. “That’s bullshit,” my friend said to me, but I was rather too busy being astonished to reply. I don’t know if Grass meant that he had told interviewers and they cared so little at the time that they didn’t include the admission in the published articles. This would excuse him from having no documentary evidence I suppose, and yet it’s utterly ludicrous. Are we to believe that in the sixties, at the height of the movement to confront Germany’s past that such an admission from that movement’s apostle would be deemed too unimportant to publish? Was it somehow not worth bringing up in the following 36 years, and is it the kind of thing that would slip Gunter Grass’ mind, as he suggested?
Perhaps even more surprising was that Grass didn’t seem to recognize how this act of concealment exposes him to the charge of utter hypocrisy, that it could be seen to undermine all his activism as the “conscience” of post-war Germany, as the man who put words in Willy Brandt‘s mouth and accompanied him to Warsaw where Brandt – a man whose one key act of concealment was that of his own name, to escape murder by the Nazis for his resistance – knelt before the monument to the Jewish dead of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. How could Grass counsel and cajole for such monumental accountability and stand there with that secret jangling in his pocket?
Grass said he hadn’t written about it until now because he always mistrusted this kind of biographical self-investigation, mocking those authors who seemed able to remember exactly what they thought 30 years ago or when they were children. He kept coming back to the writing of “the book,” as if the book was the issue not the particular passage in it – another concealment, a kind of cloaking in generalities. “To write a book like this, you have to wait till a special age,” he said whimsically. “Why?” said Elon, endeavoring to drag him back to earth, “the longer you wait, the less you remember.” Grass shook his head. “If you ask me what happened two weeks ago, I don’t remember,” he replied. “Ask me what happened in the summer of 1941, I know.” This last point was made with finality, as though to cast aside any doubt, even though he was directly contradicting his own criticism of other authors from a moment before.
Elon proceeded to ask Grass a series of rather silly questions about his interest in art and his involvement in politics. He asked if Grass was still involved in the latter and Grass said “unfortunately, yes,” which got another laugh. Grass said he had supported then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in the last election because Schroder had been brave enough to say no to the Iraq war (an act that required no bravery at all since it was overwhelmingly supported by the German public). “Germans know that war doesn’t solve anything,” Grass said, apparently not stopping to consider that when he was painting murals on the canteen walls sixty years ago, war certainly seemed to have been the world’s only solution to Germany. Grass went on to say that losing two wars was in a sense very useful in bringing about a realization of one’s sins. The winners don’t have to experience this he added knowingly. Elon asked whether he thought this is what the United States needed, and the audience burst into applause, apparently enamored of Grass’ lazy implication that American crimes are comparable to those of the Nazis. When Elon finally closed the proceedings, the audience clapped, the white-haired translator stayed silent, and Grass seemed very small in his big, baggy suit.