Günter Grass’s Germany, and Mine

For years I was frustrated, and a bit embarrassed, to admit that I didn’t much like the work of Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize-winning author who died Monday. He was, after all, Germany’s most acclaimed writer of the postwar era — not just our national poet, but for many Germans, our conscience. Yet he did not speak to me.

His novel “Crabwalk,” published in 2002, was the first book I felt I didn’t have to finish. I was angry with myself. I took pride in finishing every book I started, and here was a novel I should have found impossible not to like: It dealt with memory, and the Nazis; it used the metaphor of the crab’s gait to show how Germans had to go backward to turn forward, not only with regard to what they had done as Nazis but also what the war had done to those who weren’t Nazis — and to their children, to people like me.

Yet his work didn’t work on me. The best explanation I could give myself back then for giving up on him was that I simply didn’t like his style.

I was able to pinpoint my frustration only when I met Mr. Grass in person. A couple of months ago he came from his home in Lübeck, on the Baltic coast, to visit my newspaper’s office in nearby Hamburg. The conference room was packed: Everyone — editors, assistants, interns — all crowded in to see this living legend. Although I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with mixed emotions about the man, the atmosphere was one of near complete adoration. It was the kind of secular worship that I expect no younger author will ever experience, even if he or she wins a Nobel.

Dressed in a red wool sweater and a thick tweed jacket and sipping white wine, Mr. Grass spent most of the time talking about himself, and how much his work as a public intellectual had influenced our paper, Die Zeit. The longer he spoke, the more clearly I felt what had always made me uneasy about him. And not just him, but the entire class of older left-wing German intellectuals that he represented.

Your generation has had it pretty easy, I wanted to blurt out. You grew big in times when strong ideology and determined judgment counted more than the hard work of examining what is actually going on around us. The way you saw the world counted more than the way it actually was. And there was always a lot of self in your righteousness.

Today we know that ideologies aren’t realities. Writers and intellectuals don’t have that crutch; what is demanded of them, in the first place, is not moral judgment, but clearheaded analysis of our ever-accelerating world. Only in your time, Günter Grass, could you become a moral authority. Today, you would never make it.

I wanted to say all of this, in front of my enraptured colleagues. But I didn’t dare.

Someone once said that the days in which politicians decided the fate of entire nations over a glass of whiskey are gone. But so are the days when writers could sit down and divide the world into good and evil through the haze of a tobacco pipe, as Mr. Grass and other members of Gruppe 47, a writers’ group formed to renew German literature, did so famously in the 1950s and ’60s.

To say that this is a healthy development does not mean to slight their achievement. World War II left Germany without a moral compass; writers like Mr. Grass, Heinrich Böll and Siegfried Lenz provided it. The country needed intellectual leaders who epitomized certainty, however vain they came across.

There are times when moral rigor is needed, but they pass. And yet Mr. Grass was never able to move beyond them. Worse, he seemed to believe that, as the nation’s conscience, the rules he applied to others didn’t apply to him.

In 2006 he revealed, just before the release of his much-awaited memoir, that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS, the most murderous branch of the Nazi war machine. He maintained that he never fired a shot himself, but nevertheless his confession had a disturbing anticipation of impunity to it. Did Mr. Grass believe that being declared Germany’s most important contemporary writer outweighed the fact that he had been active in one of the worst Nazi organizations?

He seemed to take his moral superiority for granted, even as he drifted farther from the mainstream. In 2012 he didn’t just publish a poem — “What Must Be Said” — accusing Israel of endangering world peace; he seemed to believe he spoke for all of Germany when he did.

He took the same tone at our meeting in Hamburg, when he accused the European Union and NATO of provoking war with Russia. Sitting face to face with Mr. Grass, I decided to clothe my unease in a question. Did he not think that a war was already going on, sparked by an illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Mr. Grass didn’t answer. Instead, he made some broader remarks on Russia and the West. But there was no reason to be disappointed. I felt, clearly, that I came from a different Germany. And that it was all right if he had the impression that I had not spoken to him at all.

Jochen Bittner is a contributing opinion writer and a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

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