The Fictions of Günter Grass

By Peter Gay, a professor emeritus of history at Yale, is the author of the forthcoming “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy.” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 20/08/06):

INDIGNATION, it seems, is the most gratifying of all emotions. Nothing is quite so soothing as the feeling of superiority over sinners who have committed offenses that we are sure to be innocent of and that allow us to purse our lips in disdain: another giant with feet of clay!

I have been drawn to these sober reflections by the Günter Grass affair. So this scourge of hypocrites has shown himself a hypocrite, too! This breaker of German taboos had a taboo of his own! This teacher of generations of young Germans, who taught them to ask freely at home, “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” failed to obey his own injunctions! This moralizing critic of German prosperity has greatly enjoyed his own and seems to be advertising his new autobiography with some usable dark news! Now, at 78, he turns out to have been a Waffen SS-man — that’s right, the military branch of the notorious Nazi corps that played an important role in the Holocaust and other atrocities. Shocking, and so enjoyable!

Well, SS-boy really. As far as we know — and the autobiography, we hope, reveals all — Mr. Grass did not volunteer to join these future mass murderers but was drafted. And we do know that he was only 17 at the time. These were the months, in the spring of 1945, that the Nazis knew that the war was lost, and when they, as one says, scraped the bottom of the barrel for more troops. Yet the storm over his long silence about his youthful sin has secured Mr. Grass, as he predicted, an international storm of disapproval.

He has been asked to relinquish his Nobel Prize in Literature and his honorary citizenship of his birth city, Poland’s Gdansk, once Danzig. And Charlotte Knobloch, who presides over the sadly shrunken Jewish population in Germany that was once, before Hitler, half-a-million strong, commented that this revelation has devalued his frequent political interventions into “absurdities.”

As a Jew who grew up in Nazi Germany in the years leading up to World War II, I can understand her rage. But I think that whatever Mr. Grass has said in election campaigns (usually as a loyal Social Democratic speaker) or in his powerful novels, all essentially on the present or the recent past, retains its value.

Fortunately, some commentators have been less hysterical. Most notably Ralph Giordano, a German writer and, by the way, a Jew, has noted that Mr. Grass was only 6 when Adolf Hitler was invited to become Germany’s chancellor. (The overused phrase “seizure of power” badly distorts what happened around Jan. 30, 1933, the date of the Führer’s accession. A coup d’ état would have been bad enough; that Hitler’s appointment was perfectly legal only makes it worse for German history.) And Mr. Giordano has asked, reasonably enough, “What else could he have done during that time in the face of the Nazis’ all-powerful propaganda apparatus?” And answers his own question: “Nothing.”

This is not all that needs to be said about this affair. With his 1959 novel, “The Tin Drum,” and its two successors (together known as the “Danzig Trilogy”), Mr. Grass established a body of work unequaled in his country for half a century. It is not that a public personality should get a free ride simply for being famous, let alone popular. Herbert von Karajan may have been an outstanding conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, but this would not erase the fact that he joined the Nazi party twice — these were the acts of an adult, after all.

The uncomfortable question that remains for Mr. Grass is this: Why did he keep this interlude as a servant of the regime so tight a secret? If, as we are told, his wife was the only other person whom he informed, then the Grasses made a huge mistake. If he had come out of the Nazi closet earlier, say, in 1959 with his triumphant novel just published, people would have understood, and his own life would have been easier.

I am not Mr. Grass’s analyst, nor have I ever met him. But it seems to me that he failed to come forward all these years simply because he was too ashamed. And if I am right, the affair will have a useful consequence: it will be a reminder, more than 60 years later, that his country had a great deal to be ashamed of.