Why Grass deserves to have his writing hurled back in his face

By Oliver Kamm (THE TIMES, 19/08/06):

«THIRTY-FIVE years after Auschwitz,» wrote the novelist Günter Grass in 1979, “the problem confronting Germans is once more: what shall we tell our children?” The answer, in the case of his own war record, turns out to have been “an artfully filleted account”. Grass caused a storm this week after belatedly disclosing that in 1944 he had joined the Waffen SS.

Grass is a significant writer, best known for his novels depicting the effects of Nazism on individual lives. His Danzig trilogy, starting with The Tin Drum (1959), secured his reputation. With the novelists Heinrich Böll and Uwe Johnson, he represented a German cultural rebirth, escaping the mediocrity of the early postwar years and reflecting caustically but subtly on the country’s recent past. His work is far from unremittingly serious, however. The Flounder (1977), alluding to the Grimm fable The Fisherman and his Wife, incorporates the Absurd style in depicting the trial of a talking fish.

Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. There have been calls this week for it to be revoked. That is unlikely to happen. Grass is, on literary merit, unquestionably a more deserving recipient than many laureates living or dead. The 2004 winner, an orthodox communist of meagre talent called Elfriede Jelinek, is not even a leading writer in her native Austria. Who now has heard of, let alone read, the forgettable novels of China by Pearl S. Buck, winner in 1938? Nor are meretricious political acts a disbarment to literary fame. Pablo Neruda, the 1971 Nobel laureate, was so obsequious an admirer of Stalin that, as Chile’s Consul-General in Mexico in 1940, he conspired in the murder of Trotsky.

Yet for all this, Grass’s fall from grace is a case apart that tells us much about modern Germany. He made his revelation in an interview timed for the release of his memoirs. He has since explained: “I sensed this stigma, and I saw it as a stigma for 60 years and tried to draw the proper consequences. That shaped my later behaviour as an author and a citizen.”

Perhaps Grass believed that this would be taken as dignified contrition. If so, he will have been disappointed. Even his biographer declared his dismay. Lech Walesa, another famous son of Gdansk (known as Danzig when Grass was born there in 1927), called on him to give up his honorary citizenship of the city.

It is not just the fact of SS membership. Grass was a very young recruit, and most who joined the SS at that stage of the war were conscripts rather than ideologues. What was culpable in his confession was the date of it. It has taken more than 60 years for Grass to tell the truth. It will not do to say that his voice of conscience and literary stature transcend his tarnished authority. As a writer and commentator, Grass has spent his adult life calling his countrymen to account and atone for Germany’s past. The charge of hypocrisy sticks.

Even that is not the worst of it. Grass has deployed his themes of guilt and moral reckoning for partisan political causes. To be sure, he never expounded the nonsense that saw in Germany’s response to leftist terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s an intimation of Nazi repression. When the New Left concluded that anti-fascism implied opposition to the state of Israel, Grass cautioned presciently that a historically rootless “anti-imperialism” might become a force for “ anti-Judaism”. But he has never shrunk from drawing tendentious analogies between Germany’s Nazi past and its postwar policies.

During the controversy over Nato’s deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles to counter Soviet intermediate-range nuclear forces in the early 1980s, Grass asserted a “right to resist” born of the memory of German acquiescence to Hitler’s legal seizure of power. The resistance he envisaged was not violent, but it included a general strike: industrial militancy to thwart the policies of a democratic government. There is no great difference, he declared, “ between the cynical disregard of the basic ethical values by the ill-famed Wannsee Conference, which decreed the ‘final solution’, and the cynicism that in our own day produces war games simulating nuclear combat with projections of here fifty, there eighty million dead”.

Here is the reason Grass’s discourse on the Nazi past — “to keep the wound open”, as he put it — should be thrown back in his face. Modern Germany was created out of Roosevelt and Churchill’s insistence on “unconditional surrender”. From the ruins of barbarism emerged a state that, for all its flaws, approaches a modern miracle. German conservatism abandoned authoritarianism and nationalism. German social democracy recognised the threat to freedom from Soviet communism. Both wings of politics fashioned a “militant democracy” resolved to defend itself from extremism. Anchored in the liberal West and the transatlantic alliance, Germany has faced and confounded totalitarianism rather than, as it once did, exemplifying it.

Grass’s voice of conscience has increasingly been less about “keeping the wound open” than deploying it as a rhetorical device to denounce the foreign policy and alliances that have preserved postwar Germany as a free and civilised nation. The voice will remain, bombastic and querulous — but deservedly and definitively discredited.