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August 11, 2006

Gunter Grass in SS?

The BBC reports that novelist the Gunter Grass now claims to have served in Waffen-SS. His memoirs are due out in September. Make of this revelation what you will. Frankly, if he did serve in the SS, I'm surprised the news hadn't come out already.

Regardless of whether GG served in the SS, I'm still looking forward to reading The Tin Drum, because Amanda totally sold me on the book on the drive back from the NOW conference in Albany.

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» Ghosts from The Heretik
Irony is not dead, but it is severely wounded. In a pre book publication interview, the greatest novelist of post war Germany, Gunter Grass, reveals he was a member of the SS: He said his feelings of guilt developed only in later years. It wa... [Read More]

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And not just your run-of-the-mill, I joined the Nazi party because everyone was doing it... no, she goes for the true believers, the elite, those that were willing to impose National Socialism through brute force. [Read More]

Comments

Lots of people were in the Waffen-SS. My father's dentist was in the Waffen-SS. Grass was 17. Most of us are idiots at 17. Not that that is nothing. Even if the Waffen-SS was not the Totenkopf-SS, they were not the right crowd to hang out with. Which brings us to our present situation. People like Lynndie England, too young or too dumb to know better, get caught up in fascist projects and are turned into monsters. Which is why fascist projects are best avoided.

I honestly think "The Tin Drum" is the best novel written in the 20th century. I've read it twice and I'd like to read it again.

A psychiatrist acquaintance of mine was a member of a Nazi youth group and was captured in the Soviet Union and set to be executed, but spared at the last minute. He has devoted a considerable slice of his life to taking care of developmentally disabled and brain damaged adults. Make of that what you will, but I think the judgment of those who, as minors, were involved in Nazi groups should depend on what they've done with the rest of their life.

I agree. It was a very long time ago, there's no evidence that he did anything particularly awful, and he's certainly been a productive member of society since then.

I just think it's odd that this biological detail didn't come to light earlier. Isn't it a matter of public record who served in what capacity in the German military? You'd think some eager grad student would have discovered this fact already.

I'm just wondering a Nobel laureate whose work is reputed to have been quasi-autobiographical managed to hide this relatively salient biographical detail for so many years.

I read an article in El PaĆ­s about this. Grass was 15 at the time (he was born in 1927). It was not voluntary, he was called up. He has never tried to hide being in the military at the time. I think the only new (or for the media new) information is that he was in the SS for some of that time. He has also always asserted that he never shot off a gun during that time.

You'll never eat an eel again after reading that book.

If this book is going to put me off unagi and anago, I might have to pass on the novel. I mean, maybe it's the greatest novel of the 20th Century, but eel is the greatest of the cooked sushi.

Dc, your recollection fits with the BBC article I linked to. Grass never denied being in the military, he just never revealed that he was in the SS, until now. I'm just surprised that this information never surfaced.

>I think the judgment of those who, as minors, were involved in Nazi groups should depend on what they've done with the rest of their life.

I agree. I wouldn't be surprised if it was such a dark memory, and he had such guilt even to be associated with them, that that was why he didn't mention it. But at 15 or 17, at a period when everyone knew the war was going awfully and every single male was called to be in the armed forces, if you were a young man in Germany at the time, you would almost inevitably end up in some kind of uniform. Perhaps he'll make some kind of a statement about it.

>I think the judgment of those who, as minors, were involved in Nazi groups should depend on what they've done with the rest of their life.

I agree. I wouldn't be surprised if it was such a dark memory, and he had such guilt even to be associated with them, that that was why he didn't mention it. But at 15 or 17, at a period when everyone knew the war was going awfully and every single male was called to be in the armed forces, if you were a young man in Germany at the time, you would almost inevitably end up in some kind of uniform. Perhaps he'll make some kind of a statement about it.

You'll love The Tin Drum. Along with Peter Handke's The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, it's one of the best post-war German novels. Some feel that The Tin Drum was the first major cultural apology for Nazism from the Germans.

Grass has a long interview in the German FAZ newspaper today, the story he is telling there is that he volunteered for the army at 15 to join the U Boat force, and was then, since the German Navy (like the Air force) did not take recruits any longer, at the end of 44 commanded to join the Waffen-SS. The reason for volunteering with 15 was he said he wanted to break out from his family.
Why this was not know before is a good question, I have no idea - however not relevant for the GG case (if there is a GG case).


M.

Lindsay, Relax, I've eaten eel plenty of times since reading the book. It's not that hard to separate literary experience from real life!

" I'm just surprised that this information never surfaced."

And I am astonished.

And I am not yet sure I believe it.

It seems implausible that such a salient fact would not have come out years ago, Grass has written particularly (I believe) about the German experience and has been prominent for many decades. That neither he nor anyone else would have mentioned it over these many decades seems hard to credit.

P.S. The movie version is extremely good, but necessarily omits important elements of the novel, which is very long.

Dog Years is also a wonderful story--I think it followed the Tin Drum. Unless I am confusing them, in Dog Years the protagonist contracted a venereal disease which he then gave to the sexual partners of various Nazis he met during the War, spreading what he called the Anti-Fascist Clap.

I haven't read Dog Years or Cat and Mouse (and I don't remember which came first...), but The Tin Drum is a magnificent book. Actually, I'm kind of surprised you haven't already read it...

Grass's service in World War Two isn't that relevant to it, I don't think, and the book's certainly not something that portrays the SS or the Wehrmacht in a positive light. It's not Crabwalk.

In a fairly recent op-ed, Grass practically disowned his entire military past; he said he was a 17-year-old idiot (unfortunately, the word he used, Dummkopf, got mistranslated as "naive," missing its entire pejorative connotation). I'm not big on people who use age as an excuse for anything, but the fact is that he's already talked about it, even if not about the SS service.

I read the Tim Drum about 30 years ago and really loved it. I saved my copy and tried to read it again about 5 years ago but didn't make it through it.

Lindsay, Amanda is right, you should read it.

I can understand how difficult this is for Gunter Grass to discuss. I recently discovered that my brother-in-law's grandfather served in the SS. He could not even discuss the issue without sobbing uncontrollably for several minutes. These wounds run extremely deep, and it's disturbing to see other bloggers attempt to wrap this into some type of partisan narrative.

The Tin Drum is a great book BTW.

Interesting - you assess the whole situation much more relaxed than German intellectuals and journalists...

Yes, Grass had volunteered for the submarine forces at the age of 15 but had been rejected and was recruited into the 10th SS Tank Division "Frundsberg" in the winter of 1944-45. He said at the time that there was nothing "repulsive" about the SS to him and that he was well aware of the fact that the SS was Hitler's elite guard. Till the end of the war, he believed that Nazi Germany will finally win. There is no evidence that the division was involved in any atrocities.

But that's not the problem. Grass has been the country's moral guide for decades and he has famously criticised those unwilling to deal with Germany's Nazi past. We had fierce debates for decades about political seduction and individual and collective guilt, always culminating in one essential request: Be honest about your past and don't palliate. There are many examples of intellectuals or politicians who where heavily attacked for their Nazi past without being involved in any war crimes just for their youthful enthusiasm, idealism and gullibility. So how can you morally claim painful honesty from others if you aren't willing to be honest yourself? That's the reason why lots of German intellectuals actually are really shocked and annoyed. And they ask: Did he also had won the Nobel Prize if he had confessed his faking and SS membership earlier?

Yes, until now it had been thought that Grass had been called up as an anti-aircraft auxiliary in 1944. That's not exceptional. It's not a matter of public record because he's still living and I'm not sure if there will be public access after his death at all. German law typically prohibits "public records" when personal information is affected.

Thanks Axel--we have probably not seen as much about Gunter Grass here in the States. I was aware of the Tin Drum, and I had seen his name come up in interviews that I'd seen, but not as much of a looming presence. My reaction to this news that he'd kept quiet would be different if I had been aware of him demanding painful honesty from others.

Grass was a conscript in an all-conscript tank division, the 10th Panzer. It was not "Hitler's elite guard," although it was an elite fighting unit. The unit fought in Normandy and suffered very heavy losses. We know that Grass was captured and held in an American prisoner of war camp. It will be interesting to see what he has to say about the circumstances of his capture.

I wouldn't take Axel to task for saying that. The SS is very commonly known generally as "Hitler's elite guard." They began as an elite guard for Hitler and the Nazi Party, and though they grew into a huge organisation, Himmler, their leader, never reported to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, or High Command of the Armed Forces), Field Marshal Keitel, but rather to the Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick. So they certainly didn't belong to the regular armed forces, though they always fought alongside them.

The Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler division of the SS, led by Oberstgruppenfuehrer Sepp Dietrich, was the bodyguard division for Hitler, and so might be the division most accurately described as "Hitler's elite guard." But all the SS units were dedicated to the Nazi Party and the Fuehrer himself above all, long before the Reichswehr and Wehrmacht were made to swear allegiance to him. Also, the SS as a whole was always dedicated to Nazi ideology in ways that the regular armed forces were not (though the Wehrmacht did participate in crimes as well).

If you mean simply that that rigourous indoctrination in, and promulgation of, Nazi or Hitlerian ideology had lessened as the war ended, so as to render the phrase "Hitler's elite guard" meaningless, I would certainly find that plausible, but I've never seen a problem with historians describing the SS that way, and they do very often.

I'm a little astonished at the apologies, and brushing aside of any moral responsibility, for a guy who was not just a volunteer for Hitler's forces, but a member of the Waffen-SS, one of the most ruthless and genocidal organizations in the history of the planet, and that this man has lied about it for sixty years.

If he'd covered up and come clean after a few weeks, sure, that would be understandable. And if he'd lied about it for a few months, maybe that would still be understandable.

But after a couple of years: that's a concious choice to conceal your membership in an organization that the Nuremberg trials deemed a criminal organization.

It's pretty unlikely you could have been a member of the Waffen SS and not engaged in war crimes.

The idea that you could have been a soldier in the Waffen SS and never fired your weapon at anyone is almost impossible to believe. Hitler was desperate; he didn't hold back SS troops and keep them out of combat; it just didn't happen. Particularly not in a Panzer division.

He also joined the Hitler Youth. According to this, he fought in a battle in 1945, and was wounded.

And Grass is a man who is now revealed as a liar about the most crucial moral issues for almost his entire life. Nothing he says can now be believed without being checked; if he could keep up this facade, and deceive people until the year 2006, when he's 78, and never take any moral responsibility in all this time, well, a liar of that magnitude is likely to lie about anything related, and could be lying about just about anything.

The fact that he's good with words is irrelevant; if anything, it makes his moral failure endlessly greater, for having deceived and lied and failed to take moral responsibility, while becoming such an influential figure in Germany, and the world, as regards how Germans should deal with Nazism.

I had a cranky early response here. I may be writing more, now that I've been surprised to see some apologetics.

I'm a little astonished at the apologies, and brushing aside of any moral responsibility, for a guy who was not just a volunteer for Hitler's forces, but a member of the Waffen-SS, one of the most ruthless and genocidal organizations in the history of the planet, and that this man has lied about it for sixty years.

But after a couple of years: that's a concious choice to conceal your membership in an organization that the Nuremberg trials deemed a criminal organization.

Well... as for me, I alluded to this after Axel's response, but: I knew Grass only from taking a class in Jewish Experience in Cinema, and seeing the Tin Drum, and from a glance or two at interviews with him, when studying German (years ago, so I no longer remember the content of the interviews). As I mentioned to Axel, my reaction changes if I now know him as someone who had loudly demanded painful honesty about the Nazi past. New information calls for a different reaction, so if there is hypocrisy, then no need to be outraged at my lack of outrage over hypocrisy; I will feel it commensurately with the amount of fire and brimstone Mr. Grass gave people, for failings he himself showed. For instance, I experienced The Tin Drum not as a "J'accuse!", but as a cry of emotional pain. I wasn't really aware of Gunter Grass as anything but an author who had explored the pain of Nazism. But he did indict Ronald Reagan (and I think rightly; I did myself) for going to Bitburg. I indicted Reagan for saying, "the SS officers were victims, just as surely as" the concentration camp victims were, but Mr. Grass indicted him simply for visiting a cemetery where Waffen-SS were buried. It is very odd that he wouldn't mention that he was one. But Axel would have known about this before now; I only know it because I started http://www.faz.net/s/RubF7538E273FAA4006925CC36BB8AFE338/Doc~E81987736265B46A6910B4A7866CD11CC~ATpl~Ecommon~Scontent.html>hunting around because of this thread. So my reaction has changed.

However, my lack of outrage at someone's membership in the SS stands. My father and his family suffered at the hands of the SS and Hitler. They were fortunate enough that they only lost all the money and possessions they had in the world at Kristallnacht, and were herded like cattle into rail cars for a hellish few nights in an attempted deportation, which they were lucky enough to survive as it was called off after the Polish government decided they had taken in enough Jews (lucky, because the people in the cars ahead of them, in their thousands, mostly died of typhus in no-man's land). This allowed them to escape, with exactly 10 marks each, to America. They encountered plenty of horrible SS before they did. My mother was English, and was imprisoned by the Japanese, who nearly starved her to death, and who she observed torturing captured American soldiers. When she came to America, she was troubled for long by nightmares of being still in her camp, yet guarded by black crows with SS uniforms. The Gestapo, the Totenkopfverbaende, and the SS who murdered millions of Russian or Polish prisoners of war were criminal butchers.

However,

It's pretty unlikely you could have been a member of the Waffen SS and not engaged in war crimes.

I believe that's untrue. I know of SS officers who in fact attempted to save Jews. Heinz Hoehne describes in his biography of Admiral Canaris (p. 487-8) an SS Sturmbannfuehrer Hartmut Plaas' attempts to save the life of a Jewish Dutchman. They are, of course, exceptions to the rule, and the motivations of all who wore those uniforms (including Grass) must be questioned. But of all the Waffen-SS divisions who fought, representing untold hundreds of thousands of men, to assume that each and every man in every division committed war crimes is far-fetched. Every Gestapo man, every Totenkopfverbaende man? Sure. Many, many other SS men? Absolutely. But the kids who joined up in the last several months of the war, and were conscripted into the SS? A 15 or 17-year old kid who tried to volunteer for the U-boote? Come on.

He should have come clean, if he were going to call Reagan out about Bitburg. You're right to question all the rest of his story, too; it may be impossible to trust him now. And yes, maybe he _did_ murder prisoners of war or civilians. It's certainly possible. But to state that it's almost impossible that he didn't? That's over the top.

sounds like a case of "waldhiemer's disease" named after kurt waldhiem who resigned as U.N. secretary general after it became known that he was an S.S. officer also. it seems that sometimes after 40 or 50 years one forgets one was a Nazi. on the other hand, the tin drum is brilliant and has a well used place of honor on my bookshelf. ambiguity, stuff of life.

sounds like a case of "waldhiemer's disease" named after kurt waldhiem who resigned as U.N. secretary general after it became known that he was an S.S. officer also. it seems that sometimes after 40 or 50 years one forgets one was a Nazi. on the other hand, the tin drum is brilliant and has a well used place of honor on my bookshelf. ambiguity, stuff of life.

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