Gunter Grass has always liked the pulpit. For more than 40 years, the German author has preached atonement to his fellow countrymen and lectured their leaders on the need to confront openly the misdeeds of the Nazi years. In articles, interviews and books he’s rammed home the uncomfortable message, winning himself global applause as well as a Nobel Prize in Literature. Since its publication in 1959, his novel, “The Tin Drum,” has emerged as a standard indictment of Germany’s record in the Hitler era. Admirers like to talk of the author as the conscience of the postwar nation.
One problem: a murky conscience of his own. In an interview last week to mark the upcoming publication of his autobiography, the 78-year-old revealed that as a teenage conscript he’d served with the Waffen SS, the combat arm of the notorious Nazi paramilitaries. Granted, as a conscript he may have had little choice—but for many of his fellow Germans, the disclosure was quite enough to destroy his authority. His critics (and some admirers) detect a hypocrisy that’s impossible to square with his lofty standing. In the words of his biographer, Michael Jurgs: “This marks the demise of a moral arbiter.”
Such outrage is near universal. There are calls for Grass to be stripped of his Nobel, and for the Polish authorities to revoke his honorary citizenship of Gdansk, the city formerly known as Danzig, where he grew up. So far, Grass has done little to appease his critics, failing to explain his 60-year silence over his military service and speaking merely of a wish to set the record straight. Of his enrollment in the SS, the Grass autobiography states simply: “What I accepted with the stupid pride of youth, I was silent about after the war out of a growing sense of shame.”
His reticence goes to the heart of the criticism. To many, Grass’s crime is not his brief stint in SS uniform—he was wounded and captured by the Americans after just a few months—it’s his attempt to conceal the episode and the inadequate explanation he’s now offering. “What’s scandalous is not that a 17-year-old spent a short time with the Waffen SS or that a prominent writer was too cowardly to own up,” editorialized the German weekly Die Zeit. “What’s scandalous is the pathetic pretence of a general confession with which he attempts to shut down all debate.”
The truly skeptical even see Grass’s belated candor as a ploy to drive up sales. In the words of Matthias Matussek, a correspondent for the German magazine Der Spiegel: “With the help of exclusive interviews in the press and on TV, he orchestrates this confession with such skill that Madonna would have a job surpassing it when flogging a new CD. No one markets shame more cannily today than Gunter Grass.” Sure enough, the book has been selling fast ever since publication, originally due on Sept. 1, was moved up. A further 100,000 copies are already on order from the printers, adding to an initial run of 150,000.
But outside Germany others have been slower to pass judgment. True, Grass misled his public, asserting in the past that he had only served with an antiaircraft unit in the final months of the war. On the other hand, historians point out that by 1944 the Waffen SS was no longer an elite formation that recruited only from among ideological diehards. Certainly, there have been no accusations that Grass is implicated in wartime atrocities. (He claims never to have fired a shot in action).
Perhaps more importantly, the hypocrisy charge can be refuted. Grass has made no secret of his youthful fascination with the Hitler regime, says David Cesarani, a professor of Jewish history at the University of London and an authority on the Holocaust. “He has always admitted that he was a true believer, that he was seduced by the propaganda.” Indeed, it was already known that two years before he was drafted, he volunteered for the submarine service, an arm of the military known for its dedication to Nazism. To Cesarani, the vehemence of the attacks hint at a resentment of Grass's preachiness. “Grass is a man, he is mortal and quirky.” And his occasional fallibility shouldn’t undermine the force of his message.