Just as Germans were congratulating themselves on having developed a healthy kind of patriotism, on display during the soccer World Cup, Nobel Prize-winning author Gunter Grass’ revelation of his SS past brought the country back to a discussion of the Nazi era with a vengeance. To younger generations of Germans, it must seem like there is no escape from the past, nor from revisiting of their parents or grand parents sins.
The world soccer championship, which was hosted by Germany and in which the country reached the quarter finals, brought out patriotic German flag waving in the way every sports fan could recognize. Mr. Grass, on the other hand, has managed to embody in his person and his books the seduction of fascism and the German self-loathing that followed. Now he turns out also to have been afflicted with hypocrisy supreme.
This should probably not be surprising coming from an icon of the European left where double standards tend to be a way of life. The irony in this case is that Mr. Grass’ new autobiography, “While Peeling the Onion,” is likely to sell far more copies precisely because of his personal shame. His service at age 17 in an SS anti-aircraft unit was revealed by Mr. Grass in an interview on the eve of its publication. (It has even been suggested that the revelation is a publicity stunt.)
Gunter Grass ought hereby, after keeping his damning secret for so long, to have forfeited his role as a major spokesmen of Germany’s generation of the 1950s and 1960s, whose generational rebellion against their fathers took the shape of loathing Germany’s Nazi era and collective guilt over the Holocaust. Mr. Grass’ book, “The Tin Drum,” published in 1959, was perhaps the major work of this movement. It is the story of a dwarf, a young boy who in protest against the world around him stunts his own growth. From the vantage point of a perpetual 5-year old, the dwarf, Oscar, observes the rise of fascism and the descent of the world of Gdansk (then the German Danzig) into darkness.
His protest was in reaction to the prevailing mood among Germans. For decades after World War II, Germans focused their energies on rebuilding their shattered country. Coming to terms with the past — or in the fine German word, vergangenheitsbewaeltigung — was not high on the list of national priorities. Indeed it was not until the late 1970s with the television series “Heimat” (“Home”) that Germans even allowed themselves to talk openly or nostalgically about their feelings for their country.
The left that set itself up as conscience for a generation will find Mr. Grass’ revelation hard to deal with. Mr. Grass shared this role with other left-wing authors like Henrich Boell and Rolf Hochhut. It was the latter’s controversial play “The Deputy” — about the complicity of Pope Pius XII in the Holocaust — that came under attack a few years back for historical inaccuracy. Thus, today German intellectuals who saw their role as judging their countrymen are finding themselves under more scrutiny.
Mr. Grass made a good living and a very highly regarded career out of judging others. He was among the most vociferous critics of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, when he made the very unfortunate choice of Bitburg cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony with President Reagan in 1985 — unfortunate because SS soldiers turned out to have been buried there.
Today, all Mr. Grass has had to say to his critics is “Read my book” and “Let those who want to judge, pass judgment.” No doubt they will, and it is only fair that they should. German historian Joachim Fest has said that he would not buy “a second-hand car from this man now,” and former Polish President Lech Walesa has asked that Mr. Grass give back his honorary citizenship of Gdansk. Unfortunately the Norwegian Nobel committee has said it does not intend to ask Mr. Grass to return his prize.
Had Mr. Grass years ago admitted to this dark chapter in his past, his books would have been read more as confessional than a social commentary, nothing wrong with that. And he would have his reputation for intellectual honesty intact. After 60 years of secrecy, that reputation cannot be rebuilt.