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Jan 2007 Journal

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German guilt and Günter Grass

Günter Grass's concealment, for over 60 years, of his brief wartime service in the Waffen SS was inexcusable, but also unaccountable. How much damage could revealing it possibly have done him? Grass was born in Danzig (Gdansk) on 16 October 1927, which made him all of seventeen and four months when he started his active service in the Tenth SS Panzer Division Frundsberg in February 1945; it ended two months later when he was wounded and taken prisoner by the Americans.

By that stage in the war, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers were fighting in Waffen SS units, mainly because Hitler no longer trusted the regular army after its involvement in the attempt on his life in July 1944 and transferred troops en masse to Himmler's command. Late in the war, many of these Waffen SS formations had little in common with the original 'élite' SS fighting divisions Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler or Das Reich. This is not intended to exculpate former Waffen SS-men, but simply to point out that by 1945 many ordinary men and, as in Grass's case, boys were being scooped up willy-nilly into the Waffen SS.

By his own admission, Grass had been indoctrinated with Nazi values as a schoolboy and was eager to fight in a high-prestige branch of the forces. After the war, he remained sharply conscious of the sinister attraction Nazism had exercised over the minds of the young and unwary. Indeed, his continued sense of the power of Nazi propaganda and ideology - part manipulation, part seduction, part coercion - fuelled the arresting depiction of German society under Hitler in the trilogy of prose works that made his name: The Tin Drum (1959), Cat and Mouse (1961), and Dog Years (1963). Even Grass's most famous figure, the child-sized drummer Oskar Matzerath, who proclaims his outsider status by refusing to grow after his third birthday, displays an unsettling combination of features and qualities sometimes uncomfortably close to those of the Nazi dictatorship around him.

Grass's admission that he served in the Waffen SS leads to a subtle reinterpretation of his works. Now that we know that he did not just serve harmlessly with an anti-aircraft battery, guilty of nothing more than passive collusion, we no longer identify the authorial persona with characters like Pilenz, the narrator of Cat and Mouse, and Harry Liebenau, writer of the love letters that form the second book of Dog Years, whose obscure sense of post-war guilt arises largely from mere passivity in the face of evil. Instead, we recognise that Grass was closer in experience to Joachim Mahlke, the adolescent 'hero' of Cat and Mouse, whose obsessive desire to win the Iron Cross, inspired by schoolboy notions of heroism and Nazi militarism, leads him via the Russian front to destruction; his story stands as a striking literary warning of the corrupting power of indoctrination and infatuation with such values.

Writing in the Jüdische Allgemeine, Michael Wuliger attacks Grass by claiming that his irreproachable behaviour as a democrat and anti-Nazi after 1945 was only possible because the Allies had defeated Germany: 'Had it turned out the other way round, who knows what might have become of the man from the SS.' This is a sadly superficial judgement, for the key point is precisely that Grass remained aware of his own youthful susceptibility to Nazi ideology and for that very reason was able to render so successfully the dangerous fascination that Nazism exerted on so many ordinary Germans.

The Matzeraths and Materns, the Schefflers and Greffs who people his books display the weaknesses to which human nature is prey - and not only in its German variation. Michael Wuliger might reflect that it was not just innate moral superiority that kept Jews out of the SS, but the antisemitic attitudes and statutes adopted by Nazi organisations. Grass, unlike Wuliger, takes account of humanity's abiding frailties; he conveys unforgettably the contribution they made, under the historical and political conditions of the 1930s, to the creation of Hitler's Reich.

Grass's critics have also seized on his novel Im Krebsgang (Crabwise) (2002), which deals with the sinking of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea in 1945 with heavy loss of German civilian life, to argue that he, the ex-Waffen SS-man, went on to try and relativise the Holocaust, by foregrounding the sufferings of German civilians. But it is quite mistaken to place Grass among those who, like Jörg Friedrich, have since the 1990s been making implicit and ill-founded parallels between the Holocaust and the Allied air raids on cities like Dresden.

To begin with, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is mentioned repeatedly in Grass's books from the very start - unsurprisingly, given the number of Danzig families who lost relatives in that event - and wholly without connection to the rewriting of history undertaken by Friedrich and his ilk in the 1990s. More importantly, Grass always places the suffering of the Germans in the moral context of their responsibility for the far greater sufferings of others. Not surprisingly, he depicts graphically the suffering of Germans, as in Oskar Matzerath's fevered vision of the deaths of 4,000 children drowned while crossing the river Vistula to escape the advancing Russians.

But that is balanced by such memorable scenes as the collusion of the German civilian population in the Kristallnacht pogrom, when Sigismund Markus, the Jewish shop-owner who sells Oskar his drums, is driven to suicide by rampaging Storm Troopers. And when the Matzeraths are evicted from their flat by the Russians and forced to flee west, Grass ensures that this cannot be seen as undeserved German suffering. For the new occupier is Herr Fajngold, a Jew who has survived Treblinka and persists in discussing his new home with his wife and children, even though with one part of his deranged mind he knows that his entire family is dead - he was one of those detailed to strew disinfectant over the corpses, and survived.

Grass can never be counted among those who seek to equate the plight of the Germans expelled from their homes in the East with the sufferings of the victims of the Nazis. When describing the fate of German civilians in Dog Years, he leaves no doubt as to their share in the responsibility for their fate, by highlighting such items as mass graves and the mountain of bones that sprang up outside Danzig's local concentration camp, Stutthof. The balance he draws from the forced flight west of the city's German population is clear:

Zurück bleiben Knochenberge, Massengräber, Karteikästen, Fahnenhälter, Parteibücher, Liebesbriefe, Eigenheime, Kirchenstühle und schwer zu transportierende Klaviere. Nicht bezahlt werden: fällige Steuern, Raten für Bausparkassen, Mietrückstände, Rechnungen, Schulden und Schuld. Neu beginnen wollen alle mit dem Leben, mit dem Sparen, mit dem Briefeschreiben, auf Kirchenstühlen, vor Klavieren, in Karteikästen und Eigenheimen. Vergessen wollen alle die Knochenberge und Massengräber, die Fahnenhälter und Parteibücher, die Schulden und die Schuld.

(Left behind are mountains of bones, mass graves, card-index boxes, flagpoles, party membership books, love letters, family homes, church pews and untransportable pianos. Unpaid are: taxes due, savings payments to building societies, rent arrears, invoices, debts and guilt. They all want to make a new start in life, in saving, in writing letters, on church pews, at pianos, in card-index boxes and family homes. They all want to forget the mountains of bones and mass graves, the flagpoles and party membership books, the debts and the guilt.)

This resonant passage establishes an irrefutable connection between the guilt incurred by so many ordinary Germans during the Third Reich and their suffering at its end, when their collusion in Hitler's crimes came home to haunt them - as it continued to haunt them, unacknowledged, in the later decades of prosperity and convenient amnesia.

Anthony Grenville

next article:A sad loss