Gunter Grass and the Waffen SS

German novelist, Nobel Laureate . . . and apologist for evil.

Gunter GrassOn April 7, 2012, Gunter Grass, German novelist and Nobel Laureate, published a poem, titled “What Must Be Said” (“Was gesagt werden muss”) in which he chastised the nuclear power Israel for threatening Iran and endangering world peace. It garnered worldwide attention.

The poem states in part,

Why is it only now I say in old age, with my last drop of ink, that Israel’s nuclear power endangers an already fragile world peace? Because what by tomorrow might be too late, must be spoken now, and because we—as Germans already burdened enough—could become enablers of a crime.

He allowed himself to do this, he says, in spite of being a German and at the risk of being labeled an anti-Semite, which he averred he most assuredly was not. What better proof of his objectivity than that he, a good German of the left, was impelled by his conscience to sound the alarm, regardless of the consequences to him personally, though his poem was met with considerable approval in Germany and elsewhere?

Of course, he could have decried other threats to international harmony, posed for instance, by the nuclear power of North Korea, by the instability in a nuclear-armed Pakistan, by the events in the Sudan, Rwanda, and Somalia, by the regime of Bashar al Assad, by the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the world-wide jihadist movement, or he could have focused on the threats to annihilate Israel that have emanated from Iran itself. There, its past president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was wont to describe Israel as an illegitimate entity “that should be wiped off the map,” as a “germ of corruption that will be wiped off” and as “an insult to all humanity.”

Ahmadinejad's successor, Hassan Rouhani, reputed to be more moderate, stated on the occasion of the Al-Quds Day celebrations in Tehran that “Israel is a wound on the body of the world of Islam that must be destroyed.” Grass would appear to prefer that the Jews of Israel proceed compliantly to their deaths, as they did under the careful ministrations of the SS during World War II, which brings us to a not-unrelated subject.

It happens that after 60 years of concealment and silence, Gunter Grass admitted in August 2006 that during the war he had been a member of the Waffen SS. He made this admission in an autobiography released that same month titled Peeling the Onion (Beim Heuter der Zwiebel).  Asked about this in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Grass replied,

I am sure I am remembering correctly, the Waffen SS was at first not something scary, but rather an elite unit that was always sent to the trouble spots, and which according to rumor, had the most casualties.

Perhaps he meant to say inflicted” the most casualties, given their activities in the extermination camps and the numerous atrocities they committed in the occupied territories, not excluding Grass’s hometown of Danzig-Gdansk in the opening days of the war.

Asked in the same interview why, given that he had often been called the conscience of Germany, he should have waited so long to make his confession, his truncated reply was that he could not do so in the 1950s because then,

We were under Adenauer, ghastly, with all those lies, with all that Catholic fug. The society of that day was fed by a kind of stuffiness that never existed under the Nazis.

Put aside that West Germany rejoined the family of nations under Adenauer and embarked on a road not only to full recovery but to prosperity. He does not address his silence during the 43 years that followed the Adenauer government.

The Waffen SS was created as the armed wing of the Nazi Party, originally commanded by Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler. It was condemned at the Nuremberg trials as a criminal organization. Grass belonged to the SS Panzer Division Frundsberg, which saw action in the Ukraine and in the Battle of the Bulge. A sister unit, the Sixth Panzer Corps of the Waffen SS Lebstandarte Division, slaughtered 111 captured American GI’s at Malmedy, Belgium. Indeed, Hitler had instructed all SS units on the occasion of this battle not to take prisoners.

Grass himself fell prisoner to the Americans on May 8, 1945, after, as he reports, he stripped the SS insignia from his uniform, lest he fall into the hands of the vengeful Ivans, as he called the Russians. Thus he must have been cognizant of the depredations inflicted on that people by the Waffen SS, a realization which conflicts with his later claim that the Waffen SS was “not something scary.” Such a claim belies his own intelligence, the history of the SS, the doctrine of Aryan supremacy, and the racist propaganda that were the hallmarks of National Socialism, at least following the assumption of the Chancellorship by Adolf Hitler, if not well before.

His American captivity was punctuated by a period in a work detail, in which he encountered a half-dozen young Jewish displaced persons who, as he notes, “had been smiled upon by fate and escaped death in one or another of the extermination camps” where their parents and families had been murdered. By Grass’s own account, he and his fellow German POWs taunted these boys with choice “barracks German,” of which he quotes some relatively mild examples: “You bow-legged dogs,” “You bed-wetters,” “I’ll make you toe the line, the lot of you,” "Get out of here! Go to your Palestine.” This in spite of the fact that one of the Jewish boys, called Ben, would slip him leftovers to consume before returning to camp, “as it was against the rules to take food back to camp.” He concludes,

The Jews stayed on a bit longer, probably until they managed to find a way to get to Palestine, where the promise of Israel as a sovereign state and war upon war stood ahead of them.” (Peeling the Onion, pp. 195-198)

The Jewish characters in The Tin Drum may represent Grass’s preferred model of Jewish behavior: tractable as opposed to truculent, passive, harmless, well-meaning, small shop-owners; not the soldierly Israeli model that Glass seems to deplore. One of them, Sigismund  Markus, commits suicide as his toy shop is gutted on the night of the Danzig Kristallnacht. Another, Herr Fajngold, goes around helplessly calling out the names of his large invisible family; “Luba, Lev, Jakub, Berek, Leon, Mendel, Sonja,” who had all been extinguished in the ovens of Treblinka.

Grass reiterates his own unwavering loyalty to the Fuhrer on numerous occasions. Upon learning of the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, he says,

A shiver ran through us. Something akin to piety sent the sweat seeping out of our pores. The Fuehrer saved! The heavens were once more, or still, on our side…We shouted Sieg heil three times. We were irate, we were incensed at the still nameless traitors.[Quotations taken from Gunther Grass, “How I spent the War,” The New Yorker, June 4, 2007]

There were other massacres that occurred in Grass’s hometown. Fifty of Danzig’s most prominent Jews were rounded up by the Waffen SS, locked in their synagogue, and put to death when it was set ablaze. Five hundred remaining Jews of Danzig were executed by the SS in the detention camp of Sabac (October 12, 1941), as recounted by Grass himself in From the Diary of a Snail. (English translation by  Ralph Mannheim, A Harvest Book, p. 121-122.) These episodes, and others like them, were not kept secret, and hardly qualify as “stuffy.”

That Grass has at times behaved hypocritically in his post-war activities is clear. In the late 1960s, he campaigned against Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger largely on the grounds that he was unfit for the post because he had once been a member of the Nazi party. Grass, a staunch socialist, might have been more forgiving if Kiesinger had not been a leader of the Christian Democratic Union. In 1970, he accompanied Chancellor Willy Brandt to the Warsaw Ghetto memorial in Poland. The ghetto had been liquidated and razed by the Waffen SS under the command of SS Brigadefuhrer Jurgen Stoop. This was an opportunity, not taken, for Grass to make his admission. In 1985, on the anniversary of V-E Day, Glass insisted that President Ronald Reagan and Chancellor Helmut Kohl were very wrong to visit the military cemetery at Bitburg, since it also served as the resting place for veterans of the Waffen SS.

In his autobiography and the New Yorker article derived from it, Grass maintains that he never fired a shot in the war, and describes his activity in uncharacteristically colorless and stereotyped fashion, which as has been suggested, could have been lifted from Grass’s frequent visits to the cinema: bullets just miss him but strike his comrades; he hums a German nursery rhyme to fetch out an adversary hidden in the woods, who happily answers in kind; he exchanges his SS jacket for an ordinary Wehrmacht jacket, “one without bullet holes or bloodstains.”

There is some confusion about whether Grass volunteered for the SS or was conscripted into it. He says that he first volunteered for duty in the U-Boat service, and dreamt of joining the brave men sinking ships at sea. “No pressure from above. Nor did I feel the need to assuage a sense of guilt at say, doubting the Fuehrer’s infallibility, with my zeal to volunteer”(Gunther Glass, “How I spent the War,” New Yorker, June 4, 2007). Having been rejected by the submariners, who he says were no longer taking volunteers, his application was shunted over to the SS, which duly consigned him to its ranks. It is true that the Waffen SS, a volunteer service prior to the end of 1943, also took in conscripts thereafter, but at times Glass leaves the impression that he was one of its volunteers.  His justification for and defense of that service, even to this day, does not suggest that he was dragooned into it.

In sum, I do not believe that these disclosures lessen the quality and value of Grass’s early writings, certainly not of the masterful Danzig Trilogy (Tin Drum, Dog Years,  Cat and Mouse), but they do diminish him as an ideologue and human being, one who has been held up as an exemplar on the one hand, and revealed as an apologist and hypocrite on the other.

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