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Grass: The Gold & the Garbage

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Dominique Nabokov
Günter Grass, Berlin, 1979

Unlike his previous book, Unpeeling the Onion (2006), which was a memoir, Günter Grass’s most recent book translated into English is one in which fiction and biography mix so freely that the reader is often at a loss as to where one begins and the other ends. There’s nothing strange about that, one of his children points out in The Box, since their father shows up in all his books, sometimes as the main character, sometimes in a minor role, in one costume or another, as if every book were about him. “A writer is a professional rememberer,” Grass has said.

Memory is his gold mine, his garbage dump, his archive. As unreliable and fragmentary as it usually is, memory is all we have to make sense of our past. The act of remembering, according to Grass, resembles the peeling of an onion or the piecing together of random images and episodes of a film—now in fast-forward, now in slow motion, jumping back, breaking off, then starting up again with a completely different script or plot. What that leaves out, of course, is the role the imagination plays in filling in the gaps. We make sense of our lives not just by ferreting out the facts, but by turning them into stories, so we can bring the past events to life. Every family’s history is a collection of scandalous and amusing stories, many of them of questionable veracity. I know mine are, but I’m ready to forgive every liar among my forebears, because they left me a few marvelous tales that continue to be worth telling again and again.

Of course, it’s not just our own lives that we remember, but also the times in which we lived. When it comes to history and collective memory, the difference between fibbing and telling the truth is serious business. Growing up in wartime Germany, as Grass did, there could be no avoiding recent history and its horrors. No stories, no matter how innocent, were safe from the shadow they cast. For Grass, the destruction and loss of his hometown Danzig (now Gdansk) and the expulsion of his family and their neighbors as the Soviet army took over Eastern Europe gave him a start as a writer and an epic mass of material that he has broadened and deepened over the years into what can only be described as an attempt to construct a historical and social portrait of twentieth-century Germany. Like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history who flies toward the future facing backward with his eyes fixed on the ruins piling up higher and higher in the past, Grass has too much curiosity and compassion to permit himself to look away.

Grass was born in 1927, just old enough to serve in the Nazi army in the last months of the war. His father was German and his mother came from a small Slavic minority called the Kashubians. The family’s circumstances were modest. He and his sister were raised in a two-room flat over a grocery store that his parents ran in the suburb of Langfuhr. In that cramped space he learned to love books and art. He describes, in the lecture he gave upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1999, how his mother, who liked practical jokes, once demonstrated to a neighbor her son’s complete absorption in the book he was reading by replacing the bread roll from which he was taking occasional bites with a bar of soap and watching him reach blindly for it, sink his teeth into it, and chew it for a while before being torn away from the page he was reading.

As he writes in Peeling the Onion, books have always been his gap in the fence, his entry into other worlds. From early on he also wanted to be an artist. He drew incessantly and collected cards with reproductions of old masters that came in cigarette packages. Despite these interests, he did poorly in school and never got a high school diploma, then or later. Instead, his memoir shows how easy it is for someone young to fall under the spell of a brutal authoritarian system led by a madman, and feel good about it. Although he describes being incensed by the pious clerics and torturers of the Inquisition, he admits leaving his book-learned sense of justice back in the Middle Ages and being blind to the wrongs that were becoming daily occurrences in Danzig and the rest of Germany under Hitler’s rule.

He not only kept outwardly silent like practically everyone else, but he also kept quiet inside himself, where there ought to have been some room left for doubt. His father was a party member and now he himself was also a firm believer. Not a fanatic, someone leading the pack, perhaps, but just one of the many who kept pace in the rank and file, convinced that their fatherland was surrounded by enemies and thus accepting every German deed as justifiable. In 1944, he tried to enlist in the navy as a U-boat crewman but was turned down, and in the fall of that year, when he was seventeen years old, he was conscripted into the Waffen-SS.

Grass kept quiet about that episode in his life for more than sixty years. His official biography previously stated that, like many other young Germans in the last months of the war, he was inducted as a youth auxiliary into the regular army. What Grass left out was that after already being in the army, he was selected as an ardent believer to undergo basic training in the Waffen-SS as a tank gunner. The Jörg von Frundsberg division he joined was no longer an elite unit well known for its war crimes but a thrown-together motley crew made up of young boys like him and old-timers who had been transferred from different army units, because of a shortage of men due to immense casualties. They were trained on outdated equipment that had been used in the first years of the war and were sent out to fight when Germany had already lost the war and its troops were retreating in mass confusion from the eastern front. He says he never fired his gun. As he wrote in Peeling the Onion, the first dead bodies he saw were German:

Soldiers young and old, in Wehrmacht uniforms. Hanging from trees still bare along the road, from linden trees in the marketplaces. With cardboard signs on their chests branding them as cowards and subversive elements. A boy my age—his hair, like mine, parted on the left—dangling next to a middle-aged officer of indeterminate rank or, rather, stripped of his rank by a court-martial. A procession of corpses we ride past with our deafening tank-track rattle. No thoughts, only images.
Off to the side I see peasants working their fields, furrow after furrow, as if nothing were wrong. One has a cow hitched to his plow. Crows following the plow.
Then I see more refugees, filling the streets in long processions: horse carts and overladen handcarts pushed and pulled by old women and adolescents; I see children clutching dolls, perched on suitcases and rope-bound bundles. An old man is pulling a cart containing two lambs hoping to survive the war. The image collector sees more than he can take in.

Grass survived a Russian attack that wiped out most of his unit and a subsequent night battle in a forest, and was wounded by a tank shell while trapped in a refugee column. He ended up in a field hospital in Marienbad after his division surrendered to US forces, and eventually he found himself in an American POW camp.

The revelation of his long-concealed secret about being in the SS astonished his admirers and outraged his critics, for Grass had spent a lifetime writing about the responsibility of intellectuals and never missed an opportunity to scold his fellow countrymen for their cowardice in failing to acknowledge their Nazi past. As Norman Birnbaum wrote in The Nation, “Grass treated himself with the indulgence he did not hesitate to describe as a moral defect in others.” He was called, with some justice, a phony. Whatever political and moral authority he had amassed denouncing Germans for their hypocrisy, he seemed to have squandered with his belated confession. It wasn’t his war record that was the cause for outrage, Timothy Garton Ash pointed out in a review of the book in these pages, but his spectacular failing to come clean about the full extent of his past.1

In Peeling the Onion this is what Grass has to say:

I did not find the double rune on the uniform collar repellent…. What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame. But the burden remained, and no one could alleviate it.
True, during the tank gunner training, which kept me numb throughout the autumn and winter, there was no mention of the war crimes that later came to light, but the ignorance I claim could not blind me to the fact that I had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organized, and carried out the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could not be accused of active complicity, there remains to this day a residue that is all too commonly called joint responsibility. I will have to live with it for the rest of my life.

However one feels about his duplicity in the past, Peeling the Onion is still a very powerful book, valuable for its description of Germany at the end of the war and of the bleak years that followed. It also gives us a more detailed knowledge of Grass’s life and an insight into his novels, which rely so much on what he did and whom he met in those early years.

After being released from prison camp, Grass worked as a farm laborer, miner, and gravestone carver, studied sculpture in Düsseldorf and Berlin, and later made his living as a sculptor and graphic artist. He also wrote very fine poetry, published his first collection in 1956, and had his first play produced in 1957 before he came out with his first novel, The Tin Drum, in 1959, a wild and totally unconventional depiction of Germany in the first half of the century. It was translated into many languages and was a great international success, making Grass one of the most famous writers in Europe, if not in the world.

It recounts the story of Oskar Matzerath, a dwarf and an obsessive drummer from Danzig whose life and adventures in the years of rising Nazism and the war in Europe resemble those of the author. This huge, picaresque novel (which was recently beautifully translated into English by Breon Mitchell2), with its grotesque and realistic imagery, frequent digressions into stories within stories, outrageous comic scenes, and frank sexuality, was unlike any other depiction of Germany in postwar literature. In its wild invention and its irreverence, it owes much to Cervantes and Rabelais, and in its depiction of working-class poverty and squalor to Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz.

  1. 1

    Timothy Garton Ash, ” The Road from Danzig,” The New York Review, August 16, 2007. 

  2. 2

    The Tin Drum, translated by Breon Mitchell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). 

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