Günther Grass
Günther Grass; drawing by David Levine


Granted: he was a member of the Waffen-SS. But suppose that revelation had not overshadowed last year’s publication of Günter Grass’s memoir, like a mushroom cloud. What should we have made of Peeling the Onion? We should, I believe, have said that this is a wonderful book, a return to classic Grass territory and style, after long years of disappointing, wooden, and sometimes insufferably hectoring works from his tireless pen, and a perfect pendant to his great “Danzig trilogy” of novels, starting with The Tin Drum. That is what we should still say, first and last.

An account of his life from the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, when as an eleven-year-old war-enthusiast he collected fragments of shrapnel from the first fighting in his native Danzig, to the publication of The Tin Drum in 1959, Peeling the Onion repeatedly surprises, delights, and moves with passages of great descriptive power. He enables us not merely to see but to hear, touch, and smell life in the tiny, two-room apartment in Danzig where he grew up, with a shared lavatory on the staircase—“a stink-cell, the walls of which fingers had smeared.”1 From this suffocating narrowness the teenager longed to escape into what he saw as the romantic, heroic world of service in the Führer’s armed forces. So at the age of fifteen he volunteered to fight on a U-boat, but his offer was not accepted.

No writer is better at evoking smell—that literary Cinderella among the senses. Few novelists have written more lovingly about food, celebrating hearty German sausage and coldwater fish. Everything of the earth earthy, of the flesh fleshly, belongs naturally to Grassland. His characteristic, deeply realistic mixing of the public and private is both touching and funny. For the adolescent him, he recalls, the flow and, increasingly, ebb of the German armies on the eastern front, though worrying, was of far less pressing concern than the unpredictable ebb and flow of his own penis. This he detailed, at length, to his father-confessor.

When he is drafted into the armed forces at the age of sixteen, in the fall of 1944, and finds himself in a unit of the Waffen-SS, his reaction to the hardships of training is to stop in a quiet corner of the woods through which he has been ordered to carry a daily pot of coffee to his company’s Unterscharführer and Hauptscharführer—and to piss into their coffee. He does this repeatedly, “my regular morning act of revenge,” and speculates that it helped him to keep going, to survive even the most sadistic treatment “with an inner grin,” unlike the poor fellow in a neighboring company who hangs himself on the strap of his gas mask.

The account of his tank unit’s desperate action in April 1945, almost surrounded by advancing Russian troops, is one of the most vivid descriptions of the experience of war that I have read: Tolstoy crossed with Vonnegut. He hides under a tank from the rockets of one of the Red Army’s so-called “Stalin organs” and wets his pants from fear. In the silence after the rockets stop, he distinctly hears beside him a loud, sustained chattering of teeth. The chattering teeth, he discovers when he crawls out from under the tank, belong to a senior officer of the Waffen-SS. The young enthusiast’s image of the Teutonic hero begins to crumble. On the ground around them, “body parts were to be found.”

He gets lost behind Russian lines. Wandering in the woods, exhausted, hungry, and afraid, he hears someone nearby. Friend or foe? Nervously he intones the beginning of a German folk song about little Hans wandering out “into the wide world” alone, “Hänschen klein ging allein….” To his immeasurable relief the hidden stranger responds with the rest of the line, “…in die weite Welt hinein.” Had the other man been a Russian, we would probably have no Tin Drum. Instead, he’s an avuncular German corporal, who advises the now seventeen-year-old Grass to take off his Waffen-SS jacket. If he is captured, the Russians won’t take kindly to those double runes.

There’s a beautifully evoked moment of calm, as they wolf down potato soup from a field canteen in the spring sunshine. Through his descriptive powers, you can smell that soup, hear the sudden silence, feel the warmth of the sun on his face. Then all hell breaks loose again. The corporal has his legs shredded by shrapnel. In the ambulance, he asks Grass to feel down the top of his trousers and check that his cock and balls are still there. They are; but his legs will soon be amputated. Here is the human reality of war, whether at Austerlitz, Kursk, or in Baghdad today. (Grass still has a shrapnel splinter in his left shoulder from that attack.)


There are other unforgettable passages. The portrait of his loving, aspirational mother, and her death of cancer, several years after the war, in a shabby, windowless hospital backroom: “Lenchen…mein Lenchen,” stammers the desolated husband. How his mother and sister refused to talk about what the Russian soldiers did to them at the moment of “liberation,” but how he finally gathers, from one remark his sister makes, that the mother had offered herself in the daughter’s place—as the object, we understand, of serial rape. The evocation of his solitary wanderings through the ruined cities of postwar Germany, including a spell working in the coal mines where, over lunch down the shaft, old communists and old Nazis still argued furiously.

Fear and hunger are the twin sensations that permeate these pages. His chapter about seeing action with the Waffen-SS is entitled “How I Learned Fear.” His hunger is threefold. First, hunger for food, especially in American prisoner-of-war camps. Second, hunger for sex, described in a kind of lingering, amused physical detail that reminds me of the work of the English poet Craig Raine, whose poem “The Onion, Memory” anticipates Grass’s book-long metaphor.

Food and sex are united in a key Grass word, Fleisch, which in German means both meat, as in beef or pork, and the flesh, as in “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Describing a wildly drunken four-in-the-bed wedding night, during his time as a coal miner, he writes that no onion skin of memory will bring back “what happened between so much Fleisch.” “Ach ja, das Fleisch,” says Father Fulgentius, one of the monks with whom the still notionally Catholic young man finds postwar board and lodging, and folds his hands defensively into the arms of his habit. In Grass, the flesh is made word.

The object of Grass’s final hunger, after food and sex, is art. He calls his chapter about becoming an artist “The Third Hunger.” Battling his way, alone, with a strong will and professed egoism, up the physical and social rubble mountains of postwar Germany, he becomes first a stonemason and part-time sculptor, then a graphic artist, then a poet, and only at the end, in his late twenties, a writer of prose, inspired by Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Joyce’s Ulysses, both discovered and devoured in the library of the well-heeled, cultivated Swiss parents of his first wife, Anna. “Anna’s dowry,” he calls it. The memoir ends with his finding, in Paris, what would become one of the most famous first lines of any novel—“Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital.” And the rest is literature.

Like much of Grass’s work, Peeling the Onion is too wordy. It could have done with the attentions of a red pencil wielded by a more fearless editor. He labors and labors yet again the metaphor of peeling the onion, until we wish that this tiresome vegetable—exhaustively illustrated, in various stages of dismantlement, in Grass’s own drawings at the opening of each chapter—had long since been thrown into the garbage can. And he uses twice, in fairly trivial contexts, his own most famous syntactic trope, “Granted:….” Wiser, surely, to keep that for something more important: something like, for example, the matter of a great German writer, one of whose main subjects is the entanglement of ordinary Germans in the Nazi past, himself keeping silent for more than sixty years about having been a member of the Waffen-SS. Yet this memoir still stands, and will stand when much else is forgotten, as a fine, mature work, the closing of a circle, a nonfiction companion to the incomparable Tin Drum.2


What of the revelation? On August 11, 2006, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reported on its Web site that Grass had been a member of the Waffen-SS. Grass had revealed this himself in his then-forthcoming memoir, and had confirmed it in an interview with the FAZ published in full the following day. This was the literary-political equivalent of a nuclear explosion. I can vividly remember my own sense of almost physical shock. The negative response in Germany was sustained and often savage, as can be seen in a documentation produced by Grass’s publisher, Ein Buch, Ein Bekenntnis (A Book, A Confession). A critic said Grass would never have won the Nobel Prize for Literature had this been known, and a politician called on him to give it back. Joachim Fest, the well-known historian of Nazism, commented, “I wouldn’t even buy a used car from this man now.” Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “I would have wished that we had been fully informed about his biography from the outset.” Columnists accused him of making the revelation to get publicity for his new book. Henryk M. Broder, an acerbic commentator, wrote that Grass had clambered his way up from membership in an “elite troop”—a satirical reference to Grass’s own description of how he probably viewed the Waffen-SS as a sixteen-year-old—to being a Herrenmensch of the cultural industry.


Grass’s reaction to all this has been a curious mixture of surprise, bemusement, and taking offense. As I watch the television interviews he has given on the subject, the author, still vigorous and physically imposing despite his nearly eighty years, reminds me of nothing so much as a tired old bear. Cornered, he lashes out. He denounces the “kangaroo court” of press and television, led by the arts pages of the conservative FAZ, and the “degeneration” of German journalism. This spring, he produced a volume of poems and drawings called Dummer August (Stupid August), evoking his pain, melancholy, and anger during last summer’s explosion. In a poem called “Was Bleibt” (What Remains) he describes how he spent three years writing his memoir: “Then, however, a person skilled in the craft of malice cut one sentence from the extensive construction and placed it on a rostrum made of lies.”

“Was Bleibt” is a title made famous by the East German novelist Christa Wolf, herself the object of an earlier attack by the FAZ on account of her brief collaboration with the Stasi as a young communist writer. Now Grass dedicates Dummer August to Wolf because, as he explained in an interview at the Leipzig book fair, she too has been the object of attempted literary assassination by those horrible conservative hacks in Frankfurt.3 There is something almost painfully symmetrical in this embattled solidarity of the outstanding German novelists of their generation, the West German tarred with the Nazi brush, the East German with the Stasi.4 In that interview, Grass also explained how writing these poems kept him going psychologically through that harrowing summer: “If I had been struck dumb, that would have been worse.” Six decades later, his handsomely produced volume of poems and drawings is thus the old trooper’s artistic equivalent of pissing in the Hauptscharführer’s coffee pot. It tastes only a little better.

Grass does have half a point about the coverage of this story in the German press. All over the world there is a lamentable pattern of journalists first building up a celebrity to ludicrous heights, then tearing down the unreal statue they have themselves erected. What has happened to Grass is an outsize version of that familiar build ’em up, knock ’em down. There’s also a generational edge to some of the German criticism. In effect, impatient younger critics, who themselves were fortunate enough never to be tested by the threats and temptations that Grass faced as a teenager—for they enjoyed what Helmut Kohl once called the “mercy of a late birth”—are now exclaiming: get off the stage, old man, and let us take your place. This is the age-old literary parricide. The accusation that he was making this painful revelation just as a publicity trick for his new book is simply not worthy of the artistic and moral effort that will be evident to any fair-minded reader of Peeling the Onion. The PR charge says more about the mental world of those who make it than about that of the old bear.

Yet I’m afraid that Grass has only half a point. In fact, what is really surprising is that he is so surprised. Recalling the way in which Grass has repeatedly attacked leaders of the Federal Republic such as Helmut Kohl, the bishop of Kohl’s home city of Mainz quotes Saint John: “Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone.” For more than forty years, ever since he became a famous writer, Günter Grass has been one of the literary world’s most inveterate stone-throwers. In thousands of speeches, interviews, and articles he has raged against US imperialism and capitalism; against German unification, which he furiously opposed, since a united Germany had “laid the foundations of Auschwitz”; against Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl, and all their journalistic supporters. Like one of the Teutonic Knights he admired as a child, he has laid about him to left and right—in recent years, mainly to right—with a bludgeon. He has set himself up as a political and moral authority, and delivered harsh judgements. His language has often been intemperate. Now it is payback time for all those he has criticized, directly or indirectly. In paying him back, some of his critics have fallen into precisely the mode that they previously criticized Grass for adopting: a simplistic, moralistic judgment, elevating the Nazi past to the single yardstick of morality or immorality.5

This said, both outrage and amazement seem in order. Outrage not at the fact that he served in the Waffen-SS as a teenager but at the way he has dealt with that fact since. According to the historian Bernd Wegner, a leading authority on the Waffen-SS, the “Frundsberg” division in which Grass served as a tank gunner “consisted mainly of members of the RAD [Reichsarbeitsdienst, or Reich Labor Service] who had been conscripted under duress.”6 Since Grass had previously been conscripted into the Reich Labor Service, it seems likely that his earlier volunteering to fight in the U-boats had nothing to do with his being assigned to the Waffen-SS. There is no suggestion that he was involved in any atrocities. By his own account he hardly fired a shot in anger.

No, his war record is not the cause for outrage. Thousands of young Germans shared the same fate. Many died as a result. The offense is that he should for so many years have made it his stock-in-trade to denounce post-war West Germans’ failure to face up to the Nazi past, while himself so spectacularly failing to come clean about the full extent of his own Nazi past. One painfully disappointed reaction comes from his most recent biographer, Michael Jürgs, whose life of Grass appeared in 2002. Grass spent many hours talking to Jürgs, yet allowed him to repeat the standard version that the novelist’s war service had been as an auxiliary antiaircraft gunner (he was also that, briefly, before going into the Waffen-SS), and then in the Wehrmacht. This is not merely “keeping quiet” about your past. I’d say it counts as lying. What’s more, if a conservative German politician had behaved like this, Grass himself would surely have called it lying, adding a few earthy adjectives to boot.

Worse still, knowing full well his own biography, he nonetheless denounced the joint visit by Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl to a cemetery in Bitburg in 1985 where, among many war dead, forty-nine Waffen-SS soldiers were buried. Of the forty-nine, thirty-two were under twenty-five years old. The youngest among them may well have been drafted like Günter Grass. He could have been one of them. To denounce the Bitburg visit without acknowledging that he himself had served in the Waffen-SS was an act of breathtaking hypocrisy, doublethink, and recklessness.

Even more than outrage, there is sheer amazement. After all, Grass never made any secret of the fact that he had been an enthusiastic young Nazi. The strength of his writing, and his moral authority, came precisely from the fact that he could speak from inside about how ordinary Germans had become complicit with evil. If he had told the full truth, sometime in the 1960s, after the publication of The Tin Drum, it would only have strengthened the impact of his work and his voice. In fact it seems that he came close to it. A friend of his, Klaus Wagenbach, who then planned to write his biography, recently went back to the notes he had made from their conversations in 1963, and found there a reference to the SS.7 But the biography was never written. If only it had been. Grass seems also to have shared the secret about his spell in the SS with at least one other close friend at the time. Why, then, did he take another forty years to acknowledge it in public?

“For decades,” he writes in Peeling the Onion,

I refused to acknowledge to myself the word and the double letters. What I accepted with the stupid pride of my youth, I wanted to cover up after the war, out of a growing sense of shame. But the burden remained and no one could lighten it. True, during my training as a tank gunner…nothing was to be heard of those war crimes that later came to light, but that claim of ignorance could not obscure the insight that I had been part of a system which had planned, organized and executed the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could be absolved of active complicity, there remained a residue, until today, of what is all too commonly called shared responsibility [Mitverantwortung]. I will certainly have to live with it for the rest of my life.

When interviewers have pressed him on this issue, the answers have been vague and unsatisfactory. “It oppressed me,” he told Frank Schirrmacher of the FAZ, in the original interview that sparked last summer’s furor. “My keeping silent over so many years is among the reasons for writing this book. It had to come out, at last.” Why only now? asked Ulrich Wickert of the German television channel ARD. “It lay buried in me. I can’t tell the reasons exactly.” At the Leipzig book fair this spring, he mused that he had to find the right literary form for this confession, and that, he said, meant waiting until he was of an age to write an autobiography. As if that explained a sixty-year silence.

In the absence of a convincing explanation from Grass himself, let me attempt an inevitably speculative answer. Perhaps he just missed the moment. Had the fact of his brief conscript service in the Waffen-SS come out in Wagenbach’s biography in the mid-1960s, it would simply have become part of his story. The suggestion that he would never have been awarded the Nobel Prize if he had confessed to teenage conscript service in the Waffen-SS seems to me far-fetched. But as time went by; as more and more became known about atrocities committed by the Waffen-SS; as, after 1968, the condemnation of the way an older generation had covered up the Nazi past became ever louder; as Grass himself became one of the most strident voices in that chorus; so the price tag on the belated revelation became ever higher. Luther says somewhere that a lie is like a snowball rolling down a hill: the longer it rolls, the larger it gets.

Why come out with it now? As he approaches the end of his life—in his poems, he has a nice line about a new pair of leather shoes acting as if they plan to outlive their wearer—this clearly has oppressed him, psychologically and morally. There has been speculation that he feared that researchers would find something in the archives of the Stasi, who we know gathered potentially compromising material on the Nazi past of prominent West Germans. (It turns out that the Stasi did not actually have this well-buried detail, but he could not have known that they did not.) In any case, he must realistically have reckoned that one day some thorough German academic would turn up his prisoner-of-war record, with the poisonous three letters W-SS. (It’s reproduced in the documentary volume.) Rather as in his old age François Mitterrand decided to talk about, and put his own interpretation on, his Vichy past, so this was Grass’s last chance to say it his way. At the beginning of Peeling the Onion, Grass asks himself why he wants to write this memoir and concludes his list of reasons: “because I want to have the last word.” Which, of course, he won’t.8


How should we judge the Grass affair? Judge it not in the “kangaroo court” of immediate press reaction, but calmly, considering all the available evidence, as in the slow court of history. The first and obvious point to make is that his achievement as a novelist is unaffected. Auden said it better than anyone:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

And time will pardon Günter Grass. For the German language lives through him, as it does, in different ways, through Christa Wolf, and through the poet he befriended in Paris while he was writing The Tin Drum, Paul Celan.

His staunchest defenders claim that his standing as a political and moral authority is also unaffected. That seems to me implausible, to put it mildly; but not all his activism is equally affected. Probably his most distinctive political contribution has been to German–Polish reconciliation. A small token of his exemplary attitude is that he refers in his memoir to present-day Gdańsk, formerly Danzig, by its Polish name—something unusual among German writers. Poles were, of course, as shocked as anyone by the initial revelation, and Lech Walesa spontaneously said that Grass should be stripped of his honorary citizenship of Gdańsk.

But then Grass wrote a pained, dignified, apologetic letter to the mayor of Gdańsk. For me, the most moving text in the entire documentary record is the mayor’s account of how he and his colleagues waited nervously for the novelist’s letter (would he say what was needed? would he find the right tone?); received and read it with relief and appreciation; hurried to have it translated into Polish; then asked an actor to read it out loud to a large gathering in the City Hall. There was a moment’s silence when the actor finished. Then the audience broke into a storm of applause. The mayor concludes his account, in the German version printed here, Danzig versteht seinen Sohn. Or, as he must have written in the original Polish, Gdańsk understands its son.

So his Polish-German contribution stands. As for his tireless, blunderbuss criticism of the United States, those who like that kind of thing can surely continue to like it; those who don’t will like it even less. What is clearly affected, and devalued, is his moralistic grandstanding about the failure of postwar West German conservatives, from Adenauer to Kohl, to face up to the Nazi past.

Yet even here, let me attempt a rescue which goes beyond the realm of conscious intentions. What will be the effect of Grass’s belated revelation? As he approaches the end of his life, as the memories of Nazism fade, as the activities of his SS-Frundsberg division become the object of weekend leisure war games in the United States9 , Grass suddenly demolishes his own statue—not as a writer of fiction, but as a moral authority on frank and timely facing up to the Nazi past—and leaves its ruins lying, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, as a warning beside the roadside. Nothing he could say or write on this subject would be half so effective as the personal example that he has now left us. For sixty years even Günter Grass could not come clean about being a member of the Waffen-SS! Look, stranger, and tremble.

When I was starting to think about this mystery, I discussed it with a German friend, just a couple of years younger than the novelist but with a very different wartime biography. “You know, I have a theory about that,” he said. “I think Grass never was in the Waffen-SS. He’s just convinced himself that he was.” I’m sure my friend didn’t mean this literally. Rather, I understood his remark as a kind of poetic insight into the tortured and labyrinthine quality of German memory. “But don’t write it,” he added. “Otherwise Grass will sue you for claiming he was not in the Waffen-SS.”

This Issue

August 16, 2007