Nobel Prize-winning author Gunter Grass’ admission that he was an SS member has drawn both rage and defenses of the writer. While some say the revelation devalues his life’s work, others are showing more understanding for the pressures faced by the teenager who later would write such modern German classics as “The Tin Drum.”
Grass, 78, whose autobiography is due out this fall, told the Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung in an interview published last Friday that he was drafted into the Waffen SS in the final months of World War II.
The Waffen SS was the elite fighting force of the SS, the Nazi Party’s quasi-military unit, and was declared part of a criminal organization at the Nuremberg Trials. Grass was interned briefly in a POW camp in Bavaria after the war.
Literary critic Helmuth Karasek told the radio program BDR that Grass should have revealed the truth sooner, and suggested that the Nobel Prize committee might not have wanted to honor someone “whom they knew had been a member of the Waffen SS and had long denied it.” Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999.
Grass biographer Michael Juergs said he was “personally disappointed,” and has called into question the validity of Grass’ life work. But German writer Erich Loest told the Tagesspiegel newspaper that Grass’ admission should be “accepted without condemnation. He was very young and there was no one to influence him in the opposite direction,” he said.
German writer Ralph Giordano, who survived the war in hiding with his Jewish mother, told the radio program WDR2 that he praised Grass.
“Good that you have done this, Gunter Grass,” he said.
Grass told the Frankfurt paper he was drafted as a 17-year-old following a stint in a support unit for the German air force, and was brought to serve in a Waffen SS tank division in Dresden. In the forthcoming autobiography, “While Skinning an Onion,” he writes that the past had “oppressed him. My suppression of this through the years was among the reasons why I have written this book. It had to come out, finally.”
Grass said he originally had volunteered to serve in a Nazi submarine unit, which was “just as crazy.”
Until now, his biography has shown that Grass was drafted in the support unit for the air force in 1944, then served as a soldier.
In the new book, he writes about how he was 15 when he tried to volunteer with the submarine corps and was rejected because of his age. He was called up in 1944, as were all boys born in 1927.
He was assigned to the Waffen SS, which “in the final year of the war took draftees, not only volunteers,” he said in an interview with the German Press Agency.
Grass said he never had tried to hide the fact that as a youth he was vulnerable to Nazi propaganda. He also told the Frankfurt paper that he never actually served in the Waffen SS division to which he had been assigned. He ended up behind the Russian front on reconnaissance patrols, witnessing what he described as gruesome scenes and surviving by pure chance. During his brief internment as a POW, Grass says he met the similarly interned Joseph Ratzinger, who now is Pope Benedict XVI.
In an essay for the German Internet news agency Netzeitung, Israeli-born historian Michael Wolffsohn, who teaches at the University of the German Army in Munich, said Grass’ “persistent silence would devalue his moralizing works, but not his novelistic works.”
Further, Wolffsohn said Grass had lost a “golden opportunity” to come clean on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, when many were upset by the visit of Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Reagan to a military cemetery in Bitburg that contained SS graves.
Grass “should have stood up and said: ‘ I was there, too,’ ” Wolffsohn said. “It would have brought objectivity and realism to the discussion.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.