More than an apologia: Grass, stains and all
LAST August, just before the publication in German of this memoir of his childhood and early life, Gunter Grass, the 1999 Nobel laureate for literature, revealed dramatically in a brief interview the long- concealed truth on which most initial responses to Peeling the Onion would focus: he was not, as he had previously claimed, an unwilling conscript ( flakhelfer ), manning anti- aircraft batteries in Adolf Hitler’s army.
Rather, he was a volunteer, seeking unsuccessfully to serve on submarines, who in 1944 found himself in the Waffen SS, the militarised units later declared by the Nuremberg tribunal to be a criminal organisation.
Given Grass’s decades of prominence as an unforgiving moral critic of politicians, artists and public intellectuals and his virtual incarnation as Germany’s conscience following the publication in 1959 of a series of works beginning with his confronting, sexually frank and allegorical masterpiece The Tin Drum, it is hardly surprising that those whom he had castigated should now attack him for hypocrisy and ‘‘ moral suicide’’. There were calls for his Nobel prize to be withdrawn and his earnings from it to be donated to victims of the Waffen SS. Others wrote him off as an apologist for ‘‘ bad causes’’ such as the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and the Cuban communists, or as someone blinkered by a pathological hatred of the US. Joaquim Fest, Hitler and Albert Speer’s biographer, said he ‘‘ would no longer buy even a used car from this man’’.
Grass had passionately endorsed Willy Brandt’s social democratic policies of the 1970s, notably his moves to atone for the atrocities inflicted on Poles and Jews.
And he described as a ‘‘ defilement of history’’ Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan’s laying of wreaths in 1985 on the sites of the Bergen- Belsen concentration camp and the Bitburg Cemetery, where graves of Waffen SS soldiers lay next to those of regular German and US troops.
Grass’s political and moral objectives in his fiction are not achieved primarily through personal vindictiveness, although his vitriolic attack on Konrad Adenauer Onion enraged his enemies: Chancellor Adenauer was like a mask hiding everything I detested: the hypocrisy disguised as Christianity, the mendacious claims of innocence, the effusive philistinism of a band of wolves in sheep’s clothing . . . Machinations behind closed doors and Catholic corruption passed for politics. A detergent bearing the name Persil gave rise to the term Persil certificate. With its help more than a few brown stains were washed white, and entered public life with clean hands. The ‘‘ brown stains’’ left on Adenauer, who ( in) famously refused to ratify the verdicts of the Nuremberg trials, recall the words of the narrator in Grass’s recent novel Crabwalk : ‘‘ History, or,
to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising.’’ By so long delaying his admission about a certain truth in his life, Grass now has his own brown stain to deal with. In Peeling the Onion , he occasionally addresses his time with the Waffen SS: ‘‘ I refused for many decades to bear the consequences of that word and those twin letters. Growing shame prevented me after the war from mentioning what I accepted with the dumb pride of youth. But the burden remained . . . the shame that follows gnaws away at you all the time.’’
But this book is more than an apologia. It is, rather, an autobiography and a meditation on how delving into memory is like peeling an onion, each successive layer revealing images from the past for the old, walrus- moustached Grass to look at with joy, grief, disbelief or simply with third- person detachment, as at ‘‘ the boy bearing my name’’ who was ‘‘ lured into the Jungvolk and Hitler Youth to escape the stifling petit- bourgeois atmosphere of familial obligations’’ and ‘‘ the confines of a two- room flat where the only space I could call my own was the low niche under the sill of the right- hand living room window’’. Or to laugh at his sexuality, such as when recalling his transition from believing Catholic to non- belief: ‘‘ My penis paid off as a ready perennial subject for confession. I ascribed the most outrageous sins to it: illicit relations with angels. With a virgin sheep. Even Father Wiehnke, my highly experienced confessor, to whose ear nothing human was meant to sound alien, found its deeds and misdeeds astonishing. But confession helped me to release what was assigned to, ascribed to the pig- headed appendage as pleasure.’’
A sense of the comic grotesque also leavens his deep sadness over his sister and especially his mother, into whose lap he recalls himself crawling as an alarmed 14- year- old. In another onion skin of memory, an NCO, ‘‘ forced to heed a call of nature . . . deftly plucks a glass eye out of its socket . . . and plonks it on the . . . meat, potatoes, cabbage and brown gravy, shouting . . . ‘ I’m keeping an eye on it’.’’
Next to the young Gunter’s windowsill niche lay the literary masterpieces, cigarette cards of famous paintings, clay, watercolours and secret notebooks that were to inspire and shape his remarkable personal and artistic life, the recalling of which makes this a very different bildungsroman from The Tin Drum or Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks , and different, too, from Grass’s other masterpieces such as Cat and Mouse and Dog Years . But it is with these mustread works that Peeling the Onion ranks. Professor John Hay is vice- chancellor of the University of Queensland.
Attacked: Gunther Grass’s admission that he joined the Waffen SS has prompted harsh accusations of hypocrisy and moral suicide’