More than an apolo­gia: Grass, stains and all

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John Hay

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,


Peel­ing the

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’

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