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June 14, 2007

Günter Grass’s memories

The June 4 New Yorker presents an excerpt from Günter Grass’s memoir, Peeling the Onion. For the first time, we get the novelist's own lengthy account of his experiences in the Waffen S.S., a story that he had suppressed for about 60 years. The New Yorker (or possibly Grass) chose an excerpt that is action-packed. There is not too much rumination about what the experience meant or why he failed to mention it during the decades when he bitterly denounced German hypocrisy about the Nazi past. Instead, the thrilling adventures of a young man at war make us highly sympathetic. We root for him to survive, notwithstanding the double-S on his collar. And as we read the exciting story (under the flip headline of "Personal History: How I Spent the War"), our eyes wander to amusing cartoons about midlife crises.

I would not be quick to condemn a 16-year-old for joining the S.S., although that was a much worse thing to do than joining a gang and selling drugs, for which we imprison 16-year-olds today. For me, the interesting moral question is what the famous and accomplished adult Günter Grass did with his memories.

So ... why run an excerpt that is mainly about his exciting adventures in the war? Why not write about the 60-year cover-up? Why introduce the memoir in English in a very lucrative venue, America's most popular literary magazine? Also, why write only from his personal perspective, saying almost nothing about the nature of the S.S. or its reputation among German civilians at the time?

Grass cannot recall precisely what the S.S. meant to him when he was assigned to it. But he thinks it had a "European aura to it," since it comprised "separate volunteer divisions of French and Walloon, Dutch and Belgian. ..." The von Frundsberg Division, to which he was assigned, was named after "someone who stood for freedom, liberation." And once Grass was in the S.S., where he was exposed to many months of training, "there was no mention of the war crimes that later came to light."

This paragraph continues: "But the ignorance I claim cannot 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 to 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."

I do not know whether the factual claim here is credible. I must say I find it very surprising that in the course of a whole autumn and winter of S.S. training, there was "no mention" of war crimes. Maybe the details of the death camps were not discussed, but I am amazed that the S.S. trainers never talked in general terms about violence against Jewish, Gypsy, Slavic and other civilian populations. That was a different kind of "European aura": the attempted slaughter of several whole European peoples.

Regardless of what precisely Grass heard in his S.S. training, I find his reflection on "joint responsibility" troubling. He says he has no "active complicity," even though he had joined the S.S. when he could have found his way into the army. His involvement in the Holocaust is passive: "I was incorporated into a system. ..." As a result of this bad moral luck, he feels "joint responsibility"--a term that is "all too often" used. (Actually, I find this sentence hard to interpret and evasive. Is the term "joint responsibility" used when it does not apply? Does it apply in his case?) Finally, Grass emphasizes the distress that his passive complicity has always caused him and will continue to cause him for the rest of his life. There is no hint of an apology for the harm that his active decision to join the S.S. might have caused other people. And then the memoir proceeds to make him its hero--his survival a happy ending.

I would forgive Grass instantly if he took personal responsibility for what he did at age 16 and 17. I am not so sure I like how he is behaving at age 80.

June 14, 2007 8:43 AM | category: philosophy | Comments


This continues to be one of the great questions--what did people in various positions and levels really know? I can't say that I've seen good sources about the individual experience of young and low-level people who went through training but did not get sent to the camps. The secretiveness is known well enough-- Himmler told a group of SS leaders that their work in exterminating the Jews was ‘an unwritten, never-to-be written, glorious page of our history.’” (quoted in Peter Singer, from Human Rights, Human Wrongs.) And then that notion of collective vs. individual responsibility. This is particularly daunting in the Central and Eastern European countries that were caught between the Nazis and Soviets. If you fight against one, you fight for the other. And with the communist legacy of collectivist thinking--however that filtered down to the present--the challenge is even more stark.

People in the Baltic states refer to the "Soviet genocide" of their own peoples, and regarded the Nazis as liberators when they drove back the Soviets in 1941 (they seem to have been unaware that the Nazis handed them over in the first place through the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.) They feel that the West has not acknowledge what they suffered, ignoring communist criminals, while accusing them of participating in the Holocaust when they were not even in power (collectivist thinking again.) As a result, they often interpret the push to prosecute Nazi war criminals as a statement that Jews are more important than their own people, and they have not cooperated with attempts to bring them to justice. Education about the Holocaust is at best lumped in with their own losses as the result of the war and occupations--and since the Russian soldiers only withdrew in 1994, they say that that is when the war ended for them.

Ash has an interesting piece in the NYReview a few weeks back that relates to Germany and its memories:

"One of Germany's most singular achievements is to have associated itself so intimately in the world's imagination with the darkest evils of the two worst political systems of the most murderous century in human history. The words "Nazi," "SS," and "Auschwitz" are already global synonyms for the deepest inhumanity of fascism. Now the word "Stasi" is becoming a default global synonym for the secret police terrors of communism. "


June 15, 2007 9:07 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Doyle

I thought Ash's piece was fascinating and pretty persuasive.

June 15, 2007 9:54 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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