The German Who Needed a Fig Leaf

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German author Gunter Grass.Credit: AP

Guenter Grass, one of Germany's most significant and controversial novelists of all time, has passed away today at the age of 87. In 2011, Haaretz interviewed him over the translation of his controversial autobiography, in which he revealed his service with the Waffen SS during the Second World War.

LUBECK, Germany - This city, located in northern Germany, not far from the Baltic Sea, projects a drowsy if colorful provincialism. With buildings of red brick, surrounded by water, the ancient city is today the capital of Germany's marzipan industry. In World War II, Lubeck was heavily damaged in bombing by the Royal Air Force. It rose from the ashes in the course of the postwar economic miracle that took place in West Germany.

As part of an effort to boost the locale's tourism potential, the city fathers boast of three small museums, which commemorate three famous personalities who've won the Nobel Prize. Two of them opposed the Nazis: Thomas Mann found asylum in the United States, Willy Brandt in Norway. In Buddenbrooks House, which commemorates Mann, there is a room in which music from Wagner's opera "Tannhauser" is played constantly. Mann believed that Wagner's music paved the Germans' way to Hitler; the Holocaust is mentioned there only coincidentally. The museum that tells the story of Willy Brandt's life is supposed to tell the story of the entire 20th century, but, there too, the annihilation of the Jews is barely mentioned.

"We are not a Holocaust museum," the guide said, and immediately led me to a photograph from December 1970, which shows Brandt kneeling before the monument to the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto. That was a dramatic gesture, but only 41 percent of Germans at the time thought it was "appropriate," while 48 percent said it was "exaggerated." The results of the poll are displayed next to the photo.

A group of high school students arrived. In reply to the guide's question, one of them said that Brandt's gesture had been appropriate. The guide asked the youth why, in his opinion, so many Germans had criticized the fact that Brandt went down on his knees. The student pondered the matter deeply and finally said, "It's not pleasant to see something like that - after all, he was the chancellor at the time."

I suggested the hypothesis that the majority of Germans might have thought that the annihilation of the Jews did not merit a gesture of that kind, but the guide responded that this was certainly not the explanation.

The students went on to Gunter Grass House, the third museum that memorializes a Nobel laureate. Sculptures and paintings by Grass are on exhibition in the courtyard and on the ground floor. Grass was not born in Lubeck and does not live there now - his home is in a nearby village - but once a week he climbs up to the loft of the house that bears his name and holds meetings there. For his part, he did not oppose the Nazis: As an adolescent he admired them and even composed a poem in honor of Hitler's 50th birthday. After the war he recanted. He often assumed the role of the bad boy of German politics: more of a German Dahn Ben-Amotz than Amos Oz.

Like Willy Brandt, Grass became one of the symbols of the new Germany. He also helped Brandt draw up some of his speeches and was with Brandt in Warsaw when the chancellor knelt at the monument. Brandt also took him on a visit to Israel. Grass asked Prime Minister Golda Meir if he could sketch her - and she said yes, as long as he made her pretty. "I didn't succeed," Grass said dryly, as he displayed the portrait. Today, at 84, he can be quite likable. He is stooped, but his hair is still quite black. "Natural, not dyed," he noted.

However, the interview, which lasted two-and-a-half hours, did not always go smoothly. It was held on the occasion of the publication in Hebrew of "Peeling the Onion" (translation: Hanna Livnat, published by Zmora Bitan ) - an autobiographical work published in German in 2006, in which Grass revealed that he had served for a few months in the Waffen SS as an adolescent. The revelation stirred a furor which resounded from one end of the world to the other; the book was published in 30 languages.

Grass is a world-renowned brand name. He has a battery of assistants and is apparently a very busy person. His personal assistant told me that Grass was tired of talking about his SS past. He understands, of course, that on the occasion of the book's appearance in Hebrew, certain questions will be unavoidable, he is curious to know how the book will be received in Israel - but he hopes with all his heart that the interview will not be only about his service in the Waffen SS.

Ask no questions

Grass greeted me affably. He had been briefed to "remember" that during his visit to Jerusalem in March 1967, I had been the moderator at a meeting he held in Beit Hillel, the students' club, then located on Balfour Street.

"It's good to see you again," he said with a mischievous smile, leading me between the wooden beams supporting his loft. He sat me down on a wooden bench next to a wooden table and launched into a lengthy declaration that boiled down to the following: The revelation about his service in the Waffen SS is only one detail in the book and not the most important one.

Finally he let me ask questions. Once or twice he raised his voice at me, because I shared with him my feeling that this work, like its predecessor ("Crabwalk" ), presents the Germans mainly as victims. This view is held by more and more Germans and some see Grass as one of its proponents. "What else would it take to expose a man needy of a fig leaf?" he writes early on in "Peeling the Onion" (translation: Michael Henry Heim ). I contemplated how to find out from him if he were perhaps hiding some other secret from his past, and in the end I simply asked him. He retorted by asking whether I meant secrets about his love life, but those are spelled out in his books - in more detail than necessary.

I asked whether he thought "Peeling the Onion" had been beneficial or harmful to him. He gained the support of a few writers for it, among them Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, but most of the reactions were savage, many quite virulent. Few condemned him for his service in the Waffen SS as such: He was 17 at the time and had not volunteered, but was drafted. The Frundsberg armored division of the Waffen SS fought on the western and eastern fronts, and in addition to its part in perpetrating the Wehrmacht's war crimes, it was assigned the mission of rescuing Adolf Hitler from the Berlin bunker in which he barricaded himself in the last days of the war.

Grass served in the division from November 1944 until almost the end of the war; he was wounded in April 1945, captured by the Americans and released without trial. Very few knew he had served in the Waffen SS; the public at large knew only that he had been in the army. Most of his local critics were furious at him for keeping the secret, others for revealing it. Both groups were concerned about their self-image as good Germans.

"That debate was very painful for me," Grass explained, "because it focused on two and a half pages in which I told about my service in the Waffen SS. I was hurt when people said I volunteered for that organization. The truth is that I was drafted, like thousands of other youths my age. And there were also thousands of older people, from the air force and the navy - all of whom were assigned to the Waffen SS in the final stage of the war. For me it was the height of a maturation process: When I traveled to enter the service, I was still wearing short pants. In my book I tried to cope with the fact that I matured into a closed political system, beginning at the age of 15, when I volunteered for the German army.

"The main thing I tried to understand, and which I still ask myself to this day, is how it happened that I did not ask questions. The Germans executed Uncle Franz, my mother's cousin, who was a mailman and took part in the defense of the post office in Danzig (see box ). We did not talk about this and I did not ask. There was a boy in my class whose father listened to British radio broadcasts and so the boy was able to tell us many details about the course of the war. One day he disappeared. I did not ask to where. And there was another boy who refused to bear arms, for reasons of conscience. We abused him terribly. One day he too disappeared and I did not ask questions. That is the primary theme of the book - not my brief time in the Waffen SS.

"Overall, the central story in the book is not only mine, but belongs to all of Germany. How did it happen that an enlightened country like Germany was pulled into Nazism? That question has occupied me since 'The Tin Drum,' my first book. The story also shows that we can never know how a person's life will unfold; there is no guarantee that a person will do what is right and avoid what is not right. And I was not involved in war crimes."

Was that perhaps by chance, because you were lucky?

"You could put it like that, yes."

'Dumb young Nazi'

Gunter Grass' military service is depicted as a pointless experience, which evokes "All Quiet on the Western Front" - Erich Maria Remarque's famous novel, written in the wake of World War I. Grass read the book as a teenager and met its author after the war. Naturally he wanted to talk about the book, but Remarque was irate: Why don't people talk to him about his other books as well, he complained. Grass obviously identifies with him today, since people constantly want to talk to him about his Waffen SS service.

Your story perhaps recalls what Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil. It all seems to be so much a matter of chance.

"I think that Hannah Arendt's perceptions about Nazism are very relevant."

If so, why did you keep your service in the Waffen SS a secret? After all, in postwar Germany there were war criminals who took pride in what they had done, including the commander of your division.

"Because I was ashamed. I was a dumb young Nazi. I realized that after the war and was ashamed of it. I am ashamed today."

Then why did you make it public?

"Over the years I had something in principle against autobiographical writing altogether, because memory plays tricks on us and we also tend to reinvent ourselves. But there comes an age when one begins to observe life, and there are things that need time to mature, also in terms of literary form. There are writers who were understanding, including Mario Vargas Llosa and Amos Oz, who wrote one of the great books that I've read in recent years. When I am asked I always say that 'A Tale of Love and Darkness' [published in 2002] is one of the most important books written in the 20th century ."

Maybe you can arrange the Nobel for him.

"I try almost every year. They don't listen to me."

What I glean from this episode is that the sooner people come out of the closet, the better.

"I want it to be clear. It is not that I decided to reveal a secret. I reached a point at which I decided to confront the fact that while I was still very young I believed in Nazism. That is what the book is about. My mobilization to the Waffen SS is part of that. By the way, in the wake of the book's publication it turned out that there were, after all, a few people to whom I told it years ago. But it was not publicized."

And having revealed the secret, did you reconcile with the past? Did you achieve some sort of catharsis?

"It is not something one can reconcile with and not a subject about which one can say it is done with and belongs to history. It will always be with us. I think that in this connection too, I deserve to have people remember my political struggles against the remnants of Nazism. Many people did not like the political criticism I leveled at Germany. For example, about all the Nazis who served in the government of the first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. There was Hans Globke, for example, who also helped Israel in the Ben-Gurion period, and Israel ignored his past. Thus, a large part of the criticism of 'Peeling the Onion' should be understood as a settling of political accounts. People are trying to shut me up. They will not succeed."

Grass writes standing up, with pen and ink. He then copies the manuscript using an Olivetti typewriter, makes corrections, waits for the print proofs and then rewrites them, too. When people write on the computer, he says, it looks like a prepared text. He does not use the Internet, does not have a cellphone and never had a driving license.

Grass was born in 1927 in Danzig to a German father and a Kashubian mother. (The Kashubians are a Slavic tribe, most of whom dwell in northern Poland. ) His parents had a grocery store and when he was 11, they sent him to collect debts from clients who bought on credit. He was made to repeat a year in high school. He started growing the mustache that would become his trademark the day after his 30th birthday. At the time he was in Paris, where he had labored mightily to come up with the first sentence of "The Tin Drum": "Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital" (translation: Ralph Mannheim ).

Grass explained his decision to leave school and volunteer for active military service as stemming in part from a desire to flee his parents' small apartment. He heard them making love at night and he hated his father. Their bathroom was located on an intermediate floor and shared by the occupants of four apartments.

"It was always filthy [and] it stank," he recalled. He preferred the latrine of the antiaircraft battery in which he served before being recruited to the Waffen SS: "There we would squat next to one another shitting into a pit," he writes in "Peeling the Onion."

His decision to join the army is also presented as part of his sexual maturation. Indeed, Grass tends to share intimate information with his readers, including a description of his penis. In his childhood it was "a nice little nib," he writes. He masturbated with his left hand, he reports, because he is left-handed. In the army he sometimes fooled around with other soldiers.

Feeling of equality

The onion is likened to memory: It is not easy to peel, and when chopped it stimulates tears. The impression is that Grass is pitying himself, too. His recruitment to the Waffen SS comes on page 98 of the Hebrew edition. The preceding pages are devoted, among other subjects, to the ordeals of his family and the hardships of growing up in wartime, and to his meeting with a woman who had nothing against Jews; the attempted assassination of Hitler and the Allied invasion of Normandy; the bombing of German cities and the Russian soldiers who set on fire a church in Berlin and the women who were inside it; and to the German ship "Wilhelm Gustloff," which the Russians sank in January 1945 and is the subject of his novella "Crabwalk." It is also important for him to note that people from all over Europe, not just Germans, volunteered for the Waffen SS. The training he and his buddies underwent was extremely rigorous - "torture," as he puts it. I remarked that this was not the gravest crime perpetrated by the Waffen SS, to which Grass retorted, "I didn't say it was."

The first dead bodies he saw were those of Wehrmacht soldiers, hanging from trees. He describes a Russian attack on him and his buddies at a pastoral moment, in the shade of birch trees and with birds chirping. One of his friends is playing the harmonica. When the Russian assault starts, Grass crawls under a tank and "scared to death, I piss my pants." He then looks around: "Body parts were strewn around. Isn't that the boy who'd been tootling away on the harmonica?" They were short of medication and also of cigarettes, he notes.

You and the others come across here as victims deserving compassion, just like the passengers on the "Wilhelm Gustloff."

"That is a very unfair, even wicked interpretation - to argue that I am trying to portray the Germans mainly as victims. On the contrary: In the story about the sinking of the ship, I expropriate the episode from the German right, which exploited it for its purposes. It was the greatest maritime disaster in history: 10,000 people drowned, of whom some were military personnel but most were refugees, including 4,000 children. But I say explicitly that this was not a war crime. The commander of the Russian submarine did not know that the ship was carrying civilians. Everyone has heard of the 'Titanic,' no one has heard of the 'Wilhelm Gustloff.'"

(Gustloff was leader of the Nazi party in Switzerland. In 1936, he was assassinated by a young Jew, David Frankfurter. )

"The 'Wilhelm Gustloff' was used for pleasure cruises which the authorities granted to the citizens," Grass explained. "Everyone was certainly handpicked, but once they boarded the ship the class differences between them disappeared. They were all equal Germans. The Nazi youth organizations also generated a feeling of equality between the members and the counselors. Such things could be tempting. And people were tempted. My belief in the Hitler Youth leader, Baldur von Schirach, was so deep that I did not believe the reports about the Nazis' crimes until I heard on the radio that von Schirach had admitted them himself, in the Nuremberg trials."

Grass is now married for the second time and says he is the father of eight children. He had four with his first wife, including twin boys. His first wife fell in love with his friend, flutist Aurele Nicolet, he said. Two daughters were born from his relations with two other women, and his present wife is the mother of two children who are not his. His sister was a nun for a few years. During the war he had a close friend named Joseph, and there are indications that it was Joseph Ratzinger, the present pope, but Grass is not sure and does not expect the pope to own up to this.

He frequently seems to distance himself from his past and ascribe it to the child he was. Often he "invites" the boy who bears his name to him, as he puts it, as though this were not him and as though the boy's past were not his own. This technique appears more in the passages dealing with the Waffen SS than in the chapters about his path to art and literature after the war.

You have already decided to tell the world that you were in the Waffen SS, yet you still seemingly evade yourself by writing in the third person.

"People change with time. There are things that happened to a person in his childhood and years later they seem to him alien and strange. I am trying to decipher that child. Sometimes he is a stranger to me. When you think about when you were 14, don't you feel a certain alienation?"

I don't, but someone will certainly write a doctoral dissertation about that.

"I'm sure."

What do you mean when you describe yourself as a "burned boy" ?

"Certainly. I am a burned boy. Like most of those from my generation."

I imagine that those from your generation are grateful to you for that description.

"The readers' letters we received can be divided into two categories. Most of them are from people my age or even older. They thank me, because the book made it possible for them, for the first time in their lives, to speak with their grandchildren about what they underwent in the period of the war. And there are letters from young readers who thank me because their grandfathers, for the first time, are talking to them about the war."

Possibly because in this book you hardly mention the annihilation of the Jews.

"In other books more. When I wrote 'The Tin Drum' I lacked material. I went to Warsaw to complete my research and was taken to a room filled with crates containing Nazi documents. There was one crate of the laundry detergent company Persil which contained an original copy of the report of the commander who quelled the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto, Jurgen Stroop. Until then his name was not known. I asked for a copy and had it published in Germany. My book 'From the Diary of a Snail' also deals with the Holocaust, and I am happy to say that my grandchildren are taking an interest in the period of Nazism."

In the Holocaust?

"Also. But the madness and the crime were not expressed only in the Holocaust and did not stop at the end of the war. Of eight million German soldiers who were captured by the Russians, perhaps two million survived and all the rest were liquidated. There were about 14 million refugees in Germany; half the country went directly from Nazi tyranny to communist tyranny. I am not saying this to diminish the gravity of the crime against the Jews, but the Holocaust was not the only crime. We bear responsibility for the Nazis' crimes. But the crimes inflicted serious disasters on the Germans and thus they became victims."

Toward the end of the book, Grass reveals that the Russian occupation soldiers raped his mother. He is thus apparently offering his readers the same message that is engraved on the Sailors' Guildhall in Lubeck, which dates from 1535: "In memory of them all."

Coerced rehabilitation

There were a few Jewish youths from concentration camps in the American POW camp in which Grass was held. "They wanted to go to Palestine, but had not received permission," he writes.

What could a young man in uniform learn from your story - for example, an Israeli soldier serving in the territories?

"It is hard. Very hard. After all, he is young and inexperienced, and the boundary between legitimate orders and criminal acts is often 'fluid.' He has to hope that his commanders will not force war crimes on him."

And what do we learn about the fate of the conscientious objector from your unit?

"He belonged to Jehovah's Witnesses. We hated him and we tortured him, not only because he refused to touch weapons, but also because we, too, were punished on his account, in order to make us force him to recant his refusal. But he did not yield. His religious faith was stronger. Above all, a conscientious objector needs a deep belief."

He was murdered in a concentration camp - of what benefit was he?

"If he had survived, he would have been beneficial to himself above all. He could have taken pride in his biography, in contrast to most of us. And maybe he could have served as an example to others. I missed the opportunity to learn to doubt."

As you also write in the book. That is perhaps the most important sentence, is it not?

"I would say, yes. Because there is nothing more important than doubt. I acquired the ability to doubt only after the war."

Do you share the view that the Holocaust imposes on Germany a special responsibility to assist not only Israel, but also the Palestinians?

"Germany has a responsibility to ensure Israel's existence, a responsibility to use its influence and its strength to bring the sides closer. But it is impossible to see Israel in isolation from the conflict with the Palestinians, and in this sense Germany also has a responsibility toward the Palestinians. And support for Israel sometimes obliges being critical of Israel."

In what regard, for example?

"The settlements policy - that is something impossible."

Do you support the call to boycott Israel?

"God forbid, no! I was impressed by the Geneva Initiative and sorry that it was not implemented. And you should also have done much more for the refugees, even rehabilitated them by coercion. That is what we did in Germany with the refugees from the east."

Grass is an active participant in political discourse in Germany and hopes for the ouster of the Merkel government. His style can be ponderous as only German allows: He gave me the text of a political speech he delivered recently that had a sentence containing 80 words.

Are you still against the unification of Germany?

"There was no unification. There was the east's annexation to the west. It was done far too quickly and also badly. The east remained without anything: The west seized all the property. The residents of the eastern part of the country are second-class Germans. Many young people are flowing to the west from there. Whole villages have emptied out and some cities that have been left almost abandoned. In many places it was mainly the women who left. Frustrated men remain behind. Naturally, they support the extreme right. In the west that danger is almost nonexistent."

It seems to me that Germany was more interesting when it was divided, no?

"You have a point there. I remember the first years after the war. We lacked direction and a path. I searched for my path as an artist. The Americans brought jazz, Faulkner and Hemingway with them. And there were the first shows by Chagall and Picasso, and the German Expressionists. There was the great debate between Sartre and Camus; I was in favor of Camus. It was a truly formative time. Until the unification, West Germany had to try harder, because the social benefits that the communists in the east granted the inhabitants obliged the capitalist system to succeed more. Now capitalism has remained an ideology without a competitor and I see that it [capitalism] is collapsing."

Does that make you happy?

"No, it frightens me. Although I am an avowed social democrat, I am afraid that whatever will succeed the capitalist system will not be democratic."

Do you believe in a European identity?

"The European Union arose on an economic foundation, and it turns out that even this is not a solid base. Cultural identity has been neglected."

Does it worry you to see so many Muslims settling in Europe?

"Many Muslim immigrants in Germany have enriched its culture, and they are enriching the culture of Europe - from literature to the kitchen."

And Grass likes to cook.

Judgment day

In 1927, when Gunter Grass was born, his birthplace was managed as a "free city" of 380,000 people. Most of them were Germans and called the city Danzig; the minority were Polish and called it Gdansk. Poland was reunited as an independent country after World War I, and the port of Danzig/Gdansk afforded it an outlet to the Baltic Sea. In order to preserve the right of self-determination of its German inhabitants, the city was allowed to be governed in a semi-autonomous way. In the 1930s the Nazis grew powerful in Danzig and the city became a flashpoint of tension between Germany and Poland. Most of the city's Jews, nearly 10,000, left before World War II.

On the morning of September 1, 1939, SS troops and local police attacked the Polish post office on Hevelius Plaza. The incident is considered one of the first in World War II and is described in Grass' first novel, "The Tin Drum" (1959 ). Among the building's defenders was Franz Krause, a cousin of Grass' mother, who was a member of the Kashubian minority. Toward evening, the Germans captured the post office. Krause was summarily tried, convicted and executed, along with most of the surviving defenders of the building.

The Germans annexed Danzig to the Third Reich and the few hundred Jews who remained there were deported and murdered. About 100,000 of the city's residents were killed in the war. Afterward, the city was transferred to Polish control. According to Grass, the judge who sentenced his uncle Franz to death continued to sit on the bench after the war in West Germany.