When Günter Grass was 12, the SS stormed the Polish Post Office in Danzig, his birthplace. Grass’ uncle, a postman who took part in its defense, was executed by the Germans. Grass no longer was allowed to play with his cousins, nothing was said at home about the excommunicated relatives or their fate, and a frightened child learned to look the other way, not to ask why. He would be 31 and a celebrated author before he had the courage to make a visit to the postman’s mother, who would greet him with a nonjudgmental “Ginterchen! My, how you’ve grown!”
Regardless of the mea culpas Grass injects throughout Peeling the Onion, his new memoir, a furor erupted in Germany when Grass revealed in it that he had concealed for half a century that he had served in the Waffen-SS at 17. Until that time, Grass had symbolized the postwar moral rehabilitation of Germany. In 1970 he had stood with his friend Chancellor Willy Brandt when Brandt, in a historic gesture, had knelt down at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. Danzig had made Grass, who had won a Nobel Prize, an honorary citizen. In 1985, on the 40th anniversary of V-E day, he had insisted that the Waffen-SS soldiers buried at Bitburg cemetery didn’t deserve to be honored by Reagan and Chancellor Kohl. In retrospect, this insistence looked more like a cover-up than an excess of moral vigor.
Peeling the Onion, despite the gifted writing, is maddening. It suffers from omissions; the very cagey Grass seems to want it both ways. On the one hand, when convenient, Grass presents his autobiographical narrator as a know-nothing adolescent who refused to see what is happening in the outside world. On the other, young Günter, the well-read A-student in history and gifted would-be artist and writer, is portrayed as a shrewd survivor with agile street smarts. (He attributes his rapid moves up after his time as a prisoner of the American Army, including his emergence as the star of the postwar literary Group ‘47, to happenstance.) Like many a presumed rebellious bohemian, he thinks left and eventually marries right: His future wife Anna Schwarz, a student of modern dance, is the daughter of an upper-class Swiss father, who buys the couple a modest house near the Gare du Nord in Paris. Grass starts to write The Tin Drum.
In this memoir, written half a century later, Grass continues to view his early novel’s protagonist, Oskar, the dwarf tin drummer, as if he were alive, and the author of the book. “He gave me leave to put everything which lay claim to truth between question marks. … So I must confess I find it difficult to sound out my past for demonstrable facts. … As a publicly acknowledged protagonist he insists on his birthright. … Oskar must always be first. Oskar knows all and tells all, Oskar laughs at my porous memory.” But Oskar is a mere fictional conceit who runs off to the circus, whose piercing shrieks are meant to be anguished protests against the war, while, as we now know, the real Günter Grass cheerfully joined the elite Jörg von Frundsberg Division of the Waffen-SS.
In Crabwalk, the short novel that preceded his memoir, Grass had a double aim: to engage in a generational struggle with young Germans who found his sort of fractured symbolism, breathy sex, and depiction of a West Germany corrupted by American materialism outdated, and to prepare the way to reveal his wartime service. But he repeatedly sidesteps the burden of individual responsibility, invoking in its place abstractions about the German psyche and German history. This is troubling for at least two reasons. First, both his creation “Oskar” and his insistence on German collective guilt are evasions—if everyone is guilty, then no single person is. Yet Grass’ lie about his service in the Waffen-SS was an individual, not a collective, act. Second, Grass has claimed that until now the suffering Germans experienced during the war (at the novel’s epicenter is the Russian sinking in 1945 of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise ship in which 9,000 civilians were drowned) was “impossible to discuss openly.” This is a partial truth. Heinrich Böll’s fiction is permeated with soldier and civilian suffering. * In 1948 the big hit in Europe was Roberto Rossellini’s devastating film Germany Year Zero about a destroyed population and country. Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour released in 1959, several years before The Tin Drum was published, is sympathetic to the young German soldier trapped in a war. The questionable massive bombing of Dresden has been an open topic since the end of the war.
Grass’ unnecessary lie about his own service impeded, most of all, these many years, his own use of precious firsthand material. Grass’ account in Peeling the Onion of the bewildered young soldier stumbling about to dodge the advancing “ivans,” death and carnage around him, so evocative of All Quiet on the Western Front, is superb. (Grass cherished Remarque’s novel. His family, not realizing it was on the Nazi index of forbidden books, had kept their copy. In the 1960s Grass made a pilgrimage to the aging Erich Maria Remarque in his villa on Lago Maggiore.) It had to have been especially hard for an ambitious young writer to suppress what could have been his war novel, who early on dreamed of great heroic battles, of writing the “big book”—as has every writer who has lived through war, and some, like Crane, who have not, from Tolstoy to Joseph Roth to Heinrich Böllto Claude Simon, Hemingway, and Norman Mailer. * I found particularly affecting—I myself spent time in France and Germany after the war—the simply told scene when the young soldier (Grass) carrying home beet syrup and a kilo of butter is reunited with his family. Danzig has been destroyed; they are living a minimal existence in another town. This is the Germany forever in my mind’s eye: a place where many people are starving, the cities were rubble and there was constant cold and people milled about in railroad stations trying to find their lost relatives.
My sense is that Grass isn’t so haunted by what he actually did—which wasn’t that heinous, and as a soldier he never fired a shot in his limited time in the Waffen-SS—soldiers do shoot in battle—but by the lethal anti-Semitism he grew up with. In quick strokes he admits that he and his family were Nazis, but the mature Grass does not in his look backward reflect on the nature of anti-Semitism, a subject Gregor von Rezzori wrote of so brilliantly and ruefully in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. * Grass, proud that he was always anti-bourgeois, never explains that under the Nazis, being against the bourgeoisie meant that you were a good Nazi. In other words, it didn’t mean being a 1960s counterculturist; it meant being against what was perceived as the Jewish control of the cultural and financial establishment. To a young outsider dreaming of becoming an artist or writer, of achieving what must have seemed to have been an impossible successful career goal, Jews were in the way, and the Nazis the glamorous ticket to success.
If the Holocaust is absent in The Tin Drum and only stiffly alluded to in the memoir, Grass has nonetheless lectured his fellow Germans, if to a fault, on the horrors of Auschwitz. And the sections of his memoir on his wartime service are brilliant. But perhaps a writer, particularly one with his outsized ambitions and talents, should not have so heeded the siren song of wanting to be all things to all people—great writer, the moral and political conscience of a country, and globe-trotting intellectual. The danger with so many mixed ambitions is that the center, like the evasive center of an onion, does not always hold.