For many of the postwar decades, Günter Grass was above all fortunate in his enemies. In West Germany, these enemies took two forms. The first was the large number of citizens who were queasy about the recent past, and the second was the smaller number of citizens who were not so queasy. To the first, Grass could address himself in a high moral tone, calling for an honest appraisal of history and for an accounting with the silence and complicity that had marked the era of National Socialism. This represented, among other things, a demand that parents be candid with their children. To the forces of the German right, on the other hand, or with those who did not take easily to the admission of guilt or shame, he could address himself more forcefully. I believe that it was when partisans of conservative Chancellor Konrad Adenauer referred to Socialist challenger Willy Brandt as “the Norwegian bastard” (because he was of illegitimate birth and because he had worn the Norwegian uniform while fighting against Hitler’s soldiers) that Grass decided to become an active campaigner for the Social Democrats. I once heard a conservative writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine refer disdainfully to Grass himself as a man who looked as if he’d recently dismounted from a shaggy pony that had come from the Mongolian steppes. I felt myself obliged to defend him from this innuendo.
For all this, one was never able to suppress the slight feeling that the author of The Tin Drum was something of a bigmouth and a fraud, and also something of a hypocrite. He was one of those whom Gore Vidal might have had in mind when he referred to the high horse, always tethered conveniently nearby, which the writer/rider could mount at any moment. Seldom did Grass miss a chance to be lofty and morally stern. But between the pony and the horse, between the stirrup and the ground, there stood (and stands) a calculating opportunist.
During the 1980s, Chancellor Helmut Kohl came up with a well-turned but somewhat shady phrase. “The grace of late birth,” as he put it, was what had saved many people of his generation from taking part in atrocities. This exemption, which came up again recently when Josef Ratzinger’s early membership in the Hitler Youth was disclosed, has applied for over half a century to Grass himself. He was 6 years old when Hitler became chancellor, and thus never had to answer any questions about what he did in the killing fields to the East and the South. To say that he took full advantage of this privilege would be to understate matters. So his decision, in his current ripe and honored state, to admit to teenage membership of the Waffen SS, requires a bit more justification than he’s been able to offer so far.
The German right is of course highly incensed, and now accuses the man who lectured Germans for so long of being not just a hypocrite but a huckster: uncorking the hideous revelation to enhance the sale of his latest memoirs. Full of acrimony as this charge may be, it has some inescapable truth to it. Grass was one of those who dragged the Nazi period into everything, including into discussions where it did not belong. When German reunification finally occurred after 1989, he referred to it with scorn as an Anschluss whereby the West had annexed the former “German Democratic Republic.” When challenged on the absurdity of this, he wielded the truncheon of moral blackmail and said that, after Auschwitz, his critics had no right to speak about history. At a discussion in a Berlin theater at about that time, I heard him defend these propositions and felt that I was listening to a near-perfect example of bogus pseudo-intellectuality. By this stage, he had already become something of a specialist in half-baked moral equivalences. At the PEN conference in New York in the mid-1980s, for example, he had sonorously announced that conditions in the South Bronx put the United States on a par with the Soviet Union … I didn’t like being lectured by a second-rater then and I like it no better when I discover I was being admonished by a member, however junior or conscripted, of Heinrich Himmler’s corps d’elite.
It also deserves to be added that this hectoring tendency became more extreme as the quality of his own writing declined. (If you doubt me, try reading The Flounder.) And, in still more recent years, Grass has been maneuvering to catch the wave of feeling that says—in one tone of voice or another—that Germans were victims, too. Not just victims of Hitler, you understand, but victims of Russian and British and American violence. Some of this literature, most notably W.G. Sebald’s On The Natural History of Destruction, is respectable both in its reasoning and in its temper, but other bits of it—such as Jörg Friedrich’s The Fire and the associated self-pitying campaigns in tabloid papers such as Bild—are, well, not so respectable. And suddenly there is Grass, publishing a large and cumbersome account of the sinking of a German civilian vessel in the Baltic in 1945, and titling it (in the same lineage of his many books about dogs, rats, snails, fish, and other beasts) Crabwalk. If any other author had tried this, at least until recently, he would have been hauled back into line by Grass with a loud and belching reminder that Auschwitz forbade any such sentiment.
Grass’ many defenders have not asked themselves the question that needs to be posed, which is: Has he at last decided to appeal to the new German readership that is, so to say, a bit fed up with hearing about how dreadful the Nazis were? If this admittedly rather cynical suggestion has any merit, then at least his recent boring writings and operatic confessions would, in combination, make perfect sense. But they would also make absolute nonsense of his previous career as a literary policeman and a patroller of the line of taboo. “Let those who want to judge, pass judgment,” Grass said last week in a typically sententious utterance. Very well, then, mein lieber Herr. The first judgment is that you kept quiet about your past until you could win the Nobel Prize for literature. The second judgment is that you are not as important to German or to literary history as you think you are. The third judgment is that you will be remembered neither as a war criminal nor as an anti-Nazi hero, but more as a bit of a bloody fool.