As already mentioned here, German writer and Nobel laureate Günter Grass in 1944, at the age of 15 (or 17), became a member of the Waffen SS, Nazi Germany’s shock troops that were involved in the most notorious events during the war (battles and war crimes alike). My first reaction, when I heard this, was “So what?”
It doesn’t take genius to know the basic fact that 15-year old young men are quite impressionable, and it also does not take too much to imagine how growing up in a fascist dictatorship back in the 1930s/40s might have induced the development of very weird convictions. It does take quite a bit of genius, though, for a teenager to develop what we think of now (with hindsight!) as a normal mind, and it’s quite clear that Günter Grass did not have that kind of genius.
We should also not delude ourselves into thinking that all those teenagers (or parents) who tried to avoid the SS back then did that because they were aware of what was going on. If there’s a war going on that is going badly most people do not want to end up in those troops that are typically being sent to the most dangerous missions. I have no way to prove this, but I am certain that for the vast majority of Germans war crimes played no role whatsoever in their decision to avoid the SS. Plus, in retrospect, you can always claim all kinds of things, can’t you?
Günter Grass ended up in the Waffen SS, being 15 years old, and if what he writes is correct, while many of his friends were blown to bits he survived one battle because he had crawled under a tank, wetting himself. On another occasion, he tried to find out whether another soldier approaching was a friend or foe by singing a children’s song, awaiting the other side to sing back. So who is going to throw the first stone now?
Well, as it turns out, there are many who are quite happy to do so. I can maybe understand the question why Grass waited so long to talk about this. But then, on the other side, only very recently have Germans become comfortable to talk about those aspects of the war that were not to be talked about for decades, for example the bombing of German cities or how much ordinary Germans really knew. When I grew up, you could literally find almost no information about any of this.
I am a believer in the idea that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, so here is a simple explanation: Having missed the opportunity to talk about it early on, Grass was simply afraid to bring it up. And why didn’t he bring it up earlier? Maybe because he was afraid that it would destroy his career - who knows? Would that be so bad? What do we expect of a writer? To be some sort of überhuman? How do you get moral authority if you’re not most human?
In any case, I find that intellectual - or actually pseudo-intellectual - posturing displayed by many of those old men, who talk or write about Grass, quite disgusting. And this is not because I like Günter Grass’ work so much - quite on the contrary. Just a little while ago, I read “The Tin Drum” for the first time - out of a feeling that I really had to read it - and I wasn’t all that impressed. But you can’t leave judging the life and work of someone like Grass - whose novels and political engagement have shaped the history of the current German republic - to a bunch of 60+ year old men, who all have their own agendas and carefully trimmed personal histories.
It seems I’m not alone with this desire not to leave the field to those old people. In This endless moral flutter, Eva Menasse and Michael Kumpfmüller, whose combined age reaches that of many of those old men, write “It’s shameful that within three days, the Grass affair has elicted more statements and morally-grounded positions from German writers and thinkers than the war in Northern Israel and southern Lebanon did in the 33 days prior.” Needless to say, that didn’t stop the old men from talking about Grass. Meanwhile, the German government decided to contribute troops to help monitor the peace agreement in Lebanon.
PS: An excellent article about “The Stoning of Gunter [sic!] Grass”.