Writers on Trial
WRITERS ON TRIAL
She was, and still is, a nobody. He is Germany's most famous writer. But Margarete Barthel and Guenter Grass share a great deal in common.
Grass was 78 before he could bring himself to reveal in a new memoir that, as a teenager, he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. Barthel was 74 when she outed herself as a former SS guard at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp. Both were drafted into an arm of the SS late in World War II: Barthel, at age 20, into the women's auxiliary; Grass, at 17, into the army battalions. They both hid that shame for decades, until their consciences forced the truth out.
The German media were quick to label Grass's revelation a "confession." Yet, seeing him speak publicly for the first time earlier this month and read from the memoir that contains his startling admission, I could not help but think of Barthel. Today, she is a warm and garrulous soul haunted by her nine months as a guard at Ravensbrueck, a slave labor camp for women outside Berlin, in which some 30,000 prisoners died. A sense of guilt, and a need to understand why she did what she did, drove Barthel to speak to me last year for a Post profile I wrote about her life. She, like Grass, voluntarily disclosed her ugly secret. But to call either story a confession is to misunderstand German society -- and the nature of confession itself.
The fury and sense of betrayal that Grass's admission sparked across Germany came less from his brief stint in the combat arm of Adolf Hitler's dreaded paramilitary force than from his longtime condemnation of other Germans who repressed their own Nazi pasts. Yet I have come to think that the roots of our collective disappointment run deeper. As an American writer living in Germany since 2003, married to a German journalist and raising our children here, I frequently confront reminders of this nation's Nazi past. Whether in political controversies surrounding historical exhibits or neo-Nazis or the personal stories of our German family and friends, the Holocaust is rarely far from the surface. What disturbs us, I suspect, is that with Grass and Barthel -- as with most Germans of their generation -- we are offered confession without true contrition.
Irespected the courage Barthel showed in stepping forward, in revealing the shame that had burdened her for so long. She had been drafted, like so many late in the war, shipped from her home to a distant "internship" that turned out to be a job overseeing work details of prisoners at Ravensbrueck. I believed her when she said she had been as kind as she could be to the prisoners. And I could not judge her for opting to remain an SS guard; none of us can say what we, in those times of fear and insanity, might have done.
Yet what troubled me then, and troubles me still, was the blank spot in her conscience, a sort of cauterized self-awareness that recurred in all her explanations. No matter how guilty she felt, no matter how often I pressed her, she could never bring herself to utter the simple words: I am sorry. I did wrong.
No apology was forthcoming, either, from another Ravensbrueck guard, 84-year-old Elfriede Rinkel, who was uncovered by the Justice Department in San Francisco and deported earlier this month. Unlike Barthel, Rinkel joined the SS voluntarily. Decades later, both sought to justify their actions. Rinkel said she had done "nothing wrong." Barthel relied on a defense that has long been her generation's favored refrain: They were "innocently guilty."
"I was so clueless and naive," Barthel told me. Or, as Grass put it in 1979, "I was too young to be guilty." Indeed, from his sensational debut with "The Tin Drum" in 1959, Grass had made no secret of his pro-Nazi upbringing or his membership in the Hitler Youth.
But it was only last month, with the publication of his memoir "While Skinning the Onion," that Grass admitted his half-truth. He had not been a flakhelfer , a boy assigned to load antiaircraft guns, as people had assumed from his novels, but had been drafted into a Panzer division of the Waffen-SS, where he was wounded after a few months of combat in which he says he neither fired a shot nor participated in any atrocities.
At his recent reading here, Grass dodged the hard questions about his long silence, saying he had needed decades to find the right literary form in which to tell his story. Spotlit on the venerable stage of Bertolt Brecht's Berliner Ensemble, he lashed out at his critics, arguing that their attacks were far beneath them, and he tried to woo the German literati who had thronged to this first post-memoir appearance with his epic storytelling voice. He chalked up the SS episode to the "stupidity of my youth," and portrayed himself as a young boy lost in the woods of a Grimm's fairy tale.