COVER STORY | The U.S. Tour of Günter Grass

Life Sentences

Sunday, August 12, 2007

At the end of Günter Grass's 1963 novel Dog Years, a mysterious company starts selling "miracle glasses" to teenagers. When the kids put them on, they see with urgent clarity many things that have been kept hidden. They see their parents, as if in a newsreel, performing murderous acts of violence.

Sometimes the parents do the killings themselves, sometimes they are bystanders who decline to protest or officials just following orders. No difference, writes Grass.

"Aiding and abetting. Smoking cigarettes and looking on while. Certified decorated applauded murderers...blowing on rubber stamps. Sometimes mere signatures and wastebaskets. Many roads lead to. Silence as well as words can. Every father has at least one to hide. Many lie buried curtained soiled, as if they had never happened until in the eleventh postwar year miracle glasses appeared on the market."

This was Grass's great theme, played out in dozens of books and hundreds of speeches, interviews and lectures over half a century: German guilt, and the German refusal to acknowledge it. He assailed the appointment of a onetime Nazi Party member as chancellor in 1996, asking why someone else couldn't have been found, someone who was free from taint. German history, he asserted in 1990 after the Wall came down, meant the Germans, even those born long after the war, didn't deserve to be unified. The taint was in the blood.

So it was a great gift to his foes -- and he has annoyed and offended many -- when Grass handed them their own miracle glasses. As his autobiography was being published in Germany last summer, he revealed that he had spent a few months at the end of the war in the combat arm of the Waffen-SS, the elite volunteer troops whose responsibilities also included running the concentration camps.

The novelist was denounced as a hypocrite, not so much for what he had done while in the SS -- nothing, it seemed -- as for the fact that decades had gone by without his bothering to mention it. Some said he was no longer the conscience of Germany; others, more cruelly, that he never was. The furor made Peeling the Onion a runaway bestseller in Germany, which infuriated more people, who accused him of orchestrating a publicity stunt. There were demands that his Nobel Prize, awarded in 1999 for portraying "the forgotten face of history," be rescinded.

Grass said his silence always haunted him, which is perhaps why Dog Years now seems full of clues. The central character is Walter Matern, who stresses how he wasn't like all the other Germans during the war: "In an emergency I would defend every Jew with my life." Walter sees himself as an avenger, not an accomplice. But where was he when his half-Jewish friend Eddie Amsel was set upon by nine storm troopers?

I was unable to help, Walter admits, but to make amends he names eight of the culprits, even tracks them down. The ninth thug is both harder and easier to find. It's Walter himself, something he had tried to forget, taken pains to disguise from the beginning. They all hid their faces when they beat poor Eddie, Walter explains, because "it's the style: when you want to teach a lesson, you hide your face."

Walter has a point. Tremendous talent enabled Grass to become the most famous and acclaimed German writer since Thomas Mann, but talent is never quite enough. As a young boy during the war, Grass almost entered a fiction contest run by a Nazi children's newspaper. A near miss, he later realized; if he had won, the stain would have lasted, and all his lessons would have gone untaught.

There are other precedents. Norwegian Nobelist Knut Hamsun's reputation never recovered from his support of the Nazis, and the memoir he wrote to explain himself only made things worse. Jorge Luis Borges is widely believed to have missed out on the Nobel because he shook hands with a couple of right-wing Argentine generals. Would the Swedes have given it to a Waffen-SS man, however brief his enlistment?

This summer, Pee ling the Onion was published in English to rave reviews that celebrated it as one of the best memoirs of our time and at least one savaging (by the translator Michael Hofmann, in the Guardian) that implied it was the worst. Grass came to New York for his first American tour in 15 years, ready if not exactly eager to discuss not the guilt and punishment of Germany but of himself. He was met with fierce questions, abuse, cheers. The one thing no one debated was whether the controversy was good for business. Every appearance sold out.

Speak, memory

"This story was always in my mind but I needed to reach a special age to write it, to allow the past to come into focus," Grass told me. "Ask me what happened two weeks ago, I can't tell you. But 1943, that I can remember."

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