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'Peeling of the onion' - Revelation of Günter Grass in 2006

Peeling of the onion“ - Günter Grass revealed in his autobiography published in September 2006, that he was as a seventeen year old boy most receptive to NS propaganda. At first he tried volunteering for military service on submarines, but after having failed to do so, he ended up with the SS. If anything, such revelation 60 years later, shatters the moral validity of his literature.

This is quite some revelation coming especially from a man and writer who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it should not come completely as a surprise. After all Günter Grass did welcome the most recent exhibition by Hitler's sculptor, namely Breker, insofar as he said it would be good if exposed to the public. And he took on the plight of Germans exiled from former Sudentenland in the now Czech republic, and this at the risk to reinforce a recent trend amongst Germans to look at themselves more as victims of war rather than being responsible for what took place ever since Hitler ascended to power in 1933, and who dictated all affairs until he committed suicide in 1945.

By revealing what he did during the final year of the war, insofar he had joined the SS, Günter Grass mentions as well that he was at the same prisoner-of-war camp as the current Pope. It is known that the latter was a member of the Hitler Youth organisation but which cannot be by itself a sufficient reason for him being held in a prisoner-of-war camp. All the more strange is in this context to observe how the Pope stays silent with regards to what is happening in the Middle East.

It should be noted first of all that Günter Grass states that he was not ashamed to join the SS in 1944, but wonders, retrospectively speaking, why he had not perceived back then when joining the SS, the full extent to which the SS was involved in the extermination of the Jews.

To recall one important testimony of those times, there is the book by Moczarski called 'Dialogue with the Henchman'. The person in question is Jürgen Stroop from the SS. He was responsible for the liquidation of 50 000 Jews in the Warszawa Ghetto. That took place in 1943 and was executed completely by the SS. Jürgen Stroop acted under the command of Himmler. Around the same time, the Allies, including Winston Churchill had full knowledge that a systematic liquidation of the Jewish population was taking place in both Western and Eastern Europe, and that it was conducted by the Germans. That meant not just die SS, but also the Wehrmacht and everyone from the top to the bottom. Even if the SS tried to keep many of its actions a secret, someone like Sypros Mercouris, brother of Melina Mercouri, the late Greek Minister of Culture, observed that there exists a difference between a wild killing spree happening outside the attention of the general public and the systematic, even industrial way of murdering the Jewish people as was done by the Germans. It was not merely Hitler, Himmler, Eichman and all the rest, including Jürgen Stroop from the SS, but included ordinary soldiers of the Wehrmacht. They helped to round up Jews and took them to the trains for deportation to the concentration camps. That means also train drivers and conductors were involved. All this was underlined by the fact that even when the war was approaching its end and many cities being bombarded, still these special trains left 'on time' for their final destinations, the concentration camps.

It is, therefore, a bit unbelievable that Günter Grass could not have known anything by that time when he joined the SS in 1944. While it was a common saying of many Germans after the war, that they had not seen the Jews disappear, surely such an excuse not to know anything cannot hold in the case of a highly perceptive artist and writer that Günter Grass had already been then, when he joined as a youth the SS.

It is even more shattering that Günter Grass can praise in one of his many speeches the courage, morality and resistance of the Brother and Sister Scholl in Munich. They had distributed leaflets calling for resistance against the Nazis and who were arrested and then shot. How can he praise them and not reflect upon his own failure to do so? More so, the brother and sister Scholl were of the same age as Günter Grass, namely seventeen.

Günter Gass has tried to be in post-war Germany something Heinrich Böll had exemplified as long as he lived, namely to be the moral conscience of German society. Böll had been deeply concerned about the fate of a society in which its members had lost all moral bearings during the time of National Socialism. Bölls' writing became a reflection of Germany slowly emancipating itself from such a horrible and terrific past. By expressing the 'moral conscience' of a nation coming slowly to terms with its problematic relationship to such a past, as Günter Grass attempted in the 'Tin Drum', it may explain why after Böll he too received the Nobel prize for Literature.

'The Tin Drum' deals as a novel with the story of Oscar whose voice can break any glass when it reaches a high pitch. Günter Grass made this debut. Many other novels followed as well as drawings made during a trip to India. One work of his, less known, but of high literary and historical value, is his account of poets meeting in Telgte. This reflects efforts by poets and writers along with their critics and publishers to unify first of all language as an attempt to seek peace in the thirty year religious war. The composer Schütz appears as well to admonish the theft from a church to obtain candle holders, dishes and food. The book contains as well the Barock poems which had been written by those who were present. Rightly so it carries the title 'Meeting in Telgte'.

Günter Grass was highly critical of his fellow writers. As of late this could be noticed again in the flare up of his dispute with Peter Handke. That erupted after the latter had attended the funeral of Milosevic. Günter Grass said about Peter Handke that he was capable of cultivating his ego better than anyone else. However, that dispute goes a long way back. For both had been in the United States at the same time, but Peter Handke managed then to upstage Günter Grass with his first play called 'Publikumsbeschimpfung' – 'Insulting the audience'.

Still, the news and revelation by Günter Grass himself, that he had served in the SS shatters everything. Indeed, it is a terrible blow to anyone who had believed in him. To many he seems to be more than just an up-righteous critic of political developments in Germany. He seems to them to be as well a staunch believer of some high moral values. As member of the Group '47 founded among others by Werner Richter, he had joined immediately after the end of the war writers who wished to come to terms with Fascism. In this context, Günter Grass was critical of any writer who would be tempted to create anti-Fascist heroes although everyone knew there had been none. Günter Grass believed it is not possible to create any hero if there was none. Now, in retrospect, it is possible to know why Günter Grass took such a position. For no writer can distance himself all too much from what he or she had done in the past and in personal as well as political life. There are limits as to what can be suppressed, distorted or excluded. A past not dealt with openly shall come back to haunt the present in one or another form. It means if not dealt with openly right away but one thing, namely bad literature since then much more a subtle rationalization of what took place and thereby making things appear less harmful than what it was in reality.

It was always curious to see over the years of his writing that Günter Grass seemed not not to have a strong sense for an alternative to German nationalism. For example, his concept of resistance against the military cult forms of Nazism was as weak as it can get. In 'Tin Drum' Oscar managed merely to play on his drum a Bavarian folk dance rhythm as if this can symbolize resistance against the military brass band playing marching music for the soldiers filing past the stand where the military command was seated. Deviation from the norm drawn by power was limited to a kind of folklore version of an apparently more authentic identity, namely that of the people from the land or the rural countryside. He drew that image even though everyone knew Hitler kept close linkage to Berchtesgarden and the type of folk dances the locals would perform whenever he made his appearance there. Whenever he arrived, he had his special troops with him. In particular, he was surrounded by the SS elite raised to protect him. Noteworthy is that they wore death skulls on their collars.

About knowing what the SS entailed when he entered its organisation, this is more than a mere puzzle. Given all the propaganda in favor of Hitler and National Socialism, this one sidedness could be questioned, if one wanted to see human reality with sober eyes. Instead Günter Grass started to believe in Hitler's end vision and end solution at one and the same time. Typical for the SS mentality was moreover the wish to escape the narrow confines of the parents' home and to explore the wide world even though the means for this were more than merely doubtful. That propaganda techniques had been refined by this time, there is no doubt that technical innovation brought about new forms of communication which can be highly seductive. There stands out that Goeppels made sure that with the modern film technique (Kodak had astonished the world by screening for the first time in 1941 a film in color) this propaganda could entice everyone to follow the leader. Yet it made it equally possible to see to where this would lead to. More so, any leader can be judged and appraised by the people who surround him. Thus the SS troop in being so close to the dictator meant in terms of discipline but also mistrust, that things and all human relationships would be transformed, if not be completely corrupted due to being so close to an absolute power with no regard for fellow human beings. Alone by mere intuition everyone could know that it would be wise not to come too close with such a power. One would only join such a manifestation of absolute power if disposed oneself already to do such things which would convert political into criminal actions. The extermination of the Jews and others was such a case.

Moczarski recounts in his 'Dialogue with the henchman', that Jürgen Stroop told him while together in jail, that the SS used already methods of terrorism to win local elections in 1933. That is important since there persists always this myth that Hitler was legitimately voted into power in 1933. Again any observer could see quite easily what happened in due course once the National Socialists had gained power. For it was accompanied by the burning of books while jolting the world by marching into Austria and annexing Czechoslovakia before the invasion of Poland started Second World War in September 1939. This was not even a defensive war but an outright invasion of first the Western powers, including Holland, Belgium and France, and then of the Eastern. After Poland came Russia. But by 1944 the tide had turned already against this German dominance. Africa had fallen, in Greece there was strong resistance as was in France and especially in Poland, so to side with the oppressor by joining the German military force, it must have been some kind of fanaticism which could prompted a seventeen year old to join the SS.

The SS may have been a point of attraction from one possible vantage point, and this is also mentioned by Günter Grass. There everyone received a much better, equally harder training, but with it came privileges, or a better life than what average Germans had and experienced during those war years. It may well be conceivable that Günter Grass joined in order to live it rough, but equally to let out his sexual fantasies. That needs to be reflected upon since most of the sexual images he communicates through his literature are distasteful, insofar as they are devoid of any sensitivity and erotics. With this goes also an instinctive feeling for power, a power that other fears. Hence dominance in both a military and a sexual sense would strengthen the ego of a young man in the belief once through this, then everything is possible and a world is open to him.

Jürgen Stroop himself connected the end vision with a dream to have a huge estate in the Ukraine where he could ride out. Almost naïve in this linkage between subscribing oneself to hard discipline within a special organisation and the knowledge of having then the Right and the Chance to enjoy afterwards special privileges, that may have been most tempting and a lure to subject oneself to such a power. The SS was feared by everyone. Everyone could see that coming. Peter Weiss describes in 'Aesthetics of Resistance' how everyone feel silent as the command language of the SS started to dominate in all walks of life, and no one dared to say a word against those who had the power to even deport people if only never to be heard of again. Günter Grass himself had experienced that already while still at school insofar as a conscious objector to military service simply disappeared and was never heard of again. He did not wonder about it but even contributed towards ganging up on this person with the others and therefore had already his first taste of what it means to apply torture to someone opposing the trends of the times.

Given the fact that Günter Grass now claims in retrospect to have been highly naïve when back then he joined the SS at the age of seventeen, there has to be added as a strong counter point an observation made by Mocrarski. After listening to Jürgen Stroop's account of how he grew up to become who was, namely a henchman, Mocrarski wondered what happens to a society in which no one has made a real experience of freedom or developed a notion of another kind of world, one which is based on justice and conveyed by people with open minds?

But to come out with such a revelation only sixty years later, that is a bit too much and too late. Günter Grass should have come forth much earlier, since now it means in retrospect he has deceived many people about his true intentions. He deceived not only his own children, including Laura, but also the many who had supported him in various forms from translators of his books to those who made possible his public readings to those who voted for him when he was elected to be president of the Academy of the Arts.

Just at the last International Pen Club meeting in Berlin 2006, he was again the main speaker as he had been ten years earlier. Again the addressed the moral issues of the world as if speaking from a 'free conscience'. The latter does give a writer the possibility to speak up. But by having deceived people for such a long time, Günter Grass has not merely damaged himself, but equally those who stood by him and defended him against all critics. They too, and in particular his autobiographers, stand to be criticized that they were too naïve about him and his own relationship to the past.

After Second World War had ended, Günter Grass selected the color 'grey' as symbol for mourning, and even when he went to India to draw poverty, he did it with a pencil, that is in the color grey. Still, one wonders what Paul Celan would have advised him, if he had known about his past? Paul Celan was the one who encouraged Günter Grass during his visit to Paris to give up poetry and to write instead in prose. That was a crucial turning point in the life of Günter Grass and started his life as a world renowned novelist.

If anything, Günter Grass can now be perceived within the context as defined as outcome by the colloquium about Fascism which was conducted under the guidance of Klaus Heinrich. The conclusion was that 'Fascism had not been defeated in 1945, but has learned to mask itself better than ever before!' To stay silent for so long is like wearing that mask to deceive.

Now that the mask is off, the question is what else shall unravel as a result? Certainly in retrospect it can explain many things felt or perceived intuitively, but for which there was no real proof but also easily doubted especially if drawn into controversial discussions ending with no conclusive proof. For it would be about a political aesthetics whether or not scenes described by Günter Grass when someone made love like a butcher was tasteful or depicted social reality?

The key question in terms of interpretation of his works shall now be where had he been consistent all along by following up him being politically naïve when seventeen with a strong nationalist streak. This would amount to a consistency in terms of an inconsistency his moral claims and criticisms would lead one to expect. Altogether Günter Grass comes from sculpture and knows about images and symbols which can occupy the mind. His writings are full of allegories and allusions to knowing things, even though he picks up only obvious trends in society and reinforces them by devoting his literary works to that. It is like making the obvious become more subtle so that it can surface more fully at a later date. For instance, Oscar in his physical appearance reflects the deformation of a nation after having been divided into East and West Germany. Later on he would pick up as said the plight of Germans being refugees and therefore victims of the war. It is a way to circumvent real human pain by inserting a highly artificial and symbolic one but which is presumable the platform for a new form of identification. That can and does make Günter Grass into a nationalist writer or a writer of a special brand. If that evokes a furious counter reaction, then it should be remembered what Adorno wrote in 'Minima Moralia' about the means of deploying a lie in such a way that one no longer recognizes of lying to oneself and others, insofar as all efforts go into convincing oneself that nothing but the truth is being said. Yet this claim of truth is most doubtful to say the least in the case of Günter Grass especially if measured by the same high moral standards he has to soften claimed to refer to when criticizing others or the political situation in general.

Günter Grass may not be able to answer really the question why he did not perceive as a seventeen year old the full meaning of the SS, but to the extent to what could be known even at naïve level, everything could warn anyone not to join such an organisation unless one wishes a complete transformation in character and personality. It was definitely going against the spirit of humanity. Thus by not merely volunteering during the late stage of the war to escape the narrow confines of the family's home, an opposition smacking of stupidity, he confessed as well to being not merely receptive to NS ideology, but out of his belief in the end vision and solution, he did join the SS. In short, it means that he had back then no independent base to judge such an ideology nor did he draw any for himself disturbing conclusions about the impact the joining such an organization had upon fellow men and women. For it goes beyond being mere devout followers of Hitler for it meant literally serving him at the highest possible level of competence and therefore immorality.

The question is now whether his art and literature has to be perceived not only as being the highest art in deception, but also a carrier of a new ideology of German nationalism? So far it had always been masked by being outspoken and equally critical of many political developments, therefore something like an exemplary pupil of democratic practice in the new Germany, at least its Western part, as it was forged into becoming a reliable partner for NATO and a member of the Western world. Definitely his outspoken nature is incompatible to the silence he practiced back then both at school and when joining the SS. How then to explain this huge difference between then and now?

The revelation is shattering and shameful. It comes sixty years too late. He should have known better then deceiving the public. This matter is by far more serious then the question what can be expected or not of a seventeen year old boy. What the Nobel Prize Committee shall do in retrospect, cannot be anticipated, but there is the thesis had it been known, it might have been highly doubtful that he would have received the prize. It is deplorable to think of him being now in the same company as Albert Camus, Heinrich Böll, Elytis, Pablo Neruda or Seamus Heaney, to name but a few. It is impossible for literature to be without a moral base and a voice of a writer carried by a free conscience. It is all the more amazing what Günter Grass wrote and did over a span of the years since 1945. Unfortunately this revelation has made his works if not null and void, then highly doubtful. It leaves a taste of new emptiness with regards to German and world literature. That is more than just a mere pity; it is shameful, to say the least.

Hatto Fischer





Ps. In a most recent interview by Tom Segev, Günter Grass is asked on the occasion of 'Peeling of the Onion' having been translated into Hebrew and being distributed in Israel 2011 a similar question about his tendency to emphasize Germans as being mere victims while remaining largely silent about the extermination of the Jews. See

The German who needed a fig leaf


In his autobiography Gunter Grass tries to explain - to himself and others - how he was drawn to Nazi propaganda as an adolescent and did not question it until after the war.

By Tom Segev


The interview has consequences - due to Günter Grass mentioning wrong figures as to how many German soldiers were killed in Russia (about 1 Mill. while Günter Grass names a much larger number and without being specific enough as to how they died e.g. due to the hard winter conditions in Russia) and Tom Segev not correcting him although as a historian he is expected to know this. For this Tom Segev has apologized himself but argues it does not alter the nature of the interview and he does not believe that Günter Grass wanted to relativize the Holocaust victims by pointing out that Germans  became themselves victims. For follow-up of this controversial interview see report in the Spiegel:

Wirbel um Holocaust-Aussagen

Israelischer Historiker verteidigt Günter Grass

Von Stefan Kuzmany


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