Ah, to live in a confessional age. The fever to publicly acknowledge past mistakes is the latest craze of popular culture. Contrition, apparently, is in. With the television box as the new confessional booth, celebrities rush to repent on Larry King, Oprah and even Tyra — all as a means of public expiation and shrewd career management.
But neither of these shows is likely to have Günter as a guest. Yes, Günter Grass, Germany’s foremost postwar writer and the winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature, is coming to America to promote his memoir, “Peeling the Onion.” And he, too, has a secret to tell. Sadly, however, it will not be a mere language barrier that prevents many of his admiring readers from understanding why he kept his secret so long.
In an interview last summer, Grass revealed that he had been a Nazi. “Peeling the Onion,” from which he will read on Monday, June 25, at the 92nd Street Y, in his first American appearance promoting the new memoir, takes his readers through this period of his concealed past. Here was a man who repeatedly condemned his own nation for failing to accept moral responsibility for its monstrous crimes against the Jews of Europe, who called on former West German Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger to resign when it was discovered that he had been a member of the Nazi Party, and, most memorably, in 1985, denounced Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Ronald Reagan for visiting the cemetery at Bitburg where decorated Nazi officers had been buried.
Grass, this self-guided moral beacon and arbiter, the novelist who beat the drums for a tin-eared nation, was himself, as a teenager, a member of the Waffen SS. He volunteered to join this elite unit at 15 and, a few years later, served during the final moments of the war.
Et, tu, Günter? This stunning revelation stands in metaphorical and factual opposition to other statements he has made over the years. For instance, in a visit to Israel in 1967, Grass assured Holocaust survivors that he “had been too young to have been a Nazi” and that he was “innocent through no merit of [his] own.” Yet, he was tainted by the same un-erasable shame that he relentlessly, and paradoxically, tarred against his own countrymen. In 1970, Grass accompanied Chancellor Willy Brandt on his historic pilgrimage to the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial and witnessed as Brandt, who spent the war years in the anti-Nazi resistance,
spontaneously and emotionally fell to his knees. Over the years Grass professed admiration for Brandt’s enduring image of German atonement. But Grass himself, as we have now come to learn, was no Willy Brandt.
Of course, when it comes to the Holocaust, skeleton imagery is usually reserved for the victims. Now we have Grass, a literary legend and a symbol of German postwar repentance, stealing this sacred imagery for himself and removing the skeletons from his own closet.
Yet, his confession arrives terribly late, and it is a curious confession, indeed. Why now, for instance? Is he sensing his own mortality, wishing to leave this world with a pure conscience if not a clean slate? Or, is it that he has once again tapped into the zeitgeist of our culture: What is fashionable now is not the accusation of collective guilt but the acceptance of responsibility. Grass may have sneaked a peek at Oprah and borrowed a page from her playbook. What better way to boost book sales than to write a memoir of his own personal failure, and let that be his final narrative statement — a closure, if not in fiction, then in fact?
But yet, while the memoir is confessional, it is not particularly contrite. Grass makes no apologies. Despite being a novelist, he assumes no more elevated moral high ground, and achieves no greater self-awareness, than a petty bureaucrat. Like Adolf Eichmann, or even the recently deceased Kurt Waldheim, Grass claims to have been merely following orders. He was young. The war was nearly over. He was desperately trying to leave the boredom of his bourgeois household and saw in the Nazis not ideology but romantic adventure. And, as for the Jews, like Eichmann, he had no childhood reason to hate them. He tells us that his mother once said, “I can’t understand why they’ve got it in for the Jews. We used to have a haberdashery sales rep by the name of Zuckermann. As nice as could be, and always gave a discount.”
Well, then, obviously Grass was not one of the bad guys. After all, his mother knew where to shop. His participation in Nazi crimes was innocuous. He never actually fired his machine gun, he ended up injured and he nearly died.
All this from the man who gave us Oskar Mazerath, the diminutive protagonist in “The Tin Drum,” who witnesses the madness of the Third Reich by feigning his own madness and shrieking to the point of driving everyone around him insane. The novel is a masterpiece of penetrating insights; “Peeling the Onion,” by contrast, removes layers of story like skin, surgically performed, as if it has no intention of ever revealing a heart.
As personal memoir, it imparts no internal protest, no deep reflection, just the faint recognition that the author of all those magical novels of moral failure ultimately accepted the same marching orders as everyone else. Grass, it seems, was ultimately deaf and indifferent to Oskar’s drumming. Like the majority, he did not answer to the wake-up call of his own imagination. Instead, he voluntarily submitted to the gory bloodlust of the Waffen SS.
And yet, for whatever reason that Grass finally told the truth, at least he did. So many others still have not. Granted, most of them took no public position on their own moral superiority, nor did they achieve such wide acclaim as a spokesman for postwar reconciliation. But if you believe in the vast intricacy of the powers of concealment, at least this memoir proves once again that, in the end, the truth always wins out. No matter how elaborately constructed, the lies, ultimately, must be undone. Grass’ confession came late, but it came. And its arrival signals some of the deeper truths of Germany’s past and how the Holocaust will forever hang over its head.
So few were actually innocent. The Nazis managed to raise the bar of blame to insurmountable heights. Those that were most guilty were truly evil. Everyone else would have to live with variations of ordinary guilt achieved during a most extraordinary time.
It may be true that the author of “Peeling the Onion” still does not quite grasp the enormity and irony of his confession. But, then again, maybe he does. After all, everyone knows that dicing and dissecting an onion is the best way to bring about tears.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and law professor and the author of “The Golems of Gotham” and “Second Hand Smoke.”