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If Oskar only knew.

SS Memories Rat Out
The Stoning of Gunter Grass

It’s been a curious few days for German civilization. There was news that Berlin was considering sending troops to Lebanon as part of the multinational contingent that would patrol the south of what’s left of the shredded country. Since the waning days of World War II, “it has been unthinkable,” as the London Times had it, “that Germans would put themselves in a combat situation in which their soldiers could shoot at Jews.” Now they just might (with a signal difference: the Jews won’t idly stand for being shot at this time, least of all by Germans in Hezbollah territory that happens to have its share of Polish-countryside-like Christian bell-towers here and there). Then there was the revelation by Günter Grass, who’s spent his literary life as the conscience of German history and guilt, that he’d joined the Waffen SS as a 17-year-old in those same waning days of World War II. No word yet on whether Grass will be part of the German contingent heading to Lebanon.

It is a literary Nuremberg. Germans are busy blitzkrieging Grass’s apparent hypocrisy. Poles want him to renounce his status as an honorable citizen of Gdansk, the city where he was born and drafted. Americans conservatives hesitate only mildly to go in full reactionary mode on such a tasty target. President Bush, who’s been too busy reading Camus and nakedly posing for a Harley Davidson centerfold, remains a stranger to the controversy, leaving it to Karl Rove to figure out how to spin the Grass story to Republicans’ advantage in the mid-term elections. There must be some footage somewhere of Grass blistering Ronald Reagan for visiting the cemetery at Bitburg in 1985, where SS officers are buried. Rove could superimpose that with a new twist on the flip-flop strategy that worked so well in the sinking of the U.S.S. Kerry, who might as well, in purportedly Christian, “conservative” eyes, have been a member of the SS.

Can you blame the stoning of Grass, this brilliantly self-righteous man who’s devoted his life to lecturing Germans (and the world) about not forgetting, who’s never missed an opportunity to remind his fellow countrymen of their closet this and closet that (racism in their treatment of Turkish and other immigrants, colonialism in their devouring of East Germany after unification, consumerism in their devouring of everything, American-style, since the 1950s). “The past remains a brooding presence and, increasingly, a source of exasperation for ordinary Germans,” James Markham had written in 1987 in his concluding piece as the New York Times’ Bonn bureau chief, Germans “who are weary of hearing about ‘the German crime,’ in the phrase of the novelist Gunter Grass.” Well then, what about his crime?

We all knew, because Grass had made it clearer than an Albert Speer sight-line, that he’d been in the Hitler Youth. What German two years old and older hadn’t been a Hitler Youth in those days of hell made to seem halcyon-like by the Fuehrer? Grass believed everything he was told by and about the Nazis even through his days as a prisoner of war in an American camp. It’s only after Nuremberg that he wizened up. We might have expected that he’d be drafted into the Wehrmacht’s army-navy-Luftwaffe-Marines-like contingents. Regular stuff. Every German with mildly functioning limbs and a half-functioning eye was in there by 1945. But the SS? The corps that would make even Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld shudder a touch (Dick pausing a moment before ordering another rendition to an Egyptian dungeon, Don batting an eye before ordering another F-18 sortie somewhere)? The corps that provided the bullets and the gas in concentration camps, the executioners all over Germany, the re-routers of sadism to historic excess? And, by the way, Grass was drafted not just into any old SS band of butchers, but into the Waffen SS, the “elite” corps, the brutes of the brutes, the creeps de la creepdom. Sodom and Gomorrah would be a pre-K program for those guys, Dante’s circles of hell a mere sauna. It is in truth enough to want to make one keep the secret forever.

And why not? It isn’t as if confessing to one’s every personal dissonance is owed a world into which none of us chooses to spend those brief years as forcibly invited guests, in places and in circumstances and on terms never of our choosing. We only choose what we do with the trundles of crap handed us on the first day, and even then, the choice is limited. Grass had the misfortune of being born in Danzig on the eve of World War II. He was 17 when he was drafted by a machinery of death that was crumpling everything in its scope. What was I doing at 17? Bad example, maybe: Being born in Lebanon on the eve of a civil war wasn’t exactly being handed a platter of Turkish delights. I could have been drafted into the Phalangist militia, as close a descendant of the Waffen SS as you might get in Lebanon. I remember as a 12-year-old believing them to be Lebanese Christendom’s saviors, too. We all have our shames, our necessary closets. And anyway, what on earth is the difference between believing Nazi or Phalangist propaganda as a teen-ager, and believing all that “flotsam and jetsam” taught us by the Catholic Church, whose pound-for-pound record as a genocidal machine over two millennia (a stretch of time Hitler only aspired to) either rivals or exceeds the Nazis?

But I lucked out. At 13, I was whisked out of Lebanon. At 17, I was in a United Nations International classroom in Manhattan, leering at passages of “The Tin Drum” with one eye and at my darling French teacher Ida with the other. She’d assigned us Grass, in French translation, out of the same perverse pleasure she’d assign us Baudelaire poems or some journey to the depths of hell by Céline (Louis Ferdinand, not Dion, though hers take us to equally deep hells now) — to watch us squirm over one orgasmic metaphor or another. My most vivid memory of “The Tin Drum,” as I imagine it must be for most of those who’ve read it but wouldn’t admit it from inside the self-righteous glass house they’re now using as they lob shells at old Gunter, is of Oskar rushing for his sitter’s pubes, I forget exactly why—forgetting being one’s memory’s foremost act of self-defense, especially when prim and proper morals so badly tinged by Catholic guilt (in my case) insist on having their say. Which, naturally, brings us back to Grass and his Augustinian confession.

In Grass’s defense, he never pretended to be a truth-teller. He is a novelist, a teller of lies in a long, more than honorable, eternally admired tradition: “People have always told tales. Long before humanity learned to write and gradually became literate, everybody told tales to everybody else and everybody listened to everybody else’s tales,” he said in his Nobel lecture seven years ago. He went on:

Before long it became clear that some of the still illiterate storytellers told more and better tales than others, that is, they could make more people believe their lies. And there were those among them who found artful ways of stemming the peaceful flow of their tales and diverting it into a tributary, that, far from drying up, turned suddenly and amazingly into a broad bed, though now full of flotsam and jetsam, the stuff of sub-plots. And because these primordial storytellers – who were not dependent upon day or lamp light and could carry on perfectly well in the dark, who were in fact adept at exploiting dusk or darkness to add to the suspense – because they stopped at nothing, neither dry stretches nor thundering waterfalls, except perhaps to interrupt the course of action with a "To Be Continued ..." if they sensed their audience's attention flagging, many of their listeners felt moved to start telling tales of their own.

And so he did. His Nobel lecture was, in fact, entitled “To Be Continued…” That his Scheherazadian journey opted to reveal this latest twist now, as opposed to when he was 40, 50 or 60 is up to his novelists’ devices. Judge him all you please. I think you’d be wrong. You’d be missing, if not quite his point (there’s always the best-selling business sense in him that knows how to score a smash hit), then at least his purpose in this life not of his choosing. He is a born teller of tales, of truths in the shape of absorbing lies, because that’s the great novelist’s best means, because they’re truths we don’t want to hear. Including this last, this seeming dagger in the heart of Grass’ career that, in reality, is only the most fitting revelation. It closes the circle. It fills him out. It doesn’t change his work. It enhances it, and him: He could have chosen to take the secret to his grave, and entrusted his wife, who also knew, to do so as well. We’ll never know what secrets other lesser and greater men have taken to their graves. We now know his. It’s a favor, not a condemnation, and its as tragic a coda as even he could not have imagined for one of his novels. He didn’t reveal it until now not merely because it shames him, but because it shames his powers of imagination. His life was bested by circumstances. His story as a teller of tales was bested by reality. There can be no greater shame to a true novelist.

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