Regret and moral authority

Gunter Grass, in an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Friday, admitted that he served in the Waffen SS during the Second World War. It’s common knowledge that the famous novelist served in the military, but it was assumed that he served the Wehrmacht regular army, not the Waffen SS, a combat arm of the Nazi Party which was known for atrocities during the war.

Grass wrote The Tin Drum, which has been hailed as one of the most important post-war novels to come out of Germany. In 1999 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of his contribution to the field, and in September he’s publishing his memoirs. Apparently the 78 year decided now or never for the confession of his dark secret.

Many novelists, critics, and others are condemning Grass for his revelation.

Membership in the Nazi party carries heavy stigma in Germany, a country heavily scarred with regret and bitterness. Yet, as Grass pointed out in his interview, the Nazi party was greeted with enthusiasm in Germany. He was proud to be called to the Waffen SS and only later did he come to regret it.

Grass spoke to a great social myth, that Germany was innocently corrupted, “seduced by a horde of evils,” when in fact much of what happened in the Second World War “happened all in broad daylight. And with enthusiasm and with popularity.” Grass’ frankness about the issue is clearly making a lot of people uncomfortable, and now the same people who were praising him to the skies have turned against him.

What about Gunter Grass has changed? He’s still a spectacular novelist and author. He still has a great deal of insight into German post-war society. He is a man who has lived under a heavy burden of regret and sorrow, and when he confessed he was castigated for it. Now critics are claiming that he has “lost his moral authority.” This part of his past was always there–yet somehow knowledge of it makes people uncomfortable to an extreme point.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, I say. Gunter Grass only did what thousands of other Germans did during the Second World War–he joined the Nazi party with enthusiasm and he fought for the Nazis (although he claims he never fired a shot during the war). It was this phenomenon that he spoke to in The Tin Drum, the fact that Nazis were welcomed and praised after the depression that followed the First World War. Germany fought the war with eyes open, no matter what historians say now.

Later, like many others, Grass came to regret his decision, and hid the level of his involvement in the war, well aware of the social and political consequences. Now he believes that the time has come to lay his cards on the table, and he has done so.

Can you blame him?

[Gunter Grass]