Novelist Günter Grass Admits to Youthful Nazi Ties Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

One of Germany’s leading writers, Günter Grass was long an outspoken critic of his nation’s reluctance to come to terms with its criminal Nazi past. He thus created a scandal when he admitted that when he was a teenager he himself had been a member of a Waffen-SS paramilitary unit, after more than sixty years of silence about this episode in his life.

Summary of Event

In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) about his memoir Beim häuten der Zwiebel (2006; Peeling the Onion, 2007), Günter Grass discussed his revelation in the book that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS, the combat division of the elite Nazi paramilitary force, for a brief period in 1944-1945. The SS was responsible for the majority of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime, including the Holocaust Holocaust, and was condemned as a criminal organization at the Nuremberg Trials (1945-1949); the Waffen-SS, however, which included conscripted soldiers, was exempted from prosecution. [kw]Grass Admits to Youthful Nazi Ties, Novelist Günter (Aug. 12, 2006) [kw]Nazi Ties, Novelist Günter Grass Admits to Youthful (Aug. 12, 2006) Grass, Günter Nazi collaborators and sympathizers;Günter Grass[Grass] World War II[World War 02];Nazi collaborators Grass, Günter Nazi collaborators and sympathizers;Günter Grass[Grass] World War II[World War 02];Nazi collaborators [g]Europe;Aug. 12, 2006: Novelist Günter Grass Admits to Youthful Nazi Ties[03650] [g]Germany;Aug. 12, 2006: Novelist Günter Grass Admits to Youthful Nazi Ties[03650] [c]Publishing and journalism;Aug. 12, 2006: Novelist Günter Grass Admits to Youthful Nazi Ties[03650] [c]Literature;Aug. 12, 2006: Novelist Günter Grass Admits to Youthful Nazi Ties[03650] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 12, 2006: Novelist Günter Grass Admits to Youthful Nazi Ties[03650] [c]Military;Aug. 12, 2006: Novelist Günter Grass Admits to Youthful Nazi Ties[03650] [c]Ethics;Aug. 12, 2006: Novelist Günter Grass Admits to Youthful Nazi Ties[03650]

Press photographers swarm Günter Grass during a reading of his revealing book Peeling the Onion in December, 2007, in Prague.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Although Grass had never concealed his enthusiasm for the Nazi movement as a teenager, he had always maintained publicly that his involvement in World War II was limited to service with FLAK, Germany’s antiaircraft service, in 1944. One biography, Michael Jürgs’s Bürger Grass: Biografie eines deutschen Dichters (2002; citizen Grass: biography of a German poet), is based on countless hours of interviews with Grass about his youth, and it perpetuates the story of his wartime service. Jürgs revised the biography and addresses Grass’s Waffen-SS service and the attendant scandal in Günter Grass: Eine deutsche Biografie (2007; Günter Grass: a German biography). Within his private circle, Grass had confided the truth only to his wife, though not to his children, and to a small group of colleagues, including Austrian writer Schindel, Robert Robert Schindel. Schindel affirmed in a statement to the Viennese daily Die Presse that Grass had told him about his Waffen-SS service more than twenty years earlier and talked about it on numerous occasions.

In the FAZ interview, Grass addressed his treatment in Beim häuten der Zwiebel of his childhood in Danzig (now Gdańsk) at the beginning of the war, his involvement in the Hitler Youth Hitler Youth, his application to join a submarine mission as a fifteen-year-old boy eager to leave home, and his unexpected summons to active, though fairly uneventful, service two years later in the Frundsberg division of the Waffen-SS. Grass’s activity in the Waffen-SS was limited; he never fired a single shot in combat and spent the majority of his time either sick with jaundice or training on outmoded weaponry. Grass has affirmed that he was unaware that his assignment was to be with the Waffen-SS until he arrived in Dresden, yet even then he was willfully blind to the real nature of the organization and felt no sense of guilt or shame for his affiliation until after the war. Since then, however, he had reproached himself heavily for his susceptibility to Nazi propaganda and his failure to ask the necessary questions.

Interestingly, Beim häuten der Zwiebel had been distributed to reviewers several weeks prior to the publication of Grass’s interview in FAZ on August 12, 2006. Evidently, none had been eager enough in his or her reading to come across the sparse passages devoted to Grass’s recollection of his service in the Waffen-SS. The record of Grass’s internment in a U.S. POW camp in Bavaria, undiscovered for over sixty years, was quickly retrieved after his admission had been made public. Similarly, several months after the scandal broke, German biographer Klaus Wagenbach came across his notes from an unfinished Grass biography from 1963 that contained references to the dates, locations, and nature of Grass’s military service. It would seem, therefore, that Grass had not elected to conceal his past with the Waffen-SS until after the year 1963. As it was, however, the public was completely unprepared for the “global shock” that was unleashed by the publication of the FAZ interview.

The prevailing immediate reaction was one of anger and disillusionment, particularly in Germany and Poland, Grass’s birthplace, where the term “SS-man” is held synonymous in the Polish language with the devil and the incarnation of pure evil. Numerous literary figures and intellectuals felt compelled to speak out in defense or condemnation of their colleague. While some lauded Grass’s courage in his voluntary public disclosure of his past, others joined in the general outcry against Grass’s protracted silence, attacking his past indictments of Germany’s repression of its criminal past—for instance, his vehement denunciation of the visit by Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;at Nazi cemetery[Nazi cemetery] Ronald Reagan and German chancellor Kohl, Helmut Helmut Kohl in 1985 to the Bitburg military cemetery, which contained the graves of SS soldiers—as evidence of gross hypocrisy and moral duplicity.

The timing of Grass’s revelation likewise gave rise to mistrust and speculation as to his motives. In the FAZ interview, Grass had explained simply that the truth had weighed heavily on him and had to come out, adding that the need to break his silence had, in part, motivated the writing of Beim häuten der Zwiebel. However, the theory that Grass deferred his announcement until after securing the Nobel Prize in Literature quickly gained widespread currency, as did the notion that his interview with FAZ was a publicity stunt to promote his new book. Certainly, whatever damage Grass’s revelation may have done to his reputation and standing as a moral authority, it was a boon for the sales of Beim häuten der Zwiebel.

Impact

In the light of the tremendous interest aroused by the FAZ interview, the release date of the memoir was moved from September 1 to August 15. By August 31, all 150,000 copies of the first edition had been sold, and the second printing, consisting of 100,000 copies, was already on its way to bookstores. The memoir immediately soared to the top of the best-seller lists in Spiegel, Der (magazine) Der Spiegel and Focus magazines. By the same time, translations for England, the United States, France, and Denmark were already under way, with plans being made for a translation conference in December with the author and the representatives of approximately twenty European and non-European languages.

In view of Grass’s admission of his involvement in the Waffen-SS, many critics called for him to be stripped of some of the many honors he had acquired over the course of his long career; most notably, of the Nobel Prize in Literature and of his honorary citizenship in the city of Gdańsk. Both of these campaigns were short-lived, however. The Nobel Foundation in Sweden issued an announcement on August 15 that the conferment of a Nobel Prize was irrevocable. Lech Wałęsa Wałęsa, Lech , former president of Poland, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and one of the first and most outspoken advocates for rescinding Grass’s honorary citizenship, changed his position after reading Grass’s explanatory and conciliatory letter of August 23 to the mayor of Gdańsk.

Other proposals for Grass’s punishment or atonement quickly followed but met with little response. These proposals include those by literary critic Hellmuth Karasek, who suggested to the German broadcaster ZDF that Grass should donate his Nobel Prize money to a charitable organization for the victims of the Waffen-SS regime. Conservative German politician Erika Stein called for Grass to turn over his honorarium for Beim häuten der Zwiebel to Polish victims of Nazism. The Polish vice minister of national education called for Grass to use the book’s proceeds to finance the printing of history books for Polish children. Grass did, however, voluntarily refuse the prestigious Brückenpreis (Bridge Prize) from the Polish city of Görlitz that was offered to him at the end of August, out of the fear that the conferment would ultimately be revoked under the pressure of public protest. Grass, Günter Nazi collaborators and sympathizers;Günter Grass[Grass] World War II[World War 02];Nazi collaborators

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fuchs, Anne.“’Ehrlich, du lügst wie gedruckt’: Günter Grass’s Autobiographical Confession and the Changing Territory of Germany’s Memory Culture.” German Life and Letters 60, no. 2 (April, 2007): 261-275. Offers a psychological-literary analysis of Peeling the Onion and addresses the broader issue of collective memory in Germany.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grass, Günter. “How I Spent the War.” The New Yorker, June 4, 2007. A harrowing account of Grass’s wartime experiences in the Waffen-SS, in which he makes no attempts to excuse himself from membership but rather ponders the difficulties in recalling events of his youth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Peeling the Onion. Translated by Michael Henry Heim. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2007. English translation of Grass’s memoir of his youth, Beim häuten der Zwiebel, which included the revelation of his service in the Waffen-SS in 1944-1945.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schade, Richard E. “Layers of Meaning, War, Art: Grass’s Beim Häuten der Zwiebel.German Quarterly 80, no. 3 (Summer, 2007): 279-301. Provides a valuable critical analysis of Grass’s narrative style in the memoir and elucidates its connection to Grass’s suppression of painful wartime memories and feelings of personal moral failure.

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