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A Legend of Words Is Toppled by His Own

August 24, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — This is the true-life fable of a hero tumbling from a moral perch of his own invention, undone by a shame kept secret for a lifetime.

The scenarios and plot twists in the disturbing saga of Germany's most famous novelist are many: Was it a publicity stunt by a 78-year-old author whose voice may have lost its resonance and vitality? Was it a preemptive move to divulge what biographers might have discovered after his death? Was it the earnest exploration to put life and art in perspective?

Gunter Grass' revelation that he marched in Adolf Hitler's SS in the final months of World War II has sent Germany's past once again trickling uncomfortably into the present. His disclosure of serving in the military branch that helped organize the Holocaust has startled his admirers and weakened his stature, often articulated in bursts of self-righteousness, as the conscience of a nation.

Grass was 17 in late 1944 when he was drafted into a Waffen SS tank division. Russian troops were pushing in from the east and the nation was at the brink of defeat. Boys and young men were hurried into battle, and most Germans today empathize with the author's brief military career. The sin for many is that Grass kept it a secret for decades, even as his novels and political essays lectured the country to reconcile its past.

The tempest around Grass comes as Germans are reexamining the war to understand how they were sometimes victims of Hitler and the Allies. Such revisionism is sensitive terrain, but also an indication that the lenses of guilt and atonement are no longer enough to assess the past.

Critics, politicians and readers are debating Grass' motivations, and why in his new autobiography, "While Peeling the Onion," the writer decided to rouse his ghosts at the possible expense of the moral authority he gained with novels such as "The Tin Drum" and "Dog Years."

"He's an old man," said Burkhard Spinnen, a critic and writer. "He's always dealt with reality and fate. For more than 50 years he's dealt with German history, and now he has to deal with his own history, which is coming to an end. You don't want to take something into your grave that cannot stand."

Stephan Speicher, a senior cultural writer at Berliner Zeitung, said:

"We all have little lies in our lives that we don't correct. They go on from day to day and from year to year. I think it's part of Grass' clearing his conscience. There's a little bit of laughing at him now. Most writers say he should have spoken out earlier. But let's not be too severe."

In an interview in the German media, Grass said he had volunteered for submarine duty but was pressed into the Waffen SS. American troops took him as a prisoner of war in April 1945, when Grass signed a document stating that he was in Hitler's elite corps.

Grass, who has always maintained that he knew nothing of the Holocaust until after the war, said he kept this part of his past "buried within myself. I can't exactly identify the reasons." He added that "in the end, it simply had to come out."

With his walrus mustache and droopy yet luminous eyes, Grass has been endlessly caricatured in the German media since his disclosure. In an allusion to "The Tin Drum," he is pictured in Der Spiegel marching and drumming a golden Nazi helmet, under the caption "The late confession of the moral apostle."

Some wanted to strip Grass of his 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature. The Central Council of Jews in Germany has condemned Grass' revelation. Charlotte Knobloch, its president, has said that the admission mars the image of a man known as an "exacting moral watchdog."

Sales for the 479-page "While Peeling the Onion" have been tremendous. The first run of 150,000 sold out in a week, and the publisher, Steidl, is shipping 100,000 more copies to bookstores next week. Some critics sense a shrewd marketing gimmick to save an autobiography of dense prose from slipping into the bargain bins.

"The worst impact of this whole thing is that he has written a very feeble book," said Gregor Dotzauer, literary critic for Der Tagesspiegel. "I think it was a public relations stunt.... It will be one of the very last scandals of its kind, though. All these scandals revolve around those 12 years of German history, and those people who lived through it are dying."

Grass had been a moralizer for a country that veered through guilt and shame while searching for its identity in the postwar years. He joined the left-leaning Social Democrats and condemned former Nazis holding government posts. His attacks on political opponents came at rallies, where he appeared with his ego intact and his pipe glowing.

There were times when he could have revealed the deeds of his youth. In 1969, Grass was giving a reading in Stuttgart when a former SS officer stood up and committed suicide by swallowing cyanide, saying, "And, now, I'd like to salute my comrades from the SS."

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