German Author Reveals Former Membership in Nazi SS

August 30, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

One of Germany’s leading literary figures, Gunter Grass, is at the center of a raging storm over his own past. The 1999 Nobel laureate for literature is widely known for his post-war, social reckoning of Germany’s genocidal past.

His best-known works are an allegorical chronicle of the rise of Nazism, called “The Danzig Trilogy,” comprised of 1963’s “Dog Years,” 1961’s “Cat and Mouse,” and, first and most famously, in 1959, “The Tin Drum,” which won an Oscar 20 years later following its screen adaptation.

But two weeks ago, as part of the rollout of his new memoir called “While Skinning the Onion,” Grass revealed that he had been part of the Hitler war machine in ways not previously disclosed. Grass claimed that, like many teenagers at the end of the war, he was pressed into service. That was not the issue.

What did enrage and sadden many Germans was the revelation that he had actually served in the Waffen-S.S., an elite force that, beyond its battlefield duties, was instrumental in the execution of Hitler’s plan to exterminate European Jewry.

The news sparked outrage in Germany. Some called for his Nobel Prize to be revoked; others accused him of rank hypocrisy; and still others called it a marketing ploy for his new book.

And with me here in Washington is Peter Schneider, himself a leading German writer, author of more than 20 novels, as well as essays and screenplays. He’s currently a distinguished writer in residence at Georgetown University.

Welcome to you.

PETER SCHNEIDER, Georgetown University: Hello.

JEFFREY BROWN: A writer publishes a memoir. He discloses a brief wartime stint previously unknown. It causes a huge uproar. Why?

PETER SCHNEIDER: Well, I think it is not so much the fact that he has been as a boy in the Waffen-S.S. It is the long time he covered this up, and also maybe the way he uncovers it now, because, I mean, why do you need a book and the advertisement of a book in order to bring forward such a confession?

But on the other hand, you know, I think you are right. Why all this fuss about it? It is excusable that he has been as a boy, it seems unwillitarity (ph) with the S.S. And most people agree about that. But most people say he should have confessed it. But there’s a contradiction. If it was a laughing matter, to be as a boy with the Waffen-S.S., why was it so bad not to talk about it for 60 years?

"Coming to terms with the past"

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in trying to figure out why this is so important in Germany, I came across one of those very long but meaningful German words. You can say it. It's translated as "coming to terms with the past." What's the word?

PETER SCHNEIDER: Vergangenheitsbewaltigung. It's one of these endless German words that Mark Twain would have loved.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, but the idea of coming to terms with the past, is that what this is all about, as so much of Germany's post-war history?

PETER SCHNEIDER: Well, I think the fact that Gunter Grass has to confess now as an 80-year-old man that he had been as a boy there does not touch in the least his literary achievements. He is a great writer; he will remain a great writer. Gabriel Marquez, Salman Rushdie, all have been inspired by "Tin Drum," and they will confess to that.

What is a problem is Gunter Grass's moral authority. It will suffer by this fact, because, if you think back through his statements, there was always a kind of toughness, even cruelty, to make the account with the old Nazi members. And if we would have known he was himself, you know, a young S.S. man, he would have spoken differently and his statements would have been taken differently.

His whole career may have been different. We might doubt whether he would ever had the Nobel Prize. Also, I say this with great conviction, he has deserved it.

Significance to Germany

JEFFREY BROWN: So you just came back from Germany. How is this debate over his legacy playing out?

PETER SCHNEIDER: One of the most interesting questions is, how could a man so famous as Gunter Grass have lived for 60 years with the danger to be uncovered? There was a document in the...

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, it wasn't that hard to find out.

PETER SCHNEIDER: No. There were 12 biographers. They could have stumbled across this document. And think a moment what it would have meant if somebody came up with such a document, and Gunter Grass would have been uncovered by somebody else, this would have been a painful moment.

So we don't understand why he has waited so long. But is there ever the right moment to confess that you have been an S.S. man? I think there is no such right moment. And Gunter Grass probably -- and this was not out of shame; this was out of calculation -- he was always clever, a clever boy, a clever man. And he said, "OK, if I confess that I was with the S.S., they will always label me as such. I am branded for the rest"...

JEFFREY BROWN: That will be who he is forever more...

PETER SCHNEIDER: Yes, "I'm branded for the rest of my life."

JEFFREY BROWN: ... in spite of this being a very short incident at a very young age.

PETER SCHNEIDER: Right. So I payback to this injustice of the world, and I cover it. I hide it. And I will choose the moment when I talk about it. And he did that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this debate will continue in Germany?

PETER SCHNEIDER: No, I think it will die out. What will continue is a certain mistrust in the moral statements of Gunter Grass. I mean, he has, I must say, with a harshness that was sometimes -- he said Germany didn't have to unify. We Germans would have to, even to renounce on our right of self-determination, because of Auschwitz and all such things. And it sounds, in hindsight, as if he wanted to punish the German people instead of punishing himself.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Peter Schneider, thanks very much.