Silence is not Golden: the case of Gunter Grass

The death on April 23, 2015 at age 87 of Günter Grass, the prominent German novelist who was long silent about his own past in Nazi Germany, presents an opportunity to question the combination in his personal behavior of forthrightness, truth and fiction, as well as the general unending discussion of moral culpability and responsibility of Germans in relation to the Nazi regime. Can the German people be held collectively responsible for the Nazi crimes? To what extent has there been insufficient acknowledgment of personal responsibility for participation in or tacit approval of those crimes through silence?

Günter Grass, a native of Danzig (now Gdansk), born in October 1927, was Germany’s most well known writer, as well as an artist, sculptor, and poet, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999 and was also an activist left wing intellectual in the Social Democratic Party, taking part in national and international political discussions. He knew that political reality seeped into every aspect of life in one way or another.

In his novels and many other writings, Grass expressed horror at the crimes of the Nazi regime, particularly in his early “Danzig trilogy,” The Tin Drum, published in 1959, that brought him an international reputation, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years. The Tin Drum, with its central character, Oskar the three year old dwarf who protests the Nazi regime by refusing to grow up, is located in Grass’ home city of Danzig, a city with a long history of various languages, cultures, and political points of view.

Grass was honored by Harvard University in 1976. On receiving the Nobel Prize, the Academy said his work was “as if German literature had been granted a new beginning after decades of linguistic and moral destruction.” It was said that his “frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history.”

But can Grass be considered as coming to terms with the German past or the issue of German national identity?

He did not keep his political opinions secret. He opposed the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He favored the continuation of two states because of the fear that a united Germany might again resort to military belligerence.

Grass became a member of the Hitler Youth Movement when he was ten. He became a figure of controversy when he revealed his true war record in interviews and in his memoir Peeling the Onion in 2006.  At age 16 he was conscripted into the German army for which he claimed “he never fired a shot.” He was assigned as a tank gunner to the 10th Waffen SS tank Panzer Frundsberg Division that fought until it surrendered to US forces in Marienbad. However, in the fighting he was captured by the US army in May 1945 after he was wounded in the arm, and was treated in a US military hospital. In what appears naïve fashion, Grass said that it was there that he learned what really had happened.

This is the core of the problem of Grass personally and of Germany as a whole. Grass now confessed that he had been silent about his early years. Like all Germans, the temptation was to shift the blame onto the collective guilt, “or to talk about oneself only figuratively in the third person.”

The episode, he said, weighed on him heavily, and the past oppressed him. Yet he was not altogether truthful. At first he claimed he had never served in the Panzer Division nor was aware of the activities of the SS. He was silent about his past for nearly 60 years.

Grass had completely undercut his whole position of moral outrage about Nazism. The sun, as Wordsworth wrote, that rose in splendor turned into a gewgaw. He was silent about or misstated his personal story while asking in his literary works for Germany to be honest about the Nazi past and tell the truth even when it hurts.

After his confession he could no longer claim moral authority. Rather his confession was self-serving. It was particularly ironic because he had criticized Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Ronald Reagan for the visit in 1985 to the military cemetery at Bitburg that contain the graves of Waffen-SS soldiers. If Grass had been killed his body would probably have been in that cemetery.

Other of his political opinions lacked judgment or revealed his inner feelings. For instance he found no proof that Iran was planning to build a nuclear bomb.

Most controversial of all was the prose poem, What must be said, published in April 2012 that was critical of hypocrisy in Germany over acceptance of Israel’s nuclear progress while it was critical of Iran. He considered Israel’s atomic power as endangering an  “already fragile world peace.” His poem explained he could not remain silent about what was obvious. This was the danger that Israel might attack Iran with a first strike, that would extinguish the Iranian people, and this would be done from a submarine that had been obtained from Germany. The ultimate paradox was that the youthful member of SS, the most efficient murderous group in history, was warning of the danger of Israel to a country that was threatening it with annihilation.

The musings of Grass illustrate the problem of coming to terms with Nazi Germany. He explained that in his childhood and early youth he had been exposed to unceasing Nazi propaganda and with juvenile blind faith had come to believe in the Third Reich and in Hitler. He confessed, with some vagueness and ambiguity, that no driving force was on his back.

Grass was disappointed by the strong negative reaction to his confession, especially from those who thought he should hand back his Nobel Prize. But that reaction resulted from his lack of forthrightness and his lack of judgment. It would be improper to characterize all Germans as criminals or even sympathetic to the Nazi regime or devoted admirers of Hitler, or to talk of a consensus of Germans as one entity without qualification. There were fanatics obsessed with mass murder and genocide, and those who acquiesced or collaborated or consented, and others who were opposed to the regime.

Nevertheless, two rejoinders are in order. The first is that even when one is conscious of the barbarous activities and the totalitarian controls of the regime, the verdict must be that the number of resistors and underground opposition was disappointingly low. The moral compass of Germans pointed in the wrong direction. The horrors of the Nazi regime cannot be explained away as authentic responses to fear of violence by the Soviet Union against Germany. Silence of Germans might be explained by fear of the consequences of opposition, but it cannot be defended by supposed lack of information about the horrors against Jews and others as Grass did. The regime was popular, and Nazi persecution and its mass murder of Jews were known to countless million Germans.  

The second is the fact that Grass and others failed to comprehend that the Nazi regime was unique, different in scope, purpose, and extent of the mass murder than other obnoxious regimes in history. Historians of the Nazi regime have vastly differed in their accounts of the atrocities and for the most part do not engage in moral judgment, but commentators including this one should do so in assessing blame or guilt.  Those responsible for participation in the Nazi horrors should be candid about this, not claim to be victims, and perpetrators should be judged accordingly.