In Crabwalk, his last fiction before he spilled his Waffen-SS beans, Günter Grass explained that “history, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising.”
Even in a novel about the torpedoing of the refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff by a Russian submarine in January 1945—with its indelible image of children skidding off the tilted deck into the Baltic Sea upside down, their legs sticking up out of their life jackets while their heads are underwater—this was the savage scolding we had come to expect from the seaport scourge, the Kashubian Dennis the Menace, the hard-cheese skeptic, practical radical, ferocious democrat, prophet with only intermittent honors, magic realist on the Vistula and monkey wrench in the gridwork of profit-taking, self-congratulation, false consciousness, and bad faith. “Shit” itself was a sort of signature, as if he were the second coming of a sarcastic, satiric, cajoling Martin Luther, leading another Reformation, with the vernacular’s acid vehemence, into a fart-off with Satan.
For hadn’t Grass promised his readers to wash out “damaged language” from the German mouth, to rinse it of euphemism, “soul-mush,” “mutilated words … swelled up like drifting corpses,” and the “rhymed yearning for death”?
Wasn’t Speak Out! the title of his first book of essays? Aren’t we only as sick as our secrets? Didn’t “shame on every white page” account for his Oedipal rage in going after Goethe in The Tin Drum, and Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Heidegger in Dog Years, and Kleist, Buchner, Rilke, Schiller, and Nietzsche in Local Anaesthetic, and the Brothers Grimm in The Flounder, and everybody except Grimmelshausen in The Meeting at Telgte? Couldn’t his whole furious project be described as a stable-cleaning of the high culture whose choirboys listened to Brahms and wept like bulls at the gates of Auschwitz?
In From the Diary of a Snail he told us: “I try to thin out forests of facts before they have time for new growth. To cut holes in the ice and keep them open. Not to sew up the gap. Not to tolerate jumps entailing a frivolous departure from history, which is a landscape inhabited by snails.” A 1978 essay on the novelist Alfred Döblin began, “The human head is bigger than the globe. It conceives itself as containing more. It can think and rethink itself and ourselves from any desired point outside the gravitational pull of the earth. It starts by writing one thing and later reads itself as something else. The human head is monstrous.” And a 1979 article on a New York exhibition of the treasures of the Danzig Central Synagogue concluded, “What shall we tell our children? Take a good look at the hypocrites. Distrust their gentle smiles. Fear their blessing.”
I so soft-shoe up to the subject because I have my own small investment in Günter Grass. I have reviewed him somewhere forever, from The Tin Drum for Pacifica Radio in Berkeley in 1962 to Crabwalk for Harper’s 40 years later. I had lunch with him once, in the late sixties, although Michael Harrington did all the talking. I shared the stage with him once, at the 92nd Street Y in 1977, where I read a chapter of The Flounder in English and mispronounced the names of every character. I considered him to be one of Eric Hobsbawm’s social bandits—a Rob Roy, Dick Turpin, Pancho Villa, or Cartouche. His abrupt admission, at age 78, on the eve of the publication of his autobiography, that he’d been drafted as a 17-year-old in 1944 into the Jorg von Frundsberg Division of the Waffen SS, was a kick in the stomach.
We have ever since been ducking Schadenfreudians and their fusillade of gloats. Wolfgang Borsen, a Christian Democratic Union spokesman, lost not a nanosecond in going after his least favorite Social Democrat: “Günter Grass has been making moral demands on politicians all his life. Now he should make these demands on himself and honorably give back all the honors he received, including the Nobel Prize.” Hitler biographer Joachim Fest told us, “I wouldn’t even buy a secondhand car from this man now.”
Literary critic Hellmuth Karasek recommended silence: “I hope that finally he has the sense to shut his mouth.” Hotshot younger novelist Daniel Kehlmann suggested in a Times op-ed piece that Grass had kept his SS secret in order to win his Nobel Prize. Die Welt columnist Hans Zippert argued that Grass let this cat out of its bag merely in order to sell books.
Solidarity hero Lech Walesa decided he no longer wished to share his honorary Gdansk citizenship with such a creature: “I don’t feel good in this kind of company. If it had been known that he was in the SS, he would never have been given the award. The best thing would be for him to hand it back himself.” And in an open letter to Grass in the New York Sun, Daniel Johnson actually compared him to Adolf Eichmann: “The most striking difference is that [Eichmann] was found out 45 years ago, and paid for his crimes with his life. You got away with it.”