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.”
Never mind that you don’t ruin your own reputation to sell extra copies of a book. That the man probably kept silent for so long about the boy who “wore that double symbol” for the very reason he says he did: He was ashamed. That we already knew he had been a Hitler Youth and refused to believe in the Holocaust till he saw photographs of “the shoes, the glasses, the hair, the corpses” that “resisted abstraction.” That anyone could have learned his secret by looking in the files at his 1946 discharge form from the U.S. Army Marienbad prison compound, on which, right above his own signature, POW No. 31G6078785 was described as a marksman for the Tenth SS Tank Division “Frundsberg.” That even as all of this speaks to a return of the repressed, none of it can touch his novels, without which, speaking as they do of the unspeakable, of the screaming midget hiding in the potato-woman’s skirts, twentieth-century European literature would be not only infinitely poorer but practically unintelligible. And that Grass himself established the measure by which he is now found wanting—we judge him from his own bench.
He was not pure. Surely that is as much a part of his authority as of his psychodynamic. What else are his books about, and not secretly? In a Dog Years fairy tale, nothing was pure—not snow, pigs, children, salt, virgins, or ideas. Crows, “creaking unoiled,” stood on pyramids of bleached bones: “nothing is pure, no circle, no bone. And piles of bones, heaped up for the sake of purity, will melt cook boil in order that soap, pure and cheap; but even soap cannot wash pure.” No wonder he dreamed in 1982 of writing a book that no longer pretended “to the certainty of the future. It will have to include a farewell to the damaged world, to wounded creatures, to us and our minds, which have thought of everything and the end as well.”
Never mind, because we live in a culture where all confessions must undergo a scarifying rite and assume a therapeutic form as rigid as Kabuki, usually involving cable television and Betty Ford; where instant opinions are available in color-coded blister packs, for niche shopping; where everything, including great novels and soul-shriving secrets, will be read through a screen of prurient self-interest by fatback bravos and heat-seeking piffles in the moral-indignation racket. I wonder what planet these people come from. I know that his kick in the stomach has left me upside down, with my legs sticking up and my head underwater. Still, when some of us emerged from all those hours of Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, we hoped against hope that we would have behaved as honorably as, say, Pierre Mendes-France. We feared that we might not have. But we could be pretty sure that if, in an awful future, we did behave honorably, one of the big reasons would be because we had prepared for our behavior by reading Günter Grass.