Not an Open Letter

The self-made jury has handed down its decision: For his previous life in the Waffen SS, Günter Grass—and his work—should receive the maximum penalty.

Morality has become a hot commodity. A dubious fiction, this attempt to suggest that bad politics might be cured by the humane slogans of literature.
—Günter Grass, Literature & Politics

And yet, Günter, it now seems less dubious. That the poor judgment of youth could be so vanquished by a humane pen. You may not have been one for slogans, but your fables and addresses, written as they were from the podium, have proved powerful unguents on an open political sore. So now you say you were complicit? We knew that from Oskar. And you have found shame a burden? Welcome to your own club.


* * *

From the hand-wringing and bluster that has greeted Günter Grass’s recent self-outing as a moralist with an SS history, one thing is perfectly clear. Grass is a success. His decades-long exhortation has been heard—more than heard, physically absorbed—by a nation that now declares to have lost faith in his voice. The public reception of his confession is proof of his persuasion.

For half a century Grass has demanded that Germans, both readers and writers, not redact from their histories the shadows of the past. This has been his message ever since he burst onto the scene with his Tin Drum, the story of a charlatan and escapist, a poster-child for the confusion between infantilism and innocence. “Grow up!” he cried, “or be lost in the fog of victimhood.” Now, nearing 80, he has opted for full disclosure himself, and his countrymen, won over by a long campaign on behalf of collective and “compulsive” memory, are crying foul.

The question is, will they come to recognize that Grass’s wrong is precisely why he is right? That his life’s work—fiction and non—rests upon not the suggestion, but the evidence, that humanity can trump history. That the creative is restorative. That redemption does not have to be sought to be granted.


* * *

My explanations soon become long-winded and circuitous and complicated, and I stop making sense altogether.
—Günter Grass, A Father’s Difficulties in Explaining Auschwitz to His Children

Well, try us, Günter. Or have you already? Was the chapter in My Century in which Ehardt confesses to have botched an execution of a Jewish prisoner at Oranienburg—the one titled “1934”—a good deal more cathartic than we had ever thought? Is that why you scuttled the retort now hang on here, we’ve been subjected too! into the sideways pages of Crabwalk, just as you spoke of the road toward explanation as one step forward and two steps back?


* * *

In one of what will surely become dozens of “Open Letters to Günter Grass,” Daniel Johnson of the New York Sun berates the author on behalf of “the victims, living and dead, of the regime you tried so hard to prolong.” To extrapolate murderous zeal from youthful enthusiasm is a bit of soapbox machination, particularly in light of the generally accepted account of Grass’s brief service—during which he apparently came down with jaundice and shrapnel and never fired his weapon. More to scale is Joachim Fest’s comparison of the author to a used-car salesman. And one can’t help wondering how stripping Grass of his laurels will help those who once revered him sleep more soundly at night.

For anyone to be shocked to learn that Grass was once less controlled in his embrace of ancient calls, fabulous and taboo, is to display an ignorance of his work or of human nature or both. To be sure, there’s nothing unfair in expecting, from the author who readily took on the role of “conscience of a generation,” a more thorough debriefing of his actions and rationale for joining Hitler’s elite. But it is a disingenuous plea. Grass, I would venture, has expressed his conflicted past already in a dozen novels, countless essays and handful of poetry collections under his name. As Daniel Kehlmann writes this Sunday in the New York Times, the unclassifiable crimes of an entire era “are crimes that few books chronicle so well as The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years.”

That is not to suggest that the annoyed Nazi Ehardt from My Century is Grass himself (I leave it to the Daniel Johnsons of the world), but it is to accept that the mind that gave us Tulla the slightly debased and a lab rat as hero, the mind that vaulted a silent scream into divided Germany and spoke plainly on the Wall and on Israel and on Dresden and on civic engagement—was hissing in the alley all along.


* * *

A writer is a professional rememberer … Memory is his gold mine, his garbage dump, his archive. Perhaps it is an occupational perversion that allows him to enjoy putting to use remembered pain, embarrassment, even failures.
—Günter Grass, I Remember…

So is that it, Günter? Are you exploiting your skeletons to boost book sales as everyone is saying? Did you, a Nobel Prize-winning octogenarian, pit your good name and legacy against royalties, and did 300,000 in sales and a no. 1 ranking on Amazon win out? Somehow, such cynicism strikes me as more clichéd than deserved and I’m not buying.


* * *

Like Salman Rushdie and John Irving, authors who have broken ranks to support him in his hour of outcry, Günter Grass is a fabulist. He is, with his flounder and snail and fizz powder and drumsticks, both Aesop and Marquez, with a touch of deSade. He wraps his heroes in fetish like a costumer with extra velveteen.

This is his gift to literature—an unwavering devotion to myth. His gift to cultural conscience is a frank application of those myths against the ills of society. For anyone to be shocked to learn that Grass was once less controlled in his embrace of ancient calls, fabulous and taboo, is to display an ignorance of his work or of human nature or both.

Betrayal, also, is an emotion of curious origin in this matter. I’m hesitant to comment on how Grass’s generation might feel about what could be a surprising unmasking, for their collective experience is not mine. I do find, however, among all the responses—journalistic, analytical, and vituperative—that those that ring truest are those that remind us that a small inner circle knew of Grass’s secret long ago. And did not raise a hue and cry.

But the silence! insist the critics, unwavering in their condemnation. And I wonder what a half-century of silence does to the coda of a scream. Call it an occupational perversion, but some of us consider the mortal and moral flaws seen in this affair as the crux of a great character—fictional or non. And yes, we are all the more eager to hear Grass break his loudmouth silence and show us the peeled onion.


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem