August 17, 2006



To remind people to be more human, to remember the sins of our past individually and as a culture, and try to make the world better than we found it, takes no moral high ground. Grass' public announcement of his past shows me a great amount of strength. It tells me only that the things he preaches to others are a result of the demons he lives with, that he knows exactly what it is to struggle with his own humanity.

Give me a man who is flawed over any saint, it shows me how man can overcome his past.


That's one valid and very generous reading. An equally valid (though considerably more cynical, I admit) reading is that Grass preferred to control the fallout from this inevitable discovery during his lifetime, rather than have it emerge posthumously, when he could no longer answer to it.

Still, even if your take is the truth (and surely, we can never really know), it might be more palatable if Grass had demonstrated some of this uncertainty throughout his life. But it's the unrelenting certitudes that now clash with this image of internal conflict we're expected to believe.

But in truth, Dan, I much prefer the world in which you're right.

Niall Anderson

"A certain amount of consistency seems a minimum"

One shouldn't be too rude to one's host on his own turf, of course - but, dude, you said it.

You write about Grass's "unrelenting certitudes". Were these "certitudes" unpalatable to you before the current furore, or only in hindsight? Has Grass's self-revelation suddenly made these certitudes wrong? Or were they always wrong? Grass may not be the only person here who could be accused of trying to have it both ways.

You also write that "Grass's [legacy] should be reevaluated and appropriately and permanently diminished over this". Do you plan to take part in that "appropriate" diminution yourself? Where do you plan to start your reevaluation? Does one look to 'Crabwalk', for instance (Grass's novel about the Gustloff), and review one's reading of it in the light of current circumstances? Because, heck - the point of that book is to show that war-crimes were committed against Nazi Germany, too. Does that theme suddenly smell a bit funny to you, now, coming as it does from a declared Waffen SS man? Or did the book always smell a bit funny?

Or isn't that just a silly way of reading and assessing works of fiction?

Look, I mean no disrespect, and you have every right to your cynicism about Grass's motives for telling the world, now as opposed to earlier, about his military record. But the current row about Grass is a pointless one. We can only really begin to ask questions about his conduct when he publishes his memoir and gives a full account of himself. And even then, the time for outright condemnation is some way off.

Jimmy Beck

I don't get the handwringing. Seems to me this is nothing less than a brilliant career move. Look what it did for the Pope!


Niall, this may surprise you but I neither find you rude, nor do I entirely disagree with you.

I find a lot of merit in much of what you say - especially your admonition to wait to read the memoir before making any final decisions. The only thing you say that I disgaree with outright is that "the current row about Grass is a pointless one." And on that, there may be no bridging our gap, given that to me, shock and dismay seems the only sensible reaction. But that presumes, per your Crabwalk questions, that one has been more ... let's call it "favorably disposed" ... to Grass than, reading between the lines, your post seems to suggest you've been. ALthough my only closing question is, given his prevarications, how completely will be ever be able to trust his "full account"? Who will be able to say what is being left out?

Thoughtful disagreements welcome here any time, Niall. Thanks for your comments.

Niall Anderson

Thanks for taking my remarks in good spirits.

You may be right in suggesting that one of the reasons I'm able to be so damn equable about the present furore is that neither Grass nor most of his books mean very much to me. I've read some and enjoyed them; I've read others and disliked them. And his overtly political writings ('From the Diary of a Snail', 'Headbirths', even 'Too Far Afield') are so specifically German, so intensely focussed on questions of German identity and history, and above all so rooted to the era in which they were written, that it's difficult to imagine any non-German reader truly getting into them. I certainly couldn't.

All of which is a way of saying that I may be underestimating Grass's importance as a national political figure - as an almost Tolstoyan moral force in Germany. I'm not convinced that I am, though; in fact, it seems more likely to me that both Grass's defenders and attackers in the present debate are overestimating the extent of his general influence and the resonance of his political arguments. What does Grass the public figure really mean to young Germans - to those too young to remember his especially militant period in the late 70s/early 80s? Do his politics have any contemporary relevance at all?

'Headbirths' is an interesting read in this context. It's full of faintly crazy and definitely alarmist musings about what it means to have so many Turks in Germany at the end of the 70s/beginning of the 80s. To be fair, Grass was merely the most distinguished commentator to take a crack at the subject at that time. But read outside of that era (read as literature, that is to say, rather than as swanky journalism), it reads like the sweated, panicky tome it is. Certainly, I don't know many people who revisit that book these days.

But - like Solzhenitsyn - once you've established the reputation as some kind of seer, you never quite shake it off: no matter how cranky some of your arguments might be. Grass has both benefited and suffered because of this reputation in the past. Now he's only suffering.

To answer your final point: what have we really got to work on until Grass releases his memoir? The current "debate" is not a debate at all - just fumes from the mid-market press. I expect Grass's memoir to do nothing except clear the ground a little on the matter of his conduct during the war, and after, and to give us - his readers - our first real chance to decide: 1) whether he has a case to answer; and more importantly, if he does: 2) what that case might actually consist of.

It may even be worse than you suspect.

Anna Clark

I recently blogged about this at Isak (www.isak.typepad.com), and it seems pertinent:

"Don't get me wrong.

I'm not saying that it wasn't morally disgusting that Günter Grass, Germany's Nobel prize winning author, signed up with the Nazi Waffen SS when he was an eager 17-years-old. And I'm not saying that it's equally bewildering that he'd keep such a dark secret throughout his decades of peace activism, as he urged Germany to face up to its past, and the U.S., to its present.

But I'm impressed that Grass did confess, after all. The dude's 78-years-old. He could easily have passed through this world without anyone knowing a thing. And he chose to rile things up, to take a hell of a lot of scorching criticism, to be honest.

And no, I don't think that this admission undercuts Grass' impressive work for peace and nonviolence in the past five/six decades. If anything, it sends a more powerful message

The whole thing reminds me of a book by Michael Eric Dyson called I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr., that, the author reports, met with backlash from some black communities. Dyson's biography relays not just King's great accomplishments and words, but also his infidelities and the plagarism in his doctoral thesis. Dysons says that many black friends and critics were angry at him for sullying King's image.

"Thanks for doing the white man's job for him," Dyson recalls being scolded.

But Dyson holds fast to his belief that sanitized versions of Martin Luther King, Jr. serve the false belief that people have to be perfect in order to be useful, and it contributes to a censorship of "our full investigation of black life. We are left with truncated visions of black culture and achievement." To sugarcoat King would be of the same instinct as to deny "that slavary was evil, that presidents slept with slaves, and that racial injustice can die in a few decades. In short, it is precisely the sort of history that denies history."

I've long despised the history-class tactic of putting big names on pedestals. "Goodness," I believe, is not the sole realm of the bold-print names in textbooks. More true, and more inspiring, is that King and Günter Grass are human beings, that they are flawed in deep ways, and still, still, they are able to accomplish tremendous good.

Which means that none of us are off the hook."

Hisham Khalifa

How many other commendable writers and humanitarians that are now gone had demons in their past that were dead and buried without anyone knowing about them? No one knows for sure.

What we know is that Grass should be commended for at least coming out before its too late. Frankly, he had no reason at all to do so. Would he have been the writer he is now, would he have written what he had if he had spoken the truth about his past earlier?


I wonder if there's something else behind Grass admitting this. I can't help but think about the recent world-cup in Germany. It's like a new national awakening of the Germans. But I'm not sure what direction it's going. There's a strange irony about Grass and all the black-red-gold flags being waved. Maybe he's trying to remind people...
Here's my take on the Grass issue:

Sean Carman

I thought John Berger summed it up pretty well:

Here is the link.

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