Two friends–one born in 1913 and an exile from the Third Reich, the second born in 1927 and one of its soldiers–set out after the war to change their nation. One was Willy Brandt, who fought the Nazis underground and then returned to lead reforming governments in policies of coexistence that made the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev possible. His unforgettable genuflection at the Warsaw Ghetto Monument in 1970 expressed the anguish, and the triumph, of that other Germany we had hoped for in the Nazi years. In his campaigns he was joined by Günter Grass, one of Germany’s brilliant writers and certainly its most famous one. Grass’s portrait of his native Danzig in The Tin Drum (1962) was literary proof that Germany had become a nation able to confront its dreadful past. Grass freely acknowledged that he grew up as an unreflective Nazi until, after he had been wounded in battle with the Soviet army, defeat made him think. He exemplified something else. His family was part German, part Polish (an uncle was executed by the Nazis after defending the Polish Post Office in Danzig at the outbreak of the war, a searing scene in the novel). The Poles thought of Grass in a way as one of their own and made him an honorary citizen of Danzig. A Nobel laureate in 1999, his works bestsellers in every language into which they were translated, Grass insisted that he was both an artist and a citizen. He never tired of attacking German majorities for their complacency and German elites for their cravenness, above all in deliberately turning away from the past.

The visit of Ronald Reagan to the cemetery at Bitburg in 1985 (forty years after Germany’s capitulation), where he joined Chancellor Helmut Kohl to celebrate the Atlantic Alliance, infuriated Grass. Kohl was for Grass the incarnation of philistine self-satisfaction and Reagan an ignorant ideologue ready to plunge the world into nuclear war. Grass was especially vexed that Reagan was visiting the site and thus honoring members of the Waffen SS, the militarized units of the SS integrated in the German army and known for their barbaric ferocity.

Kohl, however, may have had the last word. A good deal more educated and subtle than he let on, he more than once responded to moralizing denunciations of those who had been Nazis or collaborators of the Communist regime in the German Democratic Republic by asking a question. He had been spared a choice by the “grace of later birth.” Could any person say, however, what he would have done under a dictatorship?

What Grass did is clear. He has just published an autobiography of his youthful years, Peeling the Onion. For years he maintained that he was drafted as an ordinary conscript, that he had been wounded fighting against the advancing Soviet Army and taken prisoner by the United States. (He recalled being in prison camp with another member of his generation, Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI.) Now, Grass identifies the unit into which he was conscripted in 1944 at age 17 as the Tenth SS Armored Division, the “Jorg von Frundsberg” Division. He describes the SS formations as having a European aura: Volunteers from other European nations joined them “in saving the west from the Bolshevik tide.” He added, “so it was said”–but at the time he was not skeptical. He was attracted by Nazism’s war on bourgeois routine, its own version of permanent revolution. In fact, he had tried unsuccessfully to join the submarine fleet earlier. He described the historic figure after whom the SS division was named as a leader in the sixteenth-century Peasants’ War–a freedom fighter. He was actually a mercenary in princely service against the peasants, and it is grotesque that Grass should describe him as if he were a forerunner of Che Guevara. Jens Jessen of Die Zeit, the German weekly, has it right: Grass was a Nazi of the left.

The SS units were used for especially difficult situations–to repress conquered populations (an SS division conducted the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane in France) and police other parts of the German army as its morale crumbled. They were originally volunteer formations, made up of enthusiastic Nazis. By the time Grass was drafted, however, the shortage of manpower was such that they became units into which conscripts were put without their consent. Grass describes his experiences of battle graphically–including urinating in his pants as he was caught in a Soviet advance. In a separate interview he declared that he had committed no crimes. None of the German researches of the division hastily undertaken in recent days have uncovered any crime the unit committed. The division was supposed to move into Berlin to rescue Hitler from his bunker. It disintegrated instead. Grass’s own words follow:

Enough excuses. Still I refused for decades to utter the word SS and admit that I wore that double symbol. After the war, with growing shame, I wanted to keep silent about what I accepted in the stupid pride of my younger years. The burden remains, and no one can lighten it for me.
True, during my training as an anti-tank gunner, which stupified me in the fall and winter, I heard nothing of those crimes of war which later came to light. However, insisting on ignorance cannot veil my awareness that I was made part of a system which planned, organized and carried out the destruction of millions of human beings. Even absolved of active guilt, there remains something that doesn’t go away, that all too commonly is called shared responsibility. I will have to live with that for the rest of my years.

If the English words are stilted, it is because the German ones are: Grass’s literary panache deserts him when he confronts this part of his past. It is as if he were undergoing a late psychoanalysis and struggling to come to terms with matters still partially repressed. In his account of one of the battles he was in, he describes his memory of it as disappearing like a “film strip suddenly broken off. As many times as I repair it and start it again, it only shows snow.” What else may now come out?

Germany isn’t waiting to find out. Like the other European nations, it accords extraordinary political importance to its writers–the more so as its politicians are convincingly boring. When The Tin Drum was published, it scandalized many with its sexual frankness–and with the author’s systematic disrespect for convention and tradition. Now that many more Germans are willing to accept that the world is divided into at least two sexes, Grass outrages them on other grounds. He declared that Germany did not deserve to be unified, that a larger Germany would be a threat to itself and everyone else. Later, when the former Communist German states fell into sullen impoverishment, Grass made his own their citizens’ search for retroactive legitimacy and rebuked the Western citizenry for patronizing self-righteousness. More recently, he has evoked the suffering of much of the population, as when Germany in 1945 became a battle-scarred wasteland full of German refugees. He sees himself as the nation’s moral preceptor. He has even moved to the vicinity of Lubeck, the city where Thomas Mann grew up, which Mann immortalized in Buddenbrooks. Mann, especially in exile after 1933, was Grass’s predecessor in that role.

The award of a Nobel Prize in 1999 was interpreted by Grass’s many detractors and critics as an affront–yet they could do little but grimace. Now, with the Grass confession, their time has come.

Perhaps it is the destruction of historical continuity, perhaps they sense the ultimate irrelevance of thought. Many German intellectuals these days act as if style and restraint, a sense of complexity and a gift for dealing with nuance, the admission that an adversary may have reasons, indeed belong to an older world. Grass has been portrayed as a fraud, hypocrite, poseur. Der Spiegel‘s cultural commentator, Hellmuth Karasek, suggested that Grass should donate his Nobel Prize earnings to the victims of the Waffen SS and “shut up.” The Christian Democratic Union’s cultural spokesman has demanded that Grass return his Nobel Prize. However, it is the CDU that claims–not without justification–that it performed a great service in integrating ex-Nazis in the then-new West German republic. Others have declared that the Grass confession was primarily intended to publicize the new autobiography–which exhausted an initial printing of 150,000 in two days.

One of the lines of division is generational. The Grass generation, most of whom served in the war, is decidedly less indignant. Indeed, Grass has had expressions of understanding from some not always on his side. One is the historian Ernst Nolte, whose depiction of Nazism is strikingly comprehending. The other is the writer Martin Walser, who has repeatedly complained that Germans suffer from too much of a sense of guilt. By contrast, younger authors are bothered that the older ones still monopolize attention. In a lengthy article in Der Spiegel, Reinhard Mohr (a veteran of the 1960s) portrayed the octogenarians as perpetually on the bestseller lists and criticized the TV talk shows as being still obsessed with that generation’s struggles with Nazism. Mohr bespoke Oedipal envy of these strong fathers–and disappointment in Grass as a failed father figure. The only East German author to speak thus far is Erich Loest, who was jailed by the German Stalinists. He has expressed both sympathy for Grass and perplexity at his long silence.

One agitated set of responses has come from Poland. The Polish right, xenophobic and at war with the Enlightenment, has seized upon the Grass confession as a gift from heaven. Apparently, that the apostle of modernity has also been an engaged partisan of German-Polish reconciliation disturbed their crude picture of the world. Lech Walesa has now threatened to reject his honorary citizenship of Danzig if the one awarded to Grass is not revoked. Walesa’s erstwhile intellectual ally in Solidarity, Adam Michnik, has declared that nonsensical. Grass has been defended by the presiding bishop of the Polish Bishop’s Conference, who declared that he will emerge “larger” from the confession. Perhaps he recognizes the Catholic soul not entirely buried in Grass’s psyche.

Finally, there are the Social Democrats–Grass’s own party. One of its more reflective intellectuals is Johano Strasser, who is also president of German PEN. Strasser has declared the entire discussion exaggerated. He joins Wolfgang Thierse, the former president of the Parliament (and someone who worked as a literary historian in Communist Germany) in emphasizing the obvious, that a good many public figures joyously welcomed the opportunity to denigrate Grass. For Strasser and Thierse, Grass’s achievements and his contribution to German democracy cannot be diminished. Strasser asked of those now announcing, delightedly or not, that Grass has lost moral authority–wasn’t it you who gave it to him?

I know Grass, have had the honor of speaking alongside him in Germany on political occasions, and regard him as a cultural giant and a worthy successor to Thomas Mann. Mann’s great political friend was Franklin Roosevelt, who thought of him as the incarnation of Europe’s cultural legacy. I also knew Brandt, and I think that I intuited exactly what drew Brandt to Grass–his sense of the precariousness of that legacy, of the necessity to seize our small chances of making human existence better, his rejection of resigned conformity, his bitter humor at human foible. They also shared a great enjoyment of the consolations of life. Nothing in the Grass confession changes that, and it makes Grass’s journey from the Hitler Youth to his function as a secular prophet no less admirable.

Still, his near lifetime of silence about the Waffen SS, whatever his friends may think, does diminish his accomplishments in the public sphere–by encouraging that ultimate corrosive of democratic politics, cynical distrust of good intentions. If even anti-Nazism can be portrayed, however wrongly, as part of the repertory of self-promotion, what chance is there of convincing the public that anything is serious? Grass treated himself with the indulgence he did not hesitate to describe as a moral defect in others. He wasted the opportunity presented by the Bitburg controversy to teach the nation a lesson that would have been hard to forget. Another missed occasion was his intervention against those who, eager to denounce the ex-Communists in East Germany, ostentatiously ignored how rapidly and thoroughly West Germany forgave its Nazis–in effect, forgave itself.

Perhaps we should be prepared for more to come, as Grass in his final years confronts his early ones. He has made it too easy for those eager to dismiss him. He is in considerable danger of being depicted as a tiresome old man whose act has become stale–and the fault lies not with his enemies but with himself. In the meantime, Grass’s fellow Nobel laureate, the Italian Dario Fo, when asked about Grass, cited Bertolt Brecht: “Pity the land that needs heroes.” The German response to Grass’s confession shows how needy the Germans remain. We are all the losers.