The onion is not a refined vegetable. It is a cheap, humble staple used in cooking the world over. As a representative of German literature, Günter Grass has always been the onion to Thomas Mann’s artichoke–down-to-earth, exuberantly realistic, picaresque rather than sophisticated or Olympian. Peeling the Onion fulfills such expectations and more. In Grass’s literary memoir the onion is a metaphor for the complex and slippery layers of human memory: “The onion has many skins. A multitude of skins. Peeled, it renews itself; chopped, it brings tears; only during peeling does it speak the truth.”
In The Tin Drum, the 1959 novel that made his reputation and won him the 1999 Nobel Prize, the onion brought both tears and truth, but there Grass was sending up the clammed-up world of early postwar Germany, which lacked the words–the conscience–to come to terms with its recent past. “In the Onion Cellar,” the title of a famous chapter in the novel, refers to a popular nightclub in Düsseldorf’s Altstadt (Old Town) run by a man whose hobby is shooting sparrows on the banks of the Rhine. At the club, he ceremoniously serves onions with cutting boards and knives to his guests–businessmen, doctors, lawyers, artists, government officials and their wives, mistresses or secretaries–who sit at scrubbed plank tables slicing the vegetable. The ritual produces a flood of bottled-up tears accompanied by confessions, revelations and self-accusations. The onion juice overcomes the post-Nazi inability to mourn, diagnosed by psychoanalysts Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich some ten years later as the social pathology of the West German “economic miracle.” But there is something fundamentally suspect about this kind of “overcoming.” Grass’s satire laid bare the ambiguity of such self-serving confessions.
Düsseldorfers always knew that the model for the Onion Cellar was the artists’ hangout Czikos in the Altstadt. When The Tin Drum was published, the Czikos was still famous for its piping hot, generously peppered goulash, which indeed brought people to tears, if not to confessions and revelations. In Grass’s memoir, the Onion Cellar acquires another dimension. It was at the Czikos in the 1950s that Grass and two friends performed their own version of jazz–a flute, a banjo and Grass’s washboard in lieu of Oskar Matzerath’s tin drum. Czikos, Grass informs us, was also the site of an encounter so typical of the mingling of things German with things American at the time. One evening, after a jam session in Düsseldorf, Louis Armstrong dropped in. Intrigued by the flute’s transformation of German folk songs into jazz rhythms and blues, Armstrong had someone pick up his horn at his hotel, and then sat in with Grass and his friends on a few tunes. Blues in the Onion Cellar: The scene richly suggests how American culture could nurture rebellious–though still apolitical–energies during the postwar restoration under West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
The Tin Drum, by contrast, was explicitly political, satirizing everyday life under Fascism and the postwar emotional hardening of the collective German mind (evoked by the Onion Cellar’s theater of repression and self-indulgent release). A landmark in postwar German literature, the novel confronted Germans with the legacies of the Third Reich in the ambiguous tale of Oskar Matzerath, the tin drummer. Matzerath’s story spans the war and immediate postwar years–roughly the same period of many of the events retold and transformed in Grass’s memoir. But where the novel creatively transformed life into literature, the reader now witnesses the process in reverse. Here, however, almost fifty years after the publication of The Tin Drum, it is Grass’s legacy as truth-teller that is in question.
The “revelation” that caused such an uproar late last summer–that for a few months at the end of the war the author served as a drafted member of the Waffen SS–has not been dampened by the crocodile tears shed by the nouveaux riches and bohemian intellectuals gathered in the Onion Cellar. Contrition and self-accusation have never characterized Grass’s work or self-image, and the memoir is no exception. The onion’s “truth” is rather, perhaps, a final footnote to the all too well-known story of the last Hitler Youth generation, the 16- and 17-year-old boys drafted in the closing months of the war to stave off Germany’s inevitable military defeat; those who returned alive successfully established themselves as the first generation of a postwar democratic West Germany after the alleged Stunde Null–Zero Hour, the fall of the Reich, which was experienced as both defeat and liberation. Unlike some of his peers, Grass had never made a secret of the fact that as a member of the Hitler Youth he had believed in the Führer and volunteered for the submarines at 16. But he never made public his service in the Waffen SS, an elite Nazi fighting unit declared a criminal organization at the Nuremberg trials.
The chorus of denunciations in Germany came from all sides–from those on the right who had always hated Grass’s social democratic politics and “immoral” writing, from those on the radical left who considered him a captive to reformist Social Democrats and from a younger German generation resentful that old-timers like Grass, Martin Walser and Hans Magnus Enzensberger are still stealing the limelight.
I, too, felt betrayed by a literary idol of my youth when I first heard about Grass’s membership in the Waffen SS. I, too, was tempted to ride the moral high horse: How could Grass, famous since the 1960s for accusing high officials in the West German government of hiding their Nazi past and insisting on public penance, keep this secret for so long? How could he have left even his biographers with the assumption that, like so many other teenagers in 1944-45, he served only as a Flakhelfer, a youth conscript, rather than as a member of the Waffen SS? And why reveal it now, just as his memoir was hitting the market? Was it the need of a writer approaching his 80th birthday to come clean, or was it a clever marketing strategy? Or was it simply his wish, as he claims unapologetically in the memoir, to have the last word, denying his many opponents the pleasure of finding out first? For discovery was inevitable. The POW papers documenting his Waffen SS membership are unambiguous. It was just that nobody, not even his biographers, had bothered to check the details.
The reasons for Grass’s silence lie safely hidden in the memoir. And in his public statements since Peeling the Onion was published in Germany late last summer, he has been no more forthcoming about his decision to remain silent about this aspect of his past, further fueling the outrage of his critics (not a few of them disappointed admirers). To many, his legacy not just as a public intellectual but as a writer has been seriously damaged. After my initial reaction, however, I felt increasingly reluctant to point the finger at someone whose self-righteous moralizing about German politics had annoyed me time and again over the past few decades–particularly his stubborn insistence on the division of Germany as permanent penance for the crimes of Nazism and his often shrill anti-Americanism. To moralize about Grass’s lack of candor just seemed too easy.
And when I began to peel the onion by reading the memoir, I was further convinced that my sense of betrayal had overshot its mark. Grass comes down hard and unsentimentally on his inability as a young man to read the signs of the times–the nonconformist fellow student who one day disappeared from the classroom; the Catholic teacher who ended up in a nearby concentration camp; his mother’s hints about the persecution of the Jews. Indoctrinated as he was, he saw and looked away. Günter Grass’s éducation politique was slow in taking shape, and his memoir acknowledges it.
Reading the skins of the onion, Grass provides a vivid account of his adolescence in the cramped, petit-bourgeois Danzig milieu that made the Nazi promises of heroism and adventure on the seas look like such an appealing escape. The reality was decidedly less romantic: Grass survived by the skin of his teeth and sheer luck in the chaos of the war’s last months, escaping through the woods after his tank unit was decimated in a surprise attack by the advancing Soviet army. Quite plausibly, he claims never to have fired a single shot. The new division of the Waffen SS into which he was drafted fell apart under the Soviet onslaught almost as soon as it was formed.
This is not the story of an exceptional youth but of a 17-year-old German everyman, viewed unsparingly by the same man six decades later. Of course, there are lapses of memory, uncertainties about details. Grass acknowledges them head-on, if sometimes a bit too coyly. Not everything is written securely in the peels of the onion. But the fact that he describes his youthful self alternately in the first and third person is not evidence of evasion, or of some mendacious effort to blur the line between memoir and fiction, as some have charged. Rather, this oscillation in perspective marks the distance between the memoirist and his teenage self.
As the narrative moves to the late 1940s and into the following decade, Grass remains true to his earlier self in his descriptions of young Günter’s three desires: real hunger, especially in the “hunger years” immediately following the end of the war; adolescent hunger for sex; and a budding hunger for art. Everything Grass writes about life in Düsseldorf and Berlin at the time resonates vividly, evoked in his signature picaresque tone and with his typical focus on the absurd in everyday life. Of public culture and political history, however, he has strikingly little to say: Neither his later vocal hostility toward the Adenauer restoration nor his engagement with the Social Democrats is evident yet. Like many Germans after the war, Grass shunned politics and found consolation (and, in his case, a vocation) in art, mostly in poetry, drawing and sculpture.
The chapters on the late 1940s and ’50s revolve around personal reminiscences–his reunion with his parents, who were dislocated to the Rhineland; his apprenticeship as a stonemason, making tombstones; and his study at the Düsseldorf art academy, where Joseph Beuys was also a student. Later there is the Berlin art scene, with its cold war battles over abstraction; his courtship of Swiss dancer Anna Schwarz; and his first success as a literary upstart reading his poems at a meeting of the soon-to-be-famous Group 47. Particularly arresting, and notable for their lack of sentimentality, are his memories of the rather taciturn railroad station goodbye to his unloved father when he left for the war; the great tribute paid to his beloved mother, who died of cancer too early to witness her son’s success; and the account of rescuing his sister from an authoritarian Mother Superior and helping her become a midwife instead of a nun. By contrast, Grass’s tales of his sexual exploits are rather adolescent, without much detail about his sexual partners. The only relationship treated with the delicacy of long-term intimacy and love is the one with Anna, his first wife.
Interesting though not revelatory are the brief accounts of his literary formation, his love for Cervantes, seventeenth-century novelist Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen and Alfred Döblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz. In the 1950s conflict between figuration in painting and Modernist abstraction, Grass sided with figuration, a position that reflected his own practice as a graphic artist. In the existentialist controversy of those years he sided with Camus and the absurd against Sartre’s Marxist politics, but otherwise he remained wary of fashionable existentialist posing. The few pages describing the years spent in Paris in the late 1950s are remarkably pale. Probably because of his limited French and an even more limited budget, he had minimal connections with the Parisian intellectual scene, and his work on The Tin Drum consumed ever more of his time. Even now, it seems that the novel drains energy from the memoir. We hear but don’t learn much about his Paris friendship with poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. The Algerian war rumbles on in the background. In 1958 Grass wins first prize with the Group 47, and in 1959 The Tin Drum appears, to enthusiastic acclaim and public controversy. A year later he and Anna and their children are back in Berlin, and then, all of a sudden, Grass runs out of onions and concludes his memoir.
Ending his account with the publication of The Tin Drum is, of course, rather convenient, for it allows Grass to evade the lingering and legitimate question of why he never discussed his membership in the Waffen SS until now. Had he done so during the controversy over Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit to the Bitburg cemetery, with its SS graves, or during the Historikerstreit, the German historians’ quarrel over the uniqueness of Nazi crimes, his voice could have added substantially to the debate. There is no little irony in the fact that the vociferous and inquisitional demand for contrition and breast-beating should now confront an author who never hesitated to make such demands of others. Still, the Grass affair doesn’t tell us much about the quality of his memoir. And his politics always had more bite in his literary writings than in his political pronouncements.
Peeling the onion, slippery skin after slippery skin, is a surprisingly apt metaphor for delving into one’s memories. It captures the unreliability of all human memory, its layering and restructuring by partial forgetfulness and corrupted recollections. The other recurrent metaphor in the book is amber, evoking another kind of memory. Amber, tree sap hardened into a yellow-brown mineral, often encasing an insect and found plentifully on the Baltic beaches of Grass’s lost Heimat, stands for the unchanging, petrified memory image. To give but one example: Looking at a honey-colored translucent piece of amber later in life, Grass sees not the proverbial encased insect but himself in full-length outline at 14 and naked. The amber serves here as a projection screen of an image of the pubescent boy ingrained in the narrator’s mind, whereas the onion’s skins need to be read one after another. Reading and seeing, writing and projecting the past are the two modes governing Grass’s writing. The play between onion and amber thus brings a new literary dimension to that inevitable weaving together of Dichtung und Wahrheit, as Goethe had it–the mix of fiction and truth in all autobiography and memoir. The power of any memoir hinges on the right mix, and readers will part ways in assessing it. Critics who chide Grass for couching his Nazi past in literary metaphors, for questioning the reliability of his own memories, for admitting forgetfulness and for hiding behind some of the same complex narrative techniques we know from his novels may score political points, but they betray a simplistic understanding of the genre.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing we learn from Grass’s memoir is how slowly he arrived at the character of Oskar Matzerath, and how hesitantly he moved from an apolitical understanding of art to writing perhaps the most powerful political novel of the postwar period. This section of the memoir reproduces in microcosm the history of the Federal Republic in those years–the initial confrontation with the political and cultural fallout from the Third Reich, culminating in the commemorative obsessions of more recent decades, when the politics of memory became a worldwide phenomenon. When Grass, who was living in Berlin at the time, witnessed the East German workers’ revolt on June 17, 1953, near Potsdamer Platz, he had no hunger for politics or memory, nor any desire to write the great postwar German novel. He kept working as an artist and poet. He first won recognition as a writer almost by default, when he read his poems with the Group 47 in 1955. Expressionist poet Gottfried Benn–himself burdened by his initial support for Hitler but still a major literary figure in the early ’50s–read Grass’s poetry at the time and predicted that he would one day write prose.
Although Grass never gave up on poetry, he achieved fame for his novels, especially the Danzig trilogy. It is fascinating to read how the novel that ultimately won him the Nobel Prize emerged inchoately, indeed almost by accident. Toward the end of the memoir, Grass explains his shift from poetry to prose as a compulsion to abandon his earlier apolitical and aestheticist stance and to face the German past: “I could easily have engaged in productive time-wasting and made myself look interesting at Group 47 meetings with new artistic devices if the massive weight of the German past and hence my own could have somehow been ignored. But it stood in the way. It tripped me up. There was no getting around it. As if prescribed for me, it remained impenetrable: here was a lava flow that had barely cooled down, there a stretch of solid basalt, itself sitting on even older deposits. And layer upon layer had to be carried away, sorted, named. Words were needed. And a first sentence was still missing.”
But then the compulsion to write, as he once put it in typically blunt fashion, hit him like diarrhea. The old Grass gave a political twist to the same idea when he wrote in his recent novel Crabwalk: “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.” Indeed, this does sum up more than just the origins of The Tin Drum.
The critic Hans Mayer once divided German artists into martyrs and representatives. If Mann was a representative of German culture in the traditional sense, Grass, who likes to claim persecution by the media, never was a martyr but always a representative of the democratic postwar Western republic, warts and all. Like his Danzig trilogy, the author nearing the age of 80, with his mustache, his pipe and his political pronouncements, stands like a block of lava in the midst of a cultural formation that has become history. In that sense, for better or worse, Grass remains who he was before: a major representative of German post-World War II literature. And he remains so in a perhaps even deeper sense than before the late revelation and continuing evasion in his memoir.