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: