Thursday, August 17, 2006

Gunther Grass' Nazi Past

The big news story of the moment is Gunther Grass' admission that he was a member of the Waffen SS during the Second World War. Grass, one of my own favourite writers and certainly the most esteemed German writer of the late twentieth century, has confessed in a forthcoming memoir that he was a member of the Nazi Secret Service military wing and not a Wehrmacht conscript as he had previously claimed. Naturally people, particularly members of the Christian Democrats, whom he mercilessly pilloried for years over their incorporation of ex-Nazis into their party, are on the offensive, and with reason: Grass' principled stands and accusations in the past now appear hypocritical and self-serving to say the least. Those that claim he should return the Nobel Prize for Literature that he won in 1999 do have a point (though I am not sure if Knut Hamsun, the 1912 laureate and later Nazi supporter was urged to do the same thing before his death in 1950). Grass' reputation is certainly tarnished and he would have been better advised to have come out with this a lot earlier in his life. But at the same time I do not find the revelation terribly surprising, and though Grass was certainly wrong in his choice of career, no matter how young he was, there is no proof that he was an enthusiastic Nazi, nor that he committed any atrocities. If his literary and political career since then has been motivated by expiation, then I think it has been successful, though an earlier disclosure would have been more honourable.

There is a tendency among us these days to view former Nazi associations as the ultimate in evil. This is not entirely objectionable but if one persists in this idea, it is far too easy to caricature the Nazis as abominable villains, which in turn obscures a true understanding of how they rose to power. In Spike Lee's film of this year Inside Man, the central plot motive is exposition of the Nazi past of a prominent New York banker, a device that was so banal as well as predictable that the film lost steam well before its midway point. When people as varied as the current Pope and Gunther Grass reveal their past in Nazi organisations, and others such as Ingmar Bergman and IKEA founder Ingmar Kamprad reveal their past support for the Nazis, it is instructive for us to question what it is that makes ordinary people, of certain decent values do such things. I myself had a great-uncle, whom I never met, who flirted, at a great distance with Nazism in the 1930s, going so far as to have received official party literature. He was motivated more by Anglophobia and muddled thinking than by genuine conviction but it is not something that I am proud of. It is best that Gunther Grass disclosed this information now rather than after his death, when his reputation would have been irremiadebly marred. He should have done all this a long time ago, but in my opinion neither his work nor his analysis of the German Twentieth Century is devalued by this news. Don't be put off reading Gunther Grass because of dubious decisions he took in his youth.