Gunter Grass: Friend John Irving in front page NYT Book Review praises his honesty about Nazi connections

Historians in the News

... While it was acceptable to Grass’s critics that he had volunteered for the submarine corps at the age of 15, the revelation that he was drafted into the Waffen SS, the combat force of the SS, in 1944, when he was 17, was a shock. Grass spent the final months of the war with the force — later convicted en masse of war crimes by the Nuremberg tribunal.

Why had he waited so long to tell? his critics asked. (As if there had ever been a time when he wouldn’t have been criticized for it!) A historian, writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wondered why the revelation had come out “in such a tortured way.” (As if there wasn’t ample evidence of what was “tortured” about Grass in all the books leading up to this one!) Another writer in the Frankfurter Allgemeine conjectured that the last, unfulfilled mission of Grass’s Frundsberg tank division was to get Hitler out of Berlin. (“In other words, Grass could have freed Hitler.”) A writer in Die Tageszeitung accused Grass of “calculating”; shouldn’t he have written to the Swedish Academy and offered a premature refusal? (“A former Waffen SS man would never have been considered for this prize.”) A piece in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung said of Grass: “Posing as a self-assured moralist ... ” and so on. Both the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Frankfurter Rundschau complained about the lateness of the admission. But good writers write about the important stuff before they blab about it; good writers don’t tell stories before they’ve written them!

I wrote an article for the Frankfurter Rundschau — in defense of Grass, of course. I also wrote Günter. I complained about the “predictably sanctimonious dismantling” of his life and work in the German media — “from the cowardly standpoint of hindsight.” I wrote: “You remain a hero to me, both as a writer and as a moral compass; your courage, both as a writer and as a citizen of your country, is exemplary — a courage heightened, not lessened, by your most recent revelation.”...

In my view, the most unfortunate of the Grass attacks was Lech Walesa’s declaration that he was glad he never met Grass — thus avoiding the plague of shaking Grass’s hand, which the former Polish president said he would not do. In August 2006, Walesa also called for Grass to give up his honorary citizenship to the city of Gdansk — bestowed on the author for how he’d paid tribute to the suffering in Danzig in “The Tin Drum.” Walesa soon retracted his remarks — he called them “too hasty.” By the time I went to Warsaw, in early September of last year, my Polish publisher told me that the Poles were “divided” about Grass’s revelation. What I noted in Warsaw was that Grass’s many readers had already made their peace with him; those who had not read him, or those who had read only “The Tin Drum,” were the ones calling for him to give back his Nobel Prize....

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