Andreas Huyssen on Gunter Grass

In The Nation:

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.