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Words Without Borders

Günter Grass

A few weeks before the publication of his memoir Peeling Onions (not a very impressive title by the way, what is next, Squeezing Oranges?), Günter Grass revealed in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that he was a member of the Waffen-SS.
The reactions were predictable. Outrage, astonishment, some vitriolic attacks, and quite a few speeches in defense of Mr. Grass. Defense speeches which were sometimes even more painful than the attacks on the eminence grise of German literature.
Mr. Grass was seventeen when he joined the Waffen-SS. It’s higly unlikely that he committed any war crimes. To condemn Mr. Grass for joining the Waffen-SS is gratuitous.
But his long silence and the timing of his confession are another story. Mr. Grass has declared that he could not bear the burden anymore. But I would say that this confession is the continuation of book promotion by other means. And there is a case to be made for not using the Waffen-SS for promoting your memoir.
The fact that Mr. Grass was highly critical, to put it mildly, of Ronald Reagan’s visit to Bitburg, where members of his own unit were buried, is beyond irony.
The tragic story of Mr. Grass is another example that great novelists are not necessarily a reliable moral compass.
It’s not judgment that defeats us, as Kurtz says in Apocalypse Now, it’s hypocrisy.


(Words Without Borders, August 21, 2006)