On some level, I don’t really care that Günter Grass-—a humanist hero, a brilliant novelist also deeply engaged in socialist politics—served in the Waffen-SS. Not that I was happy to hear it; neither was most of Germany when Peeling the Onion came out last year (this volume is the English translation). Part of my shrug stems from an admittedly cynical assumption that nearly all Germans of a certain age got swooped up in the maelstrom of National Socialism, the full dimensions of which did not emerge until late in the game. Few of us would want to be judged by the moral and political decisions we made as teenagers, and to make those decisions in a time of war, deprivation, and blurry patriotism . . . well, it’s the very definition of mitigating circumstances.
Moreover, assuming Grass’s account in this memoir can be relied upon, he was an almost comically crappy Nazi. Called up toward the end of 1944, his actual service amounted to a few months; he didn’t kill or injure anyone, and with the Germans massively retreating in the face of oncoming Russian troops, Grass didn’t even help his own side much. One of the best moments in this book occurs in a training camp outside Dresden in the winter of ’44. Grass’s regular camp duties involved carrying two large urns of genuine coffee to the officers’ quarters every morning (the enlisted men drank an ersatz brew). This task repeatedly made him late for morning call, and so Grass’s superiors sentenced him to an onerous and cruel punishment, running up and down a hill with a full pack and wearing a gas mask. But he served up his revenge hot and steaming; he delightfully stopped en route every morning to piss in both pots. What did you do during the war, Grandpa?
The relative scarcity of such scenes, however, makes Peeling the Onion a frustrating work. It’s useful for Grass aficionados that he weaves into his chronology a guided tour through his early novels; here we meet a teacher who was the model for a character in The Tin Drum, there a soldier who would be sketched out in Dog Years.
But the questions that burn in the reader’s mind are barely addressed. Call Grass’s teenage Nazism a forgivable crime; what about the coverup? Why and how could Grass-—as his reputation for forcing Germans to confront their past blossomed in the early ’60s—wait more than half a century to tell his own truth? He hadn’t forgotten; according to this book he came clean to his first father-in-law, who was Swiss. Perhaps Grass felt that public acknowledgment would undermine his moral stance against postwar fascist tendencies—which it might have, but it hardly serves him well now to have sat on the truth. Yes, the book adroitly catalogues the questions Grass wishes he’d asked as a young man: What happened to that cousin of his mother’s who’d dared to defend the post office in Danzig when the Germans invaded in 1939? (He was executed.) What happened to the teen soldier who in training camp refused to hold a rifle? (He was sent to a concentration camp.) But knowing the answers now, and admitting that he half-knew them then, does not seem to evoke much more from Grass than the cookie-cutter excuse of millions: “[T]he ignorance I claim could not blind me to the fact that I had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organized and carried out the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could not be accused of active complicity, there remains to this day a residue that is all too commonly called joint responsibility. I will have to live with it for the rest of my life.”
Well, yes, but Grass is 79 years old! He’s already lived with it for all of his adult life, including, say, 1985, when he publicly condemned Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl for visiting a cemetery in Bitburg where Waffen SS soldiers were buried. Was he not tempted then to peel the onion layers?
The book evades another political patch of thorns. In 1990, Grass published an eloquent, brave book called Two States—One Nation?, in which he argued against the reunification of Germany that loomed a few months away. Grass made two principal arguments: First, that the expansive borders which the reunited Germany would enjoy had belonged to it only during the most bellicose periods of its history; second, that even if one acknowledged the East German experiment as a failure, it represented at least an attempt to forge some alternative to a culture dominated by market capitalism. To capitulate, Grass argued, meant sacrificing some aspect of German romanticism, intellect, and imagination worth preserving.
Such opinions are even less fashionable today than when they were offered—but does Grass still hold them? Since the memoir’s chronology stops with the 1959 publication of The Tin Drum, curious readers must await, perhaps, a second volume. But no such volume seems likely; Grass concludes: “[F]rom then on I lived from page to page and between book and book, my inner world still rich in characters. But to tell of all that, I have neither the onion nor the desire.” At many points Grass argues that he can reveal his innermost thoughts and feelings only through fiction. Fair enough, but this slippery memoir raises doubts about whether Grass wants to do it at all.