August 24, 2006

Gunter Grass

You may have heard by now that Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass, author of Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) and many other (much worse) novels, has admitted to having served in the Waffen-SS, the combat wing of the SS, in a Panzer division in the late stages of WWII. He has remained silent over the years about his service, but not about the legacy of Nazism, which he has repeatedly urged Germany not to bury or ignore.

Grass is one of those rather ephemeral figures (from the point of view of an American) in the world-literary landscape. Essentially, his legacy (and his Nobel) stands only on The Tin Drum, and with the board's history of throwing a Nobel to some middling Mitteleuropean (hello, Elfriede Jelinek, Wislawa Szymborska, Imre Kert├ęsz) every once in awhile just to keep things even, well, it's hard for me to raise very much of a fuss about losing Grass from the ranks of writers whom we should respect or listen to/read.

But to understand why a) this is a big deal and b) Grass should be shunned (literally) by Germans, Poles, and the literati alike, read Hitchens's piece, then read the Slate review of Grass's Nobel award. Judith Shulevitz points out in the latter article how little there is to The Tin Drum, supposedly this anti-Nazi masterpiece, that can really be considered legitimately moral, how little sympathy Grass showed for the victims of the Nazis, particularly for the Jews.

Grass's history of vocal moral activism in Germany has been influential, and his place in post-WWII German literature is key, historically, at least. Reading this confession into those histories does make a significant difference, perhaps not for Americans, but certainly for Germans, especially as the trend of portraying the German people as themselves the victims of the Nazis becomes more widespread (e.g. the film Der Untergang/Downfall).


  1. Anonymous11:54 AM

    Which Grass books have you read?

  2. Tin Drum, part of The Flounder, which I returned to the library quickly.