Günter Grass and the Secret

Günter Grass and the Secret

Looking for a reason for the author’s silence.

Günter Grass’s belated revelation that he served in the Waffen-SS provokes a strange sense of helplessness. There is no evidence incriminating Grass in Nazi crimes, either directly or through some complicity. He says that he never fired a shot, although this sounds more than improbable given the conditions of the place and time. But that is not the source of controversy. What surprises people, and what they hold against him, is his long, long period of silence. This silence is not comprehensible if Grass, as he contends, was drafted into the Waffen-SS and did not enlist. Grass’s experiences at the time—early departure from school, a stint in the National Labor Service, then off to the front—were not all that special. This was the youthful itinerary of many thousands of his generation. But only a minority ended up in the Waffen-SS.

In fact, the Waffen-SS had privileged access to young males about to be drafted thanks to the Hitler Youth and the National Labor Service. It made special use of this access in the later phase of the war to launch aggressive recruitment campaigns. Young Germans who took the bait had various motives, including the prospect of very concrete privileges, such as training in one of the elite SS Junker schools. This extra training meant they would not be sent immediately to the front.

But some young Germans joined the Waffen-SS for ideological reasons. It was a pro-active decision for a Nazi military unit, in contrast to the Wehrmacht (the regular army). The latter came from another military tradition, despite its wartime intermeshing with National Socialism. For all ambitious “petit bourgeois,” the Waffen-SS held out a special attraction because of its elite character. Here you weren’t just some Joe Blow in the ranks, you were somebody. Given the youth of its recruits, families often played a decisive role in the decision to join. However, it was clear to many by 1944–1945 that the end was approaching, and signing up in the Waffen-SS was certainly not a way to protect your children.

Günter Grass was not recruited; he was drafted. According to his own statement, he found himself involuntarily in the Waffen-SS. Yet in his case, there was a certain prehistory. Grass took an earlier first step that signaled that he was ambitious and blinded enough to plunge into a hopeless battle near the war’s very end. He tried to volunteer for submarine service. So one may speculate that his agreement was a given when he received induction orders for the Waffen-SS, and this may perhaps account for his long silence over many decades.

Yet there is another element in this mix. In August 2006, Heinz Bude, writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, described Grass as a person “who shows us where we come from as a nation.” For that reason, Bude thought, Grass was a worthy Nobel Laureate from Germany. Of course, the counter-argument is that there is no collective German “we,” not jus...