In his new memoir, Nobel laureate Guenter Grass talks of the lasting shame of having served in the combat wing of the fanatical Nazi SS organization during World War II.
The acclaimed author of the classic “The Tin Drum” and many other writings has drawn heavy criticism for his recent admission that he was a member of the Waffen-SS as a teenager. The revelation came before the publication of the book, which deals with his youth and war years.
Grass also has received support from other writers, among them John Irving who told The Associated Press on Wednesday that “Grass remains a hero to me, both as a writer and as a moral compass; his courage, both as a writer and as a citizen of Germany, is exemplary, a courage heightened, not lessened, by his most recent revelation.”
In “Beim Haeuten der Zwiebel” or “Skinning the Onion,” Grass recalls the pull of Nazi propaganda. When he was assigned to the 10th SS Panzer Division “Frundsberg” he found “nothing offensive” about the prospect and viewed the division’s namesake, Joerg von Frundsberg, as someone who had fought for “freedom and liberation,” in the 16th century.
“So, enough excuses,” he writes. “And yet I refused for years to admit to myself the word and the double letters. That which I accepted with the dumb pride of my young years, I kept silent about after the war out of growing shame.”
Grass’ book was supposed to come out on Sept. 1, but could already be found in German bookstores on Wednesday. The U.S. publication of “Skinning the Onion” is scheduled for the fall of 2007, according to Harcourt, which has no plans to move up the date of release.
Death and destruction
Grass, 78, paints an unheroic picture of his military service with the division, which fought Soviet troops toward the end of war in eastern Germany. He was captured by Americans in May 1945 after a shrapnel wound in his leg and another that temporarily left his arm so stiff that he couldn’t move it; his division was delayed getting into the fighting because it was waiting for tanks that never came.
His war memories are described in “Skinning the Onion” as a confused film that offered a jumbled “picture salad” by the end. He recounts crawling under a tank as his unit came under fire from Soviet rocket launchers (known as Stalin “organs”): “I see myself, as I had learned, crawl under the tank. ... For three minutes, an eternity, the organ played. Beset by fear, I wet myself. Then silence.”
Corpses and body parts lay strewn about. “Someone was whining like a small child, I stood in my wet pants and look at the cut-open body of the boy with whom I had just been babbling about who knows what.”
Grass, winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize for literature and a heavyweight moral authority in Germany, has been slammed for not owning up sooner to his Waffen-SS service. It was already known that Grass had been wounded and taken prisoner by U.S. troops, but not that he had been in the notorious Nazi combat unit.
The Waffen-SS campaigned alongside regular army units and compiled a record of fierce fighting and notorious brutality against civilians and prisoners of war.
Grass said that he originally applied to serve in the submarine forces at 15 but was refused, and was then called up for service at
17. It wasn’t until he reported for duty, he said, that he realized it was with the Waffen-SS.
In an interview published Saturday in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Grass said he made the disclosure because it “weighed on me.”
In response to the criticism, he said Wednesday during taping for a television broadcast, “Anyone who wants to pass judgment can pass judgment.”
He added that he had said all he intended to say about the episode in the new book.