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Günter Grass Confronts His Past

Günter Grass Confronts His Past

It has been a summer of reading for me, both high (I have just started reading Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of An Island which, to this point, blends sex and humor in an unsettlingly enjoyable way) and low (Theodore Roszak’s terrificly fun ode to the dangers of obsessive cinephilia, Flicker) with a couple of film biographies thrown in for fun (as previously mentioned, Marshall Fine’s walk down Cassavetes lane Accidental Genius and Michael Bamberger’s unintentionally sidesplitting cautionary tale The Man Who Heard Voices) and constant dips in and out of Phillip Lopate’s fine collection of American Movie Critics. Throw in a constant parade of The New Yorker magazines (has there been a better chronicler of the failures of The Bush Administration than Seymour Hersh?) , and I have been spending a lot of time with my nose between the pages.

As an avid reader, only one story has been grabbing my attention these past few days; I was shocked to see the recent admission by author Günter Grass (whose novel The Tin Drum is a personal touchstone, as both a work of literature and a and a famously banned film), that he served in the German Waffen SS during World War II. I know a few things about the Waffen SS, an elite paramilitary group that reached a membership of 900,000 soliders who were engaged in activities from field combat to the brutal crushing of the Warsaw Uprising and guarding the prisoners in concentration camps. During the post-war Nuremberg Trials, the Waffen SS was labeled a criminal organization and its leaders were prosecuted as war criminals. Grass, after a lifetime of pacificism and humanism, now admits to having served in the 10th SS Panzer Division “Frundsberg”, a Waffen SS tank divison, after being drafted in 1944 as a 17 year old.

While no one has accused Grass of war crimes, it is a startling revelation inasmuch as Grass has often been an impassioned advocate for national reconciliation with Germany’s troubled political and military past. The outrage over his deception ranges from a demand from former Polish leader Lech Walesa that Grass give up his honorary Polish Citizenship to the sad (and admittedly cynical) realization that this 11th-hour admission has been perfectly timed with the release of his new autobiography Peeling The Onion, which reportedly details his participation in the war.

Peter Pan Meets Cassandra In Hell: Oskar Matzerath (David Bennett) keeps time in Volker Schlöndorff’s film adaptation of Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum

Ultimately, this revelation recasts the man’s life’s work in a deep shadow; Is he the ultimate hypocrite, a liar seeking personal absolution by establishing moral authority against his own secret activities, or can his art transcend these revelations? Will readers of The Tin Drum see the story of a boy’s refusal to grow up as a profound expression of the absurdity of war and life under facism, or will the book be re-interpreted as an empty fairy tale written by a man who sought to bury his own dark secret? This is no ordinary work of art, but a Nobel Prize winning novel (adapted into a 1979 Palm D’Or and Oscar winning film) that indicts the very activity in which Grass himself was guilty of participating.

This is an interesting moment to read the book and watch the film again, and I plan on giving it another go very soon. Perhaps there is a part of me that is not so surprised to hear the news, a part that understands that, in order to create a world as vivid as the Danzig of The Tin Drum one has to understand, deeply and with an obvious complicity, the conflict that exists in all men between the power of regret (which is giving Grass the benefit of the doubt) and a transcendent imagination of the self as a more complicated person than our actions would suggest. I don’t mean to sound like a Grass apologist, because I don’t have a clue as to the depth of his actions or his regrets, but I do know that regardless of Grass’ actions, a novel (and film) like The Tin Drum will probably continue to hold a place near and dear to me. There is always a chasm between a work of art and the person who created it, and in this case, we have a chance to confront it while the man is here to answer to his mistakes. I am interested in both Peeling The Onion and The Tin Drum, in seeing how lies, complicity and regret were molded into an important expression of humanism. How will the work stand up? Who will Grass the man become to us, his readership? Can art redeem the man? Is it enough?

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