Sixty-one years ago, two miserable German youths were crouching in a rainy hole under a groundsheet. Around them, in the same field behind barbed wire, thousands of other prisoners of war waited to find out what the Americans would do with them. To keep their minds off their hunger and the cold, the two boys – one from Danzig, the other a Bavarian – played dice and talked about their plans for the future, supposing that there would be a future. The Danziger wanted to be an artist. The Bavarian hoped to become a priest.
This year, both those boys – each of them now old and very famous – put their feet in it with splashes which echoed round the world and spattered their reputations. Joseph, the pious Bavarian, who had grown up to become Cardinal Ratzinger and then Pope Benedict XVI, appalled the Muslim world and many liberal Catholics by quoting a Byzantine emperor’s insults to the Prophet Muhammad. The Danzig lad, who had become Germany’s best-known writer and a Nobel Prize winner, the scourge of those who kept quiet about their Nazi pasts, revealed that he had done his brief war service in the Waffen SS.
The two boys in the hole make a good story. But how true is it? Grass certainly shared a hole with a Bavarian Joseph; they gnawed together on a handful of caraway seeds which Grass had bartered for two cigarettes, and argued about dogma, faith and doubt. The future pope was definitely in the great open-air camp at Bad Aibling, but then so were ten thousand others. Was Joseph’s other name really Ratzinger? Grass admits in this book that he can’t be sure. ‘This is just one of your typical made-up stories you used to fool our mother with, when you were a child,’ his sister commented many years later. Nettled, Grass retorted that they had even gambled with their own chosen futures. If Joseph hadn’t thrown three threes, then he would have become an artist and writer, while Grass would have been a bishop, or even better. ‘Honestly,’ his sister said, ‘you lie like a trooper!’
What do you remember, really – and what do you remember or forget because you want to? The pope, it’s said, has no memory of meeting Grass under a groundsheet. But then perhaps it’s Joseph Ratzinger who is in denial. What proud cardinal would want to recall weeks of lice-ridden misery in a wet, dishonoured uniform? And what ambitious son of the Church would feel easy about confessing to such intimacy with a writer so profane?
With Grass, the uproar has not been about denial. It is about suppression. It is not the facts about his war service, as they have emerged from Grass himself, which have provoked the scandal, but the fact that he hid them. That part of his life is easily summarised. At the age of 17, in the last months of the war, Grass – who had been trying to get into the navy as a U-boat crewman – was drafted into a new Waffen SS division. He did not choose the SS, but neither did he try to avoid it; for him, the Waffen SS was no more than a glamorous fighting force with exciting weapons. He trained as a tank gun-layer. But the Frundsberg Division, a thrown-together formation largely manned by half-trained boys and Luftwaffe ground crews, fell apart as the Red Army burst across the Oder in its final offensive. Grass, after experiencing some horrific fights in which he claims never to have fired a shot, became a straggler. He was wounded by shellfire, and was in a field hospital at Marienbad, in Bohemia, when the war ended; discharged, he found himself in Bad Aibling.
All this was no more than the experience of tens of thousands of young Germans at that stage of the war. Grass took part in no conquests and no atrocities; he was no more than a wisp of cannon fodder with the usual ignorant faith in Reich and Führer. He has never denied that faith. As he said in a recent interview with El País, ‘I’ve always admitted my involvement as a young man in the system. That has never been a secret.’ But ‘this unique episode in my life’ – his service in the Waffen SS – ‘was something I kept to myself.’ At the time, he had no idea of what the Waffen SS might have done beyond fighting the enemy. When a corporal who marched with him during his flight told him to throw away the SS badges on his collar in case the Russians captured him, Grass was quite puzzled. In short, he did nothing personally that he had to be ashamed of. Why, then, did he find it impossible for almost a lifetime to admit where he had been, in what uniform, during those few months?
A great deal of the abuse heaped on Grass in the last few months has come from old enemies and rivals. Those, especially on the nationalist right, who had writhed under his satire and resented what they saw as his systematic undermining of German self-confidence, were enchanted. What a downfall to relish! He, too, the mighty novelist accepted by the outside world as Germany’s political conscience, had hidden his past. But there are many more Germans who had used those early novels – The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years – to form their own idea of their nation and its curse of amnesia. And they are hurt, as if Grass had let them down. He could have told the truth about those months, they lament, and nobody would have thought much the worse of him. In fact, to admit that he had been in the Waffen SS, however briefly, might have given even more resilience to his fiction and to his politics. What held him back, until it was too late?
It’s impossible to acquit Grass of hypocrisy, in effect if not in intention. He was a friend of the late Karl Schiller, a Social Democrat and minister of economics. In letters dated 1969 and 1970, just unearthed and published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Grass urged Schiller to come clean and talk openly about his membership of the Nazi Party: Schiller was a storm trooper (SA) as a young man, and during the war a consultant to the Wehrmacht on the economic exploitation of conquered territories. If Schiller didn’t own up, Grass argued, how could he credibly criticise the then chancellor, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, for his much more prominent Nazi past? ‘I think it would be good if you openly admitted your error. It would be a relief for you, and at the same time for the public it would be like the comfort of a cleansing thunderstorm.’
How could he have written that without a twinge of self-dislike? At the time, Grass himself was roaring up and down the land denouncing Kiesinger’s past in magnificent speeches. So what about his own past and war service? The accepted version in Germany then was that he had been conscripted briefly and unwillingly into a flak battery. That was true – the Danzig schoolboys were sent to the anti-aircraft defences in 1944 – but not the whole truth.
The history of modern Germany is, in part, a history of silences. First there were things one learned not to say, soon followed by questions one learned not to ask, leading on to sights one learned not to see. Afterwards, there were questions one learned not to answer (from Allied interrogators, but also from one’s children and pupils), and – once again – things one learned not to say because ‘there is no point in talking about all that.’ With Grass, we meet such a German silence in one of Europe’s most prolific writers and speakers, behind one of the loudest voices arguing for honesty and humanity. But it’s worth asking how total this silence really was. Grass’s family knew, of course. He seems to have told his second wife, though not his first (perhaps because she was Swiss, not German). Maybe he told a few friends. More curiously, hundreds of young men must have known him in those months, during training or in action; if they survived, they surely recognised their old comrade in the famous West German writer and knew what unit he had served in. They said nothing. And journalists and literary researchers in recent years could have dug up the facts, which were lying around in openly available documents; Grass had registered as an ex-Waffen SS soldier when he was released by the Americans. But even if some of them turned up those papers, none of them mentioned it. It seems certain to me that a quite large number of people, far from all of them admirers of his work or his politics, were aware that Grass had been in the Waffen SS but thought that ‘there is no point in talking about all that.’
In the postwar decades, foreigners were upset by the apparent inability of many Germans to grasp the suffering their nation had inflicted on others. But somebody – perhaps it was Grass – wrote recently that this silence was really the continuation of another, earlier silence: their reluctance to be open about what they themselves had suffered.
There is something in this. The famous 1967 study of German psychology by Margarete and Alexander Mitscherlich had the title Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern: the incapacity to mourn, rather than the incapacity to empathise with others. It was not that postwar Germans lacked self-pity. How could they fail to be sorry for themselves when they remembered the slaughter and Siberian captivity of their sons, the wrecking of their historic cities, the horrors attending the expulsion of 12 million Germans from Central and Eastern Europe, the mass rapes, or – in some ways, the hardest to bear – the humiliating hunger, dirt and squalor which fell on them after the collapse of the Reich? But the self-pity and the pain were kept private.
Injustice was a different matter. The protests of the expellee leagues against the loss of their homes and against the violation of what they called their ‘right to self-determination’ were public and deafening. Mourning, in contrast, happened behind closed doors. When I lived in Bonn in the 1960s, neighbours who had survived the destruction of Dresden used to gather quietly among themselves each 13 February; the newspapers did not mark the anniversary. The rapes were remembered behind a curtain of silence until, many years later, foreign journalists and historians published what all older Germans knew. As recently as four years ago, the German public were shocked when Grass wrote in the novel Crabwalk about the slaughter of civilians as East Prussia and Danzig fell to the Russians, and about the torpedoing of the refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff with the loss of up to nine thousand lives, some five thousand of them children. Deliberately, Grass had broken a German silence. For him, there was both a point and a need to ‘talk about all that’.
And yet, until now, he kept secret one corner of his own ‘all that’. This book is a rich and wonderful memoir of his life before he became a public figure (in 1959, with the appearance of The Tin Drum), plaited with a series of complex, sometimes devious reflections on recollection and memory which make it a little clearer why he hesitated for so long. It was not so much fear of damaging his public image, although it obviously became harder to confess the Waffen SS episode as the years passed. It was rather a penetrating, insoluble guilt: the knowledge that as a schoolboy and then as a teenager in uniform he had been a willing, believing, active part of the National Socialist machine. It’s a guilt for which he dismisses innocence, ignorance and youth – ‘I was only a child, just a child!’ – as extenuating circumstances. ‘I was silent. Because so many others have kept silent, the temptation is great . . . to shift the blame onto the collective guilt, or to talk about oneself only figuratively in the third person: He was, saw, did, said, he kept silent . . .’ And Grass is writing about himself here, for almost all that he did or thought or underwent in those times is enacted by a multitude of characters – not only Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum – in his novels. But if he hoped that third-person fiction might act as some kind of exorcism, it plainly did not.
Guilt remains. It keeps ticking away, it’s found keeping your place for you even on a journey to nowhere . . . it mercifully lets itself be forgotten for a while, hibernates in dreams. It remains as a sediment, as a stain which can’t be removed, a puddle which can’t be licked up. It learned early to take refuge in an ear as confession, to let time-lapse or forgiveness make it smaller than small, a nothing, and then there it stands again.
Later, he alludes to ‘what is still encapsulated: the shamefully choked-back, secrets in changing disguises. What is like lice-eggs buried in hair. Wordily evasive words. Splinters of thought. What hurts. Even now.’
The book, as Grass has said, is an attempt to rediscover and interrogate his earlier self, beginning with ‘that child of 1939 who seemed like such a distant person to me’. Two images for this process recur. One is the onion of the title: fragile skins of recollection which peel off to reveal indistinct, sometimes misleading scribbles of memory. The other is amber. The transparent fragments which he used to search for on the Baltic beaches near his home, sometimes encapsulating insects from an inconceivably remote past, are a metaphor for episodes which undeniably happened but whose context is lost for ever.
‘Peeling the Onion’ begins with sounds and with silences. The war started in Danzig, and Grass remembers the boom of guns as the old battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish garrison at Westerplatte and German troops laid siege to the Polish Post Office. When the post office surrendered, the defenders were taken out and shot, and among them was Grass’s Uncle Franz. He was a Kashubian, from the small Slav minority in the Danzig hinterland to which Grass’s Germanised mother belonged, and here the first silence began. The ten-year-old Günter was not told what had happened to Franz, and in the little grocery that his parents ran, his name was never mentioned again.
Other silences soon followed. There was the friend at school who seemed to know more than anyone else about German losses in the Norway fighting. He suddenly vanished. Grass did not ask why, and only found out a generation later that the boy’s father had been arrested for listening to the BBC and sent to the local concentration camp at Stutthof. Then the Latin teacher, a Catholic priest, disappeared. Again, Grass and his classmates asked no questions. ‘To excuse the boys, and myself, it can’t even be said: We were seduced. No, we – and I – let ourselves be seduced.’
His education ended at 15, when Grass and his schoolmates were put into uniform and sent to man anti-aircraft batteries around the city. They saw little action; Danzig was almost out of range of the Allied bombers then, and its marvellous skyline of spires and towers was still intact. Then he was called up to do his Reich Labour Service, shovelling mud in the nearby moors. Soon the shovels were augmented by carbines, and military training. But one boy, a tall, blond model of ‘Nordic’ youth, refused to touch the gun. Every time it was thrust into his hand he let it fall. He was threatened and repeatedly punished; other Labour Service boys bullied him and thrashed him with their belts. But he remained stubborn and silent. All he would say was four words: ‘We don’t do that.’
Who were ‘we’? He never explained, and his mates, who had only vaguely heard of forbidden sects like Jehovah’s Witnesses, came to hate him, not least because they sensed hairline cracks in their own total faith in Reich and Führer. It was a relief to Grass when the stubborn boy vanished to Stutthof. ‘The seepage of doubt into everything which had seemed rock-solid belief drained away again. The flat calm in my head allowed no thoughts to hatch out. Only stupidity spread in there. I was pleased with myself, and content.’ But the young man’s four German words condensed themselves into one word which stayed with Grass for life: Wirtunsowasnicht, ‘we don’t do that.’ He had met a conscience.
By now, he was set on becoming an artist. As a child, he had collected cigarette cards of famous paintings, and in the Labour Service he was allowed to decorate the canteen walls and even to wander off and do watercolour landscapes on his own. He felt the agonies of first love, became a cinema addict and began to read books. When he got hold of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (banned and burned by the Nazis, though Grass did not know that), he read it avidly. Today, he cannot imagine how he lost himself in Remarque and yet somehow missed the whole point of his great warning against war. ‘Author and book remind me of my youthful incomprehension, and at the same time, of the soberingly limited influence of literature.’ But even more important, for the future, was a book lent to him by a teacher: Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus. Here, in fearful and scathing detail, Grimmelshausen put into fiction what he had seen in the Thirty Years’ War: a blackened landscape traversed by bands of starving, murderous soldiers in which all order and mercy had collapsed. Within a few months that landscape would return to Europe, and Grass would be stumbling across it.
He was desperate to be away. Although he was a tenderly spoiled mother’s boy, he longed to escape from his family and join the ‘fate-struggle’ around him. Grass had already volunteered to become a U-Boat seaman, and been rejected. Now, in September 1944, his call-up papers finally arrived. His father, in his best suit with a Nazi Party button in the lapel, took him silently to the station. For the last time, he looked at the undamaged towers and steeples of his city. The train took him to Berlin, already half-ruined and burning after British air-raids. From there, he was directed to Dresden, where he was given his orders: to report to a Waffen SS base and be trained as a tank gunner.
Was he shocked to see the double-S rune stamped on his movement order? ‘Nothing is engraved on the onion-skin which can be read as a sign of shock or dismay. More likely, I would have seen the Waffen SS as an elite formation, sent into action whenever there was a breakthrough to be sealed off, or a pocket like Demyansk to be relieved, or Kharkov to be recaptured. The double rune on the uniform collar did not repel me.’ The division’s name appealed to him; he had read about Jörg von Frundsberg in history books as a people’s hero in the Peasant Wars. And there was a European glamour about the Waffen SS, with its volunteers from France, Flanders and Scandinavia.
But then Grass writes: ‘Enough evasions. After all, I have for decades refused to admit to that word and those double letters. After the war, with growing shame, I was silent about something which I had accepted in the stupid pride of my young years. But the burden remained, and nobody could make it lighter.’ During training, he heard nothing about the crimes that the Waffen SS had committed. ‘But the claim of ignorance cannot, I consider, veil involvement in a system which planned, organised and carried out the extermination of millions of human beings. Even if I can talk myself out of the charge of active joint guilt, there remains a residue which to this day has not been lifted, something all too fluently called shared responsibility. That I must live with that for the rest of my years is certain.’
The training was brutal; the bullying drove Grass to the edge of breakdown. It was in the bitter February frost of 1945 that he took the oath and was sent to the disintegrating front. Dresden had been obliterated, Danzig had fallen, Breslau was under siege and the whole civilian population of eastern Germany was taking to the roads in flight. The Red Army was pouring into Silesia and preparing for its final, gigantic offensive across the Oder and Neisse rivers towards Berlin. Against this backdrop a bewildered Günter Grass, in his uniform with the two silver lightning-flashes on the collar, went to war. He was 17 years old.
His memory of what followed is a series of disconnected, horrific scenes: as Grass puts it, a piece of film interrupted by blanks and breaks. Three times, at least, he emerged alive and alone when almost all his comrades were dead. He survived a shattering Katyusha rocket strike which wiped out most of his unit, a street fight in which he saw his companions slaughtered, a night battle in a forest which he escaped by fleeing into the trees. Wandering in the darkness, he came across a German corporal who took the terrified boy under his wing and guided him across a Grimmelshausen universe of flames and fugitives. Together, they narrowly avoided death at the hands of Russian soldiers and of the German field-gendarmerie, who were hanging ‘deserters’ cut off from their units, until their luck ran out somewhere near Cottbus. Trapped in a refugee column, they were ambushed by Soviet tanks. Grass ended up in a field hospital with a slashed leg and a shell-fragment in his shoulder. His saviour the corporal was less fortunate. His legs half torn off, he demanded a cigarette and then asked Grass to open his trousers and check that ‘everything was still there.’ Reassured, he let himself be carted off. Grass never saw him again; he used the trouser-checking scene years later when he came to write The Tin Drum. It was Hitler’s birthday.
That was the end of Grass’s short nightmare with the Waffen SS, and soon it was the end of the war. Released from the prison camps, where he and other starving men had attended a surreal cordon bleu cooking course, he worked as a farm labourer and then found a steady job below ground in a potash mine. It was months before he discovered that his family had survived the destruction of Danzig, the sack of the city by the Red Army and their expulsion by the Poles, and had reached the British Zone of occupied Germany. About what had happened to them in Danzig, none of them – not his father, mother or sister – ever spoke openly to him. ‘It’s in the past now,’ his mother said, when he pressed her. ‘Specially for your sister. Don’t ask so many questions. It doesn’t make anything better . . . What’s over is over.’ Only after her death, years later, did Grass’s sister hint that their mother had been repeatedly raped, offering herself to the Russian soldiers in an attempt to shield her daughter.
Grass, too, was silent about what happened to him in those few years. ‘No, I did not look back, or only with a brief, horrified glance over my shoulder.’ But politically he was beginning to grow up. In the prison camps, he had gone along with the majority who dismissed the awful photographs of heaped corpses as ‘Allied propaganda’. In the mine, during frequent power cuts, he listened to flaming three-sided debates between unregenerate Nazis, fanatical Communists and Social Democrats who tried to calm the others down. ‘They never learn from history,’ one old Social Democrat told Grass. ‘They want all or nothing. They hate us “Sozis”, because we’ll accept only half if we have to.’ Grass was impressed. Taken to hear Kurt Schumacher, the SPD leader, speak in the ruins of Hanover, he was unwillingly convinced. It was the start of a lifelong commitment to snail-paced gradualism, not without interruptions (he was to go through a phase of student existentialism, rejecting all democratic politics), but reasserting itself as he reached middle age and became the licensed satirist and prophet of Willy Brandt’s SPD.
The first part of Beim Häuten der Zwiebel now gives way to a rich chronicle of a young man struggling towards a new identity as an artist. In the ruins of Düsseldorf, he found work as an apprentice sculptor, restoring shattered façades and carving gravestones (the only flourishing industry then), and fought his way into the city’s school of art. There were more early love affairs and – when West Germans were allowed to travel again in 1951 – his first hitchhiking journeys to Italy and to Paris. By now he was writing ambitious poetry, as well as drawing and sculpting. In Paris he began a forgettable verse epic in the ‘absurdist’ manner, about a young stonemason who builds himself a column in the marketplace and lives on top of it as a Stylite, bombarding his town with ‘metaphor-loaded blasphemies’.
Here was one of the ancestors of Oskar Matzerath, the accusing dwarf. Another appeared on a visit to Switzerland. Into a family coffee party burst a three-year-old boy grimly battering a tin drum. ‘Neither the offer of chocolates nor silly appeals could divert him; he seemed to be gazing through everything and everybody until suddenly he turned round and left the room again . . . It was an appearance which left an echo, a picture which stayed with me.’
Grass moved to West Berlin, married Anna Schwartz, whom he had met in Switzerland, and was accepted as a pupil by the Hochschule für Bildende Künste, the supreme art college of postwar Germany. The Cold War was well under way. He and Anna watched helplessly across the sector boundary (the Wall had not yet been built) as East German workers were scattered by Soviet tanks during the 1953 uprising. In West Berlin, he was caught up in the historic ‘Art War’ at the Hochschule, when American-backed supporters of abstraction ousted the ‘figurative’ members of staff and smeared them as pro-Communist. He stayed loyal to the fallen director, Karl Hofer, who insisted that ‘the central problem of creative art is and remains the human being and humanity,’ and Grass saw his own portfolio of drawings rejected as ‘too objective’. Grass never forgave this insult, and claims in this book that his graphic work has been unfairly marginalised ever since.
By now his poetry was attracting attention, and he became a young star of Gruppe 47, the mercilessly critical circle of writers who had set themselves the task of reconstructing German literature. He was moving from being an artist who wrote poems to being a writer who did his own masterly illustrations. But by now an enormous pressure was building up within him, the clamour of imaginary voices bursting to speak about the forbidden past. In 1956, he and Anna moved to Paris, and there, in a damp workroom, he sat searching for the first words. Finally they came: ‘Admitted: I am the inmate of a mental institution.’ The Tin Drum was published in 1959. Grass became famous. One life had ended, and another – that of a celebrity and novelist – began.
That is only the bare summary of a thick, hotly emotional and complex work of life-review. The second half of Beim Häuten der Zwiebel is the best account I know of surviving and growing up in chaotic, pauperised West Germany, in the years before the Economic Miracle took hold. Grass’s energy as a writer has always sprung from his belief in experience: things horrible, comic, delicious, but always things felt, seen, touched, eaten or embraced. There is experience here – work, women, college dramas, jazz, cookery, recollections of dozens of friends, lovers, workplace comrades, teachers and drinking pals – but also an unfamiliar tone of introspection. He does not preach in this book, and seldom boasts. The finest passages concern his family rather than himself; he describes the failure of his tormented sister to live as a nun, the slow decline of the father whom he once detested into a shrunken old man listening to the rattle of potatoes boiling in the pan. Above all, there is his account of his mother’s long illness and her death from cancer in the windowless ‘dying room’ of a Cologne hospital. Here Grass writes in a voice not to be found in his novels and polemics – serious, direct, without ornament or metaphor, endlessly moving.
Many emotions are recorded in this long book: fear, shame, anger, delight and triumph among them. But only in the elegy for his mother does he confess openly to feeling real pain. Grass admits, finally, that he, too, has suffered crushing grief. In breaking this silence, it may be that he allowed that other secret – ‘What hurts. Even now,’ like the fragment of a shell still encapsulated in his shoulder – to emerge at last into the light.