Friday, May 20, 2022

Nobel Nazi?

A publicity stunt? A youthful mistake? A heroic admission? Germany's post-war 'moral authority' and Nobel prize winner Guenter Grass has opinion divided, with the likes of Salman Rushdie weighing in, on his revelation that he served in the Waffen-SS

Nobel Nazi?
AP File

Saturday 12 August

Just days before publication of his long-awaited autobiography, Peeling the Onion, Nobel prize winner and Germany's most famous literary figure Guenter Grass revealed that he served in the Waffen-SS, Adolf Hitler's elite Nazi troops for two months in 1945. In an interview to conservative newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Grass said he volunteered for the submarine service towards the end of World War II but was called up to serve in the Waffen-SS in the eastern city of Dresden. The 78-yer-old author and an active supporter of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), said the wartime secret had been weighing on his mind and was one of the reasons he wrote a book of recollections which details his war service. "My silence through all these years is one of the reasons why I wrote this book... It had to come out finally."

He said he joined up to get away from his relatives and see the world, with unexpected consequences. "For me it was primarily about getting out of there. Out of that corner (of Germany), away from my family. I wanted to put an end to that and that's why I volunteered for the army. It was like that for many of my generation. We were doing army service and then suddenly, one year later, the draft order was on the table. And then I realised, probably not until I was in Dresden, that it was the Waffen-SS." He added, "Later this feeling of shame burdened me."

Previously, it was only known that Guenter Grass (like many other Germans including Joseph Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI ) had served as a assistant to anti-aircraft gunners - a common duty for teenagers at the time -and was wounded and taken prisoner by US forces.

The SS, which began as a private bodyguard for Adolf Hitler, grew into a force nearly one million strong and both acted as an elite fighting force and ran death camps in which millions, mainly Jews were murdered.

Sunday 13 August

Grass' biographer Michael Jurgs was deeply critical: "I'm deeply disappointed. If he had come clean earlier and said he was in the SS at 17 no one would have cared, but now it puts in doubt from a moral point of view anything he has ever told us."

Wolfgang Bornsen, the parliamentary spokesman on cultural affairs for the conservative Christian Democratic Union calls for Grass to "honorably return the (Nobel) prize he won for Literature in 1999, saying he should adhere to "his own moral standards".

Monday 14 August

Historian and acclaimed Hitler biographer Joachim Fest tells Bild newspaper: "I do not understand how someone can elevate himself constantly for 60 years to the nation's bad conscience, precisely in Nazi questions, and only then admit that he himself was deeply involved. I don't know how he could play this double role for so long. He is seriously damaged. To use a common saying, I wouldn't buy a used car from this person."

German Political commentator Stefan Reinecke writes in the Left-leaning Taz daily: "Anyone who looks more closely will likely feel sympathy with an adolescent misled by Nazi propaganda whose ambition drove him into the Waffen SS".

Former Polish President Lech Walesa demands that Grass should renounce his honorary citizenship of Gdansk- the Polsih city where the author was born in 1927. Walesa, himself a Nobel peace laureate and honorary citizen of Gdansk, adds: "An uncomfortable situation has developed. I do not feel comfortable in that company. I do not know whether one should consider revoking the title. If it had been known he was in the SS, he would never have received the honour... I have had the luck - as a Nobel winner from Gdansk - that we have never met. That has saved me from having to shake his hand."

The Czech PEN-club begins considering whether to withdraw the prestigious Karel Capek Prize, awarded to Grass in 1994.

Tuesday 15 August

Michael Sohlman, head of the Nobel Foundation rejects calls to revoke the Nobel prize awarded to Guenter Grass, saying "the decisions are absolute and it has never happened that a prize has been revoked".

Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews, crictises Grass saying "His long years of silence over his own SS past reduce his earlier statements to absurdities". Knobloch also accuses that the "confession" was part of a publicity campaign for his autobiography: "There are strong indications that all this is part of a public relations drive which is designed to sell the work."

Pawel Adamowicz, the mayor the Polish city of Gdansk, rejects suggestions that the author should be stripped of his honorary citizenship of the city and opposes submitting the affair to the municipal council saying " It was not for the council to judge history".

Wednesday 16 August

In an interview to Germany's ARD television, Guenter Grass says his literary achievements were being denigrated following his belated admission. "What I'm experiencing is an attempt to make me persona non grata, to cast doubt about everything I did in my life after that - and that later life was marked by shame... Anyone who wants to pass judgment can pass judgment.''

Gerhard Steidl, the publishers of Grass' autobiography, Peeling Onions, reports that orders for the book have more than doubled since the revelations. In response to the media furore, German bookshops have started selling the book two weeks earlier than planned.

An opinion poll by German magazine Stern shows 87 percent of the 1,005 people surveyed did not agree that Grass should give back his 1999 Nobel prize for literature. Eight percent say 'Yes' and five percent 'Did Not Know'. Another opinion poll of 1,001 persons for N-TV television reports 51 percent believed Grass should have admitted his Waffen SS service sooner while 29 per cent said he had chosen the right time and 8 per cent said he should have kept it permanently secret.

Thursday 17 August

Salaman Rushdie tells BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the writer's work was "not undone" by the revelations and that his past was a "youthful mistake". "Grass has spent his adult life opposing the ideas he espoused as a child and that in itself is an act of courage, he's a friend of mine and I don't intend to change that". Describing Grass' secret as a "partial concealment", he adds: "His stature comes from the fact he's a giant in the world of literature and the fact he's made mistakes... You can either look at the life on the basis of a youthful mistake or you can look at it over the course of more than 70 years, most of which have been spent being, in my view, one of the two greatest writers living in the world, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez."

Author John Irving defends Grass as a "hero" saying: "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 .The fulminating in the German media has been obnoxious. Grass is a daring writer, and he has always been a daring man."

The director of the film version of Grass' 1959 novel The Tin Drum, Volker Schlondorff also came to his defence and in an open letter published in Der Tagesspiegel newspaper, said the confession saw Grass apply the same scrutiny to himself that he does to his fictional characters. "I hope that you feel greatly liberated by no longer having to be a living monument".

Compiled by Sandeep Singh from various sources.