Monday, August 21, 2006

The public intellectual's travails

One would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh heartily at the travails of that most eminent of Europe’s public intellectuals, Günter Grass, author of many intellectual novels, all-purpose anti-American and anti-capitalist campaigner and the self-designated conscience of Germany.

Having spent many decades calling on the Germans to confess their sins, to come clean on their Nazi past and to atone for all the crimes (though, curiously, he has never been known to call for Communists to atone for their equally terrible and far more voluminous crimes) he has now admitted that in 1944, at the age of 17 he joined the Waffen SS.

My first reaction on reading the story was an amused shrug. Grass is undoubtedly an excrescence on the horizon of public intellectualdom but no worse than many others, say, our own Harold Pinter. In addition Grass is a much better writer than Pinter.

Furthermore, people do very stupid things when they are 17. There are many people around who stayed in the Communist Party till a considerably later age. All the same, it is curious that the young Günter didn’t simply join the army, as he would have had to by 1944 but the elite Waffen SS that was implementing the Final Solution.

He himself maintains that he did not take part in any of the crimes, which is possible, though what on earth he did as a young recruit remains somewhat mysterious. In any case, whatever he did, it would have aided and abetted those who did carry out the crimes.

The fuss is not going away, though, largely because it has taken Grass so long to admit to his early “peccadilloes”, coincidentally just before his autobiography is due to be published.

The real problem is the hypocrisy. Grass had been castigating everyone on the right for so long, demanding so many repentances (though in 2003 he wrote a novel “Crabwalk” in which he called Germans the victims of World War II as well, but presumably only because the nasty British and Americans defeated them), that questions do have to be asked as to why he has kept so quiet for so long about this rather embarrassing episode in his life.

As Suzanne Fields writes:
“And it was a big halo. Like others of the arrogant intellectual left of European letters (such as the English playwright Harold Pinter, another Nobel Prize-winner), he never lost an opportunity to use his fame and sense of moral superiority to scold America. During the Vietnam War, he compared our "war crimes" to the war crimes of Nazi Germany. He never bothered until now to say that he was a member of the elite Nazi unit commissioned to execute the worst of Holocaust thuggery.

He went out of his way to criticize Konrad Adenauer for his friendship with the United States; he blamed the resurgence of German capitalism, which he loathed, on America. He even invited sympathy from Jews for opposing Ronald Reagan's visit to the cemetery at Bitburg in 1985 because some of his old comrades of the Waffen SS were buried there along with American soldiers. Imagine how eloquent that opposition might have been if he had said then that he, too, was Waffen SS. Instead he only sneered at President Reagan.”
All that self-righteousness, all that civil sainthood – all gone. How sad for him – how wonderfully funny for the rest of us.

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