It is rare for me to celebrate the death of an author. Even the worst of them seldom merit sufficient indignation or contempt or, let’s face it, bad manners.
But when I heard the news that German writer Gunter Grass has died, I celebrated. He was 87-years-old. I am only sorry he didn’t die seventy-five-years ago. Before he became an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth organization. Before he volunteered to serve in the murderous Waffen SS during World War II. Before he claimed the mantle of post-war Germany’s conscience. Before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1999.
The Swedish Academy gave him the prize, for literature, because they saw in Grass a modern German hero, an anti-Nazi who took on, “the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history,” by exposing “...the lies people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them.”
This was quite an accolade for one of the great liars of the Twentieth Century. And Grass appealed to Europeans precisely because he was a monumentally bold liar. His moral authority stemmed from his innocence. As a sensitive teenager he had been forced by the Nazis to belong to the Hitler Youth. As a young man he had been an unwilling conscript who had contrived to be just a harmless “flakhelfer,” a slacker who remained in the rear and hurt no one.
This, of course, was precisely the alibi of Grass’s generation—the Nazi supermen who claimed, after the war, to have been nowhere and done nothing, as well as the Nazi collaborators in a dozen occupied countries who, when the fighting ended, reinvented themselves as heroic members of the resistance. Like Grass they were innocent, victims in fact, of the Nazis. They didn’t all get Nobel Prizes of course, but they awarded themselves the status of civilized and decent citizens of the New Europe, and in no time at all they were giving the rest of the world lessons in morality.
In 2006, Gunter Grass published his memoir, “Peeling the Onion.” He revealed that he not been just a hapless cog in the German army, but a soldier in the Waffen SS, a unit that embodied Nazi evil and barbarity. The unit was so infamous that in 1985, when President Reagan accompanied German chancellor Kohl on a visit to a cemetery in Bitburg where Waffen SS men are buried, the American leader was excoriated by the leading voice of European conscience: Gunter Grass.
Why did Grass blow his own cover in 2006? It was, in his telling, a tribute to his own moral sensitivity. He had suffered in shamed silence for decades, he said. He could no longer lie. Of course, he insisted that he, personally, had never participated in Waffen SS atrocities. How could he? He was, after all, a man of conscience. But he couldn’t continue lying about his past, he said. The pain was too great. After 60 years he could not tell a lie. It was embarrassing, he admitted, but he was a victim of his own exquisite morality.
The Swedish Academy didn’t rescind the Nobel Prize it had awarded him, but at least it refrained from giving him another one. Some of his admirers were scandalized, but Grass didn’t become a pariah among the intelligentsia of the New Europe (or the United States).
Nor did he sentence himself to a humiliated silence. On the contrary. In 2012, Grass launched a diatribe against Israel for endangering the peace of the world. The Jewish State, he wrote, was guilty of arming itself against Iran, whose regime (he didn’t write) deeply admires the Waffen SS and its genocidal anti-Semitism.
Grass titled his prose poem, ‘What Must Be Said.’ That turned out to be a demand that Germany stop selling advanced weapons to Israel. He deplored “Western hypocrisy” in not singling out the Jewish State as a nuclear danger to the innocent Ayatollahs of Iran, and tossed in the Palestinians for good measure. He sadly predicted that his intellectual honesty would lead the Jews to defame him as an anti-Semite. Once more, he would be a victim.
Gunter Grass was a man of his time and place, a low life con man with legions of admirers. He deserves to be buried in the cemetery in Bitburg alongside his Waffen SS comrades, with a headstone that reads: Here lies Gunter Grass, the Conscience of New Europe.