Memory's long shadow

Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass wanted to be the first to reveal his days in the Nazi Waffen-SS.

Would Günter Grass have won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999 had he decades ago made public his long-suppressed source of shame: namely, that at the age of 17 he was drafted into the elite Nazi Waffen-SS as a tank gunner?

Probably not – despite his having written (beginning in 1959 with "The Tin Drum"), what are arguably the most penetrating books probing what he calls "the massive weight of the German past."

And would his memoir, Peeling the Onion, garner as much attention without his belated confession?

Again, probably not – despite its trenchant exploration of the roots of Grass's artistic flowering and the capricious nature of "Lady Memory ... prone to migraines and reputed to smile at the highest bidder."

Why reveal his terrible secret now, as he approaches his 80th birthday? "Because I want to have the last word," Grass writes in this fascinating, multilayered memoir that covers not just his war years but takes us from his Danzig childhood through his work as a potash miner, stonecutter, sculptor, and poet to the publication of his first novel at age 32.

He clearly won't have the last word. But well aware that enterprising biographers were sure to unearth his inconvenient truth, which "fell into the well before the lid went on," Grass decided to beat them to the punch.

"Why only now?" Grass opened his 2002 novel, "Crabwalk." The narrator of that book, excavating the truth about the sinking of a German cruise-ship-turned-refugee-camp, confessed that "The words still don't come easily."

They probably didn't here, either. In fact, Grass writes in the first person about the boy who loved art, yet distances himself from "the boy bearing my name" in the Luftwaffe auxiliary by writing about him in the third person.

The most problematic aspect of Grass's secret isn't his role in the war but his role in burying it.

"What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame," Grass writes. "But the burden remained, and no one could alleviate it." Many find the long duplicity particularly galling in a writer who has spent his career outspokenly forcing others to face their role in Germany's disgrace.

As Grass tells it, he was a naive, unquestioning teenager eager to get away from his family's cramped apartment in Danzig (now Gdansk). At 15, he tried to join the submarine corps but was rejected. A poor student "expelled from two schools for obstreperous behavior," his formal schooling came to an effective end when, despite his parents' antifascist leanings, he voluntarily joined the Hitler Youth. He was attracted in part by the uniform.

"I can take care of the labeling and branding myself," he writes in self-censure. "As a member of the Hitler Youth I was, in fact, a Young Nazi."

Like others of his generation, Grass was conscripted into the Reich's Labor Service before being drafted at 16 and assigned to the Waffen-SS.

By the time Grass reached the eastern front, Hitler's army was in chaotic retreat. Fleeing from Russian artillery, he was as afraid of being hung by the Nazis if caught without marching orders as he was of being captured by "the Ivans." He claims that he never fired a shot and was ignorant of the Reich's atrocities until he was shown pictures by his American captors in a POW camp.

The protean poet, novelist, and visual artist has long used organic matter – mice, cats, snails, flounder, and crabs – as touchstones for his work. In "Peeling the Onion," he employs the root vegetable, with its many layers of paper-thin skin and its tendency to produce blinding tears when cut to its core, as an extended metaphor for the multiple leaves and obfuscations of memory.

In Grass's case, paring the layers is complicated by his lifelong storytelling compulsion. Over the years he has transmuted so many of his experiences into literature that even he now has trouble keeping track of which version actually happened. This habitual blurring of the truth – possibly a protective device – is at times frustrating.

"My sister doesn't believe my stories on principle," he notes after trying to convince her that the devout, fellow 17-year-old POW with whom he chewed caraway seeds to stave off hunger may well have been Josef Ratzinger, the current pontiff.

Grass highlights three hungers – for food, sex, and art – as his driving motivators. His robust appetites in all three realms have led to an unusually stuffed life. "Peeling the Onion" is well worth delving into, beyond the sensationally moldy patches on its surface.

Heller McAlpin is a freelance writer in New York.

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