One wonders what went through retired Pope Benedict’s mind when he read about Günter Grass’s death yesterday. Both joined the Nazi children’s organization Jungvolk at the age of 10. Later, both were prisoners together in an Allied camp at Bad Aibling. Grass later remembered Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, as “extremely Catholic” and “a little uptight,” but “a nice guy.”
Ratzinger had not been recruited for the notorious Waffen SS at the age of seventeen as Grass was, and was spared the accusations of hypocrisy when, in 2006, Grass confessed this episode in his early life. He had kept quiet about it for more than half a century, claiming that he was a Flakhelfer. His convoluted explanations did not convince every one of his critics. He denied – and nobody contradicted him – that he ever did anything to assist the S.S. in their work.
All this has to be seen in the light of his extraordinary achievements as a novelist and of the role he played in Germany’s public life as the Voice of Conscience.
In 1958, he published The Tin Drum. It soon became an international bestseller. The book’s hero, Oskar Matzerath, possessing the mind of an adult, wills himself at the age of 3 to stop growing. Thereafter, he expresses himself only by pounding one of many toy tin drums he carries constantly and shrieking so piercingly at important moments that his voice shatters glass.
As the book unfolds, the Nazi army invades Poland, and later the Soviets push them out. Oskar discovers odd forms of sexuality, joins a troupe of dwarves who entertain German troops, and becomes an engraver of tombstones. After the war he joins a jazz band, but decides on a quieter life. He allows himself to be convicted of a murder he did not commit, is judged insane and committed to an institution, where he writes the memoir that becomes “The Tin Drum.”
That novel, which won Grass the Nobel Prize, was followed by a number of others of great originality and moral passion.
Grass’s uncompromising opposition to nationalism and militarism was so compelling that, when the wall was breached in 1989, he argued against unification on the ground that a people responsible for the Holocaust had forfeited the right to live together in one nation. He suggested that East and West Germany remain separate for a time and then join a loose confederation of German-speaking states.
“Auschwitz,” he said, “speaks against even a right to self-determination that is enjoyed by all other peoples, because one of the preconditions for the horror, besides other, older urges, was a strong and united Germany,” he said in a 1990 speech. “We cannot get by Auschwitz. We should not even try, as great as the temptation is, because Auschwitz belongs to us, is branded into our history, and – to our benefit! – has made possible an insight that could be summarized as, ‘Now we finally know ourselves.’”
Source (in part): The New York Times, April 13