NYT Editorial: Gunter Grass's work still stands





In a recent interview, the German author Günter Grass, who was 6 years old when Hitler came to power, added a significant, and overwhelming, detail to the account of his war years. He has always admitted being a Nazi sympathizer. Now he has admitted being drafted by the Waffen SS, the military arm of that criminal corps, in the last winter of World War II. He served in a tank division based in Dresden and claims he never fired a shot. He also states that at the time, he saw nothing wrong with the SS and that he came to understand the Holocaust only after the war.

The uproar on all sides was instantaneous. Grass’s central literary theme has always been Germany’s struggle to come to terms with its past, and he has used his own life — and the realizations forced upon him after the war ended — as a platform for trenchant moral and social criticism. He stands accused now, especially from the right, of deceit and hypocrisy. He might just as well stand accused of embodying, far more fully than his readers could ever have guessed, the unbearable historical and ethical tragedy implicit in his work. Memory should always speak, no matter how painful. That it has done so for Grass, only at last, means that he will forever be constrained by his own lie.

We see two critical questions here. First, does this revelation undermine the sharp criticisms Grass has leveled over the years against Germany and the United States? Grass’s personal probity has been seriously damaged, but that does nothing to mitigate the very real crimes of thought and deed he has railed against. The second question is more important. Does this revelation annul or impair Grass’s work? To us, his novels have dramatized the problem of the conscience in history — and especially the battering it took in the 20th century — better than the work of almost any other writer. Everything he has written will now be reread with an ironic eye, but the weight of the work will stand unchanged. With this revelation, Günter Grass has become, in a sense, his own final chapter.


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