Gunter Grass (on joining the SS, 1944)

Gunter Grass died Monday. I remember my 1970s awe at an older friend, Kenny, who buried his beard and mighty forehead in John Barth and Grass and other literary lions I’d never heard of. Hundreds of heart throbs later, I still haven’t read The Tin Drum, or even seen the movie, but in my usual time-impaired way I expect I will be soon. Because the man has died, and the man wrote fearlessly of the business of being German during and after that nasty Nazi business. He took considerable heat for revealing, in 2006, after a lifetime of calling Germans to account and to remember, that he himself had been drafted into the SS as a 17-year-old. Too late! they cried. Hypocrite!

I beg to differ, and so do most commentators who are better-informed than I am. So does anyone, I would think, who has actually read his account. It is deceptively laconic, describing almost whimsically the conditions of war-time Germany and of an ignorant, artistic lad who sought to escape poverty and insignificance. I got to read this New Yorker article by Mr. Grass thanks to smart Tweeters: (Sorry, I’m unable to hyperlink right now.) It’s an entrancing read, and I highly recommend it.

That he survived was a fluke, several flukes in succession. RIP, Gunther Grass.

That he survived was a fluke, several flukes in succession. RIP, Gunther Grass.

Here is a short piece of his description, riding the train to accept his call-up to some branch of the military (he’d wanted to serve on submarines), which turned out to be an extremely disorganized and depleted branch of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the elite “protective squadrons” of the Nazi armed forces. The British, the Americans, and the Russians were closing in:

“After a night’s journey broken by repeated stops, the train finally pulled in late to Berlin. It was going so slowly as to invite the passengers to write everything down, or at least fill in the potential memory gaps ahead of time.

“Here is what I retained: there were houses, entire apartment houses, on fire on either side of the embankment; there were flames coming out of the windows of the upper stories, and glimpses of dark gorgelike streets and courtyards with trees. The only people I saw were isolated silhouettes. No crowds.

“Fires were considered normal by then; Berlin was in the throes of dissolution…”

There’s much more to come. His accounts of service on the edges of the end of Naziism are painful, randomly detailed and often ridiculous. They remind me of a more sober, factual version of the stories Kurt Vonnegut, from the American prisoner-of-war POV, told eventually in fiction in Slaughterhouse Five. (This is high praise, coming from me.)

Gunther Grass (1927-2015) was a German writer and social critic who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. Warnings from his last interview can be found here:

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