Grass’s personal responsibility

About a year ago, the release of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film «Downfall,» one of the books on which it was based (by one of Hitler’s secretaries, Traudl Junge) as well as the reaction these received in Germany, stirred up fierce debate (presuming it has died down). Junge died before her book went on sale, but she had admitted her guilt and the responsibility she felt throughout the decades before writing it. Over the past few days, the German media have been hotly debating the confession by writer Guenter Grass that at the age of 17 he had been recruited into an SS tank division. He said the silence over the intervening 60 years had weighed upon him. Some have called for his head on a platter (along with some of the prizes he has won) and others have embarked on a campaign in his defense. The fuss comes as no surprise. Since the 1950s, German society has dealt with the Nazi regime in various ways, at first hesitantly and then in recent years more courageously, transforming it into art: sometimes seeking out the good Germans, absolving them of personal blame, at others presenting it as a »force of destiny» or satirizing the protagonists. As a writer, Grass was part of the same broad network of guilt. In «The Tin Drum,» his own rage is contained in the small hero’s persistence. Grass is incorporated into the stream of history, first through his youthful enthusiasm for the «brave new world of National Socialism,» then as an adult within the realm of silence, and more recently, as part of the process of absolution. In a country that is often faced with its conscience, public confessions involve risk. Unless marketing (in view of the imminent publication of Grass’s memoirs) is capable of peeling away ideology like an onion.

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