Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Ian Buruma on Gunter Grass

Ian Buruma on Gunter Grass:

The New Yorker: PRINTABLES: In 1985, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Ronald Reagan decided to remember the war and celebrate the postwar alliance of Western democracies, by laying wreaths at the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and then at a military cemetery in Bitburg. Grass called it an “insult,” a “defilement of history,” because among the thousands of graves were the remains of forty-nine Waffen-S.S. soldiers. Thirty-two of the soldiers were less than twenty-five years old when they died. Grass, as his critics have now had occasion to point out, never even hinted that he could easily have been one of them.

Just as unequivocal was his declaration, in 1989, that Germany should remain divided, the unified state having “laid the foundations for Auschwitz.”

And his criticisms of the United States show precious few shades of gray. The stationing of U.S. Pershing missiles on German soil, in the eighties, was likened to the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews.

Why was this man, who dissembled for so long about his own past, so eager to expose the shameful secrets of others? Why was he so intent on imposing a collective guilt on his people, as if all Germans had followed Hitler as blindly as he had? And why is there such a discrepancy between the subtlety of his best narrative writing and the fierceness of his public scoldings?...

Grass’s memoir.... His father, a provincial shopkeeper, a good Roman Catholic, a “peace-loving family man... forever bent on harmony,” filled him with loathing. There was nothing grand or exciting about him. He was, as Grass would say, a Spiessbürger, a stuffy petit bourgeois.... This loathing, in Grass’s recollection, was one of the reasons that he yearned to join the Army at the end of the Second World War.... “I was spoiling for a fight with him,” he writes about his father. “I would like to have murdered him with my Hitler Youth dagger.” He was desperate to find escape routes. “All led in one direction. Away from here, to the battle front, one of the many fronts, as soon as possible.”...

[S]uddenly, the draft card arrived, telling him to report to the Waffen-S.S. in Dresden.... Was he shocked by the reputation of the S.S.? Not at all... there was something attractively European about the Waffen-S.S.; its volunteers included Frenchmen, Walloons, Dutchmen, Norwegians, Danes, and even some neutral Swedes, all battling on the Eastern Front to “save the West from the Bolshevist flood.”...

For decades, serious intellectuals and politicians wouldn’t talk about the effects of Allied terror bombing, say, or the expulsions from the German-speaking areas of Silesia and the Sudetenland... confined to the right-wing fringes of German politics. This began to change recently, and Grass followed the trend with his 2002 novel, “Crabwalk,” about the Wilhelm Gustloff, a Nazi cruise ship that was sunk by Soviet torpedoes in 1945, sending almost nine thousand German refugees, many of them children, to the bottom of the frozen sea.

The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is an enormity worth recalling; and yet the tone of Grass’s novel is oddly peevish. The narrator complains that it was “as if there were no room for another maritime disaster, as if only the victims of the Titanic could be remembered, not those of the Gustloff.” He goes on, “The Internet was abuzz with a tearjerker of colossal proportions, the sinking of the Titanic freshly filmed in Hollywood and soon to be marketed as the greatest maritime catastrophe of all times.” Much is made, earlier in the story, of the fact that the Gustloff, when it was still the flagship of Nazi cruises, was classless, an innovation that had wide appeal. The Titanic, we know, was anything but.... [T]here is an element of contempt here—-toward commercial culture and capitalism—-that hints at some of Grass’s earlier attitudes. It explains his hostility to America....

Grass, from a petit-bourgeois background, a convert to democracy, ashamed of his own youthful moral obtuseness, viewed Adenauer’s Germany as an outrageous betrayal.... Even now... [e]very word is filled with rage:

Chancellor Adenauer was like a mask, hiding everything I loathed: the pseudo-Christian hypocrisy, the disgusting, lying professions of innocence, and the ostentatious bourgeois respectability of a criminal gang in disguise.

This is harsh, but in the context of the early postwar decades Grass’s voice was a necessary moral correction to Adenauer’s pragmatism.... His compatriots needed to have their consciences pricked in the nineteen-fifties and sixties.... The problem is that he hasn’t been able to let go. The Nazi ghosts have continued to haunt him, and any kind of hypocrisy, material greed, or use of military force provokes hysterical denunciations.... [Grass] sometimes talks as if the United States were the Third Reich’s successor... there are hints of earlier enthusiasms, of a possibly unconscious nostalgia for more heroic, more mythical, more tragic times...


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