Wednesday 25 April 2012

History and Memory
History is lived forwards but read backwards. We all know this, but often find it easy or convenient to forget. Criticism of Gunter Grass’s poem about Israel makes the point. There were good reasons to criticise the poem’s argument – that Israel as a nuclear power is the chief danger to peace in the Middle East. Yet what the critics preferred to dwell on was Grass’s service as a 17-year-old boy in the Waffen SS, evidence surely that he has always been at heart a Nazi. The fact that he had concealed this for more than 60 years, till he admitted it in his memoir “Peeling the Onion”, was held to aggravate the offence. That he was conscripted was generally ignored. If not ignored, then mention was made of his previous service as a Luftwaffe auxiliary, and of his attempt to volunteer for the Navy as a submariner. Looking at Nazi Germany from our perspective, it is easy – and comfortable – to be shocked. ----------------
But now is not then. Circumstances alter cases; life in Britain, indeed Europe, today is very different from life in the Third Reich. So one should try to see things as they appeared to a teenager in Danzig who, as a member of the Hitler Youth, had been, as he admits in his memoir, “a Young Nazi … a believer to the end”, one who saw his “Fatherland threatened, surrounded by enemies.” Wouldn’t it have been more remarkable if he had thought otherwise? He was a lower-middle-class boy in Danzig, reared on Nazi propaganda, even though he had heard his gentle and loving shopkeeper mother express reservations about the F├╝hrer – she preferred Rudolf Hess – and say she couldn’t understand “why they’ve got it in for the Jews. We used to have a haberdashery sales rep by the name of Zuckermann. As nice as could be and always gave a discount.” -----------------------
Maternal doubts couldn’t compete with the newsreels. The young Grass was “a pushover for the prettified black-and-white ‘truth’ they served up" – just as British boys of his age were for our version of "truth" served up by the BBC and British Movietone News. --------------------
In these newsreels Grass “would see Germany surrounded by enemies, valiantly fighting what had been defensive battles abroad – on Russia’s endless steppes, in the burning sands of the Libyan Desert, along the protective Atlantic Wall, at the bottom of the sea – and on the home front I would see women turning out grenades, men assembling tanks, a bulwark against the Red Tide. The German folk in a life-and-death struggle; Fortress Europe standing up to Anglo-American imperialism at great cost…” and every day, the long casualty lists. -----------------------
How could he not believe that it was his duty to take part in that “life-and-death” struggle – just as, for instance, the somewhat older man who would become the most effective denunciator of Stalinism and the Gulag fought bravely and enthusiastically in the Red Army as it laid waste East Prussia and Poland? So Solzhenitsyn must be forgiven, Grass condemned? ------------------------
There was one boy who gave him pause, or, more exactly, whose memory came to disturb him and cause him to reflect. He was one of the Labour Service unit to which Grass was assigned between his time as a Luftwaffe auxiliary and his conscription into the Waffen SS. He was a beautiful blond youth – the very image of Aryan perfection – who might have modelled for any Nazi poster. He was also intelligent, industrious, helpful to his colleagues and dutiful. There was only one thing wrong with him. He wouldn’t have anything to do with guns. When one was put in his hands, he let it drop. “We don’t do that,” he said, time and again. He was punished of course. To no avail: “we don’t do that”. Then the other members of the troop were punished, on his account. No good: “we don’t do that.” So, resentful and angry, they took it out on him. They beat him; one boy pissed on his bed, But still, “we don’t do that,” he said, refusing the gun. Eventually he was taken away. Someone said he was a “Jehovah’s Witness” – whatever that was. They had no doubt as to his destination. -------------------------------
A nasty story. “Typical young Nazi thugs,” may be your response to the way Grass and his mates treated the boy they had come to call ”Wedontdothat”. But I wonder: might he not have been given as hard a time by his mates in a British barracks? How would a boy who proclaimed himself a pacifist and conscientious objector have been treated in one of our tougher public schools at any stage of the war? -------------------
Grass himself was “if not glad, at least relieved” when the boy disappeared.“The storm of doubts about everything I had had rock-solid faith in died down, and the resulting calm in my head prevented any other thought from taking wing; mindlessness had filled the space. I was pleased with myself and sated.” -------------------------------
Years later he took “Wedontdothat” as the model for a character in his novella “Cat and Mouse” – “marvellous, offbeat character – fatherless altar boy, student, master diver, Knight’s Cross recipient, and deserter…” – and had him drop his weapon “slowly, deliberately, the better to ingrain it in our memory.” ----------------------------------
Then came Grass’s attachment as a Panzer gunner in a unit of the Waffen SS. He can remember neither shock nor horror: “I did not find the double rune on the collar repellent.” Instead he “probably viewed the Waffen SS as an elite unit that was sent into action whenever a breach in the front line had to be stopped”. -----------------------------------
Appalling? Yes, if you read history backwards. But at the time, this was surely a natural response. It would have been natural to feel pride – no matter how that pride was mixed with fear. The Fatherland in danger? Wasn’t assignment to a crack unit even something to be welcomed? ------------------------------------
Of course it didn’t turn out like that. This was the winter of 1944. Everything was beginning to fall apart. “Soon I witnessed an event that should have made the downfall of the German Reich evident – the organised chaos of defeat moving slowly, then with dispatch, and finally at breakneck speed…” But they went on fighting, even when there was no hope of victory, little even of survival. They went on fighting because there seemed to be no alternative – on what was left of the Eastern Front anyway. -----------------------------------
Terrible months for everyone, but he came through eventually to be compelled to accept that “I had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organised, and carried out the extermination of millions of people. Even if I could not be accused of active complicity” – in that extermination – “there remains to this day a residue that is all too commonly called joint responsibility … What I accepted with the stupid pride of youth “ – his membership of the Waffen SS – “I wanted to conceal after the war out of a recurrent sense of shame. “ ---------------------------------- It’s easy to blame his membership of the Waffen SS, easy so long as you refuse to try to imagine yourself as a German boy in 1944; easy also to condemn his decades of silence on the subject, if you make no effort to understand the depth of the shame he felt.
Tags: gunter grass, peeling the onion, Second World War, ss, third reich, waffen ss Add to Technorati Favorites

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