Grass Gets the Last Waffe: Literary lion brings in Himmler to flack new "Lost Years at Marienbad" memoir

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Now here's a low, hanging lob I didn't see coming: Günter Grass, superstar author of The Tin Drum, now cops to serving, at age 17, in the Waffen SS. The information will be included in a new wartime memoir by the now-78-year-old author.

"My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote this book," Grass says, adding, "My steady diet of strudel and beer is one of the reasons for my washboard abs."

Here is a sample of Grass' generally accepted wartime narrative prior to his recent revelation:

In the 1930s he joined the Hitler Youth, was drafted into the army at the age of 16, and wounded in a battle in 1945. In the same year he was imprisoned in Marienbad, Czechoslovakia. Freed in 1946, Grass supported himself by working on farms, in a potash mine, and as a stonemason's apprentice.

Now the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature® winner adds, to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "It happened as it did to many of my age… We were in the labor service, and a year later, the call-up notice lay on the table… And only when I got to Dresden did I learn it was the Waffen SS."

Grass served in the SS 10th Armored Division, which is remembered as one of two divisions that vivisected British forces in the Dutch city of Arnhem in September, 1944—presumably prior to Grass' service, considering the numbers given above. This is more than a tangential point; in one of his books (I think it's Headbirths), Grass lays out a series of counterfactuals concerning how he would have been different if he'd been born five years later, five years earlier, and so on. I may be mistaking the details, but the thing left me thinking Grass had not served in the war at all (and not particularly caring one way or the other). This news will be a welcome boost of support for 10th Panzer Division reenactors, and will we hope generate interest in the long-delayed Night of the Generals II project.

NEXT: Attn D.C. Reasonoids: Free Drinks on Tuesday, Some Debate to Follow

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  1. I was curious what unit it was — the quality (and atrocity records) of SS forces varied pretty widely. “Frundsberg” saw some pretty heavy action in Hungary in ’45, I believe.

    I’ve seen a number of WWII reenactor websites, and they’re pretty much like you’d expect — The American units seem to be fairly informal groups looking to have a good time. The German ones… have a rather more anal definition of “fun”.

    Tim uncharacteristically seems to have forgotten to include an IMDB link for the original Night of the Generals –http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062038/

  2. If he lied before, why believe him now? His conscience may have less to do with his sackcloth-rending than with the posse closing in. In any event, he blames his being in the Labor Service for his having been drafted into the SS. Firstly, all adolescent German males served in the Labor Service; needless to say, not all of them were drafted into the SS. Secondly, none of them were drafted into the SS because the SS had no draft powers within Germany proper. They could draft only outside the Reich.
    Grass always has been a smug hypocrite, so none of this is new.

  3. Before piling on Guenter, let all who have cast a stone in the name of Dubya’s Wur on Turror, step back, cease and desist.
    That should leave no more than five.
    As Guenter and I like to say, “You five! Bring it on!”

  4. Really, who among us has not, at one time or another, served in the Nazi Party’s own army?

  5. Is it safe?

  6. I think it’s absurd to believe that a teenager in that society had any kind of meaningful “free will.” It would be unreasonable to expect him to violate ten years of social conditioning. Sheesh…much more iconoclastic people have been taken in by groupthink and emotional patriotism. Remember that the whole point of the Labor Service was to get the kids away from their parents, churches, and other bad influences so the Nazis could really go to work on them.

    Obviously, it’s not to his credit that he fudged his war service. Obviously, given the rather strong feelings Europeans had towards the SS, it’s not much of a surprise that he did. So he showed weakness twice, the first time for going along with his government in wartime pretty much like everyone else and the second time for not owning up to his personal guilt at a time when such would have ruined him.

    I think I can find it in my heart to be a little sympathetic on both counts.

  7. As much as I liked The Tin Drum, I must say that this revelation is a bit rich coming from someone who spent much of his career upbraiding his fellow citizens for inadequately accepting responsibility for the Nazi era.

  8. There is a distinct difference between the Einsatzgruppen SS and the Waffen SS. The former was a group of criminal thugs while the latter was a generally well respected and professional military force. The distinction was often lost on Americans and other allied powers (see the heat Reagan took for laying the wreath at Bitburg) so its not surprising that someone would gloss over that particular detail.

  9. Now the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature? winner adds,… And only when I got to Dresden did I learn it was the Waffen SS.

    Well, by Reason’s standards, he’s still better than 90% of Nobel Prize recipients.

  10. “As much as I liked The Tin Drum, I must say that this revelation is a bit rich coming from someone who spent much of his career upbraiding his fellow citizens for inadequately accepting responsibility for the Nazi era.”

    I think that’s the thing that made it such a problem for him personally. That he was at least, notionally, guilty of many of things he excoriated others for.

    But like any arguments Bill Bennett makes, whether Bennett is a compulsive gambler, or whether Grass was in the SS, the arguments they make need to stand or fall based on their merits, not on the identity of the speaker.

    Easier said the done.

  11. There is a distinct difference between the Einsatzgruppen SS and the Waffen SS.

    True.

    Einsatzgruppen SS: Genocidal maniacs

    Waffen SS: Elite military troops

    Most people are very ignorant of history (as well as most other things), so it is not surprising that this difference is not common knowledge.

  12. BTW, the distinctions made by me and FDAS are a bit too simplistic. But it is true that at the time that Grass supposedly was drafted in the Waffen SS, its function was mainly fighting and not part of the Final Solution.

  13. Drei ber?hmte Dichter

    Der Brecht schrieb auf die Berlau
    viele sch?ne Gedichte.
    Sie machte sich daraufhin Hoffnungen.
    Er machte Literaturgeschichte.

    Der B?ll war als Typ wirklich Klasse.
    Da stimmten Gesinnung und Kasse.
    Er w?r’ ?berhaupt erste Sahne,
    w?ren da nicht die Romane.

    Der eine liest die Iren.
    Der andre liest die Briten.
    Ein dritter liest die Russen.
    Der Grass liest die Leviten.

  14. According to the article, he was in the 10th Armored Division in autumn 1944. So, he might very well have been there when (presumably) others were carving up British soldiers – the division didn’t leave the area until 27 October.

    I remember reading in past interviews that he describes himself as having been a true believer until shortly after the war when he became aware of the enormity of it all. So, I don’t quite buy the “Oh, I didn’t really know I was going to the Waffen-SS until I got there” story.

  15. “Waffe” has two syllables.

  16. Einsatzgruppen SS: Genocidal maniacs

    Waffen SS: Elite military troops

    I think that is a bit charitable. It wasn’t the Einsatzgruppen at Malmedy. They were both Schutzstaffel and Heinrich Himmler is a genocidal maniac all on his own.

  17. The point is not that the Waffen SS were saints. They, like all other military units involved in WWII, committed individual acts of barbarism. The point is simply that they were no worse in this regard than the regular German army, the regular British Army, or the regular US troops. It gets slightly more complicated on the Eastern Front, where the rules of war were ignored almost as a general rule. The forign Waffen SS units in particular adhered to a rather barbaric code of ethics at times, but again, this was dicated by nature of the warfare in that general theater. The Russians generally summarily executed any non-German troops they found. So the behavior has to be evaluated in context.

  18. they were no worse…than the regular German army, the regular British Army, or the regular US troops.

    Yes they were. Did the Allies summarily execute Wermacht? Can you cite systemic organized behavior in the US Army that you consider comparable in scope to the atrocities committed by the SS, be it Waffen, Einsatzgruppen or otherwise?

  19. Again: Your analogy with Bill Bennett isn’t quite apt, because Bennett didn’t (AFAIK) make a big deal of denouncing the precise vice he turned out to be practicing.

  20. Bleepless — The Waffen SS were primarily volunteer, but I’ve seen references to their having elbowed their way into the draft pool in 1944-45. They apparently drew replacement manpower from disbanded Luftwaffe support and Kriegsmarine troops, as well as the National Labor Corps. So while it would still have been unusual for Grass to have been drafted into them, I don’t think it was impossible.

    As to the others — I think most of the Waffen SS’s atrocities (Malmedy and Oradour being the best known) are of a Mi Lai, Pissed-Off-Troops-On-a-Rampage character, as opposed to the systematic exterminations of the Einsatzgruppen. You can argue whether the “moral climate” of the SS made such things more likely to happen, but none of the major powers in WWII were immune to such incidents.

  21. Did the Allies summarily execute Wermacht?

    Yes, quite often, although not as a general policy.

    The Brits and the US committed numerous atrocities during WWII. Think of the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo. These were from the outset intentional attacks on civilians. The intent was total annihilation of these cities and their people.

  22. BTW, I don’t blame the soldiers; I blame the leaders.

  23. Umbriel:
    Surplus Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine personnel were organized into their own ground units, not drafted into the SS. The former were called, informally, the Hermann Goering Fund and always fell apart in combat. They were looked upon with great disgust by the professionals. The latter were so few that they have left very few bootprints.

  24. Think of the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo.

    I am not going to argue about deliberate bombing of civilian targets, I think there is a reasonable case to be made that they were war crimes. I don’t agree, but the case can be made.

    The intent was total annihilation of these cities and their people.

    The intent was capitulation of their sovereignties. It worked. That was not the intent at Malmedy.

  25. 1. Be careful: Nazi Germany had both a 10th Armored Division AND a 10th SS Armored Division.

    2. The record shows that neither all services of the German Armed Forces in WWII had more than their fair share of atrocities to their “credit.” For example, the German Army’s ist Mountain Division murdered thousand of Italian POWs on the ilsand of Caphalonia…

    3. So he was a National Socilaist during the war and some other flavor afterward. Any way ya cut it, he’s a scumbag.

  26. “Ruthless, that’s a bit of a Reverse-Godwin, donchathink?”

    It could be that. Or it could be a Horizontal-Godwin with a couple of Vlassic kosher dill stackers.
    Who’s to say?

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