I'm usually pretty indifferent to guilt-tripping about how you're supporting anti-Americanism if you read and/or enjoy the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or John LeCarré or some other relentless critic of the good ol' American way. In the first place I don't feel like subjecting my tastes to some patriotic test, and in the second place, who gives a shit?
But in the case of Günter Grass I'm ready to make an exception—easy enough, since I was never a big fan in the first place. Since his Waffen SS bombshell in August, it's begun to sink in what an objectionable character the literary lion of postwar Germany really is.
It's not so much Grass' hypocrisy as his self-satisfaction. In what fucked-up parallel universe is it considered persuasive to argue, at this late date, that postwar attacks on the West German establishment (and frequently more-than-tacit support for the East German terror state) in any way obviate, or mitigate, or do anything else but compound the error of supporting the Nazis during the war? Why is it the default assumption that Grass' anti-capitalism was a rejection of National Socialism rather than a continuation of it? (I actually think it may be neither, but among Germans who are irate at Grass over the lifelong SS coverup there seems to some sense that he's let down his core principles, so it's worth asking what those core principles are.)
The second most shameful thing about the SS revelation is that Grass gave a tautological non-explanation explanation for waiting 61 years to come clean: He waited so long because he had to tell the truth now because he'd waited so long. The first most shameful thing is that he's clearly doing it to move units of his new book Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (Peeling the Onion). That point hasn't been lost on some of Grass' detractors. Daniel Johnson damns Grass by faintly praising his "genius for publicity," while Amir Taheri (last seen claiming that the Iranians are making Jews wear yellow stars) uses the news as a wedge against The Tin Drum, Grass' generally acknowledged masterpiece:
The novel takes place in Danzig (Gdansk) a Polish port that Hitler wanted to annex. Grass offers an account of fights between Poles and ethnic Germans, implying that the latter were somehow in danger, precisely one of the excuses that Hitler used for invading Poland. Having established moral equivalence between the Poles and the German invaders he then depicts war as an inevitable human evil, thus putting Hitler on the same bench as other war leaders in history. The implicit message is that all wars, including just ones, are equally bad. (It was on that assumption that Grass campaigned against the liberation of Iraq in 2003).
Grass depicts the advent of Nazism as something almost magical and its effects on the Germans comparable to wizardry. His so-called magic-realism presents Nazism as a supernatural phenomenon, falling from heavens as it were, and not what it really was, a political movement rooted in history and nurtured by German romanticism.
But as is so often the case, it's an attempt to defend the accused that makes you realize what a cretin he really is. In The New Yorker, Ian Buruma sticks up for Grass because, hey, what's a little storm-trooping and six decades of immeasurable hypocrisy when it results in "a memoir of rare literary beauty?" Dig the speaking truthiness to power of it all:
[I]n the context of the early postwar decades Grass's voice was a necessary moral correction to Adenauer's pragmatism. To call Grass an arrogant, hypocritical huckster, as some do, is to forget how important his presence was when most Germans were too busy benefitting from the "economic miracle" to reflect on what had happened just a short time before. His compatriots needed to have their consciences pricked in the nineteen-fifties and sixties; and Grass, much to his credit, boosted social democracy when it needed boosting.
You really can judge a man by his enemies. It is sometimes said that Konrad Adenauer was plucked from a concentration camp and made chancellor of postwar Germany. That's not quite true, but Adenauer did spend quite a bit of time in jails and concentration camps (traditional concentration camps, not death camps) during the Reich period. But what is that compared to the sin of managing an economy that allows people in a war-torn country to make enough money for food and clothing and shelter?
You can also judge a man by his friends. Last month a group of 46 Arab writers signed an open letter in support of Grass, and as this slightly misleading but valuable article notes, it's not clear who was motivated by genuine literary sympathy and who just liked him for being in the SS (or why they bothered at all in this particular case, after ignoring Grass' work before this).
Buruma cops the long view and says Grass' best works "will be read long after the political polemics, not to mention the current storm over his belated confession, have been forgotten." I'm not so sure. The conscience-of-a-nation stuff is central to Grass' reputation in a way it isn't for other politically engaged writers. You'd still have a bunch of cool stories and insights even if you found out Garcia Marquez was really a spy for United Fruit or George Orwell found it impossible to dislike Hitler (kidding—Orwell admitted that in one of his wartime books). But for Grass there's really only one great literary achievement—reclaiming great portions of German phrasing and vocabulary that had been irradiated by association with the Nazis. His reputation rose on the politics of his time, and may well fall with them.